Want to know man’s true nature? Ask a baby.

In the course of these talks I run across a lot of cynicism about humanity’s ability to fix our problems.  How can humanity tackle big problems, especially ones that involve sacrifice, when we’re all a bunch of greedy jerks?  My counter argument is to assert that people are not  fundamentally bad, and that “human nature” is just a product of the culture and systems in which we reside.  After all, there’s nothing in Spartan genetics that predisposed them to bloodthirst and war, nor is the DNA of the Bhutanese responsible for them being the happiest people on Earth.  Every human being is molded by the culture in which they live.


Sure he’s wired for good…but good don’t pay the bills.

In a way, this debate is a reframing of the age old question of nature vs. nurture.  Are humans born with a sense of morality or do we arrive blank slates, waiting for the world to teach us right from wrong?  Or is it worse: do we start out nasty, selfish devils who need our parents, schools, and religions to whip us into shape?

The only way to know for sure is to ask a baby; unfortunately, they are notoriously reticent on the subject. However, just because babies can’t expound upon their moral philosophies doesn’t mean they don’t have any.  In fact, new methods have allowed  scientists to unlock babies’ ethos:  research from the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University has shown that babies possess an intrinsic morality and sense of justice.

Exactly how did researchers come to this conclusion?  The key breakthrough was realizing that while babies can’t speak their preferences, they still express those preferences by gazing at objects they like longer than objects they don’t like.  Through a series of puppet shows, researchers presented infants with a number of situations meant to test their moral beliefs.  Thus babies, the only people untethered to any social constructs, have shown us that humans are wired for:

  • GOOD – Babies show strong preferences for helpful characters over mean characters.
  • JUSTICE – Babies exhibit strong preferences for bad things happening to mean characters.
  • BIAS – The news isn’t all peaches and cream, unfortunately…babies also have a dark side.  It turns out we’re all born with a strong similarity bias, meaning we prefer people like ourselves over those who are different.  In the case of babies, they want to see mean acts performed on characters who are different from them in even the most trivial ways.

Lest I rehash the whole the whole thing, it’s probably better to watch the 60 Minutes piece that covers this research.  It’s pretty awesome and well worth the 13 minute investment.

The science is clearly in its infancy (hah!), but it still provides objective, scientific proof that all humans share a universal moral core.

Think about that for a minute.  Better yet, get out of your chair and take a walk around the block to let that really sink in.  For thousands of years religion and philosophy have fumbled to explain the nature of man, only to be trumped by a few scientists employing a handful of babies and puppets.

Knowing where each of us starts is important, but what makes this information useful is realizing that our core values are continuously modified by our culture.  With a built-in similarity bias, racism might seem natural to a baby, but in most modern cultures we train people to ignore these urges and treat everyone equally.  Similarly, adults grudgingly accept the necessity of bailing out failing banks to save the economy, something that would never occur to a baby with its unmodified sense of justice.  Yes, we all start in the same place but beyond that our cultural norms and higher level reasoning inform the rest.

This means if you’re looking for the causes of perceived selfishness or greed within Americans, look no further than a society designed to encourage personal consumption and to elevate the rights of individuals (and corporations, because hey, they’re people too) above the community at large.  Ubiquitous advertising promotes lust for material goods: it renames our sports stadiums, competes for our children’s attention in school, and comprises nearly 1/3 of all television airtime.  Politicians push policies that favor the concentration of wealth at the top end of the spectrum, teaching us to envy the rich and regard the poor as lazy or stupid.  Love ‘em or hate ‘em, these examples are part of the American identity and they result in many negative effects further down the cultural pipeline.

moral animal

A good supplemental read:
The Moral Animal, an article by Jonathan Sacks

  • The bad news is:  that’s how American society is today.
  • The good news is:  society is fluid and ever-changing, and we can make it be anything we want it to be.

Our cultural norms aren’t even very old:  consumerism began about 150 years ago (birthed alongside the Industrial Revolution), and “you’re on your own” individualism began only about 30 years ago (as a byproduct of Reagan’s deregulation and reframing of government as the problem and not the solution).  Lest we be daunted by the task of tossing these core values into history’s dust bin of bad ideas, consider other cultural norms America has changed in the past to better itself.  If you’re reading this article on the job, you enjoy a cultural shift wrought by labor movements: they’re responsible for the fact that you work an 8 hour day and that none of your coworkers are younger than 13.  Consider too the huge cultural shifts in the United States on women’s rights, civil rights and LGBT rights in the last 150 years.  All of these changes began with Americans arguing about them over the dinner table, and were eventually enshrined in our culture by the swipe of a President’s pen.

So what does this all mean and how the hell does it relate to climate change?  In some ways this is bad news, since it means we’ll never be able to adopt sustainable solutions to climate change if society’s values are in direct conflict with those solutions.  A country that worships wealth will find it difficult to sacrifice, just as one that pursues militant individualism will have a hard time acting collectively to solve problems.  That’s why during climate talks I harp on cultural narrative so much.  We’re all enacting the story of our American culture and it’s that narrative that drives our behavior.

However, in most ways the fact that humans share a moral core is excellent news:  it means “human nature” is off the hook.  There is no intrinsic human failing that prevents us from solving our issues.  Humanity is fundamentally good…we just need to design systems that foster our better impulses while constraining our worse ones.  It also means that if we do end up fixing climate change, society will have transformed to reflect the values of the collectivism and equality.  That’s a human populace we can be proud of.