How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Monday, January 9, 2012

Selfishness Defines Western Culture, not Human Nature

In Howard Zinn’s masterpiece A People’s History of the United States, he describes the reaction of Columbus and his brigade of Spanish invaders when they encounter the First People of the Americas. Zinn writes:

The Indians, Columbus reported, “are so naïve and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone…”(Zinn, 1999, p. 3).

Columbus was not alone in his surprise at the beneficence of the native peoples of the Americas. Countless 
European explorers encountered the same generous nature in the indigenous inhabitants throughout the New World. In the Turks and Caicos Islands, the late National Historian, Bertie Sadler, observed that the Lucayan people, who once inhabited those islands, were so generous in their bearing that women also gave freely of sexual favors. In fact, the most promiscuous Lucayan women were accorded the highest status in society and were universally admired (Sadler, 1986).

In the same year as the founding of the United States, 1776, a Scottish economist, Adam Smith, published his seminal work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. While Smith’s monolithic book is a veritable encyclopedia of economic philosophy, Western economists seized upon a single thread of Smith’s thought to serve as the foundation of their economic theory, the idea that individuals acting out of self-interest and without the restraint of regulation, will miraculously serve the common good, as if guided by an “invisible hand.”

Similarly, in 1968, Garret Hardin, a biology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, penned an article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” that was to become the topic of myriad analyses regarding resource management. Strangely, the article in its entirety was a commentary promoting human population control, but as with Smith’s work above, the primary argument was largely ignored in favor of a tangential sentiment in the piece.   In the article, Hardin declares that privatization of public resources or “commons” is the most effective means of sustainably managing a resource. Hardin argues that free access to a commons will result in environmental degradation, as each person will act according to their own self-interest to the detriment of the common good. For example, a shepherd grazing his livestock on common pasture will be inclined to add more animals even if the addition of more animals degrades the pasture, since the loss of the carrying capacity of the pasture is borne by all, while the profits of additional animals accrue to the individual (Hardin, 1968).

Smith and Hardin are not exceptions in Western Culture, they are products of it, and their ideas were formed within the framework of indoctrination of Western thought that most citizens of the globalized Earth now take for granted as “human nature.” Whether one is speaking of economic theory or environmental management, all of Western ideologies are based on an accepted premise that humans, when left to their own devices, will act out of self-interest; consequently, Western cultural prescriptions are all based on the idea that people will necessarily be guided by selfishness.

The myth of Western culture becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As each malleable youth is reared on the idea that his fellow beings are ruthless and self-interested and that one must compete in a hostile world for scarce resources, he becomes selfish out of a resultant cultural fear, guided by the interests of self-preservation. In the selfish world that results, every man and woman for his or herself scrambles to accumulate every last shred of resource wealth available. Humans fill warehouses with meaningless consumer goods and render vibrant ecosystems into numbers on balance sheets, irrational and utterly destructive acts, ironically deemed “productive” and “successful.” As we live within the artificial confines of these Western ideals, the reality of the natural world, within which we actually do exist, is hobbled to the brink of collapse.

In an address to John Smith of Virginia attributed to Powhatan, the venerable brave states, “Why will you take by force what you may have quietly by love? Why will you destroy us who supply you with food? What can you get by war” (Zinn, 1999, p. 13)? Powhatan, his kin and their culture of generosity and love have long since been extinguished from the planet, and the Western war of selfishness continues to rage against what remains of Earth. Selfishness defines Western culture but it does not define human nature. It is an aberration that needs to be rooted out and condemned wherever it rears its ugly head. The selfish need not inherit the Earth. 
It's not too late...

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  1. I think this is quite a bit oversimplified - for example the image of the peaceful and generous natives contradicts a lot of anthro I have read. For a couple of examples I happened to have read recently: "The Old North Trail" covers the Blackfoot Indians who were in regularly conflicted relationship with other tribes who they used to raid and in turn were raided by - stealing horses and killing each other. Similarly in Malinowski's "Sexual Life of Savages" the Trobriand Islanders are reported to have in previous times quite often been engaged in inter-village warfare until the colonial authorities pacified them.

    I do agree that it's increasingly important, given the dominance of global civilization, to distinguish "human nature" from "western culture" but I don't think that's well served by inaccurate generalizations (whether pro or anti our culture)

    1. Who, exactly, wrote those anthologies and for why and from what perspective?
      History is written by the victors.

  2. Stuart, Your point is valid and well-taken. My intention is not to insist that indigenous cultures were all completely peaceful, loving and generous but that competing examples of human nature, not defined by selfishness, do exist.

    It is interesting that you cite Malinowski. In "Magic, Science and Religion," one of his basic premises is that the behavior you describe above is exacerbated by environmental stressors, rather than actual cultural imperatives. I think this reinforces my opinion rather than detracting from it. Also, given the time of Malinowski's writing, I think one needs to take into account the prevalent worldviews of the time, which may account for Malinowski's view that colonial authorities "pacified" the natives.

    I will read "Sexual Life of Savages." Thank you for provoking some further thought on the subject.

  3. Just one more 'proof' of the republican talking point, 'American Exceptionalism'...add selfish, to exceptional short sightedness, exceptional hubris, exceptionally uninformed (I'm trying to be generous here)and so many more 'exceptional' attributes it is impossible to list them all.

    Thanks again for your insights.

    Jim Bailey

  4. There seems to be quite a range of cultures across time and geography, but clearly, our capitalist, consumer society is perverted and destructive. I have never been at all religious but lately the notion that money is the root of all evil has become persuasive to me, or perhaps amended as private property is the root of all evil. It has certainly led with historic rapidity to exponentially increasing human overpopulation and accelerating mass extinctions. Something fundamental with our system is awry.

  5. Jim, the idea of "exceptional" in nature is ludicrous. Any sentient human with a modicum of scientific education understands as much. Sad that 1/2 of the American population seem to be oblivious to such empirical evidence.

  6. Gail, your comments on private property are insightful. I just finished a study on the subject - trying to get the 30-page document into blog format:) I am sure you can relate.

  7. I think this is an important article. I feel that we can still see evidence of the divine right mercantilism of the middle ages in Wall St.'s byzantine derivative transactions. Just what is the point of thees actions, other than profit through willful destruction? It just isn't necessary and the collateral damage accumulates in our communities and in the environment to threaten everything and everyone. Money can actually be made honestly and reliably. And as we look to a post-Rand/Hayek (i.e. unconsciously self- centered) macro-economic model and and closer to the scientific/customized economy as envisioned by Smith, we will need to find new, healthy identities for the 21st economic persona. I think we will find them in Ben Franklin's writings. I think he knew that modern humankind needed to have intellect, a mastery of craft, scientific curiosity, excellence, openness, and collaboration at its center.

  8. Trent, Right on! Wall Street's derivative manipulations are the metaphor for everything that is wrong with our society. Money for money's sake. We have forgotten that those pieces of paper are meaningless without a society to back them up.

  9. I'm presently reading "Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier" by Timothy Shannon and I can't resist the compulsion to quote the following paragraph into this thread in full (p33-p34 on inter-tribal warfare):

    "Successful war parties sent runners ahead to inform their kin of their impending return. The community turned out to greet the warriors and captives, forcing the latter to "run the gauntlet" between two rows of villages who delivered blows with fists and clubs along with taunts and jeers. The captives were then typically stripped naked and forced to stand for more physical and verbal torments on a public scaffold or platform. While the entire community took the opportunity to hurl insults at the captives, poke them with firebands, or force them to hold hot coals ro ashes, chiefs and clan elders apportioned them among different familes. leaving each to decide the fate of its new charge. Young children and women were likely to be adopted and "raised up" in the placed of deceased loved ones, but adult men faced the strong likelihood of adoption of a different sort. Their captors designated a day for their execution and allowed them to hold their death feast, at which the captives recited or sang of their prowess, bravery, and triumphs in battle. Afterward, they would be tied to a stake and tortured to death over many hours. Torture began at the extremities of body: the burning of feet, dismemberment of ears and fingers, flesh sliced off legs or arms. A brave warrior was expected to suffer these pains stoically, and while still capable of speech, to urge his executioners to do their worst. After he succumbed, his tormentors scalped his corpse and dismembered and cooked it for communal consumption. In this manner, the spirit and bravery the captive had exhibited in death was absorbed into the community."

    1. Stuart, excellent quote. I am not familiar with that work, so I cannot comment on it, although it looks like something interesting to add to the reading list. The quote provides a wonderful example of how Westerners judge other cultures from within the confines of our own belief systems. It was my understanding that the torment dished out to rivals by the Iroquois was actually a sign of respect for the defeated - much like the Japanese samurai committed the brutal act of self-torture in harakiri (sp?) as a method of preserving honor in defeat. I find it ironic that Westerners describe these acts as barbaric and judge with snooty noses from their perceived ground of moral superiority, even as we committed mass-genocide against one of the cultures (Iroquois) and dropped nuclear bombs on the other.

  10. The caption to the photo hopefully pronounces that it's not too late.
    Unfortunately, it probably is.
    We are in overshoot and even if we stopped everything now, which is impossible, there is a lot, still, to work through the system.

    1. Paul, The caption is my hope. While that hope may be dim and perhaps unrealistic, what are our options? Give up? I think this magnificent planet at least deserves that we don't let it be destroyed without fighting for every last residue of its life.