Is greed a part of human nature?

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On Keeley

baboon wrote:

 Keeley puts forward dubious “evidence” and further takes it out of context in order to show that prehistory was rife with savagery and competition and capitalism is a much more peaceful and ordered society.  

I was a bit confused by apparent contradictions that seem to arise around his work 'War before..' in the milieu. I think these stem from the fact that the book is so wide ranging with many sub themes/sub studies - two of which the ICC's article expands on positively -attitudes to war /attitude of 'the warrior et seq.

Distinct qualitatively different scenarios and analyses of them are presented distinguished and yet then blur - are fudged one might say - to lead up to and confirm of the clangorous title, itself a somewhat fudged jamming together of soundbytes ringing with debunking confidence.

Prehistoric, primitive, archaic, tribal, hunter-gatherer, ancient, modern, civilised, state are not commensurable as types. And with regard to his other 'axis' of the graph I must be well out of touch with modern archaeological developments if it is now possible to count 'the number of males mobilised to fight' in a 'war' 89,000 years ago. hmmm.. one cannot but be dubious.

'Evidence': the inverted commas seem deserved to me. 

 “The unequivocal traditions of the Inuit, not recorded until 1850, claim that their ancestors administered the coup de grâce to the fading Norse colonies in the course of mutual raids and massacres”  [pg 77 'War Before..

Oral tradition, recorded by a 19th century anthropologist (outside contact) through a doing his best translator, 'claims' that the final blow was administered to Viking plunderers (early adventurist accumulation): there is archaeological evidence or 'evidence' and if he were just depicting that episode it would be one thing but what does it inform re the alleged myth of the peaceful primitive community

It seems to me that what is of value in the wealth of material and collation is somewhat lost through his intense desire to use it all - however inapplicable, disconnected in rank or quality - to construct a bomb to drop on his enemy.

(That would be us..:@})

Happy New Year!

I think that greed is an entirely different concept from self or social gratification. I think that proletarian violence, often underused if anything in the past against the bourgeoisie, is an entirely different concept from what we generally understand as aggression. And I think that the use of the word "man" is, as it's used often above, is a shorthand for mankind, particularly as we talk about the pivotal role of womanhood and mother-right. I now agree with the idea of scarcity in primitive communism but my main points are these:


The anthropologist Lawrence Keeley has done a lot of good work but in actively seeking out the most warlike remnants of primitive societies (whose myths are also shattered to fragments) and transposing them backwards, and his conclusion that primitive society was 20 times more deadly than the twentieth century (i.e., decadent capitalism is 20 times safer than primitive society) should make us wary about his work.


Patrick Tort's text - ICC on-line, April 1 2009 - gives his theory of the "reverse effect of natural selection". That is the overcomiing and integration into a new phase of descent with modification through natural selection. This comes from a refinement of animal instincts into social instincts and the strengthening of society, that is the social instincts develop into something more profoundly social and moral. This is a materialist analysis that goes along identical lines as the work of Darwin and Wallace. As the ICC says of the piece: "This theory (Tort's) of the "reverse effect of evolution" provides a scientific explanation of the origins of morality and culture". I agree with this.

In an 1864 paper, 145 years before Patrick Tort's publication, Alfred Russel Wallace wrote how from the development of "social and sympathetic man" comes the result that "the action of natural selection is therefore checked". His is the same analysis as Patrick Tort. He continues: "Man has not only escaped "nautal selection" himself, but he is actually able to take away some of that power from nature which before his appearance she universally exercised". This action of "mental and moral developments" influenced the whole existence of humanity and would itself be "subject to the irrestible force of "natural selection"". This development could not have happened unless, at the same time, there was a suppression, a taboo on, a confrontation with, a destruction of unwanted and backward elements like greed, aggression, selfishness. These regressive attributes  would have at least been minimized if not destroyed by the overwhelming progressive force of a society that cared for all. In the case of war, between two tribes for example, it would the tribe that fought as one and one for all that had the distinct advantage and would generally come out on top.


I don't think that this is an analysis from or about the long-lost past but a real contribution to the workers' movement and its future struggle.

a bit more

A bit more on the above:..

where I suggest ways how unwanted, individualistic characteristics like greed, aggression, selfishness, etc., can be suppressed in favour of a more progressive development of humanity. I think that I missed out the most important one in the works of Darwin and Wallance - sexual selection (hence the title of Darwin's book). Here the role of the woman predominates; she wouldn't choose the most aggressive males (who may be the strongest). the greedy male, the selfish male because, overall, these would pose too many problems and dangers in the upbringing of offsprings (it wouldn't matter, as Darwin said, how long the pair stayed together). Over generations, sexual selectionj was a means to advance the general wellbeing of society.


Again on the positions of Wallace and Tort on the overcoming of natural selection: As Wallace says, natural selection wasn't just overcome by consciousness and morality but, much more than this, became re-integrated at a highter level favouring the development of consciousness and morality. Tort writes:

"The reverse operation" (of natural selection a la Darwin and Wallace) "is the correct basis for drawing the distinction between nature and culture while avoiding the trap of a magical 'break' between the two terms: evolutionary continuity through this mechanism of progressive reversal linked to the development (itself selected) of social instincts, producesin this way not an effective break, but the effect of a break which dervies from the fact that natural selection, in the course of its own evolution, subjects itself to its own law - its newly selected form...The new advantage is thus no longer of a biological nature: it has become social."

I respectfully suggest that in this respect there is very little for marxists to learn from the work of Lawrence Keeley and a great deal from Patrick Tort and Alfred Russel Wallace.


There's no timeless, abstract human nature at work here - a "human nature" that's generally an ideological mystification of the bourgeoisie that's used in part to justify its class rule - but what there appears to me to be is some strong elements of a  living dialectical relationship between humanity and Nature that can only be fully developed in a classless society of communism..


"The anarchists didn't just

"The anarchists didn't just attack the ICC's view on prehistory from Keeley's work, they used it to attack the idea of decadence with the argument that we have advanced from dog eat dog, from each against all of a savage society, to a capitalism that's not perfect but overall more peaceful and more civilised than the blood-lust violence of prehistory as classified by the Professor."

I'm not sure this argument holds up on the question of decadence. One of the key elements of the idea of decadence is that capitalism also had an ascendent period, when its development was progressive for humanity. You'd expect capitalism to be better in many respects that previous social formations. The decadence of capitalism surely has to be measured against the gains of capitalism's ascendent period, not things that happened in previous social formations.

Of course, if you could prove primitive humanity was a bloodthirsty, murderous barbarian you might weaken the idea of us being capable of communism. On the other hand, if things have been getting better, it proves that aspect can change which reinforces the possibility of communism.

i have witnessed for want of

i have witnessed for want of a better word, extreme poverty, not just in peasentry but in urban areas, children in rags etc.. i suspect that a chunk of the proletariat in deeloped world will face a drop in some measures of material wealth, but do i really give a fuck if i can't have two ipads ?

somewhere clean, with good food, and an internet connection haha

here's something i got shoved

here's something i got shoved down my throat this evening

“While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free”

In circumstances other than

In circumstances other than the discussion above I would defend the idea of a "human nature". In fact most of what I've written about prehistory has been an implicit and mostly explicit defence of the idea of a human nature, a human "essence" very early on in the history of homo.


In the context of the discussion I thought it important to defend what I believe to be a marxist approach to the subject particularly from the ICC's text on Patrick Tort on Darwin along witht the work of Darwin and A. R. Wallace. Darwin's "Descent of Man and selection in relation to sex", along with the work of Wallace, demonstrates the dialectical relationship between Humanity and Nature which I think is a far more satisfying concept and one, had they read it, that would have been warmly welcomed by Marx and Engels. The former's  analyses demonstrates a human force that Lewis Henry Morgan was able to quantify and relate through a massive ethnological work and both Marx and Engels took this fully on board with very little criticism.


It has long been asserted by mainstream anthropology that "intelligence" and language predated society and culture. My arguments have tended to stress the opposite in that first there was society, empathy and solidarity and culture and morality flowed from this. Penny Spikins new book "How Compassion Made Us Human" looks at archaeological finds, as sparse as they are, and suggests that society and empathy go a long way back, over a million years, in the history of homo. I don't disagree with this.

The "killer" ancestors (aggressive, greedy, selfish) has long been a mantra of the ruling class in order to justify its own agression, greed and selfishness - to justify its class rule in a word. Hollywood's particular celebration of man the beast, "2001, A Space Odysssey" is an example of this. But Spikins book, with evidence, helps to demonstrate that cooperation dominated and this is perfectly consistent with the analyses of Darwin, Wallace, Morgan, Marx and Engels.

The essence of humanity

Leaving "human nature" and greed to the bourgeoisie for the moment, I like baboon's idea of "essence". So let's speak not of human nature, and all  the distortions the bourgeoisie has heaped on  this now troubled concept, but speak instead of human essence. The Essence of Humanity. 

The essence of humanity is compassion and love. The essence of the animal world at large is compassion and love.  Animals  care for their young; elephants mourn their dead and dolphins have a sense of fun. Life on the planet, including plants, is one of idyllic growth, compassion and love. It is the veritable Garden of Eden.  Uninterfered with even humanity can live together in happiness and prosperity, and did so for millions of years. .

But the emergence of class society destroyed our innocence and has made us think that selfishness, greed and the competition of all against all, which only makes failures  of everyone, is the way things are intended to be. 

The ruling class think we have always been competitive killers, as baboon points out, and  that this behavior and the state of mind that accompanies it is our "human nature" made manifest.  But they are wrong. It is the cruelty of class exploitation which has corrupted us and ruined our generosity. The class system has almost destroyed our inclination for communal being; for empathy and solidarity with all life; deadening our instincts to nurture and protect, and bringing forth instead the gruesome tendencies towards war and death. Class "society" is a negation of real society and makes of society a sham and  a mockery. It substitutes the profit motive and competitiveness for compassion and empathy and sets us all at odds. 

This is what happens to the apes in the first part of "2001" a film I like for its special effects and use of music. An intervention, divine or otherwise isn't made clear, in the form of an obelisk introduces the apes to the possibility of thought. A similar obelisk discovered on the moon leads human explorers to the vicinity of the planet Jupiter. For the apes the intervention  is devastating leading them immediately  into attitudes of violence and aggression. This is not the dawn of man  as Arthur C.Clark would have us believe, but more accurately THE DAWN OF MAN THE BEAST as baboon says.

Darwin, Wallace, Morgan, Marx and Engels would be shocked. They are not alone. 

Not sure the idea of human

Not sure the idea of human "essence" can be called baboon's idea. Marx used the German word "wesen", which means essence. Think this was mentioned in an earlier post.

After becoming familiar with Spikins, I would agree our unrivaled capacity for empathy–the ability to feel the emotions of others–is the essence of humankind. Without empathy there is not creative patience, something needed in pretty much every human activity, from conversation to food preparation and more.

Basically the reason chimps

Basically the reason chimps are not men is because they become frustrated too easily! An oversipmlification maybe, but if you have friends who become frustrated easily, you're probably very much aware of these distinctions already.

What's the difference between

What's the difference between "human essence" and "human nature"?

Well, we all agree there can

Well, we all agree there can be different "natures", dependent on ideologies, class societies, etc. I don't think there can be different essences?

Nature = The way a person or animal behaves

Essence = The basic quality of a thing that makes it what it is

Jamal's definitions are good.

Jamal's definitions are good.  But anyway the phrase "human nature" has become commandeered by the bourgeoisie for its own purposes, and is now used to justify all their dirty tricks. Like: "Greed? Well, it's just human nature!".  "Selfishness? Well, we're born like that. It's only human nature." And so on. 

Right. And continuing on from

Right. And continuing on from where Fred left off, not only are we not born selfish and greedy, we have to be born the direct opposite way, or at least develop that capacity very quickly.

If Homo Erectus had never developed the capacity for empathy, compassion, patience, etc. we would not even be having this conversation.

Essence and nature

I tend to agree with Jamal's distinction. Human essence is similar and related to animal essence in that it is the essence of the "thing" but the social nature of human essence is at a qualitatively higher level than that of the animal kingdom. It is the established and integral essence of the being within the collective unit. This wouldn't have been an immediate development but it must have happened relatively quickly in order for this very frail and vulnerable species to survive. And it probaly wouldn't have established itself in a unilinear way given that there were a number of species of homo that were our ancestors (even if we still can't work out exactly who was what in the lineage)..


Human nature, though also related to human essence, is more of a development and potential development in relation to the future. There's more of a dynamic to it which wouldn't exist if it wasn't based on a human essence. What human nature isn't, is what Fred outlines above - social Darwinism, a complete perversion of revolutionary scientific development. A very big lie.