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We live in a time of information abundance, which far too many of us see as information overload. With the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, at our fingertips, we’re faced with a crisis of attention: which ideas should we engage with, and why? Big Think is an evolving roadmap to the best thinking on the planet — the ideas that can help you think flexibly and act decisively in a multivariate world.

A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

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Question: What is human nature?

Stephen Walt: Well I think human beings are very diverse. You know one way of thinking about it is, you know, we’re all members of a single common humanity; but then we are separated by all sorts of individual and group characteristics – whether it’s ethnicity, or religion, or our physical characteristics, our relative intelligence, the particular things we believe. So we do have lots of common traits, but then we divide ourselves up into different tribes. Sometimes voluntarily we decide what we want to choose to be or who we choose to associate with, sometimes involuntarily. If you’re left-handed, that means you’re different than someone who is . . . who is right handed. My view, I guess, on human beings within that diversity we have the capacity to do remarkable things. And we have a great capacity for great generosity, and great wisdom, and patience. At the same time, most human beings have a capacity to do lots of very bad things; whether they do it intentionally, or whether they do it because they’ve been misled into doing them. And the problem is that the bad things we can do to one another can often, you know, be of extraordinary . . . extraordinary moment. So part of the human task now is to devise ideas and institutions that minimize those qualities. You know I . . . I actually believe we’ve made considerable progress over the last few centuries; but the question is whether or not the problems we are facing that we have to deal with as a species are going to exceed our capacity to develop solutions over time. I thought that the last few hundred years have gone fairly well, but there’s some pretty large episodes within that process that, you know, all human beings should regard as big warning signs. Something like World War I or World War II is a giant warning sign about just how badly human beings can screw things up when they’ve got the wrong set of institutions, or the wrong set of ideas, or the wrong people are in positions of leadership.

Recorded on: 10/8/07



What is human nature?

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