You Are By Nature Self-Deficient

You are by nature self-deficient. Your constitution guarantees it, initially, chronically, and inalienably. Biology defying individualistic ideas now hide these once self-evident truths.


1. Though the opposite is claimed, no human has ever been “born alone” and survived. Being human means being born as the most other-dependent offspring in nature. “No creature…takes longer to mature than a human child,” says Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, or needs as much help. Modern hunter-gatherer children need 13 million calories to reach food independence.

2. Many “professional” thinkers haven’t properly digested that initial self-deficiency, “you could read 2,500 years of philosophy and find almost nothing about children,” observes Alison Gopnik. 

3. Enlightenment individualism began by willfully ignoring our beginnings. Hobbes’ “war of all against all” thought experiment explicitly assumed men were “sprung out of the earth … suddenly, like mushrooms, come to full maturity without” assistance. Mary Astell mocked Hobbes’ magic mushroom men who matured “without … mother… or … dependency.” Sadly Hobbes’ ideas still mushroom.

4. Even after you can feed and fend for yourself, you’re still chronically self-deficient. Darwin said any species that could “profit by living in society” would evolve social instincts. “Individuals which took the greatest pleasure in society would best escape various dangers; whilst those that … lived solitary would perish in greater numbers.” And any human without a “trace of such feelings” was “an unnatural monster.” We’re likely the social-est species ever and evolved to chronically crave company.

5. Self-sufficiency seekers are further thwarted by division of labor. Only a division of ideas from reality enables psychotic individualists (a Tony Kushner coinage) to ignore our hugely increased interdependence. The market’s invisible hand may hide the masses on the other sides of your transactions, but if their situations aren’t sustainable, neither is yours.

6. Tocqueville described individualism as “a novel idea [that]…proceeds from erroneous judgment.” Viable forms of individualism mustn’t misjudge our biological or economic other-dependence. Too much “professional” thinking ignores that our only options have long been co-thriving or no thriving.

Though we can’t be born alone, we can achieve dying alone, often by having lived too individualistically.

A version of this was first posted at Scientific American's web site.

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Apple CEO Tim Cook calls for graduates to overcome "political noise" and algorithms

Cook's commencement speech at Tulane University urges students to take action.

Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Apple CEO Tim Cook gave a commencement speech at Tulane University on May 18th.
  • Cook cautioned the graduates to not get caught up in echo chambers and algorithms.
  • He acknowledged the failures of his generation.
Keep reading Show less

Why the south of Westeros is the north of Ireland

As Game of Thrones ends, a revealing resolution to its perplexing geography.

Image: YouTube / Doosh
Strange Maps
  • The fantasy world of Game of Thrones was inspired by real places and events.
  • But the map of Westeros is a good example of the perplexing relation between fantasy and reality.
  • Like Britain, it has a Wall in the North, but the map only really clicks into place if you add Ireland.
Keep reading Show less

Ultra-processed food causes weight gain – firm evidence at last

Junk food causes weight gain, but it's not just about the calories.

Surprising Science

We know we should eat less junk food, such as crisps, industrially made pizzas and sugar-sweetened drinks, because of their high calorie content.

Keep reading Show less