Are humans cruel by nature?
Historian Rutger Bregman argues that the persistent theory that most people are monsters is just wrong.
Rutger Bregman is a historian and author. He has published five books on history, philosophy, and economics. His books Humankind (2020) and Utopia for Realists (2017) were both New York Times bestsellers and have been translated in more than 40 languages. Bregman has twice been nominated for the prestigious European Press Prize for his work at The Correspondent. He lives in Holland.
RUTGER BREGMAN: There's a really old theory in Western culture that scientists call veneer theory. The idea here is that our civilization is only a thin veneer, only a thin layer, and that below that veneer, sort of real raw human nature resides. And that when something small happens—or big, you know we're in a crisis or in a pandemic right now—that humans reveal who they really are, that deep down we're just selfish. We are beasts. We may even be monsters. But luckily, we have this civilization that is basically protecting us from what we really are. Now, this idea, this theory, veneer theory, is very old and very dominant in Western culture. It goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. You also find it within Christianity, Orthodox Christianity. Think about St. Augustine talking about the notion of original sin, that we're all born as sinners. And you also look at modern capitalism. And again, I think the central dogma of our current capitalist system is that people are selfish. So this veneer theory, it comes back again and again and again in our history. And I think the only problem with it is that it's simply wrong. So in the last 20-25 years, we've seen so much evidence accumulating from anthropology and from archaeology and from biology and from psychology and sociology with one main message which is that basically, deep down, most people are pretty decent and that this capacity for cooperation is actually our true superpower.
Human beings have evolved to cooperate. If you ask the question, what makes us so special? Are we selfish? Are we very smart? Are we very violent or strong or powerful or whatever? What is the reason that we conquered the globe? Why not the bonobos or the chimpanzees? And I think the answer is that we have evolved to work together and to cooperate on a scale that no other species in the whole animal kingdom has been able to do. So, on the one hand, we're the friendliest species in the animal kingdom, but on the other hand, we're also the cruelest species, right? I've never heard of a penguin that says, "Let's exterminate another group of penguins. Let's lock them up in prisons. Let's kill them all." These are singularly human crimes. One of the disturbing things actually if you study the history of warfare and of genocides is that these things are often highly moral phenomena. It's not as if there are a lot of sadists thinking, "Oh, we just enjoy killing other people." You know, those people do exist, but they're very, very rare. Actually most atrocities are committed in the name of loyalty, and in the name of friendship, and in the name of helping your people. That is what's so disturbing. It's really the dark side of friendliness. If you study soldiers, German soldiers in the second world war, and you ask the question, why did they keep on fighting in 1944, in 1945, even though it was clear they were going to lose the war? Well, psychologists back then thought they were all brainwashed. You know, that was their hypothesis. Then they started interviewing prisoners of war and discovered that actually most of the soldiers were fighting because of their friends and they didn't want to let their comrades down. So kameradschaft, comradeship, was the most important thing.
It's very rare that people are being violent or nasty to each other and that their justification is, "You know what? I just enjoy that." So the Joker doesn't really exist in real history. Most, sort of what we call evil people, think they're actually on the right side of history. And that is exactly what is so disturbing. This is actually the very paradoxical finding of scientists over the last 20 years, is that empathy and xenophobia are intimately connected. So, we often feel empathy for those who are like us, you know, our friends, our family members, our colleagues, people who are from the same town or city or nation, but then often parallel to that, we feel more xenophobia for those who are not like us, right? You get this in-group, out-group dynamic. And that is something that is in each and every one of us, right? You can already find it with babies as young as nine months old. They've done these studies where they already see these xenophobia tendencies with people. So that's not all nurture. That is really something that is within our brains. It's sort of a button that can be pushed. I think it's important to be realistic about this and to understand that. That doesn't mean we have to go all the way of arguing and saying that people are naturally evil or anything like that. I think that's clearly not the case. I think that's very important to understand, because it has revolutionary implications for how we organize a society. Once you assume that people are fundamentally selfish, then you are going to design your society around it. Your democracy, your schools, your workplaces, your prisons, and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we turn it around and if we actually assume that most people are pretty decent, then I think we can create very different kinds of schools and very different kinds of workplaces that will enable us to trust each other more. And yeah, it could help us move to a much more egalitarian and democratic society.
- How have humans managed to accomplish significantly more than any other species on the planet? Historian Rutger Bregman believes the quality that makes us special is that we "evolved to work together and to cooperate on a scale that no other species in the whole animal kingdom has been able to do."
- Pushing back against the millennia-old idea that humans are inherently evil beneath their civilized surface, which is known as 'veneer theory', Bregman says that it's humanity's cooperative spirit and sense of brotherhood that leads us to do cruel deeds. "Most atrocities are committed in the name of loyalty, and in the name of friendship, and in the name of helping your people," he tells Big Think. "That is what's so disturbing."
- The false assumption that people are evil or inherently selfish has an effect on the way we design various elements of our societies and structures. If we designed on the assumption that we are collaborative instead, we could avoid the "self-fulfilling prophecy" of selfishness.
- What did Hannah Arendt really mean by the banality of evil? | Aeon ... ›
- New theory of dark personality reveals the 9 traits of the evil people ... ›
- 10 Psychology Findings That Reveal The Worst Of Human Nature ›
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Scientists are using bioelectronic medicine to treat inflammatory diseases, an approach that capitalizes on the ancient "hardwiring" of the nervous system.
- Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field that focuses on manipulating the nervous system to treat diseases.
- Clinical studies show that using electronic devices to stimulate the vagus nerve is effective at treating inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
- Although it's not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, vagus nerve stimulation may also prove effective at treating other diseases like cancer, diabetes and depression.
The nervous system’s ancient reflexes<p>You accidentally place your hand on a hot stove. Almost instantaneously, your hand withdraws.</p><p>What triggered your hand to move? The answer is <em>not</em> that you consciously decided the stove was hot and you should move your hand. Rather, it was a reflex: Skin receptors on your hand sent nerve impulses to the spinal cord, which ultimately sent back motor neurons that caused your hand to move away. This all occurred before your "conscious brain" realized what happened.</p><p>Similarly, the nervous system has reflexes that protect individual cells in the body.</p><p>"The nervous system evolved because we need to respond to stimuli in the environment," said Dr. Tracey. "Neural signals don't come from the brain down first. Instead, when something happens in the environment, our peripheral nervous system senses it and sends a signal to the central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord. And then the nervous system responds to correct the problem."</p><p>So, what if scientists could "hack" into the nervous system, manipulating the electrical activity in the nervous system to control molecular processes and produce desirable outcomes? That's the chief goal of bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There are billions of neurons in the body that interact with almost every cell in the body, and at each of those nerve endings, molecular signals control molecular mechanisms that can be defined and mapped, and potentially put under control," Dr. Tracey said in a <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJH9KsMKi5M" target="_blank">TED Talk</a>.</p><p>"Many of these mechanisms are also involved in important diseases, like cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension and shock. It's very plausible that finding neural signals to control those mechanisms will hold promises for devices replacing some of today's medication for those diseases."</p><p>How can scientists hack the nervous system? For years, researchers in the field of bioelectronic medicine have zeroed in on the longest cranial nerve in the body: the vagus nerve.</p>
The vagus nerve<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYyOTM5OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NTIwNzk0NX0.UCy-3UNpomb3DQZMhyOw_SQG4ThwACXW_rMnc9mLAe8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="09add" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f38dbfbbfe470ad85a3b023dd5083557" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Electrical signals, seen here in a synapse, travel along the vagus nerve to trigger an inflammatory response.
Credit: Adobe Stock via solvod<p>The vagus nerve ("vagus" meaning "wandering" in Latin) comprises two nerve branches that stretch from the brainstem down to the chest and abdomen, where nerve fibers connect to organs. Electrical signals constantly travel up and down the vagus nerve, facilitating communication between the brain and other parts of the body.</p><p>One aspect of this back-and-forth communication is inflammation. When the immune system detects injury or attack, it automatically triggers an inflammatory response, which helps heal injuries and fend off invaders. But when not deployed properly, inflammation can become excessive, exacerbating the original problem and potentially contributing to diseases.</p><p>In 2002, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues discovered that the nervous system plays a key role in monitoring and modifying inflammation. This occurs through a process called the <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature01321" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammatory reflex</a>. In simple terms, it works like this: When the nervous system detects inflammatory stimuli, it reflexively (and subconsciously) deploys electrical signals through the vagus nerve that trigger anti-inflammatory molecular processes.</p><p>In rodent experiments, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues observed that electrical signals traveling through the vagus nerve control TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. These electrical signals travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, triggering a molecular process that ultimately makes TNF, which exacerbates conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.</p><p>The incredible chain reaction of the inflammatory reflex was observed by Dr. Tracey and his colleagues in greater detail through rodent experiments. When inflammatory stimuli are detected, the nervous system sends electrical signals that travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, the electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, which trigger the spleen to create a white blood cell called a T cell, which then creates a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. The acetylcholine interacts with macrophages, which are a specific type of white blood cell that creates TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. At that point, the acetylcholine triggers the macrophages to stop overproducing TNF – or inflammation.</p><p>Experiments showed that when a specific part of the body is inflamed, specific fibers within the vagus nerve start firing. Dr. Tracey and his colleagues were able to map these relationships. More importantly, they were able to stimulate specific parts of the vagus nerve to "shut off" inflammation.</p><p>What's more, clinical trials show that vagus nerve stimulation not only "shuts off" inflammation, but also triggers the production of cells that promote healing.</p><p>"In animal experiments, we understand how this works," Dr. Tracey said. "And now we have clinical trials showing that the human response is what's predicted by the lab experiments. Many scientific thresholds have been crossed in the clinic and the lab. We're literally at the point of regulatory steps and stages, and then marketing and distribution before this idea takes off."<br></p>
The future of bioelectronic medicine<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYxMDYxMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjQwOTExNH0.uBY1TnEs_kv9Dal7zmA_i9L7T0wnIuf9gGtdRXcNNxo/img.jpg?width=980" id="8b5b2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c005e615e5f23c2817483862354d2cc4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2000" data-height="1125" />
Vagus nerve stimulation can already treat Crohn's disease and other inflammatory diseases. In the future, it may also be used to treat cancer, diabetes, and depression.
Credit: Adobe Stock via Maridav<p>Vagus nerve stimulation is currently awaiting approval by the US Food and Drug Administration, but so far, it's proven safe and effective in clinical trials on humans. Dr. Tracey said vagus nerve stimulation could become a common treatment for a wide range of diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension, shock, depression and diabetes.</p><p>"To the extent that inflammation is the problem in the disease, then stopping inflammation or suppressing the inflammation with vagus nerve stimulation or bioelectronic approaches will be beneficial and therapeutic," he said.</p><p>Receiving vagus nerve stimulation would require having an electronic device, about the size of lima bean, surgically implanted in your neck during a 30-minute procedure. A couple of weeks later, you'd visit, say, your rheumatologist, who would activate the device and determine the right dosage. The stimulation would take a few minutes each day, and it'd likely be unnoticeable.</p><p>But the most revolutionary aspect of bioelectronic medicine, according to Dr. Tracey, is that approaches like vagus nerve stimulation wouldn't come with harmful and potentially deadly side effects, as many pharmaceutical drugs currently do.</p><p>"A device on a nerve is not going to have systemic side effects on the body like taking a steroid does," Dr. Tracey said. "It's a powerful concept that, frankly, scientists are quite accepting of—it's actually quite amazing. But the idea of adopting this into practice is going to take another 10 or 20 years, because it's hard for physicians, who've spent their lives writing prescriptions for pills or injections, that a computer chip can replace the drug."</p><p>But patients could also play a role in advancing bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There's a huge demand in this patient cohort for something better than they're taking now," Dr. Tracey said. "Patients don't want to take a drug with a black-box warning, costs $100,000 a year and works half the time."</p><p>Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health, elaborated:</p><p>"Why would patients pursue a drug regimen when they could opt for a few electronic pulses? Is it possible that treatments like this, pulses through electronic devices, could replace some drugs in the coming years as preferred treatments? Tracey believes it is, and that is perhaps why the pharmaceutical industry closely follows his work."</p><p>Over the long term, bioelectronic approaches are unlikely to completely replace pharmaceutical drugs, but they could replace many, or at least be used as supplemental treatments.</p><p>Dr. Tracey is optimistic about the future of the field.</p><p>"It's going to spawn a huge new industry that will rival the pharmaceutical industry in the next 50 years," he said. "This is no longer just a startup industry. [...] It's going to be very interesting to see the explosive growth that's going to occur."</p>
Trained dogs can detect cancer and other diseases by smell. Could a device do the same?
Numerous studies have shown that trained dogs can detect many kinds of disease — including lung, breast, ovarian, bladder, and prostate cancers, and possibly Covid-19 — simply through smell. In some cases, involving prostate cancer for example, the dogs had a 99 percent success rate in detecting the disease by sniffing patients' urine samples.
Their goal is a digital model of the Earth that depicts climate change in all of its complexity.
- The European Union envisions an ambitious digital twin of the Earth to simulate climate change.
- The project is a unique collaboration between Earth science and computer experts.
- The digital twin will allow policymakers to audition expansive geoengineering projects meant to address climate change.
Who are the planet-builders?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTY5MDMzMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTA0NzY2MH0.yG8KyIXYBtiAQB0_9KJLPFhvOj2ZvpBy04YPffMIEJM/img.jpg?width=980" id="4548e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="61d5c1e9765e8d98ef2dab9cb2bf01a6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="833" />
Watching time go by on the digital Earth<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTY5MDMzNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTIyNzQ5MX0.NrXxzMuA8NcrcSIaCivN3zRlsc-KgVpYiecDlLKN4Mw/img.jpg?width=980" id="b1bcf" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="aff8d7380cd18b8ee15a8f772d83a7a8" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="988" />
Credit: Logan Armstrong/Unsplash<p>The basic idea of the digital twin is that it will allow scientists to observe climate change in motion as it progresses. "If you are planning a two-meter high dike in The Netherlands, for example," says Bauer in an ETH press release, "I can run through the data in my digital twin and check whether the dike will in all likelihood still protect against expected extreme events in 2050."</p><p>Most important will be trying out geoengineering ideas and seeing how they track over time. The press release specifically notes the value the twin will bring to "strategic planning of fresh water and food supplies or wind farms and solar plants." </p>
Aging models and AI<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTY5MDM0Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2NjM3Njc3Mn0.7Dm8rcv_bcHSvKlxIvaQ3wu3pC3wjKbWeScQ_nQyLlA/img.jpg?width=980" id="be2db" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8dacb34d559e79cded0443dbd88c84d3" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="720" />
Credit: ECMWF<p>Capturing the subtleties and intricacies of our planet faithfully in order to model plauisble outcomes is going to require an equally complex computer model. Construction of the digital Earth begins with the refinement of current weather models, with a goal of eventually being able to simulate conditions in as small an area as a kilometer. Current models are not nearly as fine-grained, a shortcoming that hampers their ability to make accurate predictions given that the large weather systems are really aggregates of many smaller meteorological systems influencing each other.</p><p>The authors of the paper assert that today's meteorological models fall far short of what's possible, their development having basically become stuck in place about a decade ago. They say that current models take advantage of only about 5 percent of today's available processing power. The solution is the tight collaboration between Earth scientists and computer scientists at the heart of Destination Earth to develop cutting-edge models.</p><p>The twin will also be able to take advantage of rapidly advancing developments in artificial intelligence. Obviously, AI is very good at detecting patterns in large amounts of data. The study anticipates multiple roles for AI here, including the promotion of operational efficiency with new ways of accurately representing physical processes, as well as the development of novel data-compression strategies.</p>
A massive endeavor<p> The team will feed the twin massive amounts of weather data—as well as data regarding human activity—to get the digital planet going and then continually as new data emerge, making the model more and more complex and more and more accurate. </p><p> At full scale, a digital twin of an entire planet would require a suitably massive amount of horsepower. The authors of the study propose a system with 20,000 <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graphics_processing_unit" target="_blank">GPUs</a> that will require 20 megawatts to run. And since the ultimate goal is to help the Earth and not make things worse, they say they'd like to site its digital twin in an area power from a CO<sup>2</sup>-netural electrical source. </p>
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
Remedies must honor the complex social dynamics of adolescence.
- Bullies are likely to be friends according to new research published in the American Journal of Sociology.
- The researchers write that complex social dynamics among adolescents allow the conditions for intragroup dominance.
- The team uses the concept of "frenemies" to describe the relationship between many bullies and victims.
School Bullying: Are We Taking the Wrong Approach?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dfd7e31a97e8a049081d3cf6b978714f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/E3U38uZBW6w?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Femlee, a sociology professor at Penn State, says her study offers important insights into why bullying occurs—and, potentially, leaves clues for how to combat it. Her team found peer aggression to be much higher among students that are proximal to one another, either through friendship or social circles. Bullying does not end friendships, she says; they persist over the long-term, with the bullied maintaining ties to their tormentors. </p><p>Looking at a data set of over 3,000 students—at least half were either bullier or victim—the researchers asked students to choose five classmates that had been mean to them, then analyzed these networks while racking levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. As one student remarked, "Sometimes your own friends bully you. I don't understand why, why my friends do this to me."</p><p>Femlee <a href="https://news.psu.edu/story/648500/2021/02/22/research/et-tu-brute-teens-may-be-more-likely-be-bullied-social-climbing" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elaborates on the complex dynamics</a> of adolescence:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"These conflicts likely arise between young people who are eyeing the same spot on the team, club, or vying for the same best friend or romantic partner. Those who are closely linked in the school social network are apt to encounter situations in which they are rivals for identical positions and social ties."</p>
Photo: motortion / Adobe Stock<p>They note that strained friendships are more likely to produce dominance behavior and power differentials than close ties. Punching down is common, especially between students of the same gender, race, and grade. The race for recognition seems to necessitate close racial and gender ties. "Frenemies" usually result from one member of a group victimizing another in an attempt at clawing their way to the top of the network.</p><p>This competition can have lifelong effects, such as reducing the bullied's chances of developing intimate relationships. The authors note that most bullying prevention programs fail becuase, in part, "aggressive behavior accrues social rewards and does so to a degree that leads some to betray their closest friends."</p><p>Such programs tend to focus on a fraction of bullying dynamics, such as empathy deficits and emotional dysregulation. They fail to take into account the complex social dynamics of being a teenager. The authors believe coopting status contents and changing the behavior of high-status youths could have downline effects. Instead of dismantling hierarchies, they recommend recognizing status is intrinsic to group fitness instead of pretending the struggle to the top is an aberration. Only then can you create structural change. </p><p>Friends, they conclude, can be the problem but also offer the solution. Aiming for enduring friendships instead of backstabbing frenemies is a tall order but it could impact the tragedy of bullying—and the emotional carnage it leaves in its wake. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>