Om Namah Shivaya

Om Namah Shivaya

I'll be grateful if you...

May 6, 2012

TALKING POINT: Is Human Nature Basically Selfish?

The first time I read Sigmund Freud, almost two decades back, I was not able to relate to it. The repeat reading of the same ideas and ideologies through Brenner, in such a beautiful and simple way which basically sank deeper in my psyche, got me closer to the thoughts and ideas Sigmund Freud promulgated. And it created within me a view that Human beings are basically made up of two basic drives i. e. the SEXUAL and the AGRESSIVE.(Freud 1920).  So yet again, thoughts of Sigmund Freud, some of them given below, I was not able to relate to, or digest in totality...

Freud Sofa for his patients
(Wikipedia Image)
1) In 'Beyond the Pleasure Principle' Freud proposed to account for the instinctual aspects of mental lives by ASSUMING the existence of two drives, the SEXUAL and the AGRESSIVE. (Freud 1920) 

2) Sigmund Freud pointed out that the person whom the child is attached in its early years has a place in its mental life which is unique as far as influence is concerned. This is true whether the child's attachment to these persons is by bonds of LOVE, of HATE, or both, THE LAST BEING BY FAR THE MOST USUAL.

The act of birth is the first experience of anxiety,
and thus the source and prototype of the affect of anxiety.
(Sicilian triskelion)
Image from Wikipedia

3) Freud discovered rather early that there were regularly present in the unconscious mental lives of his NEUROTIC patients fantasies of incest with parent of the opposite sex, combined with jealousy and MURDEROUS rage against the parents of the same sex (Pg 105 - The Psychic Apparatus Chap V) and goes on to say (1910-15) that it became  apparent that Oedipus complex was not just characteristic of the unconscious mental life of neurotics, but was on the contrary present in the normal person as well.

4) Oedipus complex (this is the period from 2 and Half years to 6 years as per Freud) is a twofold attitude towards both parents: on the one hand a wish to ELIMINATE the jealously hated father and take his place in a SENSUAL relationship with the mother, and on the other hand a wish to ELIMINATE the jealously hated mother and take her place with father.... the most important single fact to bear in the mind about the oedipal complex is the strength and force of the feelings which are involved. Its real LOVE AFFAIR.  For many people its the most intense affair of the entire lives, but in any case as intense as any which the individual will ever experience.

John Haidt (A professor of psychology whose research focuses on the psychological bases of morality across different cultures and political ideology, in one of the most interesting discussion on the subject, I could actually find on the YouTube, says

“For 40 years, evolutionary theorist has told that human nature is basically selfish. Many people knew in their hearts that it’s not true
, few of them has been as eloquent as His Holiness Dalai Lama, in arguing for different concepts of human nature. In 'Ethics for new millennium', His Holiness writes that the basic human nature is not only non-violent but actually disposed towards love and compassion, kindness, gentleness and affectionate. Recent research in evolution theory finds that co-operation is infact a basic principle in evolution.

In that same discussion Antonio DamasioProfessor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, where he heads USC's Brain and Creativity Institute, puts across his thoughts about the subject, so beautifully, to begin with by sharing 3 facts to known to our modern scientific community presently...

Fact No: 1) Social behaviour - Social emotions, which is one of the main categories of emotions, are natural carriers of morals & ethics.
Fact No: 2) Its quite likely that when we talk about social emotions in general, we talk about sets of behavior & strategies that were planted in mammalian brain by genomes, even if they can certainly be tuned by learning, specially in humans.
Fact No: 3) Adult neurological patients, when they sustain damage to a confined part in the frontal lobe - a very specific part, they are not able to use social conventions or obey ethical rules, although they retain knowledge about that social conventions and those ethical rules. Worse, when the comparable damage occurs in the early years of life, e.g. children up to the age of 3-4, it so happens that not only that resulting in abnormal moral behaviour, but the children are (also) unable to learn the convention and rules to begin with. So in both the adults and in children, the most blatant sign outside their impaired moral behaviour is actually a lack of social emotion (because of the damage to a particular section of the brain) - That should be a food for thought.

And Professor Domasio, goes on to say ...

"The biological function that best captures what is going on (in) moral behaviour is truly Homeostasis - in plain terms the life regulation. I would like to say there are two kind of Homeostasis, 1) the very basic given by our genomes, that ensures the welfare of the self & next of kin & rarely does it even ever go beyond socio cultural. 2) Homeostasis that developed because human brains were able to generate cultures, once they were emerging a collective of other human beings & then in those collective cultures, it was possible to reflect on moral knowledge and it was possible to structure that moral knowledge in such a way that it would result not only to the benefit of the immediate self and of the next of kin but also to others further away to the larger circle of humans".

An American biologist Edward Osborne Wilson known as "the father of socio-biology" says...

"Although much human diversity in behaviour is culturally influenced, some has been shown to be genetic - rapid acquisition of language, human unpredictability, hypertrophy (extreme growth of pre-existing social structures), altruism and religions."

Wilson, along with Bert Hölldobler, has done a systematic study of ants and ant behaviour, culminating in their encyclopaedic work, The Ants (1990). "Because much self-sacrificing behaviour on the part of individual ants can be explained on the basis of their genetic interests in the survival of the sisters, with whom they share 75% of their genes (though the actual case is some species' queens mate with multiple males and therefore some workers in a colony would only be 25% related)"

He  further argues that culture and rituals are products, not parts, of human nature. He says art is not part of human nature, but our appreciation of art is. He argues that concepts such as art appreciation, fear of snakes, or the incest taboo (Westermarck effect) can be studied using scientific methods. Previously, these phenomena were only part of psychological, sociological, or anthropological studies.

Here is a little back ground on the study, mentioned above, known as ...
Westermarck Effect

Edvard Alexander Westermarck 
A Finnish philosopher and sociologist, among other subjects, studied exogamy and the incest taboo. The phenomenon of reverse sexual imprinting (when two people live in close domestic proximity during the first few years in the life of either one, both are desensitized to later close sexual attraction), now known as the Westermarck effect, was first formally described by him in his book The History of Human Marriage (1891). Observations interpreted as evidence for the Westermarck effect have since been made in many places and cultures, including in the Israeli kibbutz system, and the Chinese Shim-pua marriage customs, as well as in biological-related families.

In the case of the Israeli kibbutzim (collective farms), children were reared somewhat communally in peer groups, based on age, not biological relation. A study of the marriage patterns of these children later in life revealed that out of the nearly 3,000 marriages that occurred across the kibbutz system, only fourteen were between children from the same peer group. Of those fourteen, none had been reared together during the first six years of life. This result suggests that the Westermarck effect operates during the period from birth to the age of six.

Freud argued that as children, members of the same family naturally lust for one another, making it necessary for societies to create incest taboos, but Westermarck argued the reverse, that the taboos themselves arise naturally as products of innate attitudes.

Steven Pinker wrote on the subject:

"The idea that boys want to sleep with their mothers strikes most men as the silliest thing they have ever heard. Obviously, it did not seem so to Freud, who wrote that as a boy he once had an erotic reaction to watching his mother dressing. But Freud had a wet nurse, and may not have experienced the early intimacy that would have tipped off his perceptual system that Mrs. Freud was his mother. The Westermarck theory has out-Freuded Freud."
—Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works

What do I think?
I have searched long and hard in my own conscience, the way Freud did in his later years, to find that miniscule hint of that person, hidden within the folds of my ID, Ego and Super Ego, who would be sexually aroused by mother, who would be detesting father, or trying to kill my siblings for that extra chocolate. But have not found even slightest hint.

I firmly believe in the goodness of human being. And I feel that is the reason, the humanity has survived many upheavals, catastrophic changes and adversity on many fronts, despite being, as some say, the most weak animal form to roam the planet earth. In my opinion, Human nature at its core is positive and good.

What do you think?
 नमः शिवाय
Om Namah Shivaya

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'LOVE – The most powerful brain system'


  1. What a great great post!!!
    I completely agree with you, that human nature, or rather nature of living beings is inherently quiet until circumstances force them to act otherwise. Animals kill only for prey and only to survive, and human behavior to a large extent depends upon the upbringing and social environment in which the individual has been brought up. The famous novel "Sons and Lovers" by D.H Lawrence deals with the subject of Oedipus Complex in a very interesting way. Here also what is noteworthy is the fact that the way the protagonist reacts to situations around him is a result of the surrounding circumstances. A drunken,good for nothing father, an overly possessive mother who despises her husband for his attitude, an elder brother, previously the mother's favorite, who dies and is deserted by his lover on his deathbed. All create a negative impression on his mind. His relationship with his mother is intense, possessive and tumultuous.
    And even though its called the Oedipus Complex.If we discuss the character after which it has been named, the truth is Oedipus himself had no idea that the woman he had married was his mother.
    With due respect to Freud and others and their path breaking researches, idea and theories, I have an unwavering belief that in-spite of exceptions and proven cases, human nature is essentially meant for a peaceful co-existence in a healthy environment.
    Right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate, these are adjusted according to man's convenience. Taboo or not. Our choices will always depend on what we are.
    Excellent post!
    Hats off!!

    1. Thanks Rohu.
      As you pointed out, 'Sons and Lovers' by D H Lawrence has some interesting points on the Oedipus Complex, though I don't agree with some of the things that he brought out in the novel.
      I agree with you in case of Oedipus, where he was not actually aware about the fact that he married his mother. More importantly its actually a story/myth so has not a real bearing on science. But to give due credit to Freud, he just named this proposition on Oedipus so actually it does not have any real significance for science.

      To bring another interesting thought to this, there are quite a few stories like this in our own mythology... :-)

      Yes I to have firm belief in the goodness of human being and ofcourse our choices are always made on what we are within, rather than without.... given individual circumstances...

      Thanks for liking my post...

      ॐ नमः शिवाय
      Om Namah Shivaya

  2. Great post. A large part of human behavior is driven by instinct to survive and when survival is threatened, men will defend what the have and turn violent, if necessary, to ensure the continuity of his progeny(ex.territorial wars,) One reason we cooperate with each other is because it is easier as a group to survive than to be isolated. Altruism and cooperation are necessary to our survival as a species. There are studies that link altruism to a specific gene. Some of us are more motivated to help others.But generally speaking,if we humans didn't have certain moral,cultural and societal rules in place, we would revert to some kind of primitive behavior. We still have a long way to evolve as a species. Respectfully submitted by Lola (Powers)

    1. Thanks Gauva Flower { I like that name and the flower is beautiful too.. :-)}

      As Antonio Domasio says. we have specific system that guides our being good, right now its not pointed out and how it works but it does as discussed in the post above.

      Being good in certain as well as adverse circumstances have made us survive not as scavenging animals but as human beings... who are adaptive to nature around us as well as progress further than any other living organisation have had done.

      Thanks Lola, its great to have your comment and thanks for liking it.

  3. shashi i could not go through the entire post which i would at leisure .well human nature is driven by survival of fittest that does makes us selfish

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