This text is also available in German. - Dieser Text in deutscher Sprache.

Peter Moeller

On the Negative Side of Man

Human feeling and behavior originate from at least five analytically distinguishable compo-nents:

  1. His nature
  2. His socialization
  3. His psyche (consciousness and unconscious or subconscious) [1]
  4. His living situation
  5. His reason and his free will
Whoever ignores one of these five components has an incomplete anthropology.
I have now had the experience often in discussions that many people have a too positive picture of the nature of man and/or in their development of political strategies have seen the nature of man as of negligible importance.
For that reason I allowed myself to point out some of the negative aspects of man. Not because I want to portray a one-sided negative picture of humanity, but because a one-sided positive picture can lead to personal as well as politico-social strategies which can be discounted at the outset. (The last example of this is the decline of socialism in eastern Europe.)
The following essay does not claim to describe a comprehensive representation of mankind. Here I plan to show merely some of the aspects of mankind which one should calculate into the balance of one's judgment of mankind.
The program on which we function, regarding our natural side, has been "written" by nature over millions of years and is stored in our genes.
Our human and animal ancestors had been subjected to the laws of evolution for millions of years. During that time many characteristics and behavior traits had to be developed by necessity, which were necessary for the survival of the individual as well as the species, but which work against the survival of the species today. [2]
If we wish to learn how our primate and stone age ancestors felt and behaved, there are four sources, as I see it, from which to glean such knowledge:
  1. The observation of animal herds, especially those most closely related to us in the animal kingdom, the monkeys, and among them chimpanzees, because they are closest to us genetically.
  2. The observation of "primitive" peoples, who are in part still at the level of stone age peoples. (As well as descriptions of such peoples of earlier times.)
  3. Archeological findings.
  4. Observations of modern man and conclusions from these as to how people of former ages (who are not essentially genetically different from us) probab-ly behaved under conditions of their day.
The results of such researches must be assessed with care. It has to do with more or less plausible hypotheses. One thing I would like to state with near certainty: The "noble savage" of Rousseau existed as little as the primal society of Marx and Engels.
Possession was not an invention of people who left this primal society. Possession existed in the animal kingdom and is often already there as a prerequisite for the survival of both species and individuals. At the moment when an animal or herd defends its territory against a competitor of its own or another species, or at the moment when a male defends his mate or harem, at that moment there is possession. There is no need for law in such cases. Possession is at bottom nothing more than having exclusive power over something.
Nor was lordship an invention of those leaving the primal society. Lordship is already there in the animal kingdom and specifically at that moment when a herd member acquiesces to its group leader.
In the same way there exist social inequalities already among animals of the herd as soon as a pecking order exists. Those animals who come first in the order have the best places of eating, that is, the lower in the order may only eat when those higher in the order are full. Those males at the top are the ones who reproduce, those lower do not because they cannot win in the battles for the females.
Along with that there is the struggle for upward mobility, careerism in the animal kingdom, and is also there often a prerequisite for survival and reproduction. And since it is those - in most cases - who make it to the top who reproduce, such behavior must have accumulated by necessity in individuals in the course of hundreds of thousands or millions of generations.
Egoism exists also among animals. Any being which does not consider itself more important than its fellow beings has a lesser chance of survival and has thereby also a smaller chance to reproduce and give this characteristic to the next generation.
Hostility to strangers (that is, group egoism) is also found among animals. I. e. herds of lions chase other predatory cats away from their territory or kill them. Members of a group who hate or chase away or kill members of other groups also have a higher chance of survival than the members of groups which do not have this characteristic. Hostility to strangers is in the animal kingdom often a prerequisite for survival as well as the individual egoism. [3]
When a chimpanzee dominates a female which has young offspring, he kills the young one, because the female is only then ready for pairing again. Larger monkeys eat smaller monkeys and the smaller monkeys die while they are being eaten. And if they jump around too much, the larger monkeys break its bones so that it will remain still while it is being eaten.
That is where we are from! Those are our roots! There is no humanity in nature, no mercy. One cannot accuse the animals of anything at all. Otherwise one could also reproach a stone when it falls on one's foot. Animals follow their instincts. They do not recognize any suffering of others unless it is that of its own offspring and, among higher herd animals, the suffering of members of its own group. This is also the necessity of nature. A species which does not raise its young selflessly and even at risk of its own life would not continue to exist, that is, it would not develop in the first place. A herd of animals which works cooperatively has a higher chance of survival than a group of animals which does not do this. And here one sees a development which leads to man.
Among "primitive" peoples one can observe that within the group, within the tribe, a high level of solidarity exists, a willingness to sacrifice for one another (which does not prohibit them from having hierarchy, chiefs and different privileged members), but the members of the neighboring tribe have no right to life. People from other groups will not only be chased from their territory or killed, no, they are often caught in order to be tortured to death as entertainment around the fire for the whole tribe, regardless if they are man, woman or child. Pity exists for members of one's own tribe and one's own family. Strangers' heads were cut off and shrunken.
When mankind left the stone age and established the first cultures and higher cultures, they took their behavior with them. The Aztecs tore out the hearts of hundreds of thousands of their captives and camouflaged this as a religious act. The Romans met by the thousands to watch people of other lands get torn apart by wild animals.
This is where we come from! These are our roots! The Greeks, valued so highly as the founders of western culture, either murdered or enslaved masses of the settled people of the territories they were colonizing. The Europeans have done nothing different in the last centuries when conquering their colonies or when settling the American continent. Up to our time there is a bloody red thread running through the history of mankind: from the mass murders of the Armenians and the Jews to the mass murders in Cambodia and Ruanda. That a human can be a murderer or mass murderer or can commit genocide is not a perversion of his being. That is one side of his being. Murder is not something inhuman. It is unfortunately something very human.
But there is a positive side of humans as well. People are also capable of sympathy, care of others and solidarity. People can develop the wish for general harmony. That is also a side of his being. It cannot be explained otherwise that over the millenia individuals as well as groups, political or religious movements, have arisen wanting to improve the world and often wanting to set up Paradise on earth. Man is an ambivalent creature. And everyone has run aground on this ambivalence up to the present, practicing or preaching either their version of Paradise on earth or, on the other side, a hardened egoism or group egoism (like National Socialism). Social behaviors such as those propagated by Nietzsche are just as impracticable as those Marx had in mind.
If one sees in the characteristics of our stone age or animal ancestors suitable behavior also for our modern times or considers the modern expressions of human conduct justifiable, he reduces man to the level of animal or barbarian. Man is nature, and it a great mistake to ignore this or to have an overly optimistic idea of this nature. But man is also culture. Man is also reason. Whoever wants to reduce man to his nature is an enemy of mankind, is an enemy of culture, of civilization and of reason.
But culture and reason are not secure forever once they have developed. Humans might be cultural and reasonable beings, but they are certainly beings of nature. What we have gained from culture can be lost again. [4]

I wrote this essay in 1995. I have revised the text for distribution in the internet. Trans-lated from German into English in March 2000. (Many thanks to Kirk for helping me.)

To my homepage


N. 1: The contents the psyche are determined to a great extent either by our nature or through socialization. But developments also take place in our psyche so that newly formed contents are created from psyche itself. (Living conditions and reason and free will also have significance here, even if not as great as nature and socialization. We should not forget that things are separated in analysis which in reality form a unity or which are closely interwoven.) Back

N. 2: Excursus: The Development from Animal to Man, Sources: Chronik der Menschheit, Chronik Verlag Harenberg, Dortmund 1992, Kapitel "Der Weg zum Homo sapiens".

Our understanding of the development from animal to man is essentially derived from research on fossil findings. Dates are approximations. One can read or hear different findings from each individual researcher.
The history of the earth is subdivided into geological formations. In the forth tertiary period, the Miocean, about 25 - 14 million years ago (the dinosaurs were already extinct 40 million years ago), the dryopithecus developed from large forest apes about 20 million years ago. In the fifth tertiary period, the Pleocene (about 12 - 2.8 million years ago) out of the dryopithecus the ramapithecus developed ca. 8 million years ago. This creature was closer to the apes than to man but showed anatomical characteristics which lead to man. In the period from ca. 8 - 4 million years ago there have been no fossil findings so far. About 4 million years ago two descendants of the ramapithecus lived on the earth: the australopithecus which was closer to the apes, and the homo habilis which resembled man much more and is considered a human by many researchers.
About 2 - 1.5 years ago the homo erectus developed. He was already man. He descended most likely from homo habilis, but possibly from the australopithecus.
The transitional period from animal to man is reckoned from about 25 to 1.5 million years ago, according to present calculations. This encompasses approximately 600,000 generations.
Around 30,000 years ago there originated the three races: white, yellow and black. Since that time the human race has probably not developed further genetically. Back

N. 3: When I go walking on a Saturday afternoon through the east of Kreuzberg, which is a district of Berlin with a high percentage of foreigners, especially Turks, which is about one kilometer from my apartment in Friedrichshain (a district of Berlin, with belonged to the east sector in the time of the division of Berlin) and see almost exclusively Turkish people, then a barbaric xenophobia arises in me. And then I feel badly. The same thing probably occurs in a Turk who lives in a tourist area on the Mediterranean and sees predominantly Germans on the beach. When Germans, whose ancestors settled in Russia for generations move back to Germany they are called "Russians" here. And in Russia or Kazastan they are often disparagingly called "Germans". When Turkish people who are born in Germany visit Turkey they are often called "Germans" there. Here the same people are often called "Turks" as an insult.
If one wishes to deny or change such feelings and behavior, one must be clear about the sources. This is not about poor upbringing or political incorrectness. In our genes we can find the reason. And when we feel and act differently it is only a cultural act, then we have raised ourselves above our nature.
Children play with other children even if they have different skin colors or are different in other aspects of their appearance. Dislike of foreigners appears first with youngsters or teenagers and then more often in boys than in girls. The boys were raised to bring in food for the family beginning at a certain age and to secure survival. Young men who strongly dislike foreigners show that they are more lead by their natural inclinations and less by culture or reasoning.
Further characteristics which were developed as necessities in the course of evolution:
Fear of death. A being which flees from extinction in panic and does everything to escape this extinction has a better chance of survival and reproducing as a being which has less fear of death. Therefore fear of death was accumulating in millions of generations. Fear of death has a necessary function in nature. But it is not reasonable. For modern man it is mostly a burden.
Disgust of manure, of things rotten, stinking, molding, etc. Our ancestors did not know that the ingestion of such things are life threatening. For that reason those who had such a disgust had a higher chance of survival than those without.
Dizziness in beings without wings. Those possessing a natural ability to become dizzy did not take risks of falling. Back
N. 4: I visited the former concentration camp in Buchenwald a few years ago. I remember that they showed us lamp shades which were made of human skin. SS officers had flayed young Jewish girls and made lamps in which the nipples of their breasts could still be seen. When one visits such a camp today or sees them documented on television, one is beside one's self and asks how humans could be capable of such horrible acts. But such acts are only inexplicable for those people who have a too positive anthropology. People can be that horrible as they have shown again and again for millenia. The SS people who did these awful things had fallen back into the behavior patterns of former times. Their actions were not in principle different from an Indian who scalps his enemy, or a Norman who drinks mead from the skull of his vanquished enemy after a successful battle. The ideology and behavior of the Nazis was not only in this point a giant step backward behind the modern world to the barbaric, antique and medieval. The SS members were born into the modern world and into a modern culture, but behaved like Barbarians.
The bad thing about that situation was that the Nazis had the technology and organization of modern times together with the behavior of the "undeveloped" levels of earlier stages of mankind. What came out of that was an even more barbaric event than even the Barbarians were able to accomplish.
It is also often said that especially from the Germans, this highly civilized people of poets and thinkers, such a behavior was even less expected. But the new born German did not have Goethe and Beethoven in his genes. It is in fact not the case, as the stalinist biologist Lysenko posited, that cultural accomplishments are preserved in the genes and will come out in future generations. (Such things may occur only after tens of thousands of generations, if ever.) The newborn human of today has the exact same genetic make up as the human from the later stone age. The human of the atomic bomb is genetically the same as the human of the axe. Back

Zur philolex-Startseite

Copyright © by Peter Möller, Berlin.