Are you good?

— Are you a good person? —

An article in Science [1] claims that warlike behavior among modern hunter-gathering tribes is non-existant. Almost all the violence is of a personal nature: he stole my food, he raped my wife. Assuming today’s hunter-gatherers are our best example of ancient human tribes, we can conclude that ancient bands of humans were peaceful. War was vintually non-existant, and therefore war has had no significant impact upon the development of our civilization, our culture, our species.

— Are you an evil person? —

The authors of this article, Fry and Söderberg, are attempting to support a belief held by many anthropologists that man is fundamentally good. Furthermore, it may be that they believe that early man – in small, close-knit groups living simply and close to nature – is the most utopian state our civilization has achieved.

— If you do evil, only once in your entire life, does this make you evil? —

The question of whether man is good or evil is something many have addressed, usually in literature class. Whether reading a great classic like Huckleberry Finn, an enthralling thought experiment like Lord of the Flies, or something as poor as Separate Peace, we wrestle with the most intriguing question; Are we good, or evil?

— Were you born good? —

The reason the question of good versus evil is so good for the classroom, and also for academic careers, is because there is no answer. At least, there’s no answer in the form in which the question is phrased. There is no answer because we are both good and evil. All of us, as individuals, as part of our group, and even today as compared to tomorrow, vary in our propensity to behave in good or evil ways.

— If you are born good, and do evil, when and how did this transformation occur? —

It’s important to address this issue early, and to deal with it directly. It’s such a fundamental assumption, both in research and in political or economic decision-making, that it seriously hinders the pace of learning about behavior.

— Is mankind good? —

Major decisions, like how to transfer power to Afghanis, or how best to preserve the political and economic health of Egypt, are being made by the US government, right now. Without understanding this most basic assumption, such decisions are likely to be far from the mark, and probably have costly unforeseen consequences.

— Is mankind evil if only one member is evil? —

Our job as students and researchers of behavior is to only measure behavior that can be expressed and observed. The problem with peace andn goodness is that, in most cases, these are defined as the absence of violence. No right-minded scientist should have hypotheses that rely upon the absence of observations. We must count only those events that we can see, and record in such a way that others can see or replicate. Ideally, these observations should also have implications, acting as indirect evidence of their existance.

— Does doing good today always mean the long-term impact will also be good? —

Let’s get back to Fry and Söderberg. They counted observable acts of violence and concluded war was virtually non-existent. Beyond the fact that their study was fundamentally anecdotal and methodologically meaningless, all they concluded was that war is a rare event. And that’s true.

— How is it possible for me to perform an act I perceive as good, yet you perceive as evil? —

Violence only occurs when one person behaves in such a way that insults or injures anether person from that person’s perspective. It’s possible for one person to be doing good while another person perceives it as evil. Not only is this statement true for a person, but for a family, a tribe, and a even a nation. It’s that special class of behavior, where one nation behaves violently toward another, that we can truly observe and call war.

— If I have evil thoughts, but always behave in ways that are good, am I still a good person? —

Declaring humanity as good or evil is unscientific and reveals fundamentally flawed assumptions. We are beings capable of both violent and good behavior. We are beings who can choose non-violent methods of reconciling conflict. For the most part, our customs, laws, and societies are built upon our ability to suppress violent impulses. If you’re a good person, but inadvertently do evil, then you simply had a ‘leak.’ And leaks occur all the time. As a society we should use leaks as an opportunity to learn, improving our theories of behavior, and adjusting the tools at our disposal so that those leaks are less likely to happen again.

Until Fry and Söderberg, Anthropology, and all the other behavioral disciplines are ready to accept the fundamental fact that we are both good and evil, no significant progress can be made in undrestanding behavior. None. For the essence of war is not only between nations, it is always within each of us. It is but a single point on a vast continuum of violence. For us to become better behavioral scientists, we must accept that all of us are complex entities with continuously changing and competing impulses. If we are to fully understand the behavior of ourselves, our nation, and build a better future for our children, we must abandon the assumption that people are either good or evil, and accept the assumption that we, all of us, are both.

— Will you be good, today? —




[1] Science, 19 July 2013, Volume 341, page 224. Anthropology: Latest skirmish over ancestral violence strikes blow for peace, a summary by Elizabeth Culotta. The research article is on page 270 of the same issue, entitled “Lethal aggression in mobile forager bands and implications for the origins of war.” by Douglas P Fry and Patrick Söderberg.