Human Nature: Reflections on a Difficult Question

by Ray Grigg

Who are we? This fundamental question about human nature has puzzled many thinkers for many centuries — probably yielding as many opinions as thinkers. We certainly expect to find a range of individual differences within the human community. But the question pertains to our collective behaviour.

Who are we as a species? We can make generalized descriptive statements about the character of bears, salmon, ants, eagles and deer. But what is humanity’s collective character? The answer has huge implications for understanding virtually everything we have done, are doing and may do.

An interesting insight is provided by Yuval Noah Harari, a professor of macro-history and the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Since his specialty is broad historical questions, he directs us back to humankind’s early beginning for an answer.

For most of human history, Harari explains, we were not a dominant species. Despite our large brains and sharp tools, we were no match for the top predators or even the middle ones. During our existence as Sapiens in Africa between 2 and 1 million years ago, we were little bipedal gatherers and scavengers, eating nuts, berries, insects and roots while supplementing our diet with the leftover meat and remains from the kills of large carnivores. We waited our turn at the carcasses of creatures like wildebeests until the lions, hyenas and jackals were finished. Then, with our stone axes, we could bash open the uneaten bones for the remnant marrow.

Not until about 400,000 years ago did we evolve from killing small animals to larger ones. And only 100,000 years ago did we graduate to “the top of the food chain.” By the slow measure of biological time, Harari explains, such a rapid ascent meant that ecosystems did not have time to adjust, as they did with other top predators such as lions and sharks. This helps to explain why we, as a species, have had such a disruptive effect on the planet’s biota.

“Moreover,” Harari adds, “humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.”

Does Harari answer the question of who we are? He certainly provides an interesting insight. For all our apparent sophistication, we are nonetheless fearful, anxious and careful creatures, ever watchful of predators and danger, always wary of surroundings and challengers, usually uneasy and insecure, inherently concerned about power, surprises and vulnerabilities.

So go back a million years and imaginatively place yourself at the kill of a wildebeest, warily waiting for the top predators to finish feeding. Can you be certain that they are too contentedly full of meat to attack the furtive little bipedal scavenger nearby, nervously hoping for access to the uneaten bones?

Our circumstances have changed immensely since that long-ago time. But the genetic memory persists, eliciting a feeling that is vaguely and uncomfortably familiar.