Neither selfish, nor stupid: natural selection doesn’t determine human nature; we do

by N. Gabriel Martin

Photo by Thea Smc

In 2017, the Nobel prize in economics attracted more attention than it usually does, when it was awarded to Richard Thaler. Articles in leading newspapers everywhere explained Thaler’s revolutionary insight: whereas economic orthodoxy was premised on the belief that humans are essentially selfish, Thaler’s work assumed that we are also stupid.

Thaler was the perfect laureate for a world trying to come to grips with Brexit and the election of Trump, even if the novelty of his theories was exaggerated. For many, faith in the decision-making ability of the public was shaken, and so was the conception of human nature underpinning liberal economics and democracy—that humans act in their own self-interest. How else could the decisions of tens of millions of Brits to tank their economy, or of more than a hundred million Americans to elect an unqualified, corrupt bigot be explained than by calling into question our ability to figure out what’s in our own best interests?

Thaler, though not all that original in this regard, has espoused a theory of human behaviour that maintains the assumption that self-interest drives our actions, but rejected the idea that we know what our interests are. This reimagining of human nature called for a reimagining of political possibilities. Thaler’s behaviourist economic view doesn’t support free market liberalism without conditions. A free market can, supposedly, be counted on to yield optimal results on the assumption that its members are able to choose what’s in their own interests, but if we are too stupid either to know what’s really in our own interests or to make the better choice most of the time, then there’s no reason to expect a free market to produce optimal outcomes.

How we conceive of ourselves as human beings matters, because the range of political possibilities open to us depends on our capabilities. If the only thing that motivates us, at least for the most part, is our own self-interest, then it’s pointless to dream up a political system which would require individuals to put aside their own interest for the good of the community or some other higher purpose. On this view of human nature, called Homo Economicus, any form of organisation which requires individuals to put the good of the community ahead of their own interests is at least going to be prone to instability. Such an arrangement is not going to be sustainable in the long term, precisely because it requires people to do something unnatural—put something ahead of themselves.

More than that—the persistence of a political structure that counts on people to put something ahead of themselves can be taken as a sure sign that it is oppressive. If it is in our very nature to put ourselves ahead of anything else, then we can assume that any regime in which people aren’t putting themselves first must be preventing them from doing so. Even if it might look like people are choosing to make sacrifices and compromises, that could only be an illusion. If it’s human nature to act in your own self-interest, then wherever people fail to knock each other over for savings on an 80-inch flatscreen, it is proof that they have been misled about what their self-interest is. Therefore, any ostensibly free choice to serve the common good is actually evidence of coercion or brainwashing.

In his taxonomy of conservative arguments, The Rhetoric of Reaction, the economist Albert O. Hirschman called this line of reasoning “the perversity thesis”. It is the argument that what is being campaigned for is either undesirable or impractical because it goes against the natural order, whether in the form of God’s will or evolved traits. Because it’s always plausible, if spurious, to claim that the current state of affairs isn’t just some historical accident but in some sense necessary, the perversity thesis is universally applicable to conservative political causes. It has been levied against everything from desegregation and women’s rights to the welfare state and vegetarianism.

It’s to resist the stifling dichotomy of the natural and the perverse that we need Sartre’s great slogan for existential freedom: “existence precedes essence.”[1] We need existential freedom to liberate us from preconceptions about humanity that would place arbitrary limits on who we can become, and how we can change our societies. That existence precedes essence just means that what is essential to humanity is not predetermined, whether biologically or theologically, but depends entirely on what we do, what kinds of lives we live, and what kinds of political organisation we enact. Approached according to the assumption that we determine what we are, there is no need to explain away exceptions to the liberal-capitalist rule of self-interested action by taking on the ad-hoc premise of stupidity. If people choose to behave in ways other than pure self-interest, then that’s an expression of their freedom.

It’s not only economic liberalism and a certain form of Darwinism that constrains human flourishing. For example, Christian theological conceptions of humanity as made in God’s image confine us to a narrow idea of what it is to be a good person, which in mainstream Christian interpretations excludes a lot of what might be thought by others to be essential to a good and meaningful life. Anything from the expression of the best cardinal sins, such as lust, to the kind of exercise of power that doesn’t need to be power over another person, but which is nevertheless incompatible with the Christian values of meekness and humility, have no place in the prevailing Christian conception of what makes a good person.

Also, it’s not just ‘negative’ conceptions of human nature that have the potential to stymie progress. More positive conceptions, such as the alternative theory of evolutionary biology that emphasises cooperation and symbiosis, can still hamper our political imaginations and thwart our resolve. Although the conventional model for natural selection since its discovery has been grounded in Darwin’s emphasis of the role of competition among members of the same species for resources and mates—a conception of “nature, red in tooth and claw”[2]—a competing model, proposed by anarchist and biologist Pyotr Kropotkin, emphasises the role of mutual aid (cooperation between individuals for the benefit of all, or at least of the group) in natural selection.

Kroptkin’s ideas about mutual aid, based on his observations on the steppe of Northern Eurasia, have been far less broadly accepted by biologists and the general public (especially in the West). Perhaps that’s because the Darwinist emphasis on competition dovetailed so well with the view of nature at the foundation of free market economic theory. Either way, Darwinian evolution provided an explanation for how capitalist economic theory’s rationally self-interested agent, had come into being.

Recently, the role of mutual aid in evolution has started to become more widely acknowledged and more fully appreciated. Current research into the ways that trees, fungi, and other plants in a forest share resources, and even share some form of communication with each other, suggests a picture of life in a forest in which cooperation is indispensable and may play a greater role in determining survival and successful procreation than competition. Mutual aid abounds, not only within species (as Kropotkin argued), but even across genera. As forest ecologist Suzanne Simard explains: “I was staggered to discover that Douglas firs were receiving more photosynthetic carbon from paper birches than they were transmitting, especially when the firs were in the shade of their leafy neighbors. This helped explain the synergy of the pair’s relationship. The birches, it turns out, were spurring the growth of the firs, like carers in human social networks.”[3] In Winter months, the firs repaid the favour, nourishing the birches through the same network of fungi that had transported carbon in the other direction in Spring and Summer (so, the fungi benefitted, too).

New research that overturns the competition model of evolutionary biology is starting to shift priorities in conservation and tree farming. Whereas the standard practice in large-scale tree plantations involves maximising the soil and sunlight resources available to each individual tree by arranging them evenly in a grid with lots of distance between each tree (while clearing away all other species), a newer movement in forest ecology recognises the benefit of diverse and more crowded forests to the growth and resilience of trees.

As exciting as this revived direction in biology is, it would be taking the wrong lesson from Kropotkin and like-minded biologists to simply reverse the social Darwinist interpretation of our evolutionary nature. The importance of mutual aid to the survival and flourishing of species, including our own, doesn’t mean that that’s what we are. We are not essentially cooperative, any more than we are essentially competitive. The evolutionary emphasis on mutual aid provides an important counterpoint to the long-standing emphasis on conflict, but any attempt to derive the identity and fate of humanity from an understanding of the evolutionary mechanisms that produced it is misguided. For one thing, we are neither solely competitive, nor solely cooperative; we are capable of both, and often at the same time (cooperating with one group while competing against a common foe). The fact that it is possible to emphasise either of these opposing traits as the decisive determinant of behaviour just shows that deriving a theory about the essence of human nature from our evolutionary past is an arbitrary exercise that only reflects our own values (whether they be liberal capitalist values or anarchist and socialist values) and not some unalterable trait of human biology.

Not only is any oversimplifying characterization of human nature or evolutionary mechanisms bound to be a reflection of the theorist’s values, it ignores the ongoing condition of evolution. The most important observation Sartre drew from Nietzsche is that Humanity “is a bridge and not a goal”[4], meaning that we are not done evolving. We are continuously changing in order to find ways to flourish in a continuously changing environment, and that means that our present and our future will inevitably be different from our past. What we are, as Sartre insisted, depends on what we do—on what kind of environment we create and how we respond to the world we find ourselves in.

Any theory of a fixed human nature, cooperative or competitive, conceals the fact that the only thing that determines what we are (at least in any sense that matters) is how we behave—what kind of political reality we construct. That’s why it’s nearly as crucial to reject a theory of human nature as essentially cooperative as it is to reject the competitive one: if we were naturally cooperative, and cooperative alone, then bringing about a cooperative political reality would simply be a matter of tearing down the obstacles to the full expression of our nature. Progressive political transformation would almost be an inevitability. The truth is that if a more cooperative politics is what we want to bring about, then the only thing that can make that happen is our resolve to do so, and the only thing to stand in its way is our choice to do otherwise. There is no cooperative nature that we can fall back on to save us from an increasingly “red in tooth and claw” capitalism.

The view of human nature as self-interested justifies a free-market political economy in which each person is able to pursue their own self-interest with minimal restrictions. Thaler’s view of human nature as self-interested, but also stupid, justifies a different political economy, one that Thaler, along with law professor Cass Sunstein, calls “libertarian paternalism.” Their so-called libertarianism is “paternalist” in that they endorse making choices on others’ behalf, as long as those choices can be opted out of. There are two examples that they usually call on in order to explain their idea—one is the pretty good idea that organ donation should be opt-out, rather than opt-in; the other is for employers to automatically enrol their employees in a retirement plan (that they can opt out of).

The latter is far from benign. For one thing, it is ideologically incoherent—it assumes that employees are too stupid to manage their own affairs, but that employers are both smart enough to figure out what is best for their employees and selfless enough to put their employees interests first (rather than, say, putting employee’s contributions into excessively expensive funds with higher than standard administrative fees). In fact, abuse of employee retirement funds is rife. But more importantly, it offers a clue about why the Nobel committee might be choosing to bestow their accolades on Thaler now.

Social security is the last vestige of the social safety net in the United States, and a slough of right-wing thinktanks including the Cato Institute and the Brookings Institute have been fighting to eliminate socialised retirement funds since at least the early 1980s. Social security is the only part of the welfare state that has successfully resisted right-wing attacks. However, it is still under threat. The establishment of personal retirement savings plans, such as 401(k)s is the thin end of the wedge meant to separate people from a government retirement program.

Jettisoning rational choice theory makes it possible to avoid confronting one of the most serious flaws in social security reform—the fact that many people cannot save enough on their own to support themselves in retirement. Thaler’s behaviourist economics helps to shift the blame for inadequate savings from the personal retirement plan system onto the individual. It is hard to explain why many people are unable to save enough for retirement while avoiding putting the blae on the system. Only shifting the blame onto the individuals who “failed” to save enough for their retirement can divert responsibility from where it belongs—a bankrupt personal retirement system. However, a population of the rationally self-interested shouldn’t be failing to save for their retirement in such large numbers. So, it is convenient to claim that people are stupid and need their more enlightened employer to make their decisions for them.

Of course, this is nonsense. We are not rational or irrational, selfish or caring. The problem with social security reform is that it makes it harder or impossible for low income people to retire, without doing anything to solve the alleged problems with the social security system. Human nature doesn’t determine whether or not people in our society have an equitable chance to live past working age, only we do. The new, symbiosis-emphasising, direction in forest ecology recognises the importance of “mother trees,” older trees which promote the general health of the forest and increase the survival chances of younger trees. It’s these trees that are impossible to replace after the destructive practice of clear-cutting old growth forests. It is far easier for us to recognise the importance of human “mother trees” to our own societies. Let’s remember that there is nothing static about human nature that stands in the way of our ability to protect the vulnerable and still valuable in our society, with whom we are better off.

[1] Jean Paul Sartre. Existentialism is a Humanism. Translated by Carol Macomber. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007, 20.

[2] Alfred, Lord Tennyson. “In Memoriam A.H.H.” in the version presented at

[3] Suzanne Simard, “Note From a Forest Scientist” in Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees. Graystone Books, 2016, 248.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. London: Penguin, 1974, 44.