Being Human

by James Quinney

James Quinney examines the influence of theories of human nature on contemporary political ideology.

First published: 03 February, 2011 | Category: Philosophy and Theory

Nearly a century and a half ago, The Anthropological Society of London was founded with the stated aim of being a free and general analytical forum for the investigation of “the science of the whole nature of Man”. Their first president, James Hunt, addressed the inaugural meeting of the society in 1863 with a statement entitled “The Negro’s Place in Nature”, in which he concluded that “The Negro is inferior intellectually to the European” and “that the Negro is more humanized when in his natural subordination to the European than under any other circumstances” .1

When faced with such claims regarding the “nature of man”, a rational person will ask two questions: 1) What is the scientific status of the claim? 2) What are its social and ideological functions? Both questions may be asked independently of one another, but the second naturally becomes more important if the answer to the first is that the scientific status is non-existent or strongly contested. The scientific status of 19th century raciology is no longer seriously in question and its social and ideological functions are not hard to discern. What objection could there be to the barbaric practices of the transatlantic slave trade, for example (at least in principle), if “the Negro is more humanized when in his natural subordination to the European”.

The practice of making specific theoretical commitments to a loosely defined concept of human nature as a justification for social formations and as an explanation of our social ills can hardly be said to have gone out of fashion since the 19th century. Margaret Thatcher, for example, argued that “we are misleading ourselves about human nature” if we claim that civilization will ever outgrow the need to go to war. Or take say Henry Kissinger’s axiom that “tranquillity is not the natural state of the world; peace and security are not the law of nature”2. Indeed, struggles for legitimacy between political ideologies will often come down to struggles over what constitutes universal human nature.

In these kinds of appeals it is nearly always assumed that the social structure of contemporary Western society mirrors general social structures that are universal. If a country goes to war, it is implicitly assumed that this is because human beings have a fundamental proclivity towards this form of aggression. If we live in a competitive, entrepreneurial society, it is because each one of us as an individual has a drive to be competitive and entrepreneurial.

On the right of the political spectrum this equates to the view that “unnatural” liberal and radical pressure has caused us to fall from some sort of social Darwinist grace. The Daily Mail, for example, asserts that “it is simply not possible… for politicians in Downing Street - however well-intentioned - to address the deepseated problems of our society by setting targets and changing the tax system. Indeed, such actions make those very problems worse, because they go against the grain of human nature.”3 It follows that “empathy and concern” should not be “a central theme of the state”. To make it so is “merely an evasion of the hard decisions that the realities of human nature require.”4 One needs no evidence to cite these kind of “facts” about human nature – they are held to be self-evident.

As above, we may examine the scientific status of some of the more prevalent of these claims and, again, if the scientific status is non-existent or strongly contested, we may then examine their social function and, perhaps relatedly, the reasons for their influence and prominence.

Origins of the Selfish Society

As the eminent geneticist Richard Lewontin has observed in his Biology as Ideology, biological determinism, as I have described it above, “draws its human nature ideology largely from [Thomas] Hobbes and the Social Darwinists, since these are the principles on which bourgeois political economy are founded.”5  I shall confine the following to an examination of the influence of the Hobbesian model of human nature on contemporary intellectual culture, largely as it predates Social Darwinist ideology. I hope to return to an examination of the influence of Social Darwinism at a later date.

Hobbes’s Leviathan is one of the most influential political texts in the Western world. It has constituted the foundation of much subsequent political theory since its publication in 1651. Leviathan is still assigned to thousands of undergraduates in political science courses and whilst few individuals these days profess themselves outright Hobbesians, the influence of Hobbes’s ideas on contemporary thinking can sometimes be quite direct. The American political columnist David Broder, for example, writes that public consciousness has shifted away from a belief in the essential goodness of human nature: “Hobbes was more right than Rousseau… Human beings operate according to preset epigenetic rules, which dispose people to act in certain ways. We strive for dominance and undermine radical egalitarian dreams. We’re tribal and divide the world into in-groups and out-groups…This darker if more realistic view of human nature has led to a rediscovery of different moral codes and different political assumptions.”6

Former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, also expressed admiration for Hobbes, which may have “particular resonance” given Blair’s “authoritarian leanings” (as noted by Julian Baggini in the Guardian). For Blair, Hobbes addressed “the central question of political theory: how do we ensure order?” thus presupposing what Baggini calls “the Daily Mail view of the world in which our biggest fear is not that the poor and marginalised are left to rot but that civilised society is on the perpetual verge of descending into anarchy.”7  Similarly, The Times’ Robert Crampton declares: “I believe, with Thomas Hobbes, that civilisation really does hang by a thread”  and John Gray observes that: “Mill’s ‘fleshed-out’ liberalism was displaced in the Thatcher era by a ‘hollowed-out’, Hobbesian philosophy in which self-interest is at the centre”8.

Hobbes first began to discuss man’s natural condition in literary form in 1640 when he published The Elements of Law. Humans, Hobbes insisted, are selfish beasts who care for nothing but their own well-being; human existence was a “war of all against all”. His theories represented a break from the classical Aristotelian assumption that the human capacity for civic sociability was natural and innate. Instead, Hobbes thought the notion of Athenian-style democracy, or perhaps more specifically the kind of democracy that had been presented in his time as an alternative to monarchy, was a fallacy. He denied the political legitimacy of the multitude and defended royal absolutism, and underlying all of this was his “darker” theory of human nature.

Hobbes believed that true freedom for human beings would result in the “war of all against all” because the true nature of humanity is to be selfish and competitive. As Hobbes saw it, there is “a generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth only in Death”. Without a centralised and absolute authority (his metaphorical “Leviathan”) to regulate these supposedly inevitable features of the human condition, Hobbes believed (as he famously said) life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.9

In the 17th century, Hobbes’s pessimistic view of human nature was not without theological precedent. As Richard Ashcraft notes, Calvinism, with its emphasis on man’s inherent wickedness, “could quite easily be articulated in terms recognizable to Hobbes’s readers”. Without religion, Calvin declared, “men are in no wise superior to brute beasts, but are in many respects far more miserable. Subject, then, to so many forms of wickedness, they drag out their lives in ceaseless tumult and disquiet.’” Indeed, in his early writings, Hobbes occasionally lapsed into the language of theology, using terms such as ‘wickedness’ to describe the human condition.10

Hobbes however, did not accept Calvinism’s central tenet – that men were saved from their “brutish” condition through the grace of Christianity - and this perhaps is one of the reasons why Hobbes remains influential to this day among Western intellectuals. This view of people as inherently sinful and lacking in grace had provided the basis for upper-class solidarity for centuries. In pre-revolutionary England, though, the social function of sin was starting to be challenged. Milton, for example, had suggested that “the greatest burden in the world is superstition… of imaginary and scarecrow sins” and verses were being circulated in Walter Ralegh’s circle suggesting that religion was “of itself a fable”, deliberately invented to “keep the baser sort in fear”11.  What Hobbes’s Leviathan offered was a secularised form of the justification for a centralised, hegemonic power capable of rule through overwhelming coercion. Hobbes anatomizes what he refers to as “masterless men” in the early chapters of the Leviathan, who he believes “without subjection to laws and a coercive power to tie their hands” will resort to little more than “rapine and revenge”. While this highly useful concept for the ruling class had previously only been legitimised by notions of divine right, Hobbes’s gift to modern political thought was to rationalise the inequitable status-quo with 17th century pseudo-science.

In this regard Leviathan can be considered significantly ahead of its time. It was a thoroughly materialist work, for example, which contained attacks on the notion of religious miracles - quite a radical proposition for the time. As Chris Harman notes :

“A group of like-minded scientists had been able to gather in the liberated atmosphere of Oxford after the New Model Army had taken it from the royalists and set up a society for scientific advancement. Hobbes feared that he might be burned at the stake for heresy at the time of the Restoration. But in fact he received a royal pension and the society became the ‘Royal Society’. Science was beginning to be identified with an increase in control over the natural world, which paid dividends in terms of agriculture, industry, trade and military effectiveness.”12

Early Anthropology

Hobbes’s attempts to define (or redefine) the law of nature relied heavily upon an early form of anthropological investigation and a narrative of mankind’s emergence from the state of nature and gradual and unsteady progress towards civil society. He offered the example of native Americans as living proof that the metaphorical state of nature as he described it actually existed. “The savage people in many places of America” Hobbes declared in Leviathan, “except the government of small families, the concord whereof dependeth on natural lust, have no government at all; and live at this day in that brutish manner”.

Early hunter-gatherer societies, whose daily lives are thought to be preoccupied with subsistence and related material needs, are portrayed as disadvantaged and backward, in essence, relics from an earlier stage of human development. As leading Aboriginal philosopher James Youngblood Henderson Sákéj, notes: “Hobbes used savages in America to illustrate the universal negative standards of primal chaos and the natural state of war. The savage state envisioned by Hobbes provided more than the force creating and sustaining law and political society, however; it also created a spectacular repository of negative values attributed to Indigenous peoples.”13

Hobbes theory was amply reinforced by the prevailing view of the time, rife in the language of travellers’ reports from the new world, emphasizing the “bestial” nature of primitive life. “We look upon them (Indians),” wrote one of Hobbes’s contemporaries, “with scorn and disdain and think them little better than beasts in human shape.”14  It was from these, essential notions – introduced by Hobbes, in particular, amongst others - that Western anthropology evolved.

Modern scientific evidence however, paints quite a different picture from the 17th century view upon which Hobbes’s vision of the natural world was based. Take the ancient Roman proverb popularised by Thomas Hobbes, mo homini lupus - “man is wolf to man” – which basic tenet has come to permeate large parts of law and political science15. The primatologist, Frans de Waal, points out, two major flaws with this saying. “First, it fails to do justice to canids [i.e. wolves], which are among the most gregarious and cooperative animals on the planet. But even worse, the saying denies the inherently social nature of our own species.”16 

Anthropologists such as Signe Howell and Roy Willis have pointed out:

“It is undeniably the case that in Western society aggression is regarded as part of human nature. But perhaps this tells us more about Western society than about human nature. We wish to suggest that we cannot assume an a priori aggressive drive in humans. The presence of innate sociality, on the other hand, has much evidence in its favour. Humans are a priori sociable beings; it is their cooperativeness that has enabled them to survive, not their aggressive impulses.17

Another recent paper by developmental and comparative psychologists Henrike Moll and Michael Tomasello, proposes that the unique aspects of human cognition were actually driven by, or even constituted by, social cooperation rather than competition18.  As they demonstrate, “human infants as young as 14 to 18 months of age help others attain their goals, for example, by helping them to fetch out-of-reach objects or opening cabinets for them. They also do this irrespective of any reward from adults, and very likely with no concern for such things as reciprocation and reputation, which serve to maintain altruism in older children and adults”19.

Even in economic theory, which is typically concerned strictly with indicators of material gain, there is now a growing body of research which suggests that the competitive pursuit of self-interest is a less effective strategy than mutual cooperation20. In this context, economists and mathematicians have helped demonstrate that cooperative behaviours may well have been a driving force in human evolution due to the advantages it confers relative to adversarial behaviours. Indeed, how else would we have been able to create such complex things as technologies, cultural institutions, and systems of symbols without the cognitive skills of being able to realise shared goals and cooperative communication? This does not deny the existence of conflict and competition in human societies, but rather, as a species, at the very least we would seem to have the developmental potential for both conflict and cooperation. Which potential is more fully developed would appear to depend on our cultural environment - as demonstrated by the fact that different societies vary considerably in their levels of conflict and cooperation.

Indeed, recent research by Trower et al. has suggested that there are two basic forms of social organisation among humans and nonhuman primates:

…“agonistic” societies based on dominance hierarchies, and “hedonic” societies based on egalitarian cooperation (as typified among humans by hunter-gather societies)… the tendency for the quality of social relations to be marked by more violence, hostility and mistrust where inequality is greater, seems likely to reflect a shift in the balance between these two fundamental forms of human association. The more sociable strategies appropriate to more egalitarian and cooperative societies are driven out by the increasing emphasis on hierarchical relations of dominance and subordination.21

This brings us to the matter of Hobbes’s anthropological investigations. The general view that persisted since Hobbes’s time - that hunter-gatherers were backward, brutish, and uncivilised - was shattered by the publication in 1968 of the book Man the Hunter, a collection of field studies of surviving hunter-gatherer societies. Hunter-gatherer societies were shown to be generally well fed, egalitarian, ecologically sustainable, socially and intellectually complex, and to have an abundance of leisure time. One of the editors of this volume, Richard Lee, summarises his findings as follows:

“Before the rise of the state and the entrenchment of social inequality, people lived for millennia in small-scale kin-based social groups, in which the core institutions of economic life included collective or common ownership of land and resources, generalised reciprocity in the distribution of food, and relatively egalitarian political relations.” 22

It has also recently been noted that much of the negative values that Hobbes and his contemporaries attributed to indigenous peoples, were actually a result of European colonialism, which very frequently generated war between groups who previously had lived in peace. As R. Brian Ferguson writes in the collected volume Violence in War and Peace:

“…There is strong evidence that much of the tribal structure recorded by Europeans was in fact called into being by their presence. State agents have great difficulty dealing with indigenous people, as they are often organized – without authoritative leaders or fixed group identities. So they strive to create both, appointing chiefs and imposing cultural and political boundaries. These artificial boundaries quickly become integrated into the fabric of native society because they are instrumental in the crucial matter of interacting with state agents… the wild violence noted by Hobbes was not an expression of ‘man in the state of nature’ but a reflection of contact with Hobbes’s Leviathan – the states of Western Europe. To take the carnage as revealing the fundamental nature of human existence is to pass through the looking glass.”23

Persistence of the Hobbesian Model

It is often stated, as did the renowned British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, that having lived through the English Civil War, “Hobbes’s obsession with violence and insecurity is, at least in part, derived from the fact that his entire life was spent in a world in which men seemed to kill easily for the sake of principle, a world involved in a succession of religious wars which had begun long before his birth”. At the same time Hobbes that was writing about humankind’s innate savagery though, the religious reformer and political activist Gerrard Winstanley was arguing that it is only from growing up in a competitive world that we surrender to covetousness. There is nothing inevitable or necessarily permanent about this, he argued. Reason is in each one of us and cooperation and mutual help are dictated by reason for the preservation of the human race. “Let Reason rule in man,” he wrote “and he dares not trespass against his fellow-creature, but will do as he would be done unto. For Reason tells him, is thy neighbour hungry and naked today, do thou feed him and clothe him, it may be thy case tomorrow, and then he will be ready to help thee”24. Thus prefiguring similar statements made by David Hume in the following century: “Your corn is ripe today; mine will be so tomorrow. ‘Tis profitable for us both that I shou’d labour with you today, and that you shou’d aid me tomorrow…” rather than “both of us lose our harvests for want of mutual confidence and security.”25

The question then remains: Why is it that Hobbes’s view of human existence as a competitive war of all against all continues to be dominant to this day despite its primitive and doubtful scientific underpinnings? Perhaps, as David Spritzler has noted, it is

“not surprising that it is Hobbes who is still widely read in the twentieth century, and not Winstanley. For the world of the twentieth century is a world in which those in power base their policies upon Hobbes’s basic assumptions that good and bad are subjective, and that humans’ ability to control their desires are non-existent; not Winstanley’s conviction that there is an objectively good force inherent in every person, and that this force will ultimately prevail over selfishness… History is painted in Hobbesian terms, and thus there is never a shortage of historical examples to support the Hobbesian’s claim.”26

Society, in modern theory, is individualist and competitive. Therefore, by extension, it is considered natural and right that the economy, producers and consumers must vie with each other for advantage. If an individual fails to achieve advantages then it must follow that this is because they are weak or insufficiently competitive. In this kind of discourse, the fact that competitors do not all enter the contest at the same time with the same resources (because resources such as wealth, social connections, and educational opportunities are not distributed equally in society) is dismissed out of hand.

By naturalizing conflict, competition, and other adversarial expressions within our economic, political, and legal arenas, Hobbes’s theory of human nature serves to perpetuate the reality it purports to explain. In this regard, we may quite legitimately suppose that the reason scientific findings in support of the Hobbesian position have often enjoyed acceptance is largely due to their political implications. In essence, the Hobbesian position has proved popular, not because of its scientific rigour - which as we have examined is at the very least highly contested but precisely because it rationalises and perpetuates an inequality in social power that is integral to capitalist societies.


1) Hunt, J. (1864). On the Negro’s Place in Nature. Journal of the Anthropological Society of London, Vol. 2, pp. xv-lvi
2) Hermann, M. G. and Hagan, J. D. (1998). International Decision Making: Leadership Matters. Foreign Policy. No. 110
3) Oborne, P. (October 9, 2009) An Utterly Boring Speech But What a Thrilling Message. Daily Mail
4) Minogue, K. (March 20, 2009) Criminals counselled and family breakup rewarded. Daily Mail
5) Lewontin, R. C. (1993) Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA. Harper Perennial
6) Brooks, D. (February 18, 2007) New York Times
7) Baggini, J. (January 12, 2006) Blair’s Philosophy. The Guardian
8) Gray, J. (November 15, 2004) Back to Mill. New Statesman
9) Hobbes, T. (1651) Leviathan
10) Ashcraft, R. (1971) Hobbes’s Natural Man: A Study in Ideology Formation. The Journal of Politics
11) Hill, C. (1984) The World Turned Upside Down. Penguin
12) Harman, C. (2008) A People’s History of the World Verso
13) Henderson, J.S.Y. ( 2000). The context of the state of nature. In M. Battiste (Ed.), Reclaiming Indigenous voice and vision. University of British Columbia Press
14) Hodgen, M. T. (1998) Early Anthropology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. University of Pennsylvania Press
15) See, e.g., Morris R. Cohen & Felix S. Cohen, Readings in Jurisprudence & Legal Philosophy (1951).
16) de Waal, F. (2006) Primates and Philosophers. Princeton University Press
17) Howell, S. and Willis, R.(eds) (1990) Societies at Peace: Anthropological Perspectives. Routledge
18) Moll, H., & Tomasello, M. (2007). Co-operation and human cognition: The Vygotskian intelligence hypothesis. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 362
19) Warneken, F. and Tomasello, M. (2009) The roots of human altruism. British Journal of Psychology. 100
20) See, for example: Samuelson, P. Altruism as a Problem Involving Group versus Individual Selection in Economics and Biology. American Economic Review, Papers, and Proceedings 83, no. 2
21) Wilkinson, R. G. (2000) Inequality and the social environment: a reply to Lynchet al, Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. 54
22) Ingold, T., Riches, D. and Woodburn, J. (eds) Hunters and Gatherers: Volume 1: History, Evolution, and Social Change. Berg Publishers
23) Scheper-Hughes, N. and Bourgois, P. I. (eds) (2003) Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishing
24) Hill, C. (1984)
25) Hume, D. (1739) A Treatise of Human Nature


All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?