A common objection to the idea of a Resource Based Economy (RBE) is the assertion that something called 'human nature' would prevent humans from being able to form a peaceful, functioning society. This is because it is supposedly in the 'nature' of humans to be violent, greedy, selfish, and lazy. It is thought that without money, humans would have no motivation to work or contribute meaningfully to society. Furthermore, it is thought that without laws, prisons, or other forms of punishment, we would not be able to cooperate with each other and society would be reduced to animalistic chaos and violence. However, a true understanding of the mechanism of human behaviour shows that the assertion of 'human nature' is a scientific fallacy.
In order to understand human nature, we must first understand some basic concepts in genetics. First, there is the famous biological equation:
Genotype + Environment = Phenotype
Genotype refers to the specific set of genes an individual has inherited. It represents the 'blueprint' for an organism, and therefore dictates the set of traits an individual will be programmed for.
Phenotype refers to the actual physical traits and behaviours an individual manifests. Phenotype can refer to things like eye colour, height, aggression levels, lung capacity, number of fingers, etc. Essentially, phenotype represents the realization of the blueprint programmed into your DNA. However, the transition from genotype (the code in your DNA) to phenotype (the way you actually turn out) is complicated by the remaining term in the equation: environment.
Environment is an umbrella term that refers to everything outside of an organism that said organism will interact with. Things like the climate you live in, the food you eat, the people you interact with, your levels of physical activity, the conditions in your mother's womb (and by proxy your mother's health and stress levels) and all of the materialistic ideas a person is constantly bombarded with in our society, are all part of your environment. So what is the relationship between these 3 terms?
Basically, your genotype provides you with a 'menu' of potential traits. The environment acts as a selector and modifier, by activating or deactivating genes in response to what an organism is exposed to. The end result of the interaction between genotype and environment is phenotype; in other words, due to environment, there is always a possible disconnect between what an organism is 'programmed' for and the way an organism actually turns out to be.(1,9)
An example of how gene-environment interactions (often abbreviated as GxE) can affect behavioural phenotype is a 2003 study by Caspi and coworkers.(2) It examined the relationship between a genetic mutation which is linked to depression and stressful life events. The study showed that the mutation on its own had little effect on whether or not an individual would experience depression. However, subjects who experienced stressful life events were significantly more likely to experience depression and suicidal thoughts, with an increased number of stressful events correlating with an increased likelihood of depression. Importantly, this effect was strongest in those individuals who both possessed the mutation and experienced stressful life events, displaying a clear GxE interaction. In other words, the subjects' genotype determined only their potential disposition to depression, but it was ultimately up to the environment to determine whether or not that depression would actually manifest.
A previous study by this group also examined the relationship between a certain mutation which has been linked to increased aggression, childhood maltreatment, and violent behaviour in males. The study showed that there was no link between the mutation and violent behaviour in the general population. However, individuals subjected to maltreatment as children (whether or not they possessed the mutation) were more likely to engage in violent behaviour; those subject to more severe treatment were significantly more likely to act violently. Most importantly, those who both possessed the mutation and were subject to maltreatment had the highest risk of all for violent behaviour. This study seems to show us that violent behaviour is not a result of a natural inclination of some people to act violently, but is more often a response to a violent environment.(3)
So, does this mean that all violent behaviour can be 'blamed' on the environment? What about the actual choices that the individual makes? While it is true that a person has the ability to affect their environment, we must keep in mind that any choices a person makes are ultimately a product of (and are limited by) their environment. Consider the following thought experiment as an example: A man lives in a very poor village and is starving to death. Just down the road, there is a very rich village that has everything this man needs to survive, but will not provide it to him without money (which the man is quite short on). In this case, the man essentially has two choices: Either starve to death, or head down the road to the rich village and steal food and supplies from them. We can see with this example how easily the environment can harshly limit an individual's choices. If we wish to eliminate violence from our society, we must change the environment so that violence is not advantageous to the individual.
Human behaviour can be further understood with a concept known as operant conditioning. Essentially, this principle states that those behaviours which are rewarded will develop and thrive in an organism, whereas those behaviours which are punished will not develop as strongly, if at all. In the case of our society, the only true 'reward' offered is profit; all other goods and services are obtained through money, therefore it is only those behaviours which generate profit which are rewarded by our society. This strongly perpetuates selfish self-interest -- as opposed to selfless self-interest, which is doing for others for your own benefit -- and greed, since it is these behaviours which tend to maximize profit. Conversely, behaviours such as altruism are directly punished by our society since these behaviours will cost an individual time and resources but will almost certainly not generate profit. Therefore, the individual is far less likely to experience altruism as 'rewarding' and thus will be much less likely to display it in the future. It is also interesting to note that substance addiction has been shown to be a 'hijacking' of this reward system wherein an individual's brain reacts to the use of their chosen drug the same way it would react to a 'reward' stimulus. Thus, we can actually think of our society's dependence on money as an addiction since it works through exactly the same mechanism as an addiction to, for example, heroin.(4,5)
An important point to address is the behaviour of animals in the wild. Many people look to animals in their natural habitats, see them acting violently and selfishly, and assume that this is the 'natural' set of behaviours a human would manifest as well. However, we must keep in mind that animals live in an environment of scarcity. They are forced to fight with each other because there are simply not enough resources to go around. By creating a human society based on competition and scarcity (of money, not resources), we have essentially done little to remove ourselves from our primitive conditions: we must all fight and compete with each other for the limited amount of money that is available in our society.
Therefore, if one could create a society free of scarcity, maltreatment, and social stratification, then it would make sense that selfishness, violence, and other forms of antisocial behaviour would be drastically reduced, and possibly even eliminated over time.
However, one could still object to an RBE on the grounds that, without money as a motivating factor, most people would just laze around without contributing to society in any way, however, there is much evidence to suggest that 'working' does not prevent laziness, but is actually a direct cause of it. Studies have shown that stress due to job factors is an incredibly important determinant in the health of individual, with one study placing it behind only age as a predictor of health.(6) It has been shown that jobs in which an individual has little control over their actions, jobs that are passive and require little mental activity, and jobs which cause a high amount of mental strain, all contribute to a sedentary lifestyle (that is, being lazy). There are two reasons this link is thought to exist: One is that chronic stress causes an organism to become more sedentary, something which has been proven in laboratory animals; the other is that, specifically in the case of passive and low control jobs, the occupation itself encourages a sedentary lifestyle. In other words, a job requiring little activity or thinking conditions the individual to adopt a similar lifestyle outside of work. It is important to note that while there would still be some 'work' required to run a society in an RBE, none of this work would be low control or passive, since these kinds of jobs would be left to automated machines. Moreover, due to this advanced level of automation, only those individuals who find that particular work enjoyable would be needed to do it. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that laziness would be prevalent in this society: the types of jobs people are forced into which cause them to be lazy would no longer exist.(6,7,8)
As a final note, we should always remember that the single most important quality in determining evolutionary success is adaptability(1) and this is displayed clearly in our species: we have risen to dominance on this planet because we are the most adaptable, not because we are restricted to some set of behaviours called 'human nature'. The true nature of human behaviour is that there is no set 'human nature' and we all adapt to the environment that has been presented to us. Therefore, the only way to eliminate violence, greed, laziness, and mental illnesses such as depression, is to create an environment that does not perpetuate these traits. Human behaviour is simply a response to the environment presented by human society which unfortunately emulates the harsh scarcity of nature. Therefore, until a complete overhaul of society is performed, we should expect our species will continue to behave like animals in the wild.
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3. Avshalom Caspi,Joseph McClay, Terrie E. Moffitt, Jonathan Mill, Judy Martin, Ian W. Craig, Alan Taylor,
Richie Poulton. Role of Genotype in the Cycle of Violence in Maltreated Children. Science 297, 851 (2002);DOI: 10.1126/science.1072290
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