Are we naturally nasty, or naturally nice? Amoral beings who need to be kept in line by a higher power, or natural innocents who have fallen from grace? My own opinion is that neither shoe fits very well, and that the question itself involves lingering, contradictory myths about the past and about human nature: the Brute Savage and the Noble Savage.
Myth #1: The Brute Savage
In our natural state, we are and have always been a seething mass of savages: nasty, brutish, rather short, and mostly hairy. In our natural state, we snap at each other like starving dogs. We gobble our meat, watching under beetling brows for the thief who will try to snatch it from us. We are cruel, suspicious, and bone-selfish, and the only law is the law of the jungle: that the strong can do whatever they bloody well please, and the weak can like it or lump it. Human nature, like nature itself, is red in tooth and claw. The Golden Rule in this world of primitive sociopaths: do it unto others before they do it unto you.
Fortunately, there is a higher power around to save us from ourselves. This higher power acts as a kind of cosmic nanny to supervise the playground and compel us to play nicely with each other. Our relationship with this higher power is the stuff of religion, and the rules this power lays down for us constitute morality. Without religion, without the threat of a dread punishment hanging over our heads, we will lie, cheat, steal, rape, murder, and sleep with all the wrong people. Only a deity can keep us in order.
This is received wisdom among the religiously minded, especially where the notion of original sin has taken hold. History, a catalogue of thefts, rapes and murders on a grand scale, seems to bear it out. The newspapers appear to confirm it daily. On the face of it, we are a nasty-minded bunch of thugs, and the real question is why any decent deity would have anything at all to do with us. But He or She (or possibly It or They) does care about us, at least enough to do awful things to us for our own good. The Golden Rule in this world of the higher power: do unto others as God would have you do unto them, even if it’s not very pleasant.
To begin with, we’re not as bad as all that. Really, we’re not. We frequently do awful things to each other, but the default mode for most of us is to be mostly harmless. But is it religion that keeps us from plunging all the way into constant bloody chaos? I don’t think so.
Religion has been with us, in some form or other, for longer than we’ve had cities, agriculture, writing and taxes. For all we know, our distant Homo erectus forebears kept in touch with their spiritual sides; our siblings, the Neanderthalers, very likely did. As for our particular species, Homo sapiens sapiens, it is safe to say that all known cultures or societies have featured some form of religion, some method of interfacing with—and attempting to manipulate—the supernatural. Indeed, religion seems to have been with us all through our long and bloody past. In terms of time, therefore, we’ve given it a pretty good chance to work its moral magic, but any alleged deities have shown a piss-poor record for stopping us doing awful things. If anything, belief in such deities has encouraged us to behave spectacularly badly, particularly to dissidents, scapegoats, rugged individualists, and the fanbase of other deities.
As a source of rules for being good, religion is not only a failure, but also signally inconsistent. The forms taken by religion are stupendously various—likewise the “moralities” that are linked with this wild spectrum of beliefs. One culture may tolerate behaviour that another abominates, prescribe that which another proscribes, care diddly-squat for that which another takes dead seriously. And of course, the adherents of each religion view the moral codes of the others as barely moral at all, indeed often as grossly immoral.
Furthermore, it is axiomatic in anthropology that morality is a cultural construct, and is therefore relative; and since morality is relative, then in these postcolonial times we should not really consider any given moral code as better (or worse) than any other. So not only does religion in general prescribe a number of competing moralities for our guidance, but we must—morally—regard each one as true, or at least as valid in its own cultural context.
(I was once reduced to tears in an argument with a moral relativist. I was trying to explain why I thought it was wrong under any circumstances to slice the genitalia off little girls. My sparring partner took the view which was anthropologically correct at the time: that whatever was okay with the culture involved should be a-okay with us, and who did I think I was, anyway? )
Myth #2: The Noble Savage
In our natural state, long ago, we were wise, and pure, and attuned both to our spiritual side and to the rhythms of the planet and our fellow species. We cared for the weak and sick, we nurtured and shared. We took no more from the land than we needed. In some variants of this narrative, women ruled the Earth with gentle hands and matriarchal wisdom. We revered both the natural and transcendent forces around us, while frolicking in unsullied meadows and forests, happy denizens of a true Garden of Eden. The behaviour natural to that state of innocence, predating our invention of sin, is our natural morality.
Alas, greed overtook us. The soft-spoken wisdom of the planet was swallowed up in the clanking of our technodemonic machinery. Power became the greatest hunger, leading some of us to enslave and exploit other humans, and all of us to enslave and exploit our fellow creatures. The natural morality we lived by in our days of innocence was subverted by the lust for power, for wealth, and for the indulgence of our darkest impulses. Our natural spirituality was coopted by power-mad elites as a tool of social control, manifested as organized religion with its history of oppression and interfaith rivalry. Only a rejection of modern technocracy and a return to primitive spirituality and instinctive wisdom can save us from ourselves.
It makes a pretty picture, but the Noble Savage is a myth – likewise the variant where a benign matriarchy kept things in order until the nasty old patriarchy charged in and took over. On the basis of the archaeological record, it appears that violence, rapacity, destructiveness and supremely bad choices have been with us just as long as creativity, cooperation, kindness and humour, and are as much a part of us. Our ancestors were anything but flower-children.
They were no doubt more environmentally aware than we are in one sense: their survival depended on having a good operational knowledge of how their natural surroundings worked, and on keeping in touch with the great pulse of the seasons. That knowledge could be considered the hunter-gatherer equivalent of our knowledge that one must stop at red lights, avoid food from dented cans, and never open suspicious email attachments. Their expertise with the environment, however, did not necessarily make them great environmentalists or respecters of the ecosystem. Certainly early warfare and environmental carelessness were less damaging then than their modern analogs, but only because small mobile groups of humans are physically incapable of wreaking as much havoc as large sedentary groups of humans. Our dark side is no innovation, but our numbers are.
Morality is not rocket science. Humans are social beings, troop animals. There is a kind of core morality that is deeply ingrained in our social relationships, and present as a subset within the moral codes of all human groups. In its purest form, we call it the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Its pillars are reciprocity, cooperation, altruism – its foundation is empathy. It is the message that many mythologies claim was original to their founder-hero: Christians give the credit to Jesus Christ, the Muslims to the Prophet Mohammed, and so forth. But they’re plagiarizing; its origins are more likely to be deep, deep in our pre-human past.