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Antisocial economic structure and prosocial human nature

By Dirk van Duppen
on December 13, 2019

The alienation that arises from the conflict between the social nature of man on the one hand, and the anti-social goals of the neoliberal economic system on the other, makes people mentally and physically sick. This is demonstrated by a large amount of scientific evidence from the last ten years.

Shortly after the outbreak of the great recession in 2008, British epidemiologists Wilkinson and Pickett published “The Spirit Level – Why Equality Is Better For Everyone”. It was a book that placed the theme of inequality high on the public and political agenda.

An unequal society goes hand in hand with lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality, more mental health problems, higher drug use and more obesity. Unequal societies are also confronted with more violence, they relatively more often detain people in prison, have a lower level of mutual trust and a weaker community life. Unequal societies have a lower level of child welfare, poorer educational performance, more teenage pregnancies and lower social mobility.

A high degree of inequality therefore makes a society sick and this in all segments. Not only the poor are the victims: all social layers of the population suffer from a high degree of inequality.

Wilkinson and Pickett’s thesis that larger income differences cause a whole series of health and social problems (and not vice versa), is based on a synthesis of some 400 empirical studies, resulting from decades of scientific research, published in international peer reviewed journals.

In their latest book “The Inner Level” (2018), Wilkinson and Pickett dig further to come to a better understanding of the causal relationships. Based on a new range of empirical evidence, 200 studies published in international peer reviewed journals over the past ten years, the authors analyze why inequality leads to poor health and “un”-wellbeing. The authors see the explanation for our great sensitivity to (more) inequality in its psychic effects. They identify the phenomenon of fear of status (‘status anxiety’) and the resulting stress as the main culprit. Fear of status has a decisive influence on how we think and feel, how we behave and relate to each other and thus translates into a high degree of discomfort and unhealthiness. The social relationships that are imposed on us today by the neoliberal economic system are fundamentally focused on mutual competition for a place in the pecking order and, as a result, clash with the essentially social nature of man, say Wilkinson and Pickett. It is precisely with respect to that view of human nature that we are experiencing a revolution in science just now. The empirical scientific evidence that man naturally has a tendency to empathy, egalitarianism, altruism and cooperation is growing year after year.

For centuries there has been a debate among philosophers as to whether man is by nature rather inherently good (prosocial), but capable of evil; or that he is inherently evil (antisocial), but capable of good. Recent research in many disciplines such as neuroscience, evolutionary child psychology, paleo-anthropology, evolutionary dynamics, behavioral economics and epidemiology, provides overwhelming evidence that humans are primarily prosocial by nature. It is the social circumstances that determine whether this solidarity side of human nature or the evolutionary older instincts such as competition, aggression and dominance prevail.

Of all mammals, a human (baby) is the most premature at birth, vulnerable, dependent and in need of help. He can only survive and reproduce thanks to the care of others. As a result, the Homo sapiens evolved mainly through natural and sexual selection for prosocial behavior. Of all mammals, Homo sapiens has the longest childhood, in which the human child depends on its parents and on the community. Compared to the other primates, humans have a long-term joint upbringing. For example, the African saying goes “You must be two to father a child, but you need an entire village to raise it.” Moreover, there is a causal relationship, via the path of social learning, between these prosocial characteristics and human intelligence. The latter is the most successful trait in Darwinian evolution and the basis of man’s unique competence for a cumulative cultural evolution. The Homo sapiens can become a Homo supersapiens if the Homo socialis can flourish in him. Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” becomes “The survival of the friendliest” with the Homo sapiens. Man is a super collaborator.

Few paradigm shifts are known, as is the case with this new view of mankind, supported by such a large amount of evidence that has materialized in such a short time and in so many different research areas at the same time (see for example here, here and here). “If the circumstances are so decisive for humans,” Nobel Prize winner José Saramago wrote, let us make those circumstances more human. “

You find more references in the book by Van Duppen & Hoebeke, De supersamenwerker  

You can reach the author here: dirk.vanduppen@gvhv.be

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