There’s nowt so queer as folk!

George Monbiot offers some surprising ideas.

The title to today’s post is an old British expression that harks back to the days when “queer” meant strange. This blog has published no shortage of posts giving many examples of how “queer” we humans can be at times.

So the latest essay from Mr Monbiot is rather refreshing. I’ll say no more, apart from confirming that Monbiot’s post is republished with his kind permission.


Human Kind

14th October 2015

Fascinating new lines of research suggest that we are good people, tolerating bad things.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 14th October 2015

Do you find yourself thrashing against the tide of human indifference and selfishness? Are you oppressed by the sense that while you care, others don’t? That because of humankind’s callousness, civilisation and the rest of life on earth are basically stuffed? If so, you are not alone. But neither are you right.

A study by the Common Cause Foundation, due to be published next month, reveals two transformative findings. The first is that a large majority of the 1000 people they surveyed – 74% – identify more strongly with unselfish values than with selfish values. This means that they are more interested in helpfulness, honesty, forgiveness and justice than in money, fame, status and power. The second is that a similar majority – 78% – believes others to be more selfish than they really are. In other words, we have made a terrible mistake about other people’s minds.

The revelation that humanity’s dominant characteristic is, er, humanity will come as no surprise to those who have followed recent developments in behavioural and social sciences. People, these findings suggest, are basically and inherently nice.

A review article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology points out that our behaviour towards unrelated members of our species is “spectacularly unusual when compared to other animals”. While chimpanzees might share food with members of their own group, though usually only after being plagued by aggressive begging, they tend to react violently towards strangers. Chimpanzees, the authors note, behave more like the Homo economicus of neoliberal mythology than people do.

Humans, by contrast, are ultra-social: possessed of an enhanced capacity for empathy, an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about their welfare and an ability to create moral norms that generalise and enforce these tendencies.

Such traits emerge so early in our lives that they appear to be innate. In other words, it seems that we have evolved to be this way. By the age of 14 months, children begin to help each other, for example by handing over objects another child can’t reach. By the time they are two, they start sharing things they value. By the age of three, they start to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

A fascinating paper in the journal Infancy reveals that reward has nothing to do with it. Three to five-year-olds are less likely to help someone a second time if they have been rewarded for doing it the first time. In other words, extrinsic rewards appear to undermine the intrinsic desire to help. (Parents, economists and government ministers, please note). The study also discovered that children of this age are more inclined to help people if they perceive them to be suffering, and that they want to see someone helped whether or not they do it themselves. This suggests that they are motivated by a genuine concern for other people’s welfare, rather than by a desire to look good. And it seems to be baked in.

Why? How would the hard logic of evolution produce such outcomes? This is the subject of heated debate. One school of thought contends that altruism is a logical response to living in small groups of closely related people, and evolution has failed to catch up with the fact that we now live in large groups, mostly composed of strangers. Another argues that large groups containing high numbers of altruists will outcompete large groups which contain high numbers of selfish people. A third hypothesis insists that a tendency towards collaboration enhances your own survival, regardless of the group in which you might find yourself. Whatever the mechanism might be, the outcome should be a cause of celebration.

So why do we retain such a dim view of human nature? Partly, perhaps, for historical reasons. Philosophers from Hobbes to Rousseau, Malthus to Schopenhauer, whose understanding of human evolution was limited to the Book of Genesis, produced persuasive, influential and catastrophically mistaken accounts of “the state of nature” (our innate, ancestral characteristics). Their speculations on this subject should long ago have been parked on a high shelf marked “historical curiosities”. But somehow they still seem to exert a grip on our minds.

Another problem is that – almost by definition – many of those who dominate public life have a peculiar fixation on fame, money and power. Their extreme self-centredness places them in a small minority, but, because we see them everywhere, we assume that they are representative of humanity.

The media worships wealth and power, and sometimes launches furious attacks on people who behave altruistically. In the Daily Mail last month, Richard Littlejohn described Yvette Cooper’s decision to open her home to refugees as proof that “noisy emoting has replaced quiet intelligence” (quiet intelligence being one of his defining qualities). “It’s all about political opportunism and humanitarian posturing,” he theorised, before boasting that he doesn’t “give a damn” about the suffering of people fleeing Syria. I note with interest the platform given to people who speak and write as if they are psychopaths.

The consequences of an undue pessimism about human nature are momentous. As the Common Cause Foundation’s survey and interviews reveal, those who have the bleakest view of humanity are the least likely to vote. What’s the point, they reason, if everyone else votes only in their own selfish interests? Interestingly, and alarmingly for people of my political persuasion, it also discovered that liberals tend to possess a dimmer view of other people than conservatives do. Do you want to grow the electorate? Do you want progressive politics to flourish? Then spread the word that other people are broadly well-intentioned.

Misanthropy grants a free pass to the grasping, power-mad minority who tend to dominate our political systems. If only we knew how unusual they are, we might be more inclined to shun them and seek better leaders. It contributes to the real danger we confront: not a general selfishness, but a general passivity. Billions of decent people tut and shake their heads as the world burns, immobilised by the conviction that no one else cares.

You are not alone. The world is with you, even if it has not found its voice.


Speaking of nice, happy souls, there’s only one way to close off this post.

One happy, loving dog!
One happy, loving dog!

You all have a very happy, loving weekend.

10 thoughts on “There’s nowt so queer as folk!

  1. Saying that “people are good, while tolerating bad things” is an ineffective morality. The crux, indeed, is the moral nature of institutions, controlled by a few, not whether humans are kind or not.
    [End of my comment censored by The Guardian.]

    I would add this: 1) Monbiot is barking about what people say about people, instead of barking about institutions. 2) The fact that Monbiot (?) does not allow my comments to appear is certainly not kind, and deliberate (I get a banner from the Guardian telling me I am censored). The point is that one should explore the notion of lack-of-kindness. Monbiot can go around, piously saying he is good (as all people are) and he dares say this (so he is even better).

    Let make this clear, as I always do: I like to read Monbiot’s articles. I love when you reproduce the best of them. Precisely because they give me the occasion to point out interesting mistakes (I also learn things). Yet, blocking my feedback as the Guardian/Monbiot does tells me that the fundamental aim here is propaganda, enforcing a particular mood, not constructive debate.

    I could even define that mood further, but that would bring us too far afield.

    All advanced brain animals have to love, love enough to raise the young. To say love dominates, is saying we have brains grown with culture. It’s an important thing to say. And it explains the experiences Monbiot mentions.

    Compare to the poignant fate of cephalopods, whose bright intelligence starts from scratch, with no culture, whatsoever.

    So, the difference between us and squids is that we are adorned with philosophers, and the scorn Monbiot heaps on them is neither kind, nor wise, not to say arrogant, coming from someone with a simple journalist background (and it shows!).

    Is Pharaoh thinking of gobbling Monbiot?.


    1. Patrice, I have previously offered to challenge the Guardian newspaper regarding you being muzzled, and I repeat the offer. Of all the newspapers out there they seem the least likely to behave like this.


      1. Thank you for your offer, Paul. You are welcome to do so. However please be aware that, in my previous examples of being muzzled (say by he New York Times, or the Daily Kos) extremely polite and diplomatic requests on my part got me nowhere. So you may actually endanger the arrangement you have with them enabling you to publish Monbiot’s interesting work. (In the comments they allowed for this particular article, they got called “pious” and hypocritical). I would be very sorry if you endangered your arrangement with them on my behalf.

        In 2003, when the New York Times (basically) called to invade Iraq (with the notable exception of Paul Krugman), I had heated exchanges with editors there, using very strong language (the NYT was lying, getting its reports about Iraq from the White House), I got more results (Judith Miller was exposed and fired, Tom Friedman left for nearly a year). However, they proudly (?) told me recently that thousands of my comments were censored since then. I have basically stopped taking the New York Times seriously (however good their field journalists are). It’s basically a (well disguised) propaganda outfit for Wall Street banks.

        In any case, your offer is very kind, and much appreciated. Just be aware there are hidden risks. I do not know how these arise, but they are there (black-listing in American political circles I have directly observed, not just read about it; McCarthyism is not dead, just much more efficient; nowadays, if you have hundreds of millions of dollars, you are welcome; otherwise, forget it)


      2. Patrice, everything you have mentioned is noted. And with a residency renewal coming up for me next Spring I am not going to bite the hand that feeds me!

        But I have friends back in the old country that might be able to draw some curtains aside. As is said, the first casualty in any “war” is the truth!


  2. I have a problem with the idea that I should take heart from research that shows that most of humanity is nice. The problem is this: if we’re so nice, why haven’t we (for instance) licked war yet? My immediate gut reaction to that is that the ‘few’, of whom Monbiot speaks as being ‘self-centred’, are very well aware of the good nature of the majority… and they cynically take advantage of that good nature to further their own selfish aims. In short: the sheep need to rise up to change things and stop being shorn, but ewe won’t… because we’re sheep.


    1. I am very inclined to agree with you. Certainly my instincts match your words. Monbiot is normally spot on with his essays, well so far as I am concerned, but this one did, on first reading, strike me as slightly off centre.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.