‘Human Nature’, Non-civilized Societies, Civilization (and its end)

Stephen Yearwood
6 min readSep 17, 2023

The impetus for civilization contained the seed of its self-destruction, but is that the result of ‘human nature’?

Photo by Constantinos Kollias on Unsplash

[Much of this will appear to be something Karl Marx might have written, but I am not a Marxist; I am convinced that justice is a real thing and that doing away with private property would not be the solution for economic injustice but the subject of this essay is civilization and in particular its relation to what is referred to as ‘human nature’, not the economy or justice.]

According to scientists, we Homo sapiens have been around for a few hundreds of thousands of years. (People who don’t accept that scientific finding should at least read the rest of this paragraph.) All people are in agreement that civilization — the existence of cities — has been around for several thousand years. That means (for the scientifically minded) that for around 98% of the time that humans have existed there were no cities.

The appearance of cities was associated with a sea change in human culture. (Since in the Bible Cain — yes, that Cain — “built the world’s first city,” people who believe in the Bible can agree with that statement — and keep reading.) The culture associated with cities extends way beyond their geographical limits: “civilization” is citified culture. At this point there are precious few people on the planet who are not within its domain.

Culture is a creation of human beings that affects people so profoundly that it shapes their ‘nature’, the most fundamental aspects of their approach to life. So when we talk about ‘human nature’ we need to keep in mind the profound cultural divide associated with the emergence of cities and (for most people reading this) the disparity in time between our presence on Earth and the existence of civilization.

Within all non-civilized societies the governing ethic has always been (implicitly) ‘one for all and all for one’. That ethic has always been imposed upon non-civilized people by their material circumstances: their lives have been dominated by a stark realization that survival is a day-to-day thing.

The best chance for any individual human to survive is by being a member of a group. For people for whom physical survival has been their defining goal, the well-being of the group has therefore been seen to be an obvious necessity by every member of it. When the group as whole does well, all shared in the good times; if hard times come all share that circumstance as a group.

The most important fact of material existence for non-civilized peoples has always been the absence of a permanent surplus. A surplus could be on hand for a few days or perhaps a longer period of time, but for non-civilized people the notion of any such thing as a permanent surplus has simply never existed.

Then came farming. Farming began with the cultivation of grains. Grains could be stored almost indefinitely. For sure, enough grain could be grown to ensure that some would still be on hand when the next harvest came around. The possibility of a permanent surplus had arrived.

The existence of ‘surplus’ gave rise to the concept of wealth. Surplus could be used to acquire goods and services via trade, including ‘luxuries’.

The existence of wealth brought into the world the possibility of social classes. The existence of social classes is the result of an initial advantage becoming an ongoing state of disparate material circumstances strongly influenced if not totally determined by parentage.

Farming also begat the advent of cities. A city can be defined as a geographically organized group of people who exist without producing anything to eat. Sure, cities have always had people in them who have done things with food, such as bakers and restaurateurs, but they don’t produce what they cook.

Yes, some people in cities do raise a bit of food. For cities to exist, though, farming must be producing a sufficient ongoing surplus.

Now, the thesis here is not that non-civilized existence is a universal Utopia. Within such groups there is a sharing of the good and the bad in material circumstances. Relations between groups, however, could be vicious. In the absence of some sort of formally recognized understanding between two groups, they would not see each other as fellow humans. Where no such understanding existed the persons and property of any other groups would be ‘fair game’. Raiding has been a constant threat and possible source of booty. Mutually assured retribution is the only thing that has governed relations among unallied groups.

Farming made people easy targets. It’s not that people engaged in farming immediately lost their ability to defend themselves, but it did make them fixed targets who were known (or assumed) to have food and perhaps other goods on hand.

Farming and cities came into existence in a symbiotic relationship. Cities could not exist without the food farming produces. Cities being there could offer nearby farmers protection in exchange for food.

At the same time, cities came into existence with a different culture. It was shaped by the reality of a permanent surplus and its concomitant, wealth, which made possible the existence of social classes.

That included slavery. Slavery makes large-scale production possible. Whether it was food or bricks or metals or lumber or construction in ancient times or the mass production of ‘consumer goods’ and services today, anything produced on a large scale has always involved slavery: people being used as machines (or draft animals) for the benefit of others. In Modern times wage slavery — paying people to be used as machines (or draft animals) — has replaced bondage slavery (though the latter seems to be making a comeback of a kind of late).

Civilization is a culture that rewards people materially who are driven by a lust for wealth and power. One of the tenets of that culture is that all people are motivated by a lust for wealth and power, so those who are at the ‘top’ in that culture are simply ‘the better specimens’ of ‘human nature’.

That lust for wealth and power has been the driving force of civilization. People consumed by it cannot brook any suggestion that the ever-greater accumulation of wealth and power could possibly be a bad thing. They use their wealth and power to defeat, by any means necessary, any alternative point of view. Even now, when as we can see plain as the the nose on Benjamin Franklin’s face how the lust for wealth and power is leading to the destruction of civilization itself, they cannot bring themselves to entertain the idea that any other approach to life is consistent with ‘human nature’. They will oversee the destruction of civilization before they would acknowledge any such thing.

People born into and raised in that culture can be rendered unable to think or believe or even feel otherwise, much less have the capacity to take on that power. Most people imbued with that culture from birth can at most have a vague sense that such is not really the case. Almost all of those who can see it for what it is are still paralyzed by the relationships of power in it.

For those of us disposed to accept the findings of science, ninety-eight or so percent of human existence does tell a different story. For almost all of human existence relations between groups could be brutally competitive and exploitative, but within groups cooperation and concern for the group as a unit were the way of life. That is ‘human nature’ uncorrupted by the lust for wealth and power that defines civilization.

For those who believe in the Bible, what does civilization’s being founded by Cain tell you about it?

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Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice