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Reflection: Human Nature

"What about human nature?" my friend asks, when I say that I write optimistic future fiction.

I can only surmise that underneath this question is an assumption that "human nature" somehow makes optimistic futures less likely. 

What is "human nature?"

Definitions focus on two things. First that human nature is about the qualities of humans, including behaviours, ways of interacting, feeling, reasoning and their pursuits. Second is that to be considered "human nature" these qualities need to be shared by all humans and not by things not human; that they are fundamental to humans. Do humans (all 8.1 billion of them) have fundamental qualities? 

Philosophers have argued about whether people are good and compassionate, given to empathy and altruism, or bad and selfish, with a tendency to cruelty and an innate lust for power. Some have supported a middle ground where people have selfish inclinations, balanced by a social conscience and moral reasoning. Often, these arguments are used to support the case for or against moral and legal codes to make people behave better. But alas, the philosophers had mere human reasoning as their tool.

Neuroscience and cognitive science are teaching us more about human nature - how we learn, remember and interpret the world. We know that human motivation and focus are at the mercy of our neurochemistry and that our thinking is flawed by close to 200 cognitive biases. Human nature makes us good at identifying information important for survival and reproduction, but weak at accurately assessing the state of the world. This makes humans easy to manipulate and exploit.

But human nature is also curious and we go on discovering our own weaknesses and devising ways to overcome them.

Things that give me hope include that humans evolved to fall in love and understand the value of cooperation. As a result, we have developed communication tools and we are sensitive to and respect social norms. These are things that bode well for a better future. Also, most humans live in harmony, help each other, and work to make the world a better place. Our World in Data is a good place to find evidence for this.

Research provides evidence for humans being good and for humans being bad, but most of this research shows that human behaviour is contextual. In the right conditions, humans behave better than in the wrong conditions. So, being an optimist, I think it must be possible to improve conditions so that people behave better. I also think that computing and electronic information systems give us opportunities to try new things. Here, for example, are three situations which lead to people being greedy, hurtful, or cruel. Each is an opportunity for us to do better as a species. Exploring these opportunities is the point of my stories.

First, scarcity makes people squabble over resources and greedily hoard more than they need. The fear of scarcity, even when resources are plentiful, does the same. While most children learn to share, as a species, we struggle to apply the same lesson at higher levels of class or nation. Scarcity also makes us divide humans into us and them, 'us' being the people we share resources with, to the detriment of 'them'. Us and them underpins much of the cruelty that humans inflict on each other.

But scarcity ought to be easy to solve. There is enough to go around, we just need better distribution. At this point in history, we distribute stuff based on money. If you have that nebulous electronic stuff called money, you get what you need and more. If not, you can't. So, for a better future, we need to explore different economic systems, solve capitalism and address poverty. In the past, money was physical, but now money is a number in a computer system. It is easier than ever to change those numbers. Imagine if everyone started each month with the same bank balance. What would happen?

Second: context. People behave badly if they are treated badly. Malfunctioning humans result from poor parenting, the failure of institutions designed to protect them, or from scarcity which makes life miserable. Humans also behave badly if bad behaviour becomes the norm. We could make sure that all humans feel loved and wanted, get the protection they need and enjoy the abundant resources of the planet and civilization. We have norms for good behaviour, we just need to ensure the conditions support them.

How? What if we trained parents for parenting? Or raised children in broods with professional and qualified guides, instead of random, ill-equipped parents? What if every human really got the same start in life? Could we use what we know about human nature and technology to produce apps, not driven by the profit motive, but optimised for long-term human happiness? I explore these themes in my stories.

Power, we know, turns people nasty. We have highly visible examples of self-important politicians and egotistical tech billionaires. In The Winner Effect : the Neuroscience of Success and Failure, Ian H Robertson sets out a convincing case for how success rewires the brains of winners to lack empathy. When leadership is bestowed as the prize at the end of a competition, it magnifies the effect. This means that leaders of countries, political parties and organisations, have both power over others and a tendency to nastiness.

Could we do away with leadership? Already businesses have experimented with flatter structures. Not all countries have adopted the competitive practices of democratic party politics. There is space to experiment with administrative, rather than political structures, for coordination. New technology gives more people access to more facts and an opportunity to think for themselves about how they want to live, whether to fight wars. Perhaps computers, with their large data stores, superior pattern-recognition, and lack of neurochemistry, could govern the world fairly.

The biology of humans, our habit of dividing people into them and us, and many of our existing institutions are problematic. But human nature is malleable. We have made the world much better (for humans) in the few millennia we have been around. We can make it even better if we dream bigger and ask bolder questions. 

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