We want to believe that we’re descended from angels instead of primates

Sunday, January 6th, 2019

I didn’t realize that Robert Greene had suffered a near-fatal stroke last August. His new book, The Laws of Human Nature, is out. Some people don’t like to accept that there is such a thing as human nature, but Greene argues that looking at reality is always better:

The people who don’t believe that human nature is something real, who believe that humans are malleable and that we make our own nature, generally want to believe that we are perfectible by some kind of government or system. It has traditionally been a kind of a communist socialist revolutionary idea. And the idea is that by creating the right kind of system or government, you can alter what corrupted us (which they maintain was done by social injustice, the rise of large civilizations, and the oppression and the accumulation of capital, et cetera.) They believe that if we go back and alter this system, we can return to that kind of pure human being. This is what I wrote about the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong — Mao wanted to recreate human nature. That’s always been the belief and it’s kind of a mix of wishes that humans were really this kind of angelic creature in the beginning and that we can return to that.

And what I’m trying to say is humans can change, we can alter, we could become something superior, but only by really coming to terms with who we are and getting over this myth of the Garden of Eden — of the fallen human being who was once so angelic just 5,000 years ago or 10,000 years ago. But I think the evidence is clear looking at our chimpanzee ancestors and the record of early homo sapiens that we do have aggressive, violent impulses, that we are pretty much irrational by nature, and that the kinds of qualities that we value can only come about through personal work, through conquest, through overcoming our tendencies that are kind of animal-like. And that rather than some government that’s going to perfect us, it’s the work of individuals being conscious and aware of who they are as opposed to being in denial. There’s a quote from Angela Carter that I’ve used in several books: “We want to believe that we’re descended from angels instead of primates.”


  1. Ezra says:

    Humans have always lived fang and claw and probably always will do so. We do have two natures, one of which is the violent and aggressive. Can be controlled but never eliminated.

  2. Wan Wei Lin says:

    The fang and claw nature of humanity has generally borne fang and claw governments of communism, dictators and tyrants. The Declaration of Independence as implemented by the US Constitution is a rare exception as are most Western governments when compared to the sum of human history. Sadly we seem to be de-civilizing around the globe.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    I’ve long thought about the account of the Fall in Genesis. A crucial point that many miss is that it’s all about becoming sentient beings. Adam and Eve weren’t angelic, they were merely placid. They were without sin because of their limitations, not despite them. The original sin was failing to accept their limitations.

    Also, a garden is NOT a state of nature. Only a Rousseauan naif would equate the two.

    It’s also worth noting – precisely because it’s deliberately ignored – that the Bible has no notion of getting back to the Garden. Genesis makes it clear that this simply isn’t an option. Revelation depicts an entirely different notion of salvation: a city, not a garden. No turning back.

    Neo-pagans want to get back to nature, because they think that’s the Garden. The Garden was not nature, and it’s not something we can get back to any rate.

    Regression is not on the table. Man must evolve or die.

  4. Graham says:

    I think there’s been some literature, philosophy and psychology on the theme of the Fall of Man as allegory for the embrace of progress, competition, strife and achievement, and man’s control of his own destiny. Or variations, depending on what traits of human history one finds more or less positive. Several original series Star Trek [the one that existed before 80s-90s progressivism took over the writers staff] had Captain Kirk rejecting paradise on grounds that man was meant for struggle. Or near as not.

    It’s a powerful image. I largely share it. Even if there never was a garden or a paradise. There’s even an undercurrent [or perhaps the barely hidden central current] of Christianity in which this was also the whole point, or at least it was God’s Plan B.

    This is open to wildly varying interpretations- if one is a progressive, it means we either chose wrong or we chose right but the whole point of all our striving was to recreate that garden on our own terms, in this world, forever after.

    An interesting theme of modern times has been whether the city in revelation is a depiction of salvation in the afterlife, a thousand year paradise ushered in by Christ, or a paradise of man’s own devising. I suppose for some we have created our own tribulations and are now engaged in creating our own millennium. I can’t even predict whether it will all end in tears for us all. It will definitely end in tears for some.

    As to man must evolve our die. I’m more torn than I once was. I used to be of that ilk that assumed man’s civilization had so altered the environmental impulses around us that we had ceased to evolve, and/or that the time has been so short since we started that no significant evolution could have happened. I have learned otherwise, but I don’t know I care for the direction.

    I used to also be an old school SF reader. Early SF featured a lot of human improvement by natural and artificial means, but somehow human forms and motives seemed recognizable. Now it seems that SF is the record of transhumanist or posthumanist dreams. I am perhaps strangely saddened by it. I wonder if my younger self would have been.

  5. Bob Sykes says:

    “And what I’m trying to say is humans can change, we can alter, we could become something superior,…”

    Sorry, but No. Changing human nature “for the better” requires further, directed evolution, and that means that the reproduction of some individuals must be suppressed and others must be forced to have more children. That’s how evolution works, by natural and artificial selection. Welcome to the Nazi race program.

    The problem is complicated by the fact that the various human races exhibit significant differences in behavior, different selective pressures would have to be applied to each.

    And just what is “for the better”? Greene seems to have some sort of modern touchy-feely kumbaya gnostic/christian goal in mind. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Jews would strongly disagree with that goal. Nietzsche was contemptuous of it.

  6. Graham says:

    That’s what it boils down to.

    The definition of “better world”, “better human”, “become something superior” is in permanent dispute.

    That’s probably deeper and prior to the other debates, about whether it is possible or desirable to seize control of evolution at all, which is also in dispute, and how much one hopes or fears too much change of any kind. I’m down with the broad outlines of Historical Era Man myself. Pity to evolve into some other kind.

    OTOH, given the futures SF has offered us, I’m willing to be pro:

    Improved physical and mental capabilities. Let’s just keep it gradual, shall we? I don’t want to end my days in the slave camps of the unmodified.

    Improved use of AI tools or VR. But ditto. I don’t want to end up a citizen of a joint human/AI republic with the heirs of my Blackberry holding executive positions with legal authority over me. Or a world in which disembodied spirit-men live in AIs and take clone or mechanical bodies at will.

    I never thought I’d sound like a Reactionary Catholic Humanist Luddite, but there you go. The sign of the times is that those terms now start to fit together in ways they once did not. Ere long, “Humanist” will be the name of a reactionary political movement.

    [There was at least one Star Trek novel in which a particularly avant-garde writer or writers [it might have been Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens in "Federation"] in the 90s actually used “Humanists” as the name for an anti-alien ‘fascist’ movement. I don’t think they had any recognizably fascist positions. That would be pretty retro stuff for the 22nd century. But keeping the homeworld of humanity for humans or at least under a human political union and/or not creating a multispecies interstellar political federation but staying independent were inherently Nazi concepts. It made me unaccustomedly long for Asimov’s Galactic Empire stories. But I digress.]

  7. Kirk says:

    Where I part ways with Bob is that I don’t think that it’s so much a problem of “changing human nature” or “reforming” it, so much as it is an issue of looking at what works, and then re-aligning how we do things along the actual nature of human beings.

    Improvements can come on their own, organically. The track record for us designing our own ain’t what I’d call stellar, mainly because of that little itty-bitty issue that if you want to “play God”, well… Then you’d better be God, capital-letter and omniscience included. Key thing there being the “omniscient” bit…

    I think that it’s fairly manifest that what we’ve been doing ain’t working. Large structural bureaucracies aren’t the path humans need to be on–We’re not ants, and the fact is that while ant-like organization works for ants, the ants don’t have petty little jobsworthies growing up like weeds in the interstices of their organizational structures. There’s the queen, and a bunch of ants that pretty much do their things on their own, ‘cos… Ants. And, genetic programming. We’ve got… People. And, people are notably greedy, short-sighted, and entirely prone to building their own little empires within the spaces provided by big organizations, empires that are at best taking up resources that should go towards the overall mission of the organization, or, worse, which actively work against the larger overall purpose of the organization.

    Humans don’t do “ant” very well. But, we keep trying to emulate them, even if unconsciously. The thing that we need to be doing is looking at this from a standpoint of “Well… What does work?”.

    My personal belief is that we need to take a look at the way hunter-gatherer bands functioned, and observe the prevalence of similar social structures throughout human history–Infantry squads, football teams, and all the like. We tend to break ourselves down into functional teams of about ten-fifteen individuals for a given task or purpose, and that’s what works. The problem is that our organizational setup does not support this natural order–In the Army, we called them “primary groups”, and while paying a lot of lip-service to their creation and support, we actually did everything possible to break them up and reduce their effectiveness.

    If I were to be empowered to “try something new”, I’d actually go back to something very old, the primary group, and use it as the building block for how we do things. Forget building some huge ant-like monstrosity when encountering a problem, or trying to do something–Arrange things such that you have small primary groups available to cluster on a problem or issue and deal with it until that situation is fully solved, and then dissolve your ad-hoc organization back into the polyvalent mass.

    We’re already moving towards a “gig economy”. The pace of innovation and change is such that big organizations with static structures don’t function well over even the short haul. Instead of trying to recreate IBM, what we should be doing is instead arranging things such that these small hunter-gatherer bands of humans come together and do what needs doing, and then withdraw. Every organization has a finite lifespan, and the more you try to stretch that out, the weaker the overall ecosystem of organizations becomes. Instead of doing what Rome did, conquering and making Europe Roman, with the inevitable destruction that came about due to the “Fall of Rome”, the model should be to create a social ecosystem where you have a bunch of robust little groups that can rise and fall on their own, without taking out the entire gargantuan cluster-fuck that you’ve built in the mistaken hope that it would last longer.

    Things don’t last, and the bigger you make them, the more damage you get when they fail. You want real, long-term stability, what you really need is the chaos of small groups that can succeed or fail without taking out the rest of the social eco-system. Economy of scale is nice, but there are corollaries that you need to pay attention to, like “Oh, hey… What happens to my mall, when Sears finally goes tits-up…?”.

    Have a bunch of little retailers working together in an eco-system, and the “Fall of Sears” wouldn’t take out half a regions retail economy. Go for the “big”, and what you get is inflexibility and the inevitable crash when that inflexibility drives you into the wall at high speed.

    We keep trying to do “ant”, and what we really need to do is figure out how to do “human” better than we are. Most large bureaucratic structures fail because the behavior such structures encourage and allow are actually not productive behaviors in alignment with things that will enable that structure to last. Look at your typical ant-heap; where the hell is the middle-management? Oh; yeah… There ain’t none. It’s all just workers, warriors, queens, and a couple of others. And, queen doesn’t need to worry about some subordinate worker or warrior leading a damn coup, either…

    The problem isn’t necessarily that we need to “fix people”, but that we need to fix our mindset and how we do things. If you do it right, natural selection will do the “fixing people” bit, so long as you’re patient enough and work on a long enough scale.

  8. Kirk says:

    Here’s a case in point… Let’s take a look at how humanity actually spread and put itself on top of the food chain.

    Pay attention to the way North America was initially colonized, particularly by the original folks who spread across the continent from Siberia; you’re gonna look long and hard for any sign of a Siberian “North America Company” that took control and managed the effort. What was it? A bunch of little bands of proto-Native Americans, working their way across the Bering Straits and down into the heretofore humanity-free continent. Did they do so with the questionable “aid” of some big government-like organization, or was it an organic effort made by a bunch of like-minded types who probably came together for big projects like driving buffalo off of cliffs, and then separated to do their own thing, once the buffalo drive was done?

    I would submit that the “state of nature” which we found most of North America in when the Europeans finally got off their asses and came over here was more in alignment with basic human nature than any of the massive overarching BS that we came up with in terms of creating the Westphalian nation-state. I would also wager that we’d all be a lot happier and more fulfilled if our current civilization were organized along similar lines…

  9. Graham says:

    I had a boss once who loved Nigeria and spoke of the traditional West African village as “a machine for making people happy”.

    Alas, a traditional village social system of any kind, even apart from any technological issues, would be hell for anyone with my personality. Villages tend not to f off and leave you alone. I appreciate the social support they provide, as extended kin do, but there’s a huge price.

    OTOH, I’m not nearly nimble or individualistic enough to survive a pure gig society, or anything like the krewe-based model in [I think] Snow Crash.

    SO I guess I’m screwed either way. Those models need both more static or more communally minded and more nimble people than most people alive today, more than likely. It’d be interesting to have a model in which they were combined and acting in some kind of symbiosis, perhaps if the tight-knit communities were like that only on a temporary problem-focused basis. That would really breed an interesting type of human personality, and perhaps team athletes and elite military are that model in embryo.

    Other interesting questions-

    1. We now have a high level of tech and this model may be the way to keep in moving forward, if it can be moved forward indefinitely. would we have come up with any of it had trad villages or autonomous individuals been the social model of humanity the past few thousand years? Large social organizations and economic ones mobilized a lot of resources and facilitated the work and communications of a lot of talented individuals, and provided them frameworks in which they could specialize. Even if this new model is the way forward, we may have had to go through a few millennia of Big Everything to get here.

    2. Aboriginal Americans are illustrative. They took many centuries to colonize an empty hemisphere. During that time, they also experimented with both small polities and large ones. Their larger ones were some of their great successes. All engaged in all spheres of human endeavour including war. They were even competitive technologically wiht the Old World in neolithic and bronze ages and then seemed to largely stall, for various perhaps unavoidable and environmental reasons, ending up a thousand years or so behind the Old World civilizations. In all that time, peoples and empires rose and fell

    In the end, if you take away the unforeseeable burden of pandemic disease, they might have made a better show of resisting colonization even despite that. The North American Eastern woodlands people were pretty adaptive to firearms and metal weapons and tools. So I can’t be sure.

    But I’m not convinced they were a success story.

    3. Some of those company organizations were pretty small and nimble by modern standards, big and durable though they might have been compared to some models. Some were pretty devastatingly effective for a long time. One played so well the politics of an entire subcontinental civilization and collapsing empire that it ended up in charge despite that civilization being larger, richer, and as advanced in many ways as it’s own. [This could be considered a backhanded argument for being small and nimble, but it was still the East India Company, not a temporary project team.]

    4. The colonization of the Americas, depending on which country, could be considered a successful combination of the small, nimble and autonomous players and the big institutional ones, acting in occasional concert and occasional creative tension. Individual conquistador adventurers and the Spanish Crown would neither ave achieved as much without the other as support/driver. Ditto the English/British Crown and American early settler communities.

  10. Graham says:


    Your comment about long term stability was interesting on a whole other level.

    It made me wonder whether that’s what I’m going for. Am I trying to maintain the preponderance and nature of my own civilization as long as possible or indefinitely [sigh], or to arrest the cycle of the last 10 millennia altogether and create sort of permanent overarching framework within which there is a constant but less fundamental level of churn, which would be one way I could characterize your vision.

    A difficult question for me.

  11. Kirk says:

    I think the model I’m reaching towards is that there’s an overall cultural/social framework, within which small cohesive team efforts take place. Instead of having an overall “big company” corporate structure, you’d have a bunch of smaller entities converging on a task or problem, dealing with it, and then demobilizing to do other things.

    When you get down to it, that’s the way an awful lot of construction actually gets done; there’s a “big framework” company that manages the effort, and then a bunch of smaller sub-contractors that come in to do specific limited aspects of the job. It’s more flexible for the big companies, because they don’t have to keep a bunch of people on staff, and can concentrate on their appropriate level of management, while it’s a lot more satisfying for the smaller companies because they get more control and better job satisfaction.

    Extend that model out to more of the economy, as well as government? And, create institutional features that support the formation of these team entities, as well as facilitate their work? I think you’d be on to something, there.

    The thing is, big is not agile; a blue whale is good at being a whale, but you ask it to be a dolphin or a hippopotamus, and that ain’t happening. Not without a lot of painful adaptation over a period of years. Yet, were you to go look at other models, like that of a coral reef, well… You can scale up and down with ease, because it’s not one organism, it’s a community of them. And, if the conditions change, then the more adapted members of the community will thrive while the maladapted ones won’t. This will enable overall survival of the community, much better than the blue whale.

    Think of it as the path of the aspen vs. the path of the Sequoia tree…

  12. Graham says:


    OK, that might not be my instinctive preference, but explained like that it’s more inside my own bucket of conceptual possibilities.

    That would have been a leap into the unknown even for my 20 year old self — I like a certain relative security — but if society were organized that way I’d have grown up with it, so there’s that.

    Construction was a great, probably the best example, but there’s certainly plenty of this model already in place and working, and you’re likely right it’s the way more and more is going.

  13. Sam J. says:

    “…“state of nature” which we found most of North America in when the Europeans…came over here was more in alignment with basic human nature than any of the massive…Westphalian nation-state. I would also wager that we’d all be a lot happier and more fulfilled if our current civilization were organized along similar lines…”

    I don’t think this is true. By the time settlement came to North America the big die off from diseases had set in fairly well. Before that they had a lot of small kingdoms that were just as oppressive as anywhere else. Not tribes of fifty people. A decent book to read about this time in history is

    “Hernando De Soto, A Savage Quest in the Americas” by David Ewing Duncan.

    Remember all these big Indian mounds? One of the reasons the Europeans were so successful was they used the tensions between tribes and superior weapons to break the equilibrium between different tribes. The smaller suppressed tribes would gang up with the Europeans to conquer the larger more successful tribes. Easy call for the Europeans as the big tribes had all the stuff they wanted. Gold, food, fodder.

    People do like to live in small tribes but it never works out that way. I read an anthropologist that studied South American Amazon tribes. He said that usually there was a huge asshole that banded together large amounts of people. If you left to form a small tribe you would be raided and killed by the bigger tribe. If you tried to leave the big tribe you were killed. Just more evil psychopathic people making life miserable for everyone. Unfortunately this is just the way it is. The rabid super aggressives run the system even in small jungle tribes.

    In any event as much as I hate it I think humans are done. By 2025 we get human level computing and eventually the computers will control themselves. I can’t see how we get out of this trap. The computers will be even more psychopathic than humans and will likely do away with most of us. Maybe keep the Amish around as they would seen as no threat.

    This…is as good as it gets.

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