We Can’t Blame it on Nature

By Madronna Holden

Updated Oct. 19, 2011

In 1651 Western philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote that human life in the state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, a “war of every man against every man”.

William Golding popularized this perspective on the awful state of humans in nature in his modern novel, The Lord of the Flies, in which a group of boys stranded together on an island revert to the savage nature of humans without the constraining hand of civilization.

Though Hobbes thought that we must submit to state authority to rescue ourselves from such terrible natural tendencies, others maintained that our actions, derived from nature, are neither our choice nor our responsibility.

Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger put forth this “nature made me do it” theory in The Imperial Animal.  Their work bolstered the “spreading your genes around” theory—postulating that human social behavior, including colonialism and the oppressive of women by men, can be chalked up to the impulse to insure that as many of our genes as possible have a future.

What I remember most about Robin Fox’s presentation at the New School where he spoke when I was a grad student there was that he entertained no critical perspectives concerning his ideas.  That was hardly surprising, since he entertained no sense that we had any choices for which we might be responsible.

In this sense, Tiger and Fox’s theories had an unsavory kinship to the narrative of Manifest Destiny in which “civilized” folk were constrained by nature to overrun the world. As a pioneer in the Willamette Valley expressed it in her diary, the fact that the Kalapuya were dying as a result of her people’s taking over their land was a fact to be regretted but inevitable–for they were doomed to fade away before a superior race.

On a global scale, Manifest Destiny licensed the deaths of millions of indigenous peoples as being a simple matter of nature at work.  That is the implication of Robert Ardrey’s thesis that men were driven by the Territorial Imperative.

Some sociobiologists also used the “nature made me do it” idea to explain away rape. They postulated that the rapist got more genes to survive. They thereby glibly bypassed the fact that rape is a crime of violence, not sex—and thus not a matter of biology. As those who work with rape victims know all too well, the psychological trauma involved in rape cannot be ignored.

The sociobiologists so focused on their genes also neglected to mention that there are a number of cultures in the world that had no word for rape—since they had no concept of any such act before they encountered conquering and self-termed “civilizations”.  They learned that word as a result of the rape of their women during conquest.  In her article, “Locating the Cannibals”,  Amy Den Ouden observes how sexual violence against indigenous women has classically been used to “valorize” such acts of conquest.

In fact, rape, which on a global scale goes hand in hand with imperialism, is a decidedly unnatural act.  We hardly need remind ourselves that a good percentage of rapists kill their victims.  All in all, the violence of rape makes ludicrous the idea that rapists are driven by any biological impulse to pass on their genes. No  woman physically brutalized and psychologically traumatized is a good candidate for motherhood. And as my student, Amanda MacKenzie, noted, there are those who rape children far too young to conceive–brutal rapes which often leave their victims unable to conceive at all.

In opposition to the violence-based theories of “passing on one’s genes”, the best way to ensure healthy babies is to protect the health and well-being of their mothers. Many anthropologists assert that establishing a context for the care for children is a central reason that bonding and egalitarian relationships developed between human partners.

And with respect to the more than human animals, data is coming in that indicates that so-called “alpha” males actually pass on their genes less than more affable members of animal communities. This has been found in the red deer of Ireland, where the non-combatants breed while others are locking horns; among wolves, in a PBS documentary, in which a mild mannered wolf bred far more often than a dominant one.  Recently, research on baboons in the wild did genetic testing that indicated that male “buddies” of females rather than alpha males were actually far more likely to pass on genetic material.

Further,  culture is a key component to the survival of any humans beyond their deaths and women are unlikely to pass on the cultures of their predators to the children they bear. Indeed, in the human context, we can neither discount nor prioritize biological fathering over social fathering—the passing on of knowledge, experience and tradition.

And perhaps the strongest weight against the theory that men naturally express aggression on behalf of their genes is the fact that so many human societies perceive the natural world as modeling interdependence and cooperation, rather than aggression and competition. For many of the Pacific Northwest’s indigenous peoples, for instance, following the “laws of nature’ means acting with cooperation, reciprocity and sharing.

This idea is supported by modern psychologists who recently published the results of four experiments addressing the question, “Can Nature make us More Caring”? They found the answer to that question to be an emphatic yes. Their experiments indicated that contact with nature not only makes us kinder and more caring—but more autonomous and impervious to outer-directed goals. Altogether, viewing slides of nature and imagining ourselves in natural landscapes shifts personal aspirations focused on gaining individual wealth and fame to a focus on caring.

And the simple act of having a plant on their desk made experimental subjects more likely to share money given them by the experimenter than those whose desk was empty of greenery.

The subjects so effected by contact with the natural world were a random group of US citizens, aged 19 to 54, numbering between one hundred and twelve subjects in the first experiment to seventy-five in the last  one.  They were women and men, Caucasian, African-American, Asian American, and Latinos or Latinas. Most of them spoke English as their first language, but a few didn’t.

One of the experimenters postulated that because we became human in communal cultures, exposure to the natural world re-stimulates our communal and sharing attributes.

I find this a hopeful point indeed.  And good support for protecting greenery in our modern cities. We are  thereby fostering not only the health, well-being, and relaxation of the members of our communities, as previous experiments have indicated—but improving the likelihood we will both make authentic personal decisions and enact care for others.


And here is an excellent discussion of the UN campaign to end violence against women.