Nietzsche was right. Sort of.

Panoply7, by Douglas Pinson. Digital painting, 2021.

I’ve often heard it said that “human nature” makes true system-change impossible, that we’re too greedy, selfish, or just plain rotten to ever live in a more cooperative, harmonious way with one another, which apparently means any system-change is bound to fail.

I find that to be blinkered thinking on several levels, and ultimately destructive. First off, there is no such thing as “human nature,” as anthropologists, biologists, bio-geneticists, and psychologists of various stripes have been telling us for more than a century. More than a few philosophers have as well, including the fellow mentioned in the title. If we have any “nature” at all, it’s such a jumble of competing drives, emotions, instincts and “wills,” there can be no singularity, no single “I”. Which means there is simply no way to predict, before hand, what we will do in a new environment, other than to take a look at our history of adaptation, and not just in the evolutionary sense.

We humans tend to be pretty good at adapting to the new. Perhaps too good. We’re skilled at finding ways to optimize our own chances in new environments. Where we seem to fall short, all too often, is in choosing optimal systems in the first place. As in, Sapiens, as a species, readily fall in line and work with the given more often than not. Too few of us, however, think bigger, zoom out far enough, to design or support better systems that reduce the need for endless individual pain and struggle — on the front-end. Too few of us seem to recognize the difficulties so many others deal with, especially if we think we’re doing just fine.

And there is this unavoidable logic: If one believes we are inherently selfish and greedy, it follows naturally that we’d desire a system that minimizes, if not eliminates, the negative effects of that “nature,” not one that encourages them. Can anyone honestly say our current environment/system/context discourages the worst and promotes the best we can be?

Yes, we are selfish and greedy at times, but we are also giving and selfless at other times. Compassionate this moment, cold as ice the next. We run to rescue strangers caught in a fire, a flood, a hurricane, and scream at minimum wagers who ask us to wear a mask. We fight, we love, we hate, we forgive, we hold grudges, we fall into mass amnesia, and we battle with ourselves far more often than with each other. Our subconscious mind is constantly at war with our conscious brain, behind our back, likely laughing all the while. In short, we humans are a mystery, wrapped in neuroses, inside a brilliant and terrible chorus of voices, singing at the moon. 

A huge part of that mystery, at least to me, is our tendency toward (virtually) eternal optimism and hope that we can always do better within the context of our current system. That we have the ability to maximize our “wins” and minimize our “losses,” despite the struggles and pain we endure, and/or the horrors we may see around us. Yet all of that optimism and hope seems to die in a flash, when talk turns to newer, better, alternative contexts, even in theory. We lose all hope that we can get beyond simply navigating through an already existing mine-field. Rarely do we even consider getting rid of the mine-field itself.

Ironically, if we humans really were “greedy and selfish,” we’d want far more out of this life.

Peggy Lee sang it well:


As always, your comments and suggestions are most welcome.


Nietzsche was right. Sort of.
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