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What kind of a creature is the human?

Polynesian people arrived as the first human inhabitants of the gorgeous Marquesas Islands – fifteen islands about 3,400 kilometers south-southwest of the Hawaiian Islands. The new inhabitants multiplied and made homes in dispersed locations. They had the body chemistry that allowed them to be cheerful and happy. But in the coming centuries these normally cheerful people were warring with each other: small communities at war with neighboring small communities. Like some others in the animal kingdom they had a biology conducive to aggression in dealing with conflict. They had high intelligence but also a mentality of small-mindedness that made discussion and agreement less likely than war. The Marquesans are on record as ritualistically eating body parts of enemies they had killed. The anthropologist, AP Rice, described people of the Marquesas Islands killing their captives:

First, they broke their legs, to stop them running away, then they broke their arms, to stop them resisting. This was an unhurried killing, because the Marquesans enjoyed observing their victim contemplating his fate. Eventually, the man would be skewered and roasted. (wwww.telegraph.co.uk)

While this was going on in the Marquesas, a Christian bishop, Augustine of Hippo, in North Africa, was describing his version of human nature. In what was still Roman North Africa, Christians called Donatists were having a murderous war with Trinity believing Christians. Bishop Augustine, a Trinity believer, believed that humanity was weak. He held that the Donatists had let their minds drift into heresy, and he communicated his view that humanity had been corrupted by the original sins of Adam and Eve, sin passed from people to people, generation after generation, transmitted in the semen involved in conception.

After the fall of Rome, societies remained divided between a small elite with political powers and a large majority that the elite viewed as having dangerous impulses that had to be contained by devotions and obediences to their gods and the ruling authorities. There was the Enlightenment which put hope in the spreading of knowledge and liberty. And there was the French Revolution, with conservatives blaming its excesses on wayward intellectuals championing those hopes. The devout Joseph de Maistre, hostile to the French Revolution, had his description of humanity: more brutal than the wolf and in need of being tamed by the awe that was part of Christian devotion.

With the industrial revolution the idea of human progress found greater support, with a new era of plenty improving the disposition of people. There were those who believed that humanity had decency enough to govern themselves. A belief in democracy arose, while conservatives at the beginning of the 1800s saw democracy as mob rule that wouldn't work. Humanity in general, they believed, was rapacious and destructive.

Toward the end of the 1800s there was the aristocratic philosopher Nietzsche, who in the tradition of conservatives despised mediocrity and the masses. Liberalism, he believed, led to revolution, bloodletting and crime. Nietzsche believed that the best of men were weighed upon and dragged down by the weight of mass mediocrity. The strong, he claimed, had to be protected from the weak, the fortunate from the unfortunate, the healthy from the degenerate. He was opposed to what he saw as the bourgeoisie's focus on accumulating money. Such people, he believed, had no sense of honor. They lacked good style or a taste for that which made life worth living.

Into the 20th and 21st centuries, people who look upon people in general more favorably recognize that societies consist of a diversity of people, from saint to psychopath, from genius to idiocy. They believe there is enough goodness in people-in-general that they can govern themselves successfully, that democratic societies can control the barbarism that appears among them. And they have been proven right. A common goodness in people has made mature democracies the most stable and peaceful societies in history.

There is greed: people dishonestly trying to get as much as they can at the expense of others. There is generosity and responsibility: people willing to pay their share of expenses for the maintenance of society's well-being. Choice and political institutions have an impact on humanity today, beyond what the early inhabitants of the Marquesas Islands were as people.

Meanwhile, one's view of humanity might fluctuate with events. Those victimized by others see in their moment of pain that part of humanity that is wicked. Those lucky enough to be rescued from frustration or danger by the generosity of someone see, in that moment at least, humanity as good and decent.

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Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.