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  • Writer's pictureLuigi Gioia

What If We Were Good After All

It was only last week that, reading Rutger Bregman’s delightfully provocative book Humankind. A Hopeful History, I became aware that blushing is “the only facial expression which is uniquely human”. This is a book based on an impressive array of scientific research. Yet, its author’s avowed commitment to endorsing a certain view of humankind raises some flags about whether its conclusions can be taken at their face value. This is why I decided to approach it rather as a thought experiment based on solid arguments: what if we thought of human beings not as inherently selfish and doomed to evil but for the redeeming role of religion and civilization? What if, instead, we saw human beings as naturally good, wired to coexist peacefully with other human beings, inclined to help and support each other? Blushing is quoted as an evidence in favour of this argument: form the viewpoint of evolutionary psychology, it demonstrates that human beings are “quintessentially social”, that “they care what other people think, which fosters trust and enables cooperation” (69).

What happens then when we start thinking about humanity in this way?

In the first instance, this unmasks our negative bias: we have a tendency to uncritically agree with the dominant cultural narrative about human corruption. We think that it is more heroic and virtuous, somehow, to espouse the gloomy portrait of humanity popularized by William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Some of the most refreshing pages of Bregman’s book are those that report what really happened when a group of adolescents were stranded in a remote island for a year: not only nobody was killed, but they developed remarkable strategies to deal with conflicts positively and live in harmony. As for Dawkins’ theory, most biologists today would indeed acknowledge that “struggle and competition [are] a factor into the evolution of life” but would argue “that cooperation is much more critical”(72).

Does this portrait not contradict the Bible? Are we not told that “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humans was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of their heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made humans on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart”? (Gen 6.5f)

The issue however is not whether we are capable of evil, which nobody, Bregman included, would deny. The issue is whether we are naturally inclined to selfishness rather than cooperation, greed rather than sharing, violence rather than the desire for peace.

I find revealing, in this regard, that one of the most recurrent images in Scripture to explain evil should be that of the “hardening of heart”. Poignantly and incessantly, the Lord keeps begging us: “Today, if you hear [my]voice, do not harden your hearts” (Psa 95.7f). To me this implies that we behave badly not because our hearts are evil, but because we harden them. Evil is not innate in us. The proof is that we reach evil only by stages, by doing violence to our hearts, by forcing ourselves to become blind and deaf to the need of our sisters and brothers. Indeed, once we have hardened our hearts, it looks as if we are inclined to evil because we have become good and stifling the voice of our conscience.

From the realms of physics however we can find some relief: when it comes to materials, hardness is not a measure of their invulnerability, but on the contrary of how easily they can be scratched or indented. We know how easily diamonds, one of the hardest materials on earth, can be cut by those who have become experts in detecting their structural weakest points.

Our God is the expert diamond cutter who considers our hardness of heart not as an obstacle but as an opportunity. Where we are tempted to see only depravity, he already foresees the valuable, gleaming, and polished jewel.

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