Rain, Kropotkin and Y2K -- Reel Human Nature
by L. Reichard White
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
My son Adam and his family were in a record downpour yesterday. It
reminded me of Kropotkin.
Adam and family live in Castle Shannon, Pennsylvania, which received
more than four inches of rain, pretty much all at once. It knocked
out the electricity, and as a result, water service as well. Adam
told me he felt he'd just been through a rehearsal for Y2K. He said
it was an eye-opener in more ways than one.
The teenagers across the way, who'd been partying (conservatively)
for the whole week -- their parents were on vacation -- complained to
Adam that they couldn't take a shower. His mother-in-law, unable to
fix food at home, went out to eat -- but couldn't find anything open.
She skipped a meal. Getting along without electricity and water
pointed out how dependent we Americans have gotten, and how ill
prepared we are for dealing with the world when we lack outside
But more of an eye-opener was how the neighborhood dealt with the
situation. One guy had a large cooler complete with beer, and,
rather than letting it get warm and skunky, he said, everyone should
drink some. Another neighbor with steaks in a freezer, which might
well thaw and spoil, threw some on another neighbor's propane
barbecue and shared them with everyone. No one knew the electricity
would only be off for four hours.
Adam is gregarious, but this was the first time he'd ever met many of
his neighbors -- and he's lived at his present address for more than
five years. The "emergency" turned out to be more like a block
party. This wasn't a fluke but rather a natural occurrence with its
basis built into the human genome. That Castle Shannon "block party"
was the beginning of a process that causes us humans to pull
together, especially in times of emergency. This effect is well
A similar experience turned privileged Russian nobleman Petr
Alexeivich Kropotkin into the "Anarchist Prince." During a
geographical mapping trip to Eastern Siberia, he discovered that
especially under the harshest of conditions, people naturally pulled
together, cooperated, and kept each other alive. This was in sharp
contrast to the Hobbsian "war of all against all" he'd been taught to
expect. As a result of his experience, he became a life-long
anarchist, eschewing authority of any sort.
In real life, and especially in the anthropologically small groups in
which our ancestors evolved, things had to get really serious
for cooperation to turn into "every man for himself," let alone "all
against all," and such a situation, if not fatal, was only very
temporary. We inherited our genes from these ancestors, and even
today survivors regroup and continue pretty much as before.
Like most of us, Kropotkin had uncritically accepted Darwinian
distortions depicting human nature as destructive and violent when
actually, especially in times of emergency, the
opposite is true. These distorted notions are exacerbated by
the fact that intergroup violence sometimes results from hierarchist
leadership ego clashes, but even these happen only when groups are,
anthropologically speaking, quite large -- say larger than 50.
Perhaps not coincidentally, these notions of a destructive "human
nature" are used to buttress the notion of the necessity of
However there's a problem unique to the so-called "modern" age:
Peaceful, cooperative individuals aren't often dramatic enough to be
the basis of novels, TV shows, or movies, which is why we invariably
get a steady diet of conflict and violence of various sorts in the
media. I admit it: "The Waltons" often gets boring. I'm addicted to
action movies. "News," best regarded as a rather specialized
entertainment medium -- especially here in America -- also counts on
these sorts of things to make it interesting. We might call this
economically based bias driving the entertainment business the
"dramatic imperative," in that "drama" is imperative for the media to
stay in business. Video games, which now produce more income than
Hollywood, are another extension of this violent "dramatic
Think about it. How many times in your life, excepting military
service in time of war, have you personally witnessed or been
part of an incident of serious violence? Reading about such incidents
or viewing them on TV or in the movies doesn't count. So how many
times? Once? Twice? Many people I've asked can't think of even one.
Even most cops never shoot anyone during their whole career.
The problem is, of course, that we subliminally begin to accept the
violent, destructive model of human nature decreed by entertainment's
"dramatic imperative" as the true one. Our filters get tuned to
focus on those violent aspects of human nature which do exist.
Life imitates art, and Clinton bombs Iraq, Algeria, Afghanistan,
Kosovo, and Yugoslavia. And that's just in the first half of this
year. As of 25 Jul., 1999, he's still periodically bombing
Actually, this type of violent behavior by so-called
governments is very common. Government is by far
the most prevalent source of violence in human society:
New York, NY - An early July column in the Wall Street Journal by
R.J. Rummel confirmed what most libertarians already know: that
government is the biggest scourge of mankind. According to Rummel's
research, governments of all kinds ... have killed 119 million people
in the twentieth century. The second runner up, war (also sponsored
by governments, usually) has killed "only" 35.7 million. --
American Libertarian Vol. 1 no. 2, Aug. 1986, pg. 8
This record has been "improved" since Rummel's 1986 research -- in
Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Bosnia, Iraq (200,000+), Guatemala, Chechnya
(100,000+), Somalia, Ruwanda, Grenada, East Timor, Panama, Kosovo
1999, Yugoslavia 1999 (7000+), Waco (60+), etc. You can see Rummel's
research for yourself at http://www2.hawaii.edu/~rummel/20TH.HTM.
Amnesty International claims the government kill figure is now closer
to 200 million (200,000,000).
Excepting such government-caused distortions, most "natural" human
violence results from so-called "clique selfishness," that is, our
attempts to take care of our own small group (family, tribe, etc.) --
and territoriality. Based on social-dilemma studies, psychologist
Marilynn B. Brewer of the University of California, Los Angeles,
suggests that if the sense of belonging and identity provided by
small groups is essential to human functioning, then "clique
selfishness" may well be more powerful than even the most rabid
individual self-interest.  I would never steal or kill for myself
-- but my family, my tribe is hurting.
It's the nearly always unnecessary clashes between today's
super-groups, based on our small group "selfish clique" instincts to
try to take care of our own, which create the most violence in the
relatively crowded modern world. I would suggest that identification
with such super-groups, groups larger than the number of people you
can know face-to-face, is unrealistic. I'm being kind, it's
delusional. The most dysfunction of these delusional
identifications are with so-called "national" and "racial"
super-groups, and it is these imaginary alliances which provide
governments the genetically based psychological foundation upon which
to build their horrific record.
If selfishness and altruism both emanate from humanity's evolved
capacity for social navigation within small groups, "there's good
reason to suspect the same psychological mechanisms account for the
most inspiring intellectual achievements and the most discouraging
failures of reason, the noblest of moral acts and the lowest of
inhumane cruelties," [psychologist Linnda R.] Caporael says. 
In many cases, the difference between the "noblest of moral acts" and
"the lowest of inhumane cruelties" depends on which side of the
battlefield, which government sponsored armed group, you're viewing
These days, "clique selfishness" often has economic underpinnings.
Turf wars over drug territories are an example. And, speaking of
drugs, the perception of human nature as violent is certainly
enhanced by the American establishment's obsessive and moronic "war
on drugs." Crime statistics prove that at least 60% of crimes
against property -- and a large percentage of drive-by shootings and
other murders as well -- are directly caused by the
counter-productive anti-drug laws. That is, at least half of all
so-called "crime" in American society -- and half the chance you and
your family will be harmed by it -- is created out of nothing by the
entirely idiotic "anti-drug laws."
And the worst cliques -- because we can't control them by the
economic means we use to control most other groups -- are government
On the whole and by nature, people are remarkably peaceable. There
are many historical pointers to this fact, but they conflict with our
"dramatic imperative" government-excusing subliminal models of human
nature, and so are regularly discounted as fallacious or just
out-and-out ignored. For example, rather than raid their neighbors
and/or the English food storehouses during the "potato famine,"
droves of Irish villagers instead lay down and quietly starved to
American "indians" had an entirely unwarranted reputation for cruelty
and violence, created almost entirely by entertainment's "dramatic
imperative." Less biased research shows something else: Compared to
the white man, indians were war wimps:
New England's first Indian war, the Pequot War of 1636-37, provides a
case study of the intensified warfare Europeans brought to America.
Allied with the Narragansetts, traditional enemies of the Pequots,
the colonists attacked at dawn. ... The slaughter shocked the
Narragansetts, who had wanted merely to subjugate the Pequots, not
exterminate them. The Narragansetts reproached the English for their
style of warfare, crying, "It is naught, it is naught, because it is
too furious, and slays too many men." In turn, Capt. John Underhill
scoffed, saying that the Narragansett style of fighting was "more for
pastime, than to conquer and subdue enemies." Underhill's analysis of
the role of warfare in Narragansett society was correct, and might
accurately be applied to other tribes as well. Through the centuries,
whites frequently accused their Native allies of not fighting hard
enough. -- James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, (New
York, NY: Touchstone 1996), p. 118
Here's a more current example from the recent NATO bombings: ABC
reporters record that their first impressions are of the quiet,
rather than the roar of anger you might expect [from the crowds of
displaced Kosovar Albanians.] "There is no talk of revenge, and these
people are incredibly gentle." -- ABC This Week, 4 Apr. 1999,
11:57:36 AM EST
Perhaps in some cases, people are too peaceable. It may have been
this perception which led Thomas Jefferson to pen: "... all
experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer,
while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing
the forms to which they are accustomed." -- Declaration of
There are two models of human nature haunting our society -- the one
based on entertainment's "dramatic imperative" abetted by chronic
government-related violence, the other, the more peaceful one, firmly
rooted in our human genetic reality. Is it reel human nature -
- - - or is it real human nature?
Which do you operate by?
 Bruce Bower, "Getting Out From Number One," Science
News, April 28, 1990, p. 267.
 Ibid. pp. 266 & 267
 Nonetheless, the founders did right themselves by
abolishing the forms to which they had become accustomed.
L. Reichard White lives six houses up from the old Black Horse
Tavern, a birth place of the Whiskey Rebellion -- which explains a
lot. He has supported his writing habit for over twenty years by
beating casinos at their own games.