A Revolutionary Idea

What if we’ve been wrong all this time? What if one of our most fundamental beliefs about human nature, based on scientific evidence, turns out to be mistaken?

This past week, scientists released news of the discovery of a 4.4 million year old fossil of one of our ancestors. Ardipithecus ramidus, or “Ardi” for short, was perhaps the last common ancestor of apes and humans. What’s so striking about Ardi is the teeth. They are considerably smaller and blunter than those of our chimpanzee relatives, and more like our own.

This little detail has huge implications. The belief that nature is red in tooth and claw, and that human nature is as red as they come, was bolstered by observations of chimpanzees ripping both monkeys and other chimpanzees to shreds with their teeth. Jane Goodall has even described in detail two females with a taste for the infants of their rivals.

When we believed we evolved directly from the chimp, it could only be assumed that the same blood lust was deep inside us as well. Despite the wonders of civilization and the ample evidence of altruistic behavior, we were seen to be violently competitive at heart. And if that is the nature of our species, we could be excused for feeling the need to summon up those instincts in our defense from time to time.

This view justified war and all of its horrors, for it is just a natural expression of who we are, perhaps amplified a bit by technology. As Frans de Waal puts it in his recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, it became “hard to escape the notion that we are essentially ‘killer apes’ destined to wage war forever.”

This idea permeates all of our relationships, not just those of nation-states. Since our instinct is to be competitive, we must be constantly on our guard to ensure we’re not taken advantage of. When it comes to management, we’ve developed systems and practices to ensure that people do the right thing for the enterprise and not give into their instincts. We certainly cannot leave them to their own devices.

So cut throat competition becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. “If everyone is just out for themselves,” the thinking goes, “I must be too.”  All of the excesses of the corporate world can then be justified, from over the top executive compensation to shady mortgages. Caveat Emptor.

But the discovery of Ardi suggests a kinder and gentler human nature. Without those fangs, our ancestors couldn’t have been the blood thirsty creatures we’ve taken them for. Along with the more peaceful gorillas and bonobos, humans are now seen to be a cooperative species, and the violent chimpanzees as a mutation branching off the main trunk of evolution.

De Waal offers further evidence. In the Ultimatum Game, a staple of Behavioral Economics, human players display a preference for equity over financial gain. Neuroscientists have discovered mirror neurons that fire empathetically when we observe others feeling pain.

If we take the ramifications of Ardi’s discovery to heart, our idea of human nature has to be turned inside out, and very different behavior should follow.  We would have to start out trusting people and assuming they’re going to do the right thing. It would revolutionize the way we manage people.

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