If we are kind to one another, it’s usually because we have ulterior motives. If we are good, it’s only because we have managed to control and transcend our innate selfishness and brutality.
This bleak view of human nature is closely associated with the science writer Richard Dawkins, whose book The Selfish Gene became popular because it fitted so well with (and helped to justify) the competitive and individualistic ethos of late 20th-century societies.
Like many others, Dawkins justifies his views with reference to the field of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology theorises that present-day human traits developed in prehistoric times, during what is termed the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness”.
This is usually seen as a period of intense competition, when life was a kind of Roman gladiatorial battle in which only the traits that gave people a survival advantage were selected and all others fell by the wayside. And because people’s survival depended on access to resources – think rivers, forests and animals – there was bound to be competition and conflict between rival groups, which led to the development of traits like racism and warfare.
This seems logical. But in fact the assumption it’s based on - that prehistoric life was a desperate struggle for survival - is false.