We Can Be Good. We've Done it Before.

03/06/2015 03:46 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2015

"Are humans innately selfish, greedy and war-like?" This is the question I love to ask my students at the start of the semester. They always answer the same way, with a resounding "yes."

But this question cannot be answered merely by what we observe around us today nor can we look to history, since recorded history represents only five percent of humans' time on earth. We must instead ask what humans were like in prehistory, from our first appearance on earth roughly 200,000 years ago. This can tell us about humans' capabilities.

What the facts show is that we are capable of living cooperatively, without disparities of wealth, with a high degree of gender equality and no barriers of ethnicity or race. This is not a theory or a hope. Instead, anthropologists like me know we can live this way because facts show this is the way we have lived for most of our existence on earth.

And we continue to have these capabilities even today. I do not deny the extraordinary human cruelty all around us. But if we don't recognize our potential to be good, then we will assume we are destined to be bad. And assuming we are bad makes us lower our expectations for each other, and kills the hope that we can do better. To have a better society, we must begin by knowing that humans are capable of being good.

Some facts: The way humans obtain our food affects the nature of our societies. If we hunt and gather what is in the environment, as "foragers" or "hunting and gathering peoples" do, our social lives will be different than if we live on a farm, raising crops and animals. Farming may seem bucolic but archeology shows that once agriculture was "invented" by humans, only 12,000 years ago, our societies changed dramatically. By about 6,000 years ago we had the first "civilization" in Mesopotamia and soon thereafter in Egypt. Civilization sounds like a great idea, but civilizations go to war, capture and enslave their opponents, and use slave labor and the bounties of war to feed the people serving to build all the monuments of civilization.

Kings, queens, peasants, wars, revolutions -- this is the history we know well. But how did foragers live, a key question since humans lived from 200,000 years ago to 12,000 years ago exclusively by foraging.

Foragers are nomadic, since they move in search of food. And since they are nomadic, they have no concept of land ownership, or ownership of animals. Just as we have no need to own our own air because air is everywhere, so foragers did not claim ownership of land or animals since these were plentiful.

Foragers lived in small groups with no land ownership and when big animals were hunted, the meat was shared throughout the group. Human densities were low, and when groups encountered each other, they did not fight. After all, without land boundaries or owned animals, there really isn't a whole lot to fight over. Group boundaries were porous, so people moved between groups, visiting relatives and friends in other groups. These porous boundaries prevented the creation of an us-versus-them dynamic.

So, no kings and queens and no poverty amid plenty. We know this through archeology, which has found no evidence before agriculture of human hierarchy. We also know that sharing was a supreme value based on ethnographic studies of the few foraging groups left, such as the Kung of southern Africa (now, sadly to many, no longer foragers). And from these studies we also know that there was a high degree of gender equality. There was no sexual double standard, for example--a huge contrast to many societies today, where women are under close watch by their families, lest their sexual indiscretions harm family honor.

Especially revealing is the fact that there were no formal leaders. Informal leaders existed, but they were under a heavy burden. They could only persuade others, but not command them. In many societies, even small-scale agricultural ones of today, those who are arrogant are often ostracized from the community, and sometimes attacked and even killed. Humility is often the supreme virtue among small-group peoples.

The point: Humans can be cooperative, and live without war, hierarchy and intolerance. We know this because we have already lived this way, and we have lived this way for 95 percent of our time on earth. This is no more "just a theory" than biological evolution is theory. The story here is true, based on everything anthropologists and others have found in our research.

"But we would give up so much if we lived like foragers." This is how many students respond after I present them with the data above. Their point is a reasonable one and deserves further discussion in another post. But I hope you can think deeply about this question, as I have: "What might it be worth giving up to live cooperatively and generously alongside our fellow humans?"