Monday, September 16, 2013

W37: Human Nature and the Human Condition

This week’s Biblio-Mat book was much heavier in tone than in previous weeks but I have never been one to turn down a good sociology text.

Just dropped in, to see what condition my condition was in...
Published in 1959, Human Nature and the Human Condition by Joseph Wood Krutch was a 211 page hardcover on modern values in 50’s society. The cover itself didn’t look retro as much as flat out outdated but the muted colors of the dustjacket gave it a no nonsense feel that did not betray the text. Interestingly, it had deckled pages, which seems extravagant for a book of this subject matter. While devoid of images inside, the back cover did have a full page photo of the author, who looked like a cross between James Joyce and John Cleese.

Sans eyepatch.
The opening chapter set the tone for the rest of the book by bringing up the question of why “the good life” is now associated with “the standard of living”, which is interesting as this has remained a constant question about society up to today. The idea that worth is measured in material goods is nothing new but Human Nature and the Human Condition approaches it not as a problem but an inevitable part of the evolution of humanity. Instead, the criticism is focused more on technology and how we are moving away from valuing artistic and cultural endeavors for scientific achievements that may do as much harm as good, culminating into a quote from Oppenheimer on how we will progress in the future at the cost of losing our humanity and civilization.

The book then proceeds to discuss the issue of superfluity and how we are at a better position economically than we have been ever before yet we have transitioned from the economy of scarcity to a new economy of abundance. Whereas we used to worry about too few of things, we now strive for having too much and our problem is no longer circled around production but now around consumption.

Hooray for progress!
Taking a moment to reflect back on this, it’s amazing how much more true this is today. As Krutch put it, waste has become not a threat to prosperity but an indispensible condition of it. Recently there was a project for a proposed cellphone that contained interchangeable parts that could be swapped out and upgraded at will. It brought to light not only how much waste we are generating buying into the hype of new technology that requires us to replace entire objects based on small upgrades, but also how controlled we are by mass market consumerism. It has gotten to the point where waste, whether manufactured and marketed as something normal or caused by world crises, is now generated to fix the problem of overproduction.

The natural progression of this critique in the book, of course, shifts to advertising and the ubiquitous nature of marketing. There was nothing new in this section for anyone that has ever glimpsed at an Adbusters magazine but it does hammer home how the idea of “love things above all else; learn to want more and more” is becoming increasingly ingrained into society as we progress.

In a nutshell.
From here, the next chapters delve on the idea of exploitation and how the desire to exploit is in human nature. Using marketing and packaging as an example, it’s funny how the exploitation of the masses has shifted from taking heavy advantage of a small group for profit, such as in the case of slavery, to taking slight advantage of a large group, such as convincing people to pay a bit more for a better packaged or even useless item, resulting in much higher gains.

Or you can combine the two.
Think about our current consumer culture and this has never been more true in terms of mobile applications and micro transactions. Games like Farmville and Candy Crush ding people for a couple dollars every now and then, which is insignificant to the individual but when collected from millions become a profit to be reckoned with. And while this may seem like a new epidemic, it shares the same age old psychology of pushing created false values as snake oil.

True story.
Strangely enough, this introspection into consumer culture left on a tangent as the book switched gears into discussing the issue of overpopulation. The dilemma, as Krutch puts it, is that “too few people are going to be left if we have a major war; too many will crowd the earth if we do not”. While this is a valid concern, the fact that it has been fifty years or so after the publication of this book and we’re not much worse than before makes this section more like a doomsday prophecy than a pressing contemporary issue. It’s definitely still a problem, especially in places like China that cannot support the increase in population, but it hasn’t gotten remotely close to starting a war over to cull the population. While the book doesn’t offer any solution to this dilemma, it brings to light that this is an issue we should at least be thinking of rather than overlooking.

From here, Human Nature and the Human Condition moves to talk about what it means to be average or normal. Specifically, it critiques the academic world of children and how they are forced into a normalcy based on what the average child is capable of. Krutch observes that schools have been establishing norms to make sure that no individual is required or even encouraged to rise above them. While it paints a bleak view of the educational system of the 50’s it still feels like this is an issue in many schools where there is not adequate support for those that want to go beyond what is taught in the average textbook. Often, a system will elect to move at a slower speed to retain the majority rather than a faster pace that risks leaving a few behind.

Book is all over the place.
The book then abruptly switches to into a philosophical discussion of what it calls “the meaning of a meaningless question”. Chief among the various meaningless questions is “Does God exist?”. Bringing Locke into the discussion of tabula rasa, Human Nature and the Human Condition takes on almost an existential view of life before discussing the parts of human nature that can and cannot be changed. Coming full circle to present the idea that certain things, such as the desire for profit and personal possessions can no longer be abandoned, the conclusion that is drawn is that we are no longer born with a clean slate.

While there were a lot of points that are arguable, Human Nature and the Human Condition, serves its purpose in opening new thought and stirring debates. A surprisingly easy read for the subject matter, it held up well remarkably well through the years, which is both amazing and disturbing at the same time in how little human nature has changed.

Book rating: 8.5/10 (Fascinating read, even if you don’t agree with the points of view)

Random Quote: “In a society where we make more than we can use, it is important to persuade people to buy superfluities as to familiarize them with the best that has been thought or said.”


  1. Interesting analysis--a must find-to-read book. I will confer with my public library.


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