My interest in the concept of human nature comes from my work as a small business marketing strategist, copywriter and web designer. I work with business owners to create brands and business propositions based on the personality, skills, and experience of one person. I do this because I believe that small, supportive communities and altruistic entrepreneurship are the future of humanity.

In my day-to-day work, I spend a fair bit of time thinking about what people want and why they are likely to want the things my clients have to offer. I also think about what really motivates my clients to move away from comfortable employment situations to start and grow their businesses. This preoccupation has driven me to learn more about how people make decisions. I’m particularly interested in how flawed decision-making processes can end up working against the individual and to the detriment of society more broadly.

What do we think we want?

It follows that if we understand what motivates people to make the decisions they do, we could encourage them to make decisions with better outcomes for them and for society. But how do we understand what drives us? One way is by understand how we were designed to live.

If we consider humans as we would a piece of equipment that we were assessing for a particular purpose, the first question to ask would be what the piece of equipment was designed to do. For example, if we wanted a coffee maker for a busy café, we wouldn’t buy one that was designed to be used on a campfire for 2-4 people.

It’s my opinion that we judge our fellow humans unfairly for two reasons. Firstly, because we’re not considering what the manufacturer designed them to do and, secondly, because we’re trying to make sense of a world that continues to become more complex and harder to understand.

What are humans designed to do?

Humans are a highly social species belonging to the ape family. About  8-7 million years ago we split from a shared lineage with chimpanzees, our closest natural relative.

Until about 12,000 years ago – or for more than 90% of our history – we existed as hunter gatherers, living in harmony with nature. Because of the dangers of this lifestyle, we almost never made it to the ripe old age of forty. We were a pretty harmonious bunch, existing in larger groups as stateless societies, or in small groups and communities that weren’t big enough to need governments or formal leadership.

At about this time, agriculture began to develop as a way of life for many. It’s been suggested that this is because the hunter-gather lifestyle couldn’t sustain larger populations, or that changes in climatic conditions made food more scarce. Whatever the reason, once large-scale agriculture took hold as a way of life in the West, it stuck.

The agricultural lifestyle led humans to become shorter, fatter and unhealthier than they’d been before. This was partly because they were moving less and eating a single or dual crop diet of barley and wheat. Because they were in one place all the time, their thoughts turned to accumulating possessions and defending their territory. Individuals also became specialists in a particular skill that was needed by the group and traded that skill for money or goods.

So, this sort of change was happening from 12,000 years ago, which in the scheme of things is no time at all. But let’s put it into perspective.

Humans in roughly their current form emerged in Africa about 300,000 years ago and spread out, colonising all the continents and larger islands. They arrived in Australia about 65,000 years ago, Europe and Asia about 60,000 years ago, the Americas about 15,000 years ago, and remote islands like Hawaii, Easter Island, Madagascar, and New Zealand between 300 and 1280 AD.

Now, here we are in 2021 with a world population of 7.9 billion, living life in the ‘burbs, using a brain designed for a time before recorded human history when our most pressing concern was survival – not how to win at life.

How exactly did this happen? Let’s take a closer look.

100 years ago – World population 1.9 billion

Most of the world was getting over World War 1 and economic prosperity replaced the lean war years.

Most but not all women in western countries had just been given the right to vote, although many still couldn’t own property in their own names.

For the first time, more Americans lived in cities than on farms. The unprecedented economic boom and industrial growth that followed the war, saw a massive increase in the number of people who had phones, cars and electricity in their homes. Movie stars and sports heroes became a focus for the media and big business was just getting started.

1,000 years ago – World population 295 million

European society was mostly divided into three categories – nobility, clergy, townsmen and peasants – with 90% of society consisting of peasants living in small rural communities or villages. Women had similar rights to children, who had high mortality rates in Europe because of unsanitary living conditions. The most authoritative medical textbook of the time was an encyclopedia of medicine called The Canon of Medicine, compiled by Muslim physician-philosopher Ibn Sina and completed in 1025.

The Americas were sparsely populated by Native Americans who were hunter-gathers and farmers, depending on the region. Their sustainable farming and land management techniques resulted in the domestication of a large number of crops which are now produced around the globe, including corn, tomatoes, strawberries, tobacco, avocados and many more.

These crops were big news in Europe when explorers came across them and brought them back as gifts for kings and queens. The population of Europe was experiencing major growth and the Catholic Church sent armies from across Europe to fight a series of crusades on their behalf in the Middle East. Some of Europe’s most famous Gothic cathedrals were being built and the first recorded teaching took place at what is now Oxford University.

10,000 years ago – World population 5 million

When we get back to about 8,000 BC most people around the world were still living as scattered hunter-gatherer communities. More farming communities were starting to emerge, cultivating various varieties of wheat and barley and keeping sheep, goats and cows.

Hunter gatherers had to be mobile, so they weren’t that concerned with possessions and from what we can work out, they tended to have more gender equality within their societies, although there was still some degree of social hierarchy. Leadership didn’t seem be the responsibility of one person – it seems to have been shared among the group, with different people leading according to their areas of expertise.

Around this time indigenous communities throughout north and south America, especially in modern Mexico were beginning to domesticate local crops, including the potato and a variety of squash.

Did we get a life downgrade with bricks and mortar?

If we look back at how humans lived before the world as we know it now existed, it seems as though the time of the hunter-gatherer society was the most peaceful. There are theories that suggest the egalitarianism typical of human hunters and gatherers was never total, but it is striking when viewed in an evolutionary context.

One of humanity’s closest primate relatives, the chimpanzee, is anything but egalitarian. Chimpanzees form themselves into hierarchical groups that are usually dominated by an alpha male. So great is the contrast with human hunter-gatherers that many paleoanthropologists argue that resistance to being dominated was a key factor driving the evolutionary emergence of human consciousness, language, kinship and social organization.

The nature of human nature

Even though we haven’t lived as hunter-gatherers for thousands of years, our brains seem to be wired for that way of life. Our survival depends on us sticking together and sticking to what we know as our hearts yearn for new horizons and adventure – not on our own, but with people we can count on.

The reason we’ve thrived as a species with weed-like vigor is because a force we’re not even aware of keeps pulling us back towards other people in the same way that a marble put into a bowl will keep rolling back towards the centre.

When we care what other people think or bend over backwards trying to make them like us, we’re not weak, we’re savvy in an evolutionary way. Almost every religion and culture has capitalized on the basic human need to be with other, similar people, to keep its flock from straying (more about this in religion) or its citizens in line (more about this in culture).

People who think like this are the ones who survived because the communities they lived in didn’t get fed up with them and kick them out. Because they weren’t on their own, they didn’t get eaten by predators or killed by their enemies.

We make sense of the world through the existence of people around us and are attracted to things that will ensure our survival – high energy foods, the comfort and security of a close community, and high-status individuals or status to improve our quality of life.

The fact that we now have so much access to these things, and so little access to the other aspects of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that we evolved to exist in, could explain why life in the ‘burbs only seems bearable to some people when they have travel plans or renovation plans or relationship plans to distract them.

The way forward

I’m not suggesting the answer is to overthrow all the governments and hit the road with a backpack and a dream, but perhaps the clues to our next steps could be informed by our past?

What you can do

If you liked this episode, talk to someone else about it. If you loved it, talk to two. Like yawning, positivity is infectious so let’s see what we can do about spreading it around.


Van Lawick-Goodall, J. (1968). “The behaviour of free-living chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream Reserve”. Animal Behaviour Monographs (Rutgers University). 1 (3): 167.