Don’t Think Too Highly of Human Nature

human nature

Roman aqueducts

Accelerating change, progress, and innovation is not the status quo.

The Aqueduct and functional sewage systems existed during the Roman Empire (300 BC – 300 AD). And then, when the Roman Empire fell, so did this innovation. The idea of digging tunnels below ground to transport water and waste out of the city was effectively eradicated from popular culture.

For the next ~1300 years, all major European cities had poor sanitation systems. Everyone threw their garbage and feces out in the street, or dumped it into back alleys. Some cities were perhaps better than others in disposing it, but sooner or later the smell became unbearable.

As a result, big cities smelled like shit and had lots of bacteria and disease.

Who knows if it contributed to the viral effect of the Bubonic Plague….

Not until the early Industrial Revolution, from 1600s and going forward, was the shit taken care of.

You might think people would’ve gotten rid of the shit in those 1300 years.

–But no.

So my question is: What does that say about basic human nature? 

Keep in mind Galileo was persecuted by the Church ca 1600 for putting forth a claim that Earth was not flat; that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and not the other way around.

People really don’t like change. Take the example of the guy Semmelweis, who suggested doctors wash their hands. But the doctors didn’t want to believe, did not test it, and resisted this simple success strategy for more than 20 years. When it was implemented, child mortality was cut by 20-30%.

In response to my previous question:

Don’t Think Too Highly of Human Nature

After all: We lived in shit for more than a thousand years, for no good reason.

Most of mankind are group-thinkers who can live for 52 Generations in a place that smells like shit, without questioning whether it’s necessary. And when some bold and enterprising fellow steps forward and says its stupid to continue living like this and proposes a better solution, they put him down, ridicule him, and don’t want to believe him…

…it almost seems like the vast majority of mankind is not interested in helping itself.


Accelerating change, progress, and innovation definitely is not the status quo.

It is the result of a handful of good and extraordinarily capable men throughout history.


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  1. Two things. First: Galileo did not propose the earth was round, everyone knew that already. It has been known at least since the time of the Ancient Greeks, and possibly even earlier.

    Second: during this same time period, the Islamic world was building aqueducts, public baths, sewage systems, etc. I think whether a civilization is on its ascent or descent affects how human nature manifests itself. In other words, we shouldn’t be so pessimistic. Humans are the type of creatures that can live in dung for 1000 years, but also the type that can invent and build sanitation systems that last 1000 years.

    • Hello. Interesting comment.

      Why do you think the Islamic world was so successful and innovative at that time and how come it stagnated and lost it versus the western world?

      And as a follow-up question: Do you think the Islamic world can regain that level of inventiveness in terms of philosophy and science?

  2. Human nature is behind most of the world’s events and unfortunately very rarely learns. That’s why humanity is doomed to repeat many of the mistakes over and over again.

  3. It’s a question that’s reverberated through the ages – are we humans, though imperfect, essentially kind, sensible, good-natured creatures?

  4. One of the most brilliant posts on this blog.
    When we really think about it, this observation is dumbfounding.
    And it all goes back to the central theme of your blog (in my view) – the concept of homeostasis (A.K.A. conservation of energy of us, humans).
    We really are hopeless, in a way.

  5. Peter Bartholomew says

    | Who knows if it contributed to the viral effect of the Bubonic Plague….
    Bubonic plague was/is a bacterial infection, not a virus. It was spread by fleas, which may have been affected by the conditions… but unlikely.

    | (300 BC – 300 AD)
    Roman empire in the West fell in 476AD with the Byzantines carrying on well into the 1,000’s

    In terms of the overall post, it’s true but not for the reasons you’ve insinuated. People resist change because of fear of the unknown & the energy required to surmount it (I think your homeostasis book explains it well).

    However, whenever someone of great stature comes along – or a series of events changes the situation by any significant degree – people generally adapt (or die).

    The lack of leadership, economic contraction and cultural decline witnessed by the loss of the Western Roman empire created a power vacuum which prevented any major developments from being spread for a long time.

    This vacuum prevented leadership (military, cultural or economic) from asserting systemic change, and thus the Dark Ages happened. You may argue that the likes of Charlemagne go against this, but his influence is but a blip compared to that of the Caesars. Coupled with religious zealotism (as expounded upon with your example of Galileo), and you have a recipe for self-indulgence and protectionism that prevents the adoption of new/better systems.

    In other words, if there’s no market for something, most people will revert to self preservation (who wants to take all the risk when they can just do menial jobs, have sex and drink merrily in the tavern).

    The solution is to be a great man/woman. Charlemage, Peter the Great and others are examples of people who bucked the trend…. but they didnt have the influence – for as longer period as the Romans – to affect real change. Napoleon had a good go (and could be argued was directed much by circumstance), but in the end, it’s only the powerful great men who have the opportunity to influence change as much as you’re suggesting.

    The solution is to be unapologetically bold in improving life. Taking massive risks (which break the status quo) drive other capable people towards you (much like you’ve done with this blog). Law of attraction? Absolutely. But not how many people think of it.

    • Hi Peter,

      Thanks for your comment. It made me think quite a bit now: Perhaps I was a bit lazy in writing this post — let me add some thoughts here:

      *Bubonic Plague: You say it was spread by fleas. Consider that fleas infest rats, cats, and dogs. And rats, cats and dogs often eat feces and garbage food thrown out on street. So my guess is – that speeds it up significantly.
      *Fair enough, historical inaccuracy on Roman Empire timing.
      *Charlemagne may not have made a big enough impact in his own life time, but if you consider what he accomplished (given today), it’s massive. You can be sure his educational reform played a big part in laying the foundation for Europe’s future scholars.
      *We all know Napoleon did a lot. Laid the foundation for private property, school system, and metric system for Europe.

      What good did Peter the Great do? I don’t know so much about him.

      • Peter built roads, military influence and did a huge amount to bring Russia in line with European powers of the time (particularly Sweden). He also gave his name to St Petersberg.

        I don’t know a huge amount about him, but from what I do, he seems to have been a renaissance man, who used his exposure to English & Dutch shipbuilding, French politics and a number of other Western influences to make Russia a great state. The documentary I saw had him travelling 200+ miles per day, in a time when most didn’t move 15 from where they were born.

        “*Bubonic Plague: You say it was spread by fleas. Consider that fleas infest rats, cats, and dogs. And rats, cats and dogs often eat feces and garbage food thrown out on street. So my guess is – that speeds it up significantly.”

        Yes, absolutely.

        However, in this case, the “plague” is a baterium which originated in Asia and was not the result of any of the sanitary conditions of the time. In other words, if you were 100% sterile, in a 100% sterile environment, you could still catch it by way of being bitten by an infected flea.

        The infection in the flea came from an infected rat, which could have been the result of eating excrement or something… so you may be right. The point was that the sanitary conditions were a symptom, (not the cause of) the plague.

    • By 476 the Western Empire was a feeble remnant, and the Eastern Empire was in decline. Later historians seized on 476 as the date of the “fall” of Rome, but at the time no one noticed that the Empire had (supposedly) fallen. Like most historical events, it was a gradual process.

      The *official* end of the Empire was of course in 1806.

  6. It’s crazy how much we take for granted, like the premise that things automatically get better without our effort. I think that’s the underlying meaning of Ludvigs article.

    And when people think like that, it often means they expect the world to pander to their selfish desires.

    • That is the modern Zeitgeist – social progress should be effortless, painless, and benefit everyone.

      When America was settled, both individual and social progress were seen as the reward for work, risk, and sacrifice.

      For most of history, social progress wasn’t even on the horizon; for a lucky few, personal success could come through warfare but for the vast majority it was “shut up and work, slave”.

      Guess which epoch I prefer…

    • I agree – well said.

  7. Good post, we’re just animals.

  8. The Church (and all educated men since Antiquity) knew perfectly well the Earth was round; how else would the Sun revolve around it?

  9. I dont like the sentimental of overglorifying homo sapiens, as if we are superior to all other species by default.

    That is like celebrating laziness or ascribing virtue to skin color.

    What makes humans unique is our brains and ability to change.

    We should find a metric and make sure Guinness world record for it.

    • What makes humans unique is our capacity to build & use tools.

    • This is a good idea.

      But there are many different reasons homo sapiens are different from other animals, and it’s not so easy to single out one thing.

      Tool-making is good, but how would you measure that in a World Record? Same with change.

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