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.


  1. 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.

  2. Harry Gold says:

    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.

  3. Good post, we’re just animals.

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

  5. 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.

    • Anonymous says:

      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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