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It Is in Our Nature to Be Self-Deficient

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It is in our nature to be self-deficient. This applies initially, chronically and inalienably. Now those once self-evident truths are obscured by errors of biology defying individualism.

Though the opposite is often said, no human has ever been “born alone” and survived. Being human starts being unable to feed ourselves and being unable to avoid becoming food. We have the most other-dependent offspring in nature. In Mothers And Others anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy says “No creature…takes longer to mature than a human child… [or needs as much help] before…[its] acquisition… of resources matches [its] consumption,” noting that modern hunter-gatherer children need 13 million calories to reach nutritional independence. Too many thinkers haven’t properly digested this structural self-deficiency. As psychologist Alison Gopnik observes in The Philosophical Baby, “you could read 2,500 years of philosophy and find almost nothing about children.”

Such willful ignorance was sown early into Enlightenment individualism. Hobbes planted it in his “social contract” thought experiment on ending mankind’s “war of all against all” in a “state of nature.” He utterly unnaturally considered “men as if… sprung out of the earth…suddenly, like mushrooms, come to full maturity without all kind of engagement to each other.” The early English feminist Mary Astell mocked these mushroom men maturing “without…mother…or any sort of dependency.” Sadly Hobbes’ mushroom cloud of confusion still endarkens essential unwarlike other-dependent elements of our nature.

Even after we can feed and fend for ourselves, we remain chronically self-deficient. Darwin in The Descent of Man, said any species that “would profit by living in society” evolved social instincts, since “individuals which took the greatest pleasure in society would best escape various dangers; whilst those that cared least for their comrades and lived solitary would perish in greater numbers.” And any human “who possessed no trace of such [social] feelings” was “an unnatural monster.” As likely the social-est species ever we constitutionally and chronically crave company.

Self-sufficiency seekers are also thwarted by division of labor, which builds interdependence into everything. Only a division of ideas from reality enables psychotic individualists, a Tony Kushner coinage, to believe otherwise. The market’s invisible hand may hide those masses on the other sides of your transactions, but if all their situations aren’t sustainable, neither is yours.

Tocqueville in 1835 described individualism as “a novel idea [that]…proceeds from erroneous judgment.” We misjudge our inalienable other-dependencies when we don’t limit the unbiological logic of individualism. Sadly much of our human sciences, especially as used in economics and politics, ignores that our only options have long been co-thriving or no thriving.

Though we can’t be born alone, we can achieve dying alone, often by having lived too individualistically.

Illustration by Julia Suits, New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

Jag Bhalla About the Author: Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at It explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles Follow on Twitter @hangingnoodles.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 7 Comments

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  1. 1. Heteromeles 7:30 pm 04/19/2013

    So….this is the caloric cost of having that second mode of inheritance: culture. Twelve million calories, give or take. Nice to know that, as with so many other bits of biology, using culture to speed up adaptation has a substantial trade-off cost. This helps explain why most species don’t use it.

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  2. 2. jduringer 7:18 am 04/20/2013

    hunter gatherer economics don’t apply to post industrial information economies – though the the lasting instinct to “(over)protect” our young does thwart their ability for much earlier self sufficiency – witness the retardation of children by most “public education”. With any luck, the last throws of a cultural dinosaur.

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  3. 3. N a g n o s t i c 12:26 pm 04/20/2013

    13 million calories = 23,636 Big Macs or just 5,882 Bloomin’ Onions w/ dip.

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  4. 4. rugeirn 8:40 pm 04/22/2013

    “As psychologist Alison Gopnik observes in The Philosophical Baby, “you could read 2,500 years of philosophy and find almost nothing about children.”

    Apparently one can read 2,500 years of philosophy without paying much attention to it. It takes very little digging into the works of any number of philosophers to find them thinking about many aspects of children, childhood, education, family and the like. A quick scan of an incomplete copy of the forthcoming Supplement on Philosophy and Ethics to the New Catholic Encyclopedia finds no less than 313 such references.

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  5. 5. stonesinthesky 1:01 am 04/23/2013

    Reading this instantly brought to mind Alasdair MacIntyre – a contemporary philosopher who makes very much the same point, as part of his project of reviving Aristotlean virtue ethics in counterpoint to Enlightenment individualism. See his 1999 book “Dependent Rational Animals.”

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  6. 6. hangingnoodles 5:20 pm 05/22/2013

    @stonesinthesky You are correct. MacIntyre’s work was a source for this post. I’m a huge fan of his. Thanks.

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  7. 7. N a g n o s t i c 10:41 pm 10/8/2013

    Your misreading of Hobbes must be deliberate.

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