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Greek Myths about Human Origins

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

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We are ill-fated idiots. That’s what some popular and supposedly scientific ideas suggest. The ancient Greek meaning of idiot, along with their myths, can help us avert a modern tragedy of reason. Somehow a sub-natural view of rationality ignores evolutions great gifts to us: our capacities for forethought and cooperation.

The myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, describes human origins. For our ancestors “every act was without knowledge, until Prometheus gave them his illicit gift, which would become their teacher of every art.” The word for “art” in ancient Greek was “techne,” the root of technique & technology. Prometheus, whose name means “fore-thinker,” symbolizes science and foresight.

An un-human “logic” drives the “tragedy of the commons.” Garrett Hardin coined that term for the overexploitation of common resources by “rational beings each…seeking to maximize his gain,” which causes collective disaster by damaging what they depend on. But this is no unavoidable fate. Rather it’s a tragedy of poor thinking by supposedly elite reasoners, blind to simple solutions.

Elinor Olstrom won a Nobel Prize in Economics for researching how groups overcome Hardin’s hard-of-thinking hurdle. But her work isn’t widely known. Before her Nobel, even prominent economists hadn’t heard of her. But we shouldn’t need Nobel laureate to see the obvious. Our survival has long required cooperation. We’ve evolved and developed ways to manage joint resources (e.g. punishing free riders) over about 10,000 generations.

Hardin claimed “no technical solution” existed and that a “fundamental extension in morality” was needed. His framing of the moral as distinct from the rational/technical shows how scientists can misunderstand those words. Morals are simply social coordination rules. They can be rational. Aquinas distinguished natural from supernatural moral virtues. The natural virtues, or skills (taken from Aristotle) included justice, temperance, and prudence and were needed for humans to thrive on earth.

Allowing foreseeably bad outcomes isn’t rational. Yet a supposedly rational economistic “logic” often encourages precisely that. Hardin spoke of a “tragedy of freedom in a commons,” which pinpoints the real issue. It’s not “the commons”, but an unsustainable idea of freedom. No community can allow freedom to create foreseeable collective doom. The fate of this logic is inescapable. Damage what you depend on and you risk perishing. Cultures with self-undermining forms of “rationality” and freedom don’t survive. That’s their common tragedy.

In Plato’s version of the Prometheus myth, “scattered isolated” humans are given “political techne” – the arts needed to create cities. The “pol” in politics is from “polis” meaning city. Without this, humans, self-deficient by nature, couldn’t prosper. The political arts of social coordination prevent us from being idiots. In ancient Greek, “idios” meant “of one’s own or private.” They believed it crazy and irrational to live only for private interests. They had sustainable self-interest rightly understood. We’d be idiots to ignore that we evolved relational rationality and social coordination rules based on justice. We must think better or bitter fates await.

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

Previously in this series:

It Is in Our Nature to Be Self-Deficient
Inheriting Second Natures
Our Ruly Nature
It Is in Our Nature to Need Stories
Tools Are in Our Nature
We Fit Nature To Us: Evolutions two way street
Justice Is In Our Nature
Behavioral Telescope Shows How Cooperation Works
Selfish Genes Also Must Cooperate
Game Theory And The Golden Punishment Rule
Revolutionizing Economics by Evolutionizing it.
Science’s Mobile Army of Metaphors

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.

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  1. 1. David Ropeik 9:14 am 07/26/2013


    An interesting and thoughtful piece. Unfortunately, it seems to entirely overlook or dismiss the huge body of knowledge we have about how human cognition actually works, and the deep and innate limits to the sort of reason and rationality you call for. The truth, as we have learned from rich research from a range of fields, is closer to what Ambrose Bierce suggested in the Devil’s Dictionary; the brain is only the organ with which we think we think. A great deal of what shapes our perceptions,judgments,choices and decisions is driven by brain wiring and chemistry far more connected to how things FEEL than what objective analysis of the facts says. Specifically with the perception of risk, instincts and emotions sub and PRE-consciously give a decided edge to feelings over facts, gut reaction over reason. So it is in fact irrational – a denial of the evidence – to suggest that we can achieve the rational decision making you and so many understandably call for.

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  2. 2. Helgav 5:48 pm 07/26/2013

    Humans are not entirely rational beings, it is true. Look who we often fall in love with (for good or ill!). Look at the state of the planet.

    However, I would not rush so precipitously to the most negative, indeed, devilish, interpretation of this. The fact, that there is an emotional side to our decisions, even the fact that our conscious mind is NOT always on board until the end, for of many of of the things we decide to do, hardly means that these decisions are tainted with irrationality.

    It just means that the conscious mind is not the only mind, and that a rational human being is NOT synonymous with a “cold” or calculating one.

    It is a good thing, too. Our most profound feelings will balance our compassion against selfishness, our altruism against greed, cooperation against competition, and our loyalty and courage against sentiments that might call for betrayal and self-preservation.

    As an anthropologist, I have seen the communal “rationality” played out in systems of foraging, of slash and burn horticulture, and in pastoral systems, all of which involve communally held and managed ecosystems. These systems were still intact and sustainable in the 1970s and 1980s when I studied them in Africa. What breaks these systems is an upward shift of the ratio of of population to resources. Loss of land to National Parks, invaders, drought, or competing uses (logging, mining) OR an increase in life expectancy (due to vaccination campaigns, improved water and so on) can be equally disruptive.

    The increasing social stratification in Africa and elsewhere, heralded by some as signs of an “emerging” middle class and of greater economic prosperity, has often signalled the simultaneous emergence of something much more sinister – of a class of persons too poor to remain in control over any land once land becomes a commodity. Furthermore, these changes often come in lockstep with the breakdown of traditional systems of land management honour the needs of the entire community, not just the biggest “stakeholders”.

    As for Plato and Aristotle, what did they know? They speak to us, out of a time of profound social upheaval, when the first states were forming, when the intensification of agriculture had already virtually destroyed many of the communal channels of sustainable resource use. Greece was being deforested, soil washed into the sea at alarming rates. There were constant raids and wars as the expanding population expropriated surrounding territory and clashed with tribal pastoral and forest horticulturalists.

    As in the rest of the world where this process had happened, philosophical and mythological traditions, which, by elevating the burgeoning nation state to the romantic centre of history. Its ruling elites became either gods, or god’s chosen people. Plato specifically said that this class were those men whose statecraft and enlightenment made them fit to rule over everyone else.

    These philosophies intermingled with mythology, and were clever amalgams of observation, ignorance, and slander concerning the degree of human virtue to be found among tribal and pre-agricultural economic systems. In fact, humanity in a “state of nature” was often presented as rather sinful, inclined to murder and savagery, unless exposed to the right ideas (raised as a proper young Greek, or Egyptian, for example).

    Even Garret Hardin recognized that there were specific mechanisms that resulted in the “tragedy of the commons”. Among these was the emergence of socio-economic stratification that pitted common interests agains the commercial exploitation that could enrich the few.

    Elinore Olstrom’s research revealed that economic cooperation can lead to long term sustainability, yet many of the models still used by economists and others to “think with” ASSUME that the “tragedy” is the natural outcome of having a “commons”. Even only if we let the selfish and short-sighted people dominate the society.

    And, who would be dumb enough to permit that? Well, starting with Plato…

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