Balance of Human Kindness and Cruelty: Why We are the Way We Are

Author: Edgerton, Robert B.
This book reviews the many conflicting theories about human nature, those that stress our dark side, and those that emphasize our goodness. It then explores actual human behavior in societies around the world beginning with earliest and smallest known societies, foraging people such as the !Kung San Pygmies, then various kinds of farming people, and finally, city dwellers. It also focuses on human behavior during the 20th Century providing detailed examples of human kindness and inhumanity. It also examines human behavior under the most terrible kind of stress imaginable--deadly, prolonged famine. How people respond to famine around the world is described with an emphasis on the killer famine that starved much of Ireland from 1845 to 1850. Many Irish people died of starvation but unlike other parts of the world where starvation led the strong to kill and eat the weak, Irish culture forbade such killing and in reality it did not take place. Finally, the book summarizes the evidence, then concludes that even though people have biological urges that lead toward anti-social behavior, human rule systems can control most of these anti-social predispositions.


“Robert Edgerton has produced a remarkable book that focuses on both the bright side and the dark side of human life … Robert Edgerton asked me to write this Preface because he knows that I have studied the violent side of human behavior for several decades in publications dealing with such topics as warfare, feuding, rape, and capital punishment. Many anthropologists and social scientists ignore these topics, presumably because they present a picture of humankind that they find abhorrent. I do not, nor does Robert Edgerton, believe that these topics are to be ignored. As he has shown in this book there is great variation in human behavior across cultures and within societies … I congratulate him for successfully integrating a vast corpus of data and interpreting it in such a meaningful way. His command of the ethnographic data, as well as twentieth century history, singles out Robert Edgerton as one of the country's leading anthropologists.” (from the Commendatory Preface) Professor Keith Otterbein, University at Buffalo

Table of Contents

1. Our Nature: Evil or Good, Cruel or Kind?
2. Life in the Smallest, Simplest Societies Known
3. Sedentary Farming People
4. Farm Villages Under State Control
5. Ancient Cities: Kingship, Warfare, Slavery, Death
6. Humanity & Inhumanity During the 20th Century
7. Famine: When Lives are Threatened
8. Human Nature and the Problem of Order