“Nobody knows themselves. Sometimes when somebody is really nice to me
I find myself thinking, ‘How will he be in Sobibór?’”
– Toivi Blatt
From 1941-1942, the Reserve Police Battalion 101, made up of “ordinary men,” set out to kill Jews on the eastern front. These ordinary men often took considerable pleasure from killing in horrific ways, such as lining men, women, and children up and executing them with gunshots to the back of the head. Anti-Semitism alone cannot fully explain why men would take part in such atrocity. Regularly, when such dumbfounding acts take place, there is talk of it being simply a part of “human nature.” But what is human nature? Human nature is often treated as static, fixed and set into the human condition – it “implies that our species is characterized by a common core of features that define us.” If human nature were concrete, there would be no exceptions to the rule. Yet, repeatedly humans have defied what is conventionally, or contemporarily, recognized as human nature. Clearly, an essentialist concept of human nature is inadequate in explaining the motivations of ordinary men who make up such death squads as the Reserve Police Battalion 101.
Breakthroughs in understanding the psychology of such aforementioned ordinary men, who submit to authority and do its bidding, came in the 1960’s and 70’s in the form of experiments lead by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, respectively. These experiments showed that human behaviour is not merely ingrained, but moulded and shaped by physical environment, a person’s upbringing, and social pressure.
The Milgram experiments, in which a subject was put in a room with a perceived authority figure and ordered to give electric “shocks” to a non-visible confederate, showed that over half of the subjects would obey authority to the point of “killing” the confederate – albeit with some instances of extreme trepidation. The implication here being that when put in a position of subordination, over half the population is fully capable of murdering a complete stranger at the behest of an authority figure, as long as the culpability lay on authority and not on the person following orders. This is unnerving, however it does not say much about so-called human nature, seeing as about 40% of individuals refused to administer fatal “shocks,” with some refusing to give any shocks at all. This experiment, however it may make for good television and scary stories, elucidates Zygmunt Bauman’s contention that “the process of rationalization facilitates behaviour that is inhuman and cruel.” Rather than showing that there is an essentialist human nature bent on killing, the Milgram experiments show the effects of environment and social conditioning. So ingrained in our culture is the value of obedience to authority, that it is shown to override our personal moral sensibilities.
The Stanford prison experiments, facilitated by social psychologist Philip Zimbardo in 1971, further attest to the role of environment and social pressure on human behaviour. Without delving into too much detail regarding the experiment, it must be noted that the experiment was shut down after one week due to the cruelness and hostility of the “guards” and the physical and mental harms done to the “prisoners.” These were ordinary men put in extraordinary conditions and their behaviour reflected this:
The construed superiority of the guards rebounded in the submissiveness of the prisoners… The guards forced the prisoners to chant filthy songs, to defecate in buckets which they did not allow them to empty, to clean toilets with bare hands; the more they did it the more they were convinced of the non-human nature of the prisoners, and the less they felt constrained in inventing and administering measures of an ever-more appalling degree of inhumanity.
The social roles people fulfill create self-reinforcing behaviours, in both positions of dominance and submissiveness. As Zimbardo himself would articulate, “within certain powerful social settings, human nature can be transformed… good people can be induced, seduced, and initiated into behaving in evil ways.” Yet, even in Zimbardo’s prison experiment there were guards who “resisted” and did their best to “help the prisoners when they could.” If Zimbardo can speak of a “transformed” human nature, then, again, clearly an essentialist view of human nature is inadequate to describe human behaviour, and must be considered flexible or fluid in response to social context and environment.
Or perhaps, the concept of human nature itself is not very useful. Many authors have recently taken opposition to human nature. As Peter Richerson states, “Useful concepts are those that cut nature at the joints. Human nature smashes bones.” Tim Ingold, in “Against Human Nature,” writes, “… human capacities are not genetically specified but emerge within processes of ontogenetic development. Moreover the circumstances of development are continually shaped through human activity. There is consequently no human nature that has escaped the current of history.” Or, as Wolfram Hinzen argues, “… human nature is obsolete because, if it exists, it must be grounded in biology, and biology does not vindicate any such thing. Hence a human nature does not exist.” In my view, what ties these eclectic authors’ views together is an uneasiness to approach human predicaments with an absolutist or essentialist understanding of humans. The Milgram and Zimbardo experiments lend credence to this unwillingness to ascribe “core features” to humanity.
In the context of genocide and its history, eschewing an essentialist human nature has at least two positive effects: 1) genocide is not seen as an outcome of inevitable forces that arise deep from the human condition, but as a complex interaction between a species and its environment, and 2) moving away from a kind of soft determinism leaves humans able to create and build societies – environments – that do not lend themselves to inhuman cruelty through “cold rationality” and strict hierarchies of power. Gillian Barker, in Beyond Biofatalism, grapples with modern limiting essentialist human natures evoked by evolutionary psychologists, and responds to “pessimism about social change that, while not involving a commitment to genetic determinism, is nonetheless based on a particular set of presumptions about the biological underpinnings of human behaviour.” Baker calls the above “biofatalism” and is convincingly insistent that such pessimism is unwarranted and unsubstantiated. Beyond Biofatalism shows a “different picture of human nature, one that shows us to be more open to some important varieties of social change” than most leading thinkers purport. Echoing Zimbardo, Barker speaks of a “feedback loop,” wherein “[o]rganisms respond to their environment, but they also change them… organisms respond to the environments they themselves have changed, and their responses then affect how they go on to change those environments.” This grants agency to human beings, rather than stripping it away under the cloak of human nature.
The role of the immediate environment was central to Milgram and Zimbardo’s findings, yet social development was also central to Adam Jones’ understanding of rescuers: “Rescuers were significantly more likely than non-rescuers to describe their parents as benevolent, loving, kind, tolerant, compassionate, non-abusive, prone to explain rather than punish, extensive rather than restrictive in their orientation towards others.” These values instilled a sense of conviction and autonomy in rescuers, which in turn lead rescuers to disobey illegitimate authority and help when and where they could. It is not unreasonable to assume that fostering the above values on a societal scale would create such a “feedback loop” between our species and our environment that would “accomplish major reductions in inequality, intergroup conflict, [and] gender role differences” and therefore eradicating much of the pretext for genocide. If we want to do more than simply understand authority, obedience, and genocide, it would behoove us, as human beings, to abolish from our lexicon any notion of a fixed human nature, and see ourselves as reactive and active within the environments we create.
 Adam Jones, Genocide: a comprehensive introduction. London ; New York: Routledge, 2017. 542
 Peter Richerson, “Human Nature,” This Idea Must Die: scientific theories that are blocking progress. edited by John Brockman. New York: Harper Perennial, 2015. 88
 Jones 543
 There were many variations on this experiment. For instance, when the confederate could be seen, only 2.5% of people administered the full “450 volts.”
Milgram’s Experiment on Obedience to Authority. Accessed November 23, 2017.
 Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust. New York: Cornell University Press. 2000. 155
 The format of the experiment can be found here:
Saul, McLeod, “Stanford Prison Experiment.” Simply Psychology. January 01, 2017. Accessed November 23, 2017. https://www.simplypsychology.org/zimbardo.html.
 Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust 166-7 as quoted in Jones 547
 Philip Zimbardo, Lucifer Effect 210-11 as quoted in Jones 548
 James Waller, Becoming Evil 238 as quoted in Jones 547
 Richerson 88
 Tim Ingold, “Against Human Nature,” Evolutionary Epistemology, Language and Culture: a non-adaptationist, systems theoretical approach, edited by Nathalie Gontier, Jean-Paul van Bendegem and Diederick Aerts. Dordrecht: Springer, 2006. 259-281
 Wolfram Hinzen, “Human Nature and Grammar,” Human Nature: Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement: 70, edited by Constantine Sandis and M.J. Cain. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 56
 Gillian Barker, Beyond Biofatalism: human nature for an evolving world. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. 3
 Ibid. 5
 Ibid. 53
 Jones 558 (emphasis in original)
 Barker 3