The Qualities of the Human

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

(The more things change, the more they stay the same.)

In this section we look at the roots of the problems that advanced countries have in providing healthcare for their populations. At the same time, this begins to shine a light on the deep causes of much of our individual suffering. Looking for root causes is a vital part of the holistic view – whether it be the struggle of a whole nation or the struggle of one person.

Origins and problems with being human – understanding our roots

We are told that we are living in a time of rapid change. Of course, this is true in many ways, particularly the development of science and technology. But it is easy to be mesmerised by what is changing and to forget what stays the same. The fundamentals of human nature have changed little since our species left Africa about 125,000 years ago.

Magdalenian modern humans - about 17,000 to 12,000 years ago
After Magdalenian modern humans – about 17,000 to 12,000 years ago

We evolved to be uniquely intelligent, dependent on cohesive and cooperative social groups, and at the same time competitive, both as individuals and between groups. Eminent biologist and prolific writer, Edward O. Wilson:

An unavoidable and perpetual war exists between honour, virtue, and duty, the products of group selection, on one side, and selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy, the products of individual selection, on the other side. (The Social Conquest of Earth p56.

Later he adds:

In a constantly changing world, we need the flexibility that only imperfection provides. p241.

Our selfish and greedy instincts, the ones we often label as vices, are older, more primal and harder to constrain; likewise, the often brutally competitive instincts of tribes. In contrast, the self-sacrificing parts of our human nature, that are key to the success of groups, are newer in evolutionary terms, and more fragile.

The necessary ‘imperfection’ that Wilson refers to requires a dynamic balance between the selfish and the self-sacrificing. We have to work harder to maintain that balance, to achieve the flexibility that enables us to collectively thrive in a changing world. Our problem in the 21st century is that, in many places, we have lost that balance. Our Western capitalist society privileges greed and selfishness. Even when plentiful material goods help to keep us peaceful, the accompanying fragmentation of communities and the grotesque inequalities in wealth produce illness and misery. Other societies have adopted a rigid moral framework that lacks flexibility and is liable to produce material deprivation and brutality. Both sorts of society (but especially the capitalist) contribute to environmental damage, perhaps the greatest long term risk to survival. Both sorts of society get us into a mess through ignoring our evolutionary heritage.

The UK National Health Service currently has an unsustainable mixture of these two failing systems. Through taking a holistic view, we stand a chance of understanding and producing answers.

The hunter-gatherer human

Hunter-gatherer spearhead
Modern surgical hammer

Tools for heroes


Most of our evolution was as hunter-gatherers, like the family group shown above. The Magdalenian period was just before the development of agriculture, so more than 100,000 years had already passed since we emerged from Africa as a distinct species of social hunter-gatherers. For millions of years before that, our forebears were accumulating the characteristics we now recognise as human. So we evolved to be hunter-gatherers.

Our modern lives have developed in a blink of the evolutionary eye. We are adapted to fulfill certain key roles essential to survival in prehistoric times: principally, the heroic hunter and defender, the nurturing parent and the community elder. The first two of these are the most ancient and the last is the most recent, the most fragile and the most likely to be neglected.


Heroic rescue






This is a way of understanding our present difficulties. We are ancient warriors and villagers living the lives of urban executives, shoppers, holidaymakers, computer analysts, waitresses, accountants, doctors, nurses, managers, cleaners, bus drivers, IT engineers, designers, shop assistants, lawyers, bankers….

By looking at the roots of a problem we can often understand it in ways that tell us what to do about it. This is a holistic way and there will be many examples amongst the dimensions within this website. For instance, to understand more about the dynamic balance we should be looking for, go to Integrated and look especially for references to complexity.

Next … Language Matters – holistic & love – the crisis of language in healthcare