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Are People Basically Good or Bad?

April 20,2017

Are people basically good or bad?

This question drove me out of my dorm room in January, in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the 70’s, out into the sleet. I had come to the conclusion that they were bad. I had just read both “The Forest People” and “The Mountain People” by famous anthropologist, Colin Turnbull. “The Forest People” explores the Mbuti of the Ituri Forest and “The Mountain People” explores the Ik, a tribe in Ugandan Africa. It was the Ik story that struck me like a knife in the heart. I was devastated. The tribe threw their elderly out and booted their kids out when they were just a few years old. They were cruel, heartless. It was plain to see—they were bad people. Hence, in my eighteen-year-old mind, all people were bad. I needed to get out.

I threw a sleeping bag into the backseat of my old Chevy Impala and took off to go camping. I would go to nature, lick my wounds, and try to recalibrate. People are bad. Bad. I drove three blocks up to the grocery store to get something I could take with me to eat. I came out to find that the car was dead. Not a click. I popped the lid and stood staring down at the engine when this kid, this box boy, ambled by. He made me try to start it again. Nothing. He said with a kind of bird-like chirp, “Be right back”. I tried to stop him but he took off. He returned with a mixture of baking soda and water. He smeared it on the contacts of the battery, asked me to start it up and it did. Can I pay him for the baking soda? Nope. He ambled off. People are bad. Bad.

I drove out to the Minnesota state border, tears streaming down my face. Between the tears and the sleet, I could hardly see the road. I had pinpointed which campground to go to. It was getting darker. The sleet was setting into a solid wall. I got to the campground and there was a metal bar spanning the road. Closed for the season. I got out of the car and just stood there, the sleet running down my collar. I collapsed on the hood, crying for all I was worth. Suddenly, a ranger appeared at my elbow. “Is life all that bad, ma’am, he asked me? (Ma’am. I’m eighteen). I boo-hoo more and he tells me that he can’t let me stay here but he knows there’s another park up the road about twenty miles. I should go there. I wipe the snot from my nose, get in the car, and head up the road. Remember, I thought savagely. People are bad.

He was right. There was a campground. There was only one car besides mine. It’s was a Ford station wagon that looked like it hadn’t had a bath in years. Filled window to window with crap. And there was a guy crouched down by his fire.

I chose a campsite as far as away as possible and started a fire. The sleet had abated a little but it was getting to be that time in the winter when it’s hard to tell whether it is night or day. I do have a problem. I have no cooking utensils. How to cook over an open fire?

The guy starts coming my way. Ok. Here it comes. He’s going to do something really awful to me. Skin me alive, bake my eyeballs, turn me into a drum. I’m ready, here it comes. The guy comes over and offers me a tin can with a wire handle that he has clearly jerry rigged for me. He says something about figuring I could use it, hands it to me, and then goes back to his campsite. He never bothers me again.

I drive back the next morning. It was like the world was conspiring for me. Three different people went out of their way to help me. I guess people are not innately bad after all. That was almost forty years ago. The truth about people is that of course, they are both good and bad. As many people who study human behavior like to say, “It depends”.

My colleague, Cathryn Townsend, is one of the few people who, like Turnbull, have explored both the Mbuti and the Ik. Her discoveries are vastly different from Turnbull's.You can find out more about her here: