On Failing To Pass For Human

By Dwayne Holmes

This essay is less about reaching a conclusion than it is raising a question: what is “human nature”? Or perhaps better said: is there such a thing as “human nature”? Back at the now defunct Scientia Salon, Massimo Pigliucci expressed confusion that academics in the humanities were dismissive of the concept, and wondered if his acceptance might be due to his being a biologist [1]. But the thing is, I’m a biologist and have serious issues with that concept. For a term that sounds so definitive, often used while making proclamations about humans as a whole, it remains surprisingly ill-defined [2].

While philosophers and theologians have discussed metaphysical/ontological aspects of human nature for centuries, from what I can tell the most common appeals made these days are to three basic categories of “human nature”: the physical, the experiential, and the behavioral [3]. So I will use these categories to examine its more popular uses and potential pitfalls.

1) The Physical

At the genetic, cellular, and basic organismic level it is relatively easy to set conditions to identify human beings from other species (and inanimate objects).  We are carbon based, DNA-dependent, sexually reproducing, multicellular, eukaryotic, air-breathing, mammalian organisms, who continually replenish chemical compounds through ingestion, etc.

It seems pretty straightforward to talk about a “human nature,” in this sense; that this is our “nature” as opposed to say the “nature” of being a rock, jellyfish, or bird. However, for practical reasons, it must refer to generic capacities throughout the species, allowing a large degree of variation at the individual level. For example, while humans generally have eyes, and a certain number of fingers on a hand, it would be unusual to consider the blind or polydactyl as somehow defying “human nature” [4]. While children may be born with gross physical deformities, sometimes life-threatening, this is no longer described as having given birth to a “monster” or “abomination,” as if the child were something other than human.

Of course, some do cite (what many would consider minor) variations as crucial markers for different kinds of human populations. Characteristics as simple as skin color, hair texture, and shape of facial feature have been deemed sufficient to distinguish lesser humans from modern humans, subspecies (or “races”) of humans from each other (equal but separate), and regular ol’ modern humans from an emerging master race of homo superior.

Divisive appeals to human nature such as these have been generally discredited, something I assume my audience agrees with, so I won’t address them further unless raised in commentary. But it might be useful to keep the fate of such uses in mind, as we move to other categories.  We do not appear to have lost anything with their general discredit and so lack of use.

What this leaves us with is a unifying version of physical human nature that admits a broad variation in many characteristics, with an arguable emphasis on those features which are not shared with (and so distinguishes us from) other species. I have no problem with this myself, but it doesn’t do much work beyond biological classification. It is not capable of generating the emotional or normative force that many seem to desire from the concept. At least for most human nature enthusiasts I’ve encountered, it is not enough to say something like “human nature includes a certain range of body temperature and excludes the capacity to sift water using baleen to obtain krill for food.”

2) The Experiential

Appeals to experiential human nature refer to the primal sensations and drives that people take to be common experiences for humans: the products of our five senses; passions like anger, love, envy, lust, and greed; and how all of these intersect with common life events. For example, the feelings of awkwardness and rushes of emotions during our teenage years, the joy of falling in love for the first time, or the pain of losing a lover. As such, these appeals do not require or suggest that anyone must be anything other than physically human.

Appeals to experiential “human nature” tend to trip over the fact that physical variations (which affect our senses and drives) combine with environmental variations to produce very different personal experiences of the world. For example, I’m usually surprised when I run into someone who hates the taste of coconut. Of course, they are amazed that anyone can like it. Strawberries dipped in chocolate are a well-known sensual delight! Except for those who would experience anaphylactic shock, because of a strawberry allergy or slip into a coma due to diabetes (unless it was sugar-free chocolate). Surely, everyone loves a good bottle of wine or a well-aged cheese! Except for “everyone” who lacks enzymes to properly digest alcohol and/or dairy products (which is a lot when you consider that Asians tend to lack these enzymes).

Just as with gustatory experiences, there can be vast differences in how each individual human experiences anything in the world. Even one of the more common ideas – that we are all social animals and crave human contact and interaction – breaks down at the individual level with some pursuing solitary lives away from others. So, can any sense of an experiential human nature withstand scrutiny?

A unifying version mainly pops up these days in scientific attempts to explain our evolutionary development. [5] Whether in sociobiology or eco-psychology, a common experience is alleged to have arisen in humans, due to some evolutionary advantage it gave to our ancestors. This is not typically followed by experiments exploring how those failing to have such experiences came to exist (are they mutants?) or checking if the experience actually provides the stated benefit. Instead what’s common is taken as representing human nature, with a plausible benefit passed off as the reason for its existence. For example, a fear of spiders is explained as having emerged from encounters our ancestors had with them. Presumably the scaredy-cats survived to reproduce and pass on that trait, while the arachnophiles bit the dust before they had kids. On top of the logical and evidentiary problems I mentioned, such arguments seem disturbingly like discredited folklore on the subject (indeed barely warmed over).  The old wives’ tale that your fear of spiders means tha your mom got scared by one while she was pregnant seems little improved by expanding the claim to several generations of mothers (who gave birth to humanity) eons ago.

Divisive uses of experiential human nature are usually found where someone wants to make a moral argument about one’s tastes or desires. Some pregnant women may feel positively about a child growing inside them, and so it is claimed that women who do not and elect abortion are having feelings contrary to human nature. Or since most people’s sexual desires tend to be heterosexual and it has a clear benefit for continuing the species, those who feel attracted to the same sex have feelings that are against human nature.[6] While it might be agreed that such feelings are statistically less common, outside of appealing to a god-created set of standard human feelings (or purposes), it is hard to see how the leap is managed from less common to violating human nature. However, the purpose of the argument is clear. It is meant to generate shame in the minority out-group and pride in the majority in-group, by de-humanizing” the people who make up that minority.

Before people get too comfortable thinking this is simply a problem for the religious fanatics, it can also be found among liberal, science-minded folks as well.  It is sometimes couched in the more clinical sounding terminology of being “exceptions to” “normal” human desires, but the purpose of its use remains the same.  Not too surprisingly sexual minorities are also a common target. Thus, no woman (at least no normal woman) would ever want to work as a prostitute, much less enjoy it.  Only deviants would desire sex involving groups of people, inanimate objects, animals, humans that are much older/younger, and so on and so forth.  Naturally, it is explained, these people suffer from some aberrant physical or psychological issue which manifests in these exceptional desires, otherwise they would clearly experience sexual desire within the normal range on the bell curve of human sexuality. I suppose this gives new meaning to the statistical term ‘standard deviation’.

Interestingly, before we realized that disgust with homosexuality was due to the ignorance of religious fanaticism, homosexual desire was also on that medicalized list of deviant feelings.  If science and society lost nothing in removing that way of viewing this minority sexual desire, why not the rest that remain?  One common argument is that unlike homosexuality (or masturbation, or females desiring sex, which also got cleared from clinical moralizing) these others involve harm of some kind [7].  Surely it makes sense to view feelings that lead to detrimental effects as being contrary to human nature. Take psychopathy for example, where a person has consistent desires to achieve their own goals, with no concern for — or specifically to enjoy — the suffering of others. Is that not rightly considered an exception to normal human desires? But, why should that matter?  If a human being can experience it, then it is a part of human nature.  It might be an exception to the statistical norm of what people feel, and thus, belong to the fringes of human experience. But its potential for generating harm does not itself justify a leap to calling it an exception to human nature.

This can be analogized to the range of physical differences humans can exhibit, some of them detrimental. That something is far from the physiological norm does not make it an exception to human physiology in toto, it is simply “rare”. That it might cause harm does not change that status. Much more important, the need for medical concern and treatment is not based on its rarity, which is superfluous, but the danger posed. Likewise, calling psychopathy an “exception” to human nature is not required for, nor does it add anything relevant to, our concern for what suffering might come with it. And it should be obvious that whether miscarriages were a physical norm or psychopathy the experiential norm, the degree of concern from any dangers posed would not be lessened by that fact.

3) The Behavioral

Given the natural connection between our desires and what we do, there is an obvious extension from appeals to experiential “human nature” and appeals to the behavioral.  Only here such claims are made more difficult given that another layer of physiology and environment exists between our feelings and our behaviors [8]. But assuming a 1 to 1 correspondence between desires and behaviors, this kind of usage (and its pitfalls) are similar to what was discussed already, so I won’t repeat them here.  Instead I want to look at appeals to some broad-based “human nature” regarding behavior, that are argued to hold no matter statistics on how humans currently behave.

Whether unifying or divisive, the idea is that our general behaviors can be treated as running along a certain track.  They follow certain overriding principles that pull us in certain directions, even where we may have conflicting immediate desires (much like the faithful partner giving up sexual desires for the sake of a good relationship). To those of a certain mind, human nature is essentially good, with actions reflecting our inherent, over-riding altruistic sentiments, except where circumstances force us off track. Bad actions are deviations from the norm, and people can be called back from error by being reminded to follow their true nature. Those of a contrary mind argue that human nature is fundamentally sinful or bad, with actions reflecting our inherently selfish sentiments, except where we have managed to break from this dog-eat-dog norm. In this case, we are lauded for acting contrary to our nature, so as to achieve the more enlightened world that reason or faith have shown us is possible. Then there is the middle position, according to which we are essentially  “blank-slates,” where actions for good or ill largely reflect how our environment has shaped us. On this view, beneficial or harmful actions may be the norm, and we are (to some degree or other) either free to change or helplessly strapped into the individual character with which we have been saddled.

The problem with all of these is that they fail to contain any emotional or normative force.  The idea that our default behavioral nature is good or bad requires moral arguments, beyond appeals to the statistical norm of current behavior. Otherwise we cannot know which state we are currently in or for what we should be striving. The blank-slate option is especially problematic, since — like the physiological account — it tells us what got us where we are, but can give no signposts as to what it is to act contrary to our nature, or why we should be concerned with the statistical norm at all. The best these versions of behavioral human nature give us is a window into the moral worldview and feelings about fellow humans of the person making the appeal.

Like experiential human nature, appeals to behavioral human nature are not required to deliver, nor do they add anything to, criticisms of human behavior.  If there was anything worth criticizing or praising it stands well apart from its statistical status, unless conformity to any specific behavior, regardless what effects it may have, is inherently valuable.

Elements of all three categories can be found in the holy grail for human nature enthusiasts: the list of human “universals.”[9]  This miraculous artifact is credited with showing that some thread must run through humanity, connecting us all at some level. There are several problems with this list and such notions.

To start with the list contains items that we must have, in light of our physiology, and suggests nothing about any commonality beyond that. Childbirth customs, meal times, choice making, sucking sounds? As a sentient species that has live babies, eats, and breathes all of these obtain by default. The same would hold for elephants and many other animals. The only interesting universal would be if we treated such things in the same fashion. But hey, I’ll throw one on the list that they seem to have overlooked: concern about teeth (though they managed to get hairstyles).

Along similar lines, the list uses vague enough terms (or loose enough definitions) to connect very different beliefs and practices under the same universal. Marriage, Medicine, Magic, Murder…all proscribed. Are they monogamous or polygamous marriages?  Long term or short term? Actual ceremonies or just acknowledgments that people are exclusively a couple, for the time being? Is it faith healing, folk remedies, or science based clinical medicine? Is it real magic or “real” magic (this one will keep coming back to haunt the list)? Is it killing of any kind that’s disallowed, or only outside certain events, or only when done to certain people?  What practices are identifiable (much less accepted) as belonging to each term will be very different depending on the society.

Ignoring those basic problems, just because these features can be found across cultures does not mean that everyone within every culture follows or manifests those “universals”. Magic is a clear case where not everyone believes in its existence, much less has the same idea of how it could function. Even better, some “universals” specifically require the existence of their opposite. You can’t have proscriptions against murder or incest if there aren’t people who kill others or have sex with relatives. On that last point I should note it lists both “Oedipus complex” and mom-son incest being unthinkable as a universal. Maybe it would have been better to list such items as “killing (plus opinions about)” and “incest (plus opinions about).”

Moving on, just because they were found across all cultures at the time of study does not mean that they will always exist in all human societies or that they existed, because of some innate quality of humans.  This list does not seem to take into account historical or physical factors that might explain why things were so widespread (or not) at the time.  Once again, magic?  I think it is arguable that a particular item will not exist at some point in the future, beyond stage magic and fantasy books, particularly across all cultures.  Other examples of things that might change include “males, on average, travel greater distances over a lifetime” and “biological mother and social mother are normally the same person”.  As it is, if Abrahamic religions had been just a bit more successful during the 18th and 19th centuries, monotheism and hatred of homosexuality could easily have ended up on that list. Would that accident of history make them human universals?

And finally, even if the list is taken at face value, it does not provide evidence (or an argument) that anything not listed is somehow contrary to human physiology, experience, or behavior.  In fact, the way this list was assembled argues that given the right circumstances any behavior humans are capable of doing could become part of the list, and potentially remove its opposite.  All it needs to do is spread.

Beyond basic descriptions of human physiology, appeals to the existence of some common “human nature” appear to lack empirical and/or logical rigor. While some appeals are made in an openly normative fashion, it is arguable that the more clinical-sounding versions merely hide an equally normative intent. With few exceptions the main purpose of such appeals is to humanize an in-group and de-humanize an out-group, in support of social sanctions of one kind or another. However, this is an unnecessary and arguably unproductive exercise, because one can make more meaningful evaluations based on the merits of any trait, without discussing their statistical presence among humans as a whole. Plus, they may provide false security to members of the current in-group that they are unlikely to exhibit such “deviant” traits even if conditions change (after all, their current traits are supposed to be part of human nature), as well as creating unrealistic fears that a rise in, or acceptance of  out-group traits might harm society (as they alleged to be against human nature).

Of course, that I am part of an out-group whose traits have gone from being deemed “against human nature” to being recognized as “part of human nature,” with no demographic shifts in between, I guess I am prone to skepticism toward remaining classifications along those lines.  And it makes me wonder if such enthusiasts would harbor similar doubts if they found their own traits suddenly labeled as being outside of human nature.  It’s simple enough to do.  We just shift the imaginary line on the bell curve that separates the unacceptable exceptions to human nature from the acceptable extents of human nature.

Does it seem like I reached a conclusion after all?  Maybe I did.

Notes

1) One example of a humanities professor against the concept of human nature is one of Massimo’s colleagues at CUNY, Jesse Prinz: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4m0eej8VpSc

2) Is it whatever distinguishes us from other species?  Is it whatever humans have in common, even if shared with other species? Is it whatever humans are or do as a whole, even if not true for every human?  Is it whatever the “average” human is or does, excluding those humans that don’t fall within that average? These are all very different criteria delivering very different assessments of what human nature is. And someone might point out, each requires us to have identified what a human is to start with, raising the question why the criteria to identify “humans” was itself not sufficient to define our “nature”?

3) A good example of metaphysical/ontological accounts of human nature can be found in Aristotle’s writings, with discussions of how certain aspects of human life (like rationality) are set in relation to other aspects (such as passions).  These kinds of accounts are somewhat similar to physical accounts, being more neutral and descriptive in tone, but can also be used to generate normative-sounding claims.  When they do, they will usually veer into making appeals to the categories I have labelled experiential or behavioral. And so I consider such accounts as treated within those categories (particularly behavioral where I give an example of faith and reason). For more general information on how human nature has been discussed here is the Wiki entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_nature.

4) One dramatic example that challenges some basic assumptions about a singular physical human nature are conjoined twins.

5) I almost wrote “understand our evolutionary development”, then realized there is a large difference between studying development and conjecture.

6) Ironically some Evo-psych types have attempted to answer the “human nature” argument against homosexual desires by constructing an argument that this allowed evolutionary benefits to families by having people that could take care of the children? http://www.psychologicalscience.org/media/releases/2010/vasey.cfm

7) For the sake of this essay I will assume such claims to be true. But it must be remembered that prior medical moralisms also claimed that homosexual desire leads to harm. In fact some data would still support such a claim, but a change in societal attitudes has helped shift interpretation of the data.  Like homosexual desire before, there is a lack of sufficient data and consistent methods for its interpretation regarding intrinsic harm from other “deviant” sexual desires.

8) For example, a psychopath may never act on their desires and so fit well inside statistically “normal” human behavior. And on the flipside, non-psychopaths have been shown capable of psychopathic-like behavior, when placed in altered social conditions. Or perhaps more relevant to most, despite strong desires for other sexual partners, many humans remain monogamous to one sexual partner for extended periods of time.

9) Human universals: http://condor.depaul.edu/mfiddler/hyphen/humunivers.htm

Categories: Essay

13 Comments »

  1. Great topic! And considering its “nature” it’s clear you’ve given due consideration to possible avenues of approach. Similarly, the nature vs nurture remain vital to any such discussion, and you’ve touched on these as well. In addition, you’ve wisely steered clear of considerations of “image and likeness” notions. Nevertheless, imagine the fubar considerations that await those working in AI to fabricate such.

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  2. Hi Dwayne. I guess my main comment is that you don’t really address a “population” or quantitative way of thinking. So, I would say that it’s only human nature for parents to love and nurture their children, but it’s also human nature that a small proportion of parents kill their offspring. For humanity to persist, the former has to be more common, so it’s “more” natural in that sense. Ditto re exogamy etc. Similarly it’s human nature that people get depressed from time to time, and human nature that some people get more depressed than others. I don’t think I’m stretching things too far in the last sentence.

    Specifically re homosexuality and evolutionary psychologists – what other explanation do you expect them to suggest? Reproductive behaviour is the core business of any organism, homosexual activity is seen in many other species, homosexuality looks heritable and currently reduces number of offspring, and “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”. They put forward a hypothesis, and maybe it’s wrong.

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  3. Dwayne,

    I would go much further than you do here. “Human nature,” if we are to be properly inclusive, amounts to anything and everything humans have done or can do; all possible behavioral responses or emotional responses; everything any human has felt or thought.

    We don’t like to think about it in these terms, because of course this sadly includes genocide as well as great works of art; serial killing as well as acts of charity. But there it is. If we cannot include every human experience – every possible human experience – then all we have is some statistical probability (not any sort of “universal”).

    Such statistical probability is useful sociologically and politically, but it tells us nothing about who – or what – we are, or what can be done with this knowledge once (if) we attain it.

    That frustrates scientists, and some philosophers, in the West – where we are still searching for the ‘unified theory of whatever’ to replace the monolithic monotheistic religion displaced since the 17th century. (But it would come as no surprise to any thoughtful Hindu or Buddhist.)

    Human nature? Show me a human doing whatever or saying whatever, allowing that she or he feels or thinks whatever. That is human nature. It is not a theory, it is the being itself – the man, the woman, not the statistic.

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  4. Dwayne, you know I’ve been waiting patiently to hear more from you, and this is a fun one which let’s us go “meta” through physical, phenomenal, and behavioral perspectives. You took a relatively safe premise, raising questions about the concept of human nature instead of arguing what it “is.” And in the end, you did imply what I consider to be the proper answer — that such a thing does not exist. Nevertheless I would argue that this should always be the case whenever “is” is referenced for definition. If you ask what is “time,” “space,” “life,” “consciousness,” or whatever, we should always find that they don’t ultimately exist. Why? Because there are no “true” definitions for our terms.

    By taking the opposite approach, I presume that Massimo Pigliucci did not attempt to define what human nature “is,” but instead attempted to build a useful way from which to define the term. I consider this to be how we should approach definition in general.

    In a recent discussion with Brodix and EJ at Plato’s Footnotes, (found here: https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/2016/01/29/platos-weekend-suggestions-4/comment-page-3/#comment-2510), I’ve gotten the impression that others think I’m “cheating,” or ignoring the communal nature of language to define terms however they suit me. But in my opinion, we all must diligently define our terms given the unfinished communal boundaries associated with “human nature” and terms in general. Define them however you like, and also know that, by definition, you cannot possibly be wrong. The only question then will be, have you come up with something useful?

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  5. You make a very good point, the concept of human nature persists in common language but usually communicates something ill thought out and probably wrong. However, we often say, with justification, that it is in her nature to be or do such or such. This is how we navigate the world, and we probably could not survive without such a heuristic. We all make the mistake of projecting such insights on various groups without realizing that such claims are highly unreliable. Sometimes one cannot avoid such generalization. E.g. Islamic State represents a threat to our survival.

    On the other hand, social studies slice and dice humanity into various identifiable groups and then study their behavior, making some conclusions about the nature of the various parts and the whole.

    Is it illegitimate to speculate about humanity in the aggregate while attempting to understand one’s place in it?

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  6. I think that invocations of the “natural” and “unnatural” are useful in a number of limited domains — and are probably inextricable from a number of common language games — but I think you (Dwayne) are right that the term admits of no single, useful definition or analysis.

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  7. Hi All, thanks for the positive responses! For convenience I’ll reply to questions/issues in batches…

    Davidlduffy,your second sentence seems to make my point when you have “human nature” covering all potential feelings towards having children. I am not convinced that just because one set of feelings might help humans last longer, and so is likely to be more common among humans at the moment, it is somehow “more”natural. Why isn’t it simply: useful to grow human populations, and (therefore) more common among human populations?

    Regarding homosexuality and evo-psych, the answer I expect them to give is: we don’t know. There is no solid evidence it is heritable. And there is a long distance between “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” and “Nothing in Psychology/Behavior Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”. With a certain level of sentience (and so autonomy) behavior is not the same as biology (instinct/reflex). In any case, as long as a behavior is not detrimental to a population, there is little reason to seek evolutionary advantages to explain its existence.

    Ejwinner, I agree with you and think we aren’t that far apart 🙂

    Remember, at one point I do say…

    If a human being can experience it, then it is a part of human nature. It might be an exception to the statistical norm of what people feel, and thus, belong to the fringes of human experience. But its potential for generating harm does not itself justify a leap to calling it an exception to human nature.

    Of course that includes genocide, which (like psychopathy) I think many people want to explain away as not being possible for humans (in other words, themselves).

    Philosopher Eric, unfortunately Massimo did not defend his position that there is a human nature, beyond citing an experiential/behavioral “exception” to it… which he assumed most would agree.

    Liam Uber, the more select/defined the subject the less problematic I find using the term “nature”. So you are right that statements like “it is in her nature” make sense, and can be useful. As Dan Kaufman says in his reply (and I agree) even the term “unnatural”can be useful within “a number of limited domains”.

    You ask if it is illegitimate to speculate about humanity in the aggregate… well I want to say it is inaccurate more than illegitimate. You can make guesses to what kinds of responses you will face (generally speaking) from other humans, but that is not the same thing as from humanity, especially as “one’s place” is much better understood within the context of a local environment, which can be very different than the “mean” of all other localities.

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  8. Reading DanK’s response I thought :

    Yeah it makes sense to say something like – ‘After skipping breakfast it was only natural that I would be more hungry than usual today at lunch time’. But then thinking some more I wondered if the logical opposing implication makes sense – ‘ It was unnatural that I felt no more hungry than usual today after skipping breakfast’. I don’t think it does. If I didn’t feel hungry it might be unexpected, but the feeling wouldn’t be outside of nature. So I think I’m with EJ that we can’t have unnatural experiences in the strict sense.

    Does it makes sense then to speak of acting in accord with nature? So much for Stoicism or Taoism if it doesn’t makes sense to think of acting in accord with nature.

    I do however think that acting in accord with nature is a useful concept. So maybe I’m back on Dank’s side :). I say this because there are patterns or regularities which I think the better we understand and cohere with the more we tend to flourish. I’m trying to think of a better word then nature to stand in for these patterns or regularities and I’m coming up blank.

    For example, I try to develop habits that result so that my feelings, wants, and desires are inline and conducive with behaviors that are ‘good’ for me and those around me. I tend to intrinsicly want to exercise on regular basis. Because I have developed the habit in a sustainable way it is now a source of joy for me in addition to keeping me fit. This feels like working with my nature (or my biology) and not against it. I think people who develop addictions though poor habits tend to crave what is harmful for their well-being. Of course addiction is a natural process, but one that tends to go against the patterns and regularities of a flourishing system.

    So I think the concept is useful but should be used with care so as not to draw dangerous conclusions such as calling homosexuality unnatural.

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  9. Dwayne,

    I think we all agree that undisciplined thinking about human nature would inevitably lead to confusion. The OP does a fine job of cataloging the many foibles – it is in our ‘nature’ to be born in ignorance, to learn slowly and to make many mistakes. That does not necessarily invalidate the concept or its potential usefulness. 🙂

    However, it is probably an error to suggest, as you do, that exceptions necessarily disprove the intrinsic validity of a concept such as human nature. Certainly, the expression of a particular feature almost certainly could vary greatly amongst individuals; variations in sexuality e.g.. Also, ‘human nature’ evolves, or, at least its expression evolves, so when a feature changes it does not necessarily follow that the concept is wrong.

    A theory of human nature is very similar to theory of mind, it represents a best guess or intuition. However, since we have acquired much new information on what makes a human being, our guesses have become much better informed. Following are a few examples.

    On the physical side: almost all of us have 23 pairs of chromosomes; all are organized via DNA and subsist in a medium of mostly carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen. The configuration of the DNA is uniquely different in each person. Thus there seems to be a biological drive toward diversity. However, when it comes to our core functions, we seem to be almost identical. For example, a drop of blood can tell with virtual certainty who our parents are, but almost never can predict the intelligence of a person.

    Also, there is striking similarity in the structure and function of our numerous bodily systems with those of animals, even those not closely related. Like all the animals we are put together by what are now recognizable modules of various functionality. These are shared with most other animals. We know this has happened through evolution, but why and how we have no clue. The fact that other animals do ‘math’, have a sense of fairness, even may have a theory of mind suggest that we will repeatedly be inspired to wonder about our own nature as more information arrives.

    As far as experiential and behavioral are concerned I agree with most of your position except one. You say that not all humans are social which I doubt. There are rare hermits who avoid face to face contact with other humans. However, only if such individuals do not read, listen to the radio or watch television would I agree that they are completely asocial. I doubt if such exist, or if they did, that they would survive very long. Some kind of mental illness would probably be involved. Anyway, rare exceptions do not necessarily disprove the rule. Wide variation in behavior among individuals is the norm.

    An universal feature of humans is their need to communicate via some language. Social interaction is not possible in human terms without communication, and vice versa. Certainly, we have no culture in which language is not central. Some believe that the adaptive function of language is to maintain our social bonds. This would therefore seem to be a fundamental element of human nature.

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  11. Supposing there is much to say about our underlining software that will shed light on what we think and how we act (which most here seem not to want to do), a survey of anthropology, history, literature, and the daily news suggest that almost any generalizations we’ve toyed with in the past are inadequate.

    The point of trying to parse human nature should be understanding how we work, and certainly not, like the god of Leviticus to catalog “abominations”. If some odd variations can be traced to a genetic anomaly or the breakdown of some normally present mechanism, that may be worth knowing; may help in anticipating and dealing with late developing heritable malfunctions. We will see whether the model that autism is the absence of some “natural” responses that facilitate socialization leads to insight into how to those affected to compensate.

    The idea that our minds are some kind of blank slate is curious. Blank slates don’t have thoughts or talk to each other. The idea explains lack of uniformity, but explains nothing else, like how we happen to have minds.

    Popularizers of evo psych try to win over the public by picking and flinging low hanging fruit, like the land bound primates that they are. Anything related to sex may directly yield a formula that can be plugged into mathematical models of evolution, or just plausible logical hand-waving, but they also tend to tell us nothing new and have been (maybe fairly) been called “Just so stories”. David Sloan Wilson , according to a book blurb, “had an epiphany. Darwin’s theory won’t fully prove itself until it improves the quality of human life in a practical sense. And what better place to begin than his hometown of Binghamton, New York?” I’ve ordered the book The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time, and will see if he has made use of evolutionary insights into altruism, or anything else. My prediction that within a decade or two there will be much useful knowledge that can be traced to such insights.

    Chomskian Universal Grammar has almost worn out its welcome, having failed to evolve into a successful specific model. One prodigious researcher, Michael Tomasello (interview at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2A5t8FcWGas) was pointed out to me as a support for anti-nativism, describes many very specific qualities of human sociability aided always by the question: if this is a human trait, how might it plausibly have evolved.

    Dreaming could be a major key to how the brain works; especially the laying down of long term memories. One recent proposal on the nature of dreams, The Avatars in the Machine Dreaming as a Simulation of Social Reality by Antti Revonsuo et al also relies on reasoning about what can or cannot be expected from evolution. These are the kinds of things we should watch to seem if evo psych ever becomes a robust and useful tool – not the Just so Stories.

    Plenty of foolishness has been said about “human nature” over the past few hundred years, but that is entirely predictable. Human beings are naturally free, but civilization has put them in chains, claimed Rousseau. People are naturally good. People are no damn good. People are hedon optimizers; people are naturally communistic…. When people dearly want to know something about something, which, it turns out, is way beyond their current means, you get nonsense. The same was even more true for medicine. People couldn’t stand not knowing how to handle disease, so they made something up like the theory of humors.

    I hope nobody here doubts our brains have different parts with different functions and there are many processes that we dimly understand but which break down, leading to conditions like schizophrenia. IMO, medicine illustrates that even if humankind has been babbling nonsense about some domain forever, we might some day begin to talk sense about it, when our mental tools and technology become adequate.

    IMO we are just beginning a process that will accelerate over the coming years, of piecing together real knowledge of what makes us tick. It is terrifically difficult and we have just begun to have the mental tools and technology.

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  12. Hi Seth, I think one can discuss a personal “nature”. Like it is in your nature to run every day, and so it is unnatural (meaning not a good example of how you are going to behave) for you to sit on a couch eating chips all day. That is not to say any activity is for or against some generic nature, particularly related to all humans, but whether something matches the general habits you have. Of course you can change your habits, such that in time it may be your nature to eat chips all day, and highly contradictory to see you running.

    I would disagree that eating chips all day, while perhaps harmful, would somehow be against one’s nature. One could discuss whether one’s personal nature is conducive to health, but if it isn’t that wouldn’t mean you were acting unnaturally.

    Hi Liam, again I am open to physical accounts of a human nature, except the problematic divisive forms. It can be useful but then admits wide variations, basically all, something which experiential and behavioral accounts rarely do.

    On being social creatures, by all accounts there have been humans who have sought (and succeeded) living completely separate from other humans. The hermits of the bronze age may very well have had mental problems, but it was considered a useful habit for those seeking religious enlightenment. Really, no contact possible back then. In fact, some people have ended up living isolated from other humans, without even wanting to, and managed to survive. The Japanese soldier found living as if WW2 was still going on is a startling example.

    Communication is something that many animals exhibit. It is certainly a common facet of life among social species, and one could argue that capacity (whether used or not) is part of human nature. But language is something else. Not all humans are capable of producing or understanding language, even where communication is possible. I’ve traveled a bit and enjoyed encounters that showed how unimportant language is for general communication. That said, language is very useful, and has played an important role in human civilisation. Does that make it part of human nature, or the nature of human civilisations (those are different things)?

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  13. Hi Dbholmes,

    If we are applying the term ‘nature’ in a broad sense (not supernatural) then of course everything anyone does is natural. I think in common usage the term ‘human nature’ gets applied with different meanings then that broad sense. You addressed some of these alternates meanings in your piece. The broad use of the term is too broad to have utility in describing human behavior.

    Yet one has to admit that humans have a general type of biology and psychology that can flourish or fail depending environment and behavior. Perhaps one of our defining features is our capacity to adapt to different lifestyles and environment – to a point. There are many ways in which we can flourish and many in which we can harm ourselves with unnecessary struggle and pain. We are ultimately constrained to a degree. I think freedom comes from understanding those ‘natural’ constraints and working with and not against them. I’m open to different terminology but I’m not sure it’s necessary.

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