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 . 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 .
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 . 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” . 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.  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. 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 . 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 . 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.” 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.
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