Letting Go of Human Nature

11 June 2019

We human beings have been fascinated with ourselves for a very long time. In particular, we’ve been interested in what’s called “human nature.” But the idea of human nature is also riven with controversy. Some scholars—often those in the humanities—argue that there’s no such thing as human nature, while others—often those in the social and biological sciences—regard the “denial” of human nature as an egregiously retrograde, anti-scientific move.

I think that a lot of the human nature enthusiasts have gotten things backwards. Rejecting human nature isn’t necessarily anti-scientific, because ideas about human nature are often incompatible with what our best biological science tells us. There is a scientifically acceptable conception of human nature, but it just can’t do the job that we look to the concept of human nature to do.

Let’s start by asking a very basic question. What’s the point of being interested in human nature? Perhaps the main reason for appealing to the concept of human nature is for the purpose of self-knowledge. Human nature offers an explanation why we are the way that we are. A second reason is that it promises to explain what it is that sets us apart from other beings. And a third reason is that a conception of human nature seems to provide us with existential guidance. If it’s true that we all have a human nature then perhaps it is also true that we can only be fulfilled to the extent that we conduct our lives in harmony with that nature.

Most often, people seem to think of human nature as that which makes us human understood as the characteristics that all and only humans possess. This might sound fine in the abstract, but major problems crop up when we try to put our finger on what, exactly, these uniquely human properties are. As political scientist Anne Phillips points out in her book The Politics of the Human, as soon as we start to put flesh on the bare bones of this idea, some members of our species get excluded from the category of the human, while some non-humans get in. For instance, if we say that bipedalism is one such defining property (as Plato did), then the Ulas family of Southeastern Turkey, who walk on all fours, are non-humans, while my friend Ruth’s chickens might stake a claim to humanness. And if the property is something fancier such as “rationality” (a traditional candidate) then neither infants nor the severely mentally impaired would qualify as human.

In fact, this whole way of construing human nature is a throwback to a pre-Darwinian vision of the natural world. It’s an example of what the great evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr called typological thinking. If you have a typological view of species you think that each member of a species must satisfy a set of species-defining criteria. The whole species, then, is just the collection of all the individuals that can check off all of the definitional criteria (Bipedal? Check! Rational? Check! Tool user? Check! Language speaker? Check!). Mayr pointed out that Darwin showed us that this way of thinking is dead wrong. He taught us that, far from conforming to a set of necessary and sufficient conditions, every group of organisms is a mish-mash of variation. As philosopher of science Subrena Smith is fond of saying, difference is the norm in nature.

Mayr argued that Darwin replaced typological thinking with population thinking. Population thinking is statistical. It concentrates on the frequency of traits in a group rather than focusing on its individual members. Looked at from this perspective, human nature can be understood as the sum of those traits that are common in our species, but which don’t have to be possessed by every one of its members. The philosopher Edouard Machery has developed a conception of human nature along these lines.

This way of looking at human nature has some major advantages over the typological approach. One is that it allows that human nature can change. Looked at from a typological perspective, human nature is static, because the necessary and sufficient conditions for being human are, like Platonic forms, fixed in conceptual space for all eternity. But from a population perspective, the characteristics that are prevalent among humans can and do morph over time. And it’s also less parochial than the typological approach, because it doesn’t require that human nature traits can’t be shared with other creatures.

But the population account also has some significant down sides. A big one is that it need not have anything to say about any particular individual. Just as the average American family has 1.9 children, but no actual family has 1.9 children, the “average” human being has a collection of traits that may not be fully realized by any individual.  This means that even an accurate understanding of human nature can mislead us about ourselves and others. A second disadvantage is that the population approach can’t do the job of explaining what sets us apart from other creatures. And finally, the population approach doesn’t provide existential guidance, because the fact that a trait is common amongst Homo sapiens says nothing at all about its relevance to living a fulfilling life.

The concept of human nature confronts us with a dilemma—a fork in the road where each pathway leads to an undesirable destination. Take the typological route, and you end up with an unworkable, anti-scientific approach. Take the population route, and you end up with a conception that can’t tell us about ourselves, doesn’t distinguish us from other kinds of beings, and doesn’t give us guidance on how (and how not) to live. If these are our only options—as they appear to be—then there doesn’t seem to be much point in hanging on to the idea of human nature. Perhaps it’s time we let it go.


Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay 


Comments (5)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, June 12, 2019 -- 12:27 PM

I was not in the PT audience

I was not in the PT audience in 2006. (Still working at that time, I got enough human nature to last the rest of my life.) Nor was I knowledgeable of philosophy---it was not something I read or cared to read. (My brother had majored in it, for a time, at Ohio State University, while minoring in Psychology---both disciplines lost out when he made a life work and a living in computer systems.) Things have changed a lot since about 2014. Not only have I read pretty extensively in the realm of philosophy, I also have some ideas of my own regarding related topics. Nature v. nurture has been raked over more than one set of coals. Those who argue against a 'human nature' fail to recognize that all creatures and families of creatures have a nature about them---Nagel asked the question: what is it like to be a bat? We cannot know 'batness' because we do not live there. But, bats know, on some level, and their young learn the ropes pretty quickly, through the nurturing of their parents and the cold hard facts of bat life. It would seem so with most any species that obtains what Edelman has called primary consciousness. Nature enables creatures to nurture their young. While this varies in intensity and effectiveness, it is common to most mammals and many other life forms on the planet. I think there is a symbiotic-something-going-on between nature and nurture---nurture being an outgrowth of the Dawkins-istic notion of extended phenotypes (perhaps even a sort of phenotype, itself).

I have claimed nature and nurture are sides of the same coin: 'you can't have one without the other'. Yin and Yang. Abbott and Costello. You get the point (I hope). Maybe, just maybe, we should spend a little more time examining a (symbiotic?) relationship, rather than dismissing one entire aspect of that relationship? Whatever we are; however we relate to one another (or fail to do so); there are common connections we have as human beings. We have, 'better angels of our nature' (to mimic Pinker). We also have our own demons. Many of us plagued with the latter lack something readily available to those blessed with the former. (Something Dewey or Rorty or Burke might have said...) That's my story and I'm sticking to it. (Then, there's the meme thing, which seems a lay person's way of trying to grasp extended phenotypes. All of this is connected. Seems to me, anyway. ) Not going back to 2006. Not even 2008.

Eddie L's picture

Eddie L

Saturday, June 15, 2019 -- 4:45 AM

If one is to let go of human

If one is to let go of human nature, i.e. reject the idea that such a thing exists, he might experience difficulty comprehending a few social economic theories associated with the idea. For example, what Marx mean when he invented the term Alienation [of the worker from their Gattungswesen (species-essence)]. From what are workers alienated if not human nature?
when Adam Smith talks about free exchange as a unique defining character of human species - give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want- was he not trying to distinguish man from other types of beings on the basis of observation? These economists seem to suggest that innovation and free exchange are the building blocks for human progress, and their methods are based on assumptions that human beings are unique as a species. And if human nature does not exist, will their method remain relevant?

robertcrosman@gmail.com's picture


Sunday, June 16, 2019 -- 12:39 PM

As Ludwig Wittgenstein

As Ludwig Wittgenstein demonstrated some time ago, most definitions rely on a bundle of constituent properties, not all of which need be present in every example of the thing being defined. For example, the ability to fly defines most but not all birds, some species of which are flightless. To support his contention, Wittgenstein gave the analogy of a length of rope or string, which is composed of a bundle of fibers, none of which normally runs the entire length of the rope, whose strength relies not on any one fiber, but in the combination of many fibers. So, although Adam Smith has discovered one trait of human beings that most if not all have in common, there are many other traits that taken together help define the human species (including upright posture, ten fingers, capacity to love, and to speak a complex language) as well or better than his does. Smith's definition is no more basic or exclusive than many others, although it may be particularly useful in supporting the idea that human nature is fundamentally ECONOMIC. It isn't - or at least, it is no more so than many other human qualities not studied or well understood through the lens of an economic model. For example: a mother's or father's love of their child may have an economic component, but in most cases that's a secondary if not absolutely irrelevant way to understand the primal parental bond, which can much better be understood in other ways.

robertcrosman@gmail.com's picture


Sunday, June 16, 2019 -- 1:17 PM

I signed up for this blog

I signed up for this blog because I wanted to react to today's program on the value of a college education. Somehow, however, there is no way to post a comment on today's program, except here, where it is irrelevant. I apologize.

I can't imagine myself without a college education, or the graduate degrees in English Literature that I subsequently received. A great professor of mine would tell his Humanities survey classes (required of Columbia freshmen at the time - in the 'sixties, and for many decades before) that they were in college to MAKE a self, rather than John Perry's more familiar bromide that they are FINDING a self. I think probably both are true, but they point in opposite directions - looking deep within, versus looking widely outside oneself. It could be useful to debate the truth of these apparently conflicting ideas, but they do agree that one is in college to develop a "self," as opposed to preparing for some job or career, which if the student can afford it, could be more usefully postponed to a graduate or professional school - or otherwise through on-the-job training and experience - AFTER one has discovered or made oneself.

This is why my strongest reaction to the program was shock that a recent and revered former president of Stanford is a COMPUTER SCIENTIST, who majored in college as an ENGINEER. Although affable and obviously intelligent, his education apparently consisted of looking deep within and finding a love of a trending technology, and then making himself into a specialist in a field so narrow that people working in it are obsolete after ten years, and then either become managers or unemployable derelicts. The latter happened to two cousins of mine, one (with a Masters in Computer Science) of whom is unemployed and supported by his social worker wife, and the other who owned a liquor store for a while, and is now retired on social security. Both are discouraged and bitter, as I would be in their shoes.

What appreciation can a man who "found himself" by sitting in a computer lab night after night in college, and then went on to study computing in more depth, and finally to teach it, have of the wide range of human knowledge and inquiry that is the object of study at a great, or even a run-of-the-mill university?

I can only infer that this ex-president of Stanford was really good at raising money, and had good people skills as well. His discussion today of how Stanford admits students reflected an eye totally uncritical of the current selection process, and also of the way college students are currently educated, with a strong emphasis on success, and finding a profession suited to their talents. These are no doubt goals that Stanford is very good at achieving, but their student cohort is such that most of them would do as well, or better, if they were to graduate from any other accredited college or university. The real value of a Stanford education to most graduates is the name "Stanford" on their resumes, as well as, perhaps, the network of connections they may have made while there.