About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Is there such a thing as human nature?

A couple of years ago I co-taught a course in philosophy and science with a colleague in the Philosophy department at Stony Brook University. At some point the issue of “human nature” came up, and my colleague looked at me with a mix of surprise and pity: human nature, she maintained, is a quaint concept that has been long abandoned by serious scholars, so why are we still talking about it? Tell it to James Fowler and Darren Schreiber, who recently authored a paper in the prestigious Science magazine (7 November 2008) by the title “Biology, Politics, and the Emerging Science of Human Nature.”

Interestingly, Fowler and Schreiber start out with a nod to philosophy: they mention Aristotle’s conception in The Politics that “Man is, by nature, a political animal.” The paper, in fact, is about the biology of politics, a subject that some people in the humanities will surely find oxymoronic, but that has been forging some interesting scholarly alliances between biologists, cognitive scientists and political scientists. Fowler and Schreiber’s main thesis is that the human brain seems to have specific abilities to deal not just with social interactions, but more particularly with political situations (the implicit argument being that the two have been pretty much inextricable for most of human history).

Some of the evidence for a biological view of politics is rather coarse: twin studies show that variation in the tendency to adopt a political ideology is at least in part rooted in genetic differences, though interestingly whether one ends up being a Democrat or a Republican is largely a matter of cultural influence. Other human behaviors that are alleged to have a significant heritable component include attitude toward risk, degree of altruism, and bargaining. More intriguing, I think, neurobiologists have found direct evidence of the involvement of neuro-receptors in specific political behaviors. For instance, the DRD2 gene, which codes for a dopamine receptor, is linked to voter turnout through its influence on one’s tendency to affiliate with a political party (any political party), although of course dopamine receptors also influence a host of human behaviors that are not related to politics.

Even more interesting are studies of a neural circuit that consumes a large amount of energy in its baseline state and that turns out to be related to our moral judgments and to our monitoring of social interactions, as well as to our ability to think about the mental state of other people. Interestingly, this complex circuit increases its activity significantly when people are asked to make judgments about political issues, while in subjects who do not follow politics the same circuit is deactivated.

To some extent, of course, none of this should be surprising. Everything we think and do must be rooted in our brain at some level, unless one wishes to invoke a form of spooky dualism about mental states. Similarly, that our genes have something to do with our social behavior is also not an astonishing notion, considering that we evolved as social animals for a long time, and that we in fact even share the rudiments of moral action with our primate cousins, such as the bonobos.

Still, are we in fact going to see a developed science of human nature, as Fowler and Schreiber maintain? Will that drive the sciences and the humanities further apart into mutually incompatible and increasingly hostile attitudes? Or would it instead contribute to a new, more encompassing approach to knowledge? An approach that puts the emphasis on what historically separate disciplines can teach to each other once their reciprocal viewpoints are considered seriously instead of being dismissed out of hand?

Human nature is certainly not a sharply defined concept, nor does it have to be. If one accepts the evolutionary view of things, than one does expect fuzzy boundaries for pretty much everything in biology, including whatever characteristics are supposed to be species specific. Nonetheless, I maintain that to reject talk of a human nature out of hand, as especially continental philosophers have been doing (think of the historic debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, not to mention my Stony Brook colleague’s attitude), is fundamentally misguided. Recognizing a “nature” to humanity does not imply some sort of rigid determinism about human behavior. Talk of human nature also does not entail a silly form of reductionism that trivializes the complexity of human culture. Then again, to reject the idea of human nature despite the advances of science means trivializing the biology of being human, and we do that at our own peril. The Delphi oracle’s imperative was to know thyself, and that knowledge surely must include a hefty contribution from biology.


  1. I'm curious what you make of the way that Sterelny and Griffiths (in their book Sex and Death) reject the notion of human nature having first reduced it to a question of DNA structure. They, essentially, argue that there can be no human nature since there is no single genome which is prototypically human (not even Ventner's!)

  2. Konrad,

    my first reaction is: baloney! By the same token, no cluster concept actually identifies anything meaningful because there is nothing that constitutes a necessary and sufficient condition to belong to the cluster.

    I didn't remember S&G's arguments, even though I actually taught a course based on that book years ago. It really doesn't sound compelling at all to me. What's your take?

  3. At least Chomsky seems to understand that all the sciences are just parts and pieces which people engage in to build up to their benefit and not that humans are here, somehow, to serve the benefit of science. He's smart that way. He has an incredible amount of common sense on some matters ...His concept of free association and letting it take you wherever it may, another..

    Human nature is an explanation of the dynamic (nature) of freewill and the ranges of prioritization inside of decision making.

    Or something like that.

    Judaism would say that
    (long, I know, but...)
    The Dual Nature

    In Genesis 2:7, the Bible states that G-d formed (vayyitzer) man. The spelling of this word is unusual: it uses two consecutive Yods instead of the one you would expect. The rabbis inferred that these Yods stand for the word "yetzer," which means impulse, and the existence of two Yods here indicates that humanity was formed with two impulses: a good impulse (the yetzer tov) and an evil impulse (the yetzer ra).

    The yetzer tov is the moral conscience, the inner voice that reminds you of G-d's law when you consider doing something that is forbidden. According to some views, it does not enter a person until his 13th birthday, when he becomes responsible for following the commandments. See Bar Mitzvah.

    The yetzer ra is more difficult to define, because there are many different ideas about it. It is not a desire to do evil in the way we normally think of it in Western society: a desire to cause senseless harm. Rather, it is usually conceived as the selfish nature, the desire to satisfy personal needs (food, shelter, sex, etc.) without regard for the moral consequences of fulfilling those desires.

    The yetzer ra is not a bad thing. It was created by G-d, and all things created by G-d are good. The Talmud notes that without the yetzer ra (the desire to satisfy personal needs), man would not build a house, marry a wife, beget children or conduct business affairs. But the yetzer ra can lead to wrongdoing when it is not controlled by the yetzer tov. There is nothing inherently wrong with hunger, but it can lead you to steal food. There is nothing inherently wrong with sexual desire, but it can lead you to commit rape, adultery, incest or other sexual perversion.

    The yetzer ra is generally seen as something internal to a person, not as an external force acting on a person. The idea that "the devil made me do it" is not in line with the majority of thought in Judaism. Although it has been said that Satan and the yetzer ra are one and the same, this is more often understood as meaning that Satan is merely a personification of our own selfish desires, rather than that our selfish desires are caused by some external force.

    People have the ability to choose which impulse to follow: the yetzer tov or the yetzer ra. That is the heart of the Jewish understanding of free will. The Talmud notes that all people are descended from Adam, so no one can blame his own wickedness on his ancestry. On the contrary, we all have the ability to make our own choices, and we will all be held responsible for the choices we make."


  4. Of course there is a "human nature". But how do we define it and place limits on what is included. Ever since my first Introduction to Statistics class I have been enamored of the bell curve and standard distributions. From a strict viewpoint any action taken by a any human being ever falls within the boundaries of human nature. But I think that a more pragmatic and narrower view is more helpful. Plot the behaviors and anything that falls within n standard deviations (n=3? n=4?) is human nature and anything outside that is abnormal behavior. (i.e. how many Jeffry Dahmers can there be? That's gotta be an outlier.)

    There's an old saw that "a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged." Basically, our attitudes are affected by experience. The fact that we can have (political) attitudes and that they can be held in varying strengths is almost certainly genetic. What attitude we hold, it seems to me, is less related to genetics and more related to social forces (parents, education, neighbors). It does make me wonder how much is which. Is it my genes that make me libertarian or my upbringing? As an atheist, a scientist and an avid reader, I read a lot of blogs. 99% of them are liberal to ultra-liberal yet I have not been trained/educated away from libertarian leanings.
    Oh well, enough for now.
    Eat well, stay fit, Die Anyway.

  5. The statement of your colleague does not make any sense to me, although it is not clear how she thinks or defines human nature. On the other hand you don't want to get into a definition discussion; we all know how those tend to go.

    Nevertheless, it seems to me that people that take her stance, are falling victims of a false dichotomy of sorts. They seem to think that either you cannot explain the concept/it does not exist, or you must be able to describe it down to the smallest details. Of course most people would agree that this view is not correct. But if you do happen to think this way, I can understand how she'd arrive at such conclusion.

    It is hard to talk about human nature, when it is not even clear exactly what it is we're talking about, what are its properties, which makes most discussions futile unless we can agree on what human nature is and decide to be bound by that description and not keep tweaking it as we go along in order to make it fit with our preconceived position.

    For what is worth, here's my take on this. Of course there is a human nature. The very fact that we doubt its existence could be a defining characteristic of such nature. I doubt therefore I have a human nature, right?

  6. There are several posts in the "Human Nature" Group on the Global Sensemaking site that may be of interest here also. See: http://www.globalsensemaking.net/group/humannature

  7. Massimo,
    I think there is something called human nature, but as die anyway suggests above, knowing exactly what it is, is a big question.
    I think there is often skepticism about claims about human nature because there are often questionable assumptions about what it is, which then proceeds to other questionable assumptions about its effects.

    Take for example your last post, where in passing you stated that what was called "communism" of the last 20th century degenerated into dictatorships and then failed due to ill-founded assumptions about human nature. There is a ton of stuff to unpack in that statement. First, it goes from micro level assumptions about human behavior to macro level political-economic system and institutional issues. I am not claiming they are neccessarily unrelated, but surely there needs to be a detailed account that links these levels of analysis to support the claim. That the revolutionary socialist/communist experiments took the path they did may be better explained by other historical and/or institutional factors.

    And like Ravi touched upon previously, exactly what assumptions about human nature are we talking about, and who exactly had them, and how exactly did they affect the historical processes and outcome in question?

    Seems that often appeals to "human nature" to explain complex social phenomeona can be rather cheap and hasty.

  8. The literature that critiques Evolutionary Psychology has some interesting contributions on this matter, arguing against the existence of a single, universal human nature. See, for instance, John DurpĂ©'s «Human Nature and the limits of Science» or David Buller's «Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature»

  9. Andre,

    Two great books to cite!

    One point is that of course, even Dupre, who argues against many claims regarding human nature, would acknowledge (with Lewontin) that the fact that humans are, in general, between 1-2 meters tall, mass between 30-100kg, etc. etc. matter. (Massimo and I actually had this argument w/ some continental philosopher at some conference who claimed that there was no "human nature" that mattered -- we pointed out that the fact that pretty much all humans require between 1000-2500 kilo calories a day emerged from facts about our 'normal' developmental pathways, and mattered politically. She admitted that that was true, but regarded it as "trivial." But what counts as "trivial" versus "substantive" does seem to be something worth arguing about...)

    Gotta run, but great topic!

  10. I went back to have another read of the Sterelny and Griffiths book to make sure that I remembered their argument. As a whole, I think the book is the best introduction to the philosophy of biology that I have read. So, any criticism I do make of the argument against human nature they make is local to that argument and does not significantly affect my evaluation of the book as a whole. Having said that, the argument really holds no water. It basically falls into two halves.

    In the first they argue against what they call "essential human nature". The problem is that the argument they offer is not actually aimed at the 'human nature' part of that claim but the 'essential' bit. In so far as it goes it is correct - there is no essence of being human. But, then, there is no such thing as essence full stop and their argument would work just as well with any other kind of suggested essential property or nature. But that does not show the conclusion they implicitly reach, i.e. that there is no human nature, in particular. After all, human nature need not be understood as essential as Massimo points out by talking about cluster concepts.

    The second half of their argument is worse, if anything. Sterelny and Griffiths state that accepting there is such a thing as human nature leads to the false conclusion that some ways humans might be are unnatural. Again, the conclusion is correct but does not show a problem with the idea of human nature. The reason why people reach the false conclusion is not due to false premisses but due to an error in their reasoning. The fault is really just an example of the naturalist fallacy (to use Moore's terribly misleading name for it) since some people conclude how people should be on the basis of what people have been thus far. After all, human nature need not be understood (indeed, should not be understood) as anything more than a generalised description of what most people have been like most of the time, i.e. a cluster concept! To use an analogy one might just as well argue that it would be unnatural for me to buy a blue car if most of my previous cars happened to be red.

  11. Everything we think and do must be rooted in our brain at some level, unless one wishes to invoke a form of spooky dualism about mental states.

    Definitely, and that's my favorite reason. For people who think this is "trivial", as them to consider a person with malformed brain... And besides, I have a problem with people saying that only "genetics" counts as biology -- that's what they are saying when claiming that it's all social/environmental. Those are biology too, just a higher organizational level. :-)

    And I also suspect the strong reactions to the idea of "human nature", whatever its definition, are due to two things:
    - holdup from dualism, from freewill;
    - professional jealousy -- those biologists want to take over their job, just like some biologists don't like physicists et al. meddling in their fields.

  12. Talking about cluster concepts generates a negative reaction for me. Maybe the meaning of cluster is a little different in philosophy than in statistics, but bad cluster analyses of microarray data put me off the word for good. When the "cluster" in question is a sexually reproducing, well-defined species (humans), it seems a shame to undermine what should be an obvious argument with the use of a word with a history of dubious validity.

  13. Jo,

    I'm not really familiar with the work in statistics so had no chance to be put off by it. I guess I was thinking along the lines of Wittgenstein's family resemblance. Would you be happier with that term? Is the problem a question of how to formalise an intuitively clear notion?

  14. Joanna, Konrad,

    maybe I can help here. In statistics, cluster analysis is a type of exploratory multivariate analysis. It is useful to provide a quick summary of the relationships among a large number of objects (say, species) based on a large number of variables (say, dna sequences). Like all statistical analyses, it is as good as the data one uses to carry it out.

    In philosophy, cluster or family resemblance concepts are only tenuously related to cluster analysis by analogy. What Wittgenstein meant, I take it, is that many concepts do not admit of sharp boundaries, of a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. Instead, they are defined by a series of logical threads, which can be more or less relevant depending on the specific instantiation of a concept. Thus there is no simple, sharp definition of what a "game" is, or what constitutes human nature; but that doesn't mean the concepts themselves are meaningless.

  15. Thanks Massimo, and here is some further clarification at the statistics end. In statistics, one can apply a cluster analysis and assign each data point to a group even when the data actually follow a continuous distribution. At this point in evolutionary time, it is, however, possible to unambiguously assign each data point (individual organism) to either the "human" or to one or more "nonhuman" groups. There are good biological reasons to expect this lack of ambiguity, reproductive isolation and species concepts in particular.

    "Human nature" is then the statistic set of properties that makes humans different from other species groups. Language is the blatantly obvious one here, together with associated high intelligence, modes of establishing social interaction and structure via language, and consciousness. The latter, however it is defined, clearly takes a very characteristic form in the presence of language. Relatively high levels of cooperation and an approximation of monogamy are also specific to both humans and a minority of other species, while language-associated traits seem to be unique to humans.

  16. Unfortunately that Foucault-Chomsky debate has been taken by too many "skeptics" to be the epitomy of Foucault's views on 'human nature', especially when Foucault never said he "didn't believe in human nature" to begin with. He only said he was suspicious of basing his philosophy on a foundational account of universal human nature.
    In terms of the actual human body and the behavioral impulses therein, see his introduction to Georges Canguilhem's The Normal and the Pathological, the collection Religion and Culture (ed by Carette) and the final chapter of his History of Sexuality vol. 1
    That should set the record straight as to which side he's on in the "nature/nurture" debate. That is, neither. Because his philosophy, to him, was not predicated on whether something is innate or learned. It was rather a matter of how things are perceived in a cultural formation, be it innate or learned.

  17. Foucault never said he didn't believe in human nature, though many so-called "skeptics" love to quote otherwise from questionable sources.
    He only said he was a little suspicious of the category, not because it didn't exist, but because he didn't think there could be a definable universal human nature that would be sufficient to base a philosophy on, considering its unpredictability and its historical conditioning. He believed in the historical subject.
    If you don't believe me, read his introduction to Georges Canguilhem's The Normal and the Pathological, the last chapter of the history of sexuality volume 1 (read it carefully) and, for that matter, his entire work. Then make up your mind about whether he "denied human nature".

  18. "Recognizing a “nature” to humanity does not imply some sort of rigid determinism about human behavior."

    It used to in the mid-1950s, which is why the continentals, including Foucault dispensed with the notion.

    "Talk of human nature also does not entail a silly form of reductionism that trivializes the complexity of human culture."

    It used to in the mid-1950s, which is why the continentals, including Foucault dispensed with the notion.

    " Then again, to reject the idea of human nature despite the advances of science means trivializing the biology of being human, and we do that at our own peril."

    I don't think there is anything perilous about rejecting the idea of human nature, but it may be a bit shortsighted. What Foucault and others would not accept is that there is some universalizable essence to human nature, or that a set of rigid laws could be derived from it, or that it was heading anywhere in particular. I don't think today Foucault would disagree with Massimo's definition of human nature, though the terms are loaded, and to need to define them like he has done every time they are used, is a bit clumsy. Human nature is a construction, and Foucault could be construed as a constructivist without doing any damage to his oeuvre.


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