The Science of Human Nature

“Human nature” is one of the most revered, and reviled, concepts in the history of Western social and political thought. From Plato to the latest generation of political ideologues, a variety of conflicting views of the human “essence” have been advanced as a way to justify radically different prescriptions for how a society should be organized and how its members should be treated. Thus, Thomas Hobbes posited that the state of nature is an unconstrained “war of every man against everyman,” and that peace is only possible within an authoritarian police state. On the other hand, Jean- Jacques Rousseau claimed that “man is born free but everywhere he is in chains” – in the thrall of corrupting, destructive, inequitable institutions, and that society must be reconstituted to conform with his naturally “noble” nature (though many theorists have noted that Rousseau’s concept of an overarching “general will” was an invitation to dictatorship).

To this day, the divisive issue of our true “nature” as a species remains unresolved, even as the modern social, economic, and even biological sciences have intruded into the debate. At one extreme are the Behaviorist psychologists of the mid-twentieth century, who championed a tabula rasa view of the human psyche that was (supposedly) confirmed by learning experiments in pigeons and rats, while recent generations of neo-conservative economists, backed by mathematical models and selected market economic data, have defined humankind as rational, calculating, and self-interested – an assumption that has been seconded by neo-Darwinism in evolutionary biology, where the “selfish gene” image says it all.   In between are humanists like psychologist Abraham Maslow, who formulated a hierarchy of human “needs” culminating in an ill-defined psychological need for “self-actualization.”

Though the debate about human nature continues unabated among economic and political theorists to this day, there is also quietly emerging a more sophisticated (empirical) science of human nature, one that is grounded in (a) what we have learned about humans as products of a very long and rigorous evolutionary process, (b) what various human sciences have been learning about human behavior, and, not least (c) a dispassionate approach to the evidence all around us, from the beginnings of recorded history to the latest outrages in Bosnia, or Darfur, or Iraq.

The emerging science of human nature is still young, but there are a number of tentative guideposts and “place-holders” that can be singled out at this point. Here are just a few of them:

  • The “core” of human nature is a set of some 14 “domains” of biologically-based needs (according to the Survival Indicators Project) – imperatives for survival and reproduction that are ongoing and inescapable and prime “motivators” for our behavior. And if these needs are not satisfied, there will be more or less serious, even life-threatening harm. These needs vary somewhat in relation to age, sex, physical differences and activity levels. Nevertheless, they define our fundamental “vocation” in life. Indeed, most of the world’s six billion plus people devote most of their lives to “earning a living” and reproducing. Whether we are aware of it, or care about it, or not, we are inescapably involved in a “survival enterprise,” and an organized (interdependent) society is, fundamentally, a collective survival enterprise.
  • The age-old debate about whether humans are basically cooperative or competitive by nature can be answered definitively. We are both. The accumulating evidence about our evolution as a species indicates that we evolved in closely cooperative, interdependent small groups. And yet, both internal (interpersonal) competition and external competition (and zenophobia) between groups were also endemic. Like many other species, our ancestors, perhaps for several million years, exploited the survival strategy of competition via cooperation. (For a much more detailed, and documented discussion of this point, see my 2003 book Nature’s Magic, or my website:
  • There is no single, uniform human personality-type. Variation is a fundamental characteristic of the natural world, as Darwin himself stressed, and the same is true of human personalities. In other words, human nature comes in many different colors. And the human sciences, from behavior genetics to developmental psychology to the highly-sophisticated personality profiles that are now used in the career development field, have shown that the variations we observe in our everyday experience are a function of both nature and nurture.
  • Our behavior is labile and highly susceptible to the particular cultural environment we inhabit. But this is also a two-way street. Societies adapt to human nature(s) just as human nature can be channeled, shaped and constrained by cultural influences.
  • We are also, by nature, ethical animals (by and large). We are much affected by social norms and expectations and by what Darwin referred to as “the praise and blame” of our fellows. However, in this as in every other respect, there are broad individual variations, and societies everywhere must take account of them and learn how to deal with the outliers.       (Again, this subject is discussed in depth in my 2005 book, Holistic Darwinism.)

So what can we conclude? Radical, utopian schemes for re-engineering society in accordance with some one-dimensional caricature of human nature, often from the top down, are doomed to fail. Most likely they will never be tried, or if they are imposed by force will end in disappointment. As for anarchism, this option is terminally naïve. All but a very few remote societies are dependent upon highly organized, interdependent economic and political systems.

On the other hand, if our existing institutions and political systems lead to such distortions of wealth and well-being that large numbers of the citizens are seriously harmed in terms of meeting their “basic needs,” there will be large-scale “defections” (to borrow a term from game theory). We should always be mindful of Aristotle’s warning – based on his empirical study of 158 Greek city-states – that the greatest source of political turmoil and revolution is an extreme disparity of wealth between the rich and the poor. The guiding principle for a stable society, Aristotle argued must be “social justice” – equity, fairness (giving every person his or her due), and participation in the common life and the common problems of the community. Many contemporary societies could do a whole lot better job of it, but to quote a famous line from a classic “snafu” at Omaha Beach on D-Day, in World War Two, we’ll just have to start the war from here.

Thought for the day: Charlie Allnut: “What ya bein so mean for, miss? Man takes a drop too much once in a while, it’s only human nature.” Rose Sayer: “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.” (From The African Queen by C.S. Forrester.)

Category: Social Justice