How Are We to Think of Human Nature?

This piece appeared as a newspaper op/ed at the beginning of September, 2023.


The question of “human nature” has always been central to my life’s work — A BETTER HUMAN STORY: important for understanding what has happened to us as a species, and for understanding the challenges humankind must meet for our civilization to avoid destroying itself.

When I began that work, in the early 1970s, I found that — on the subject of human nature – I disagreed with the thinkers of our civilization.

I disagreed with anthropologists declaring that there is no such thing as human nature, maintaining instead that we are born as virtually blank slates on which our cultures can write.

I thought the idea that we’ve got no human nature laughable on its face. As our species evolved over millions of years – as primates, as apes, as hominids, and finally as homo sapiens – our ancestors would have needed an inborn nature to get them to do what their survival required.

It was simply not believable that the development of culture would erase so deep a thing as our ancestral inborn nature – especially as the way of life of our hunter-gatherer ancestors was basically continuous with that of the primate groups out of which they emerged.

And even less plausible was the idea that this inborn nature would just disappear over the mere ten millennia since humankind made the breakthrough onto the path of civilization by inventing a new way of life that extricated it from the niche in which it had evolved biologically.

(The baby that is born into today’s civilization is said to be pretty much the same as the baby born to our Stone Age ancestors.)

So, it seems clear that we must have an important, substantive nature.

Another line of thought I encountered recognized our having a substantive nature, but focused on the how problematic our nature is.

There were ethologists and historians, for example, who declared that we are a territorial and selfish animal – with something of a “wolf” in our natures — inclined to use violence to get what it wants.

(Note that every time we hear someone say “That’s human nature,” they are pointing to something negative.)

But my BETTER HUMAN STORY grew out of a breakthrough idea that pretty well proves that: The ugliness we see in human history – and in the human world around us now – is not Human Nature writ large.

How is it possible that the human world that people created would not provide a clear window into their nature?

The first part of an answer lies in that Breakthrough Idea that, I claim, demonstrates that the breakthrough into civilization inevitably unleashed a systemic force – not a function of human nature — that drove human civilization to develop in directions people did not choose but could not avoid.

This is not the place to establish that. (Google and Ugliness Schmookler). Here, I want to provide another part of an answer: assuming that’s true, here’s a way to understand how there would arise a vital distinction between what we see in our civilized world and what we, by nature, really are.

Consider a famous study from the 1950s, in which a psychologist named Harlow divided a number of newborn rhesus monkeys into two groups. Both groups were immediately separated from their real mothers, with those in one group being given a mother-sized inanimate object made only of wire, while those in the other group were given the same except for the fake mother having a bit of terry-cloth covering (to which the poor newborn rhesus could cuddle up).

As the two groups grew up, major differences in their development appeared:

  • the group that had nothing to cuddle up to – but only bare wire — were completely messed up: they couldn’t function in the rhesus group, and they couldn’t reproduce;
  • the group with the terrycloth mothers were able to live much more typical rhesus monkey lives.

This shows that the nature of rhesus monkeys is a function of both what is inborn as well as the external environment that the species has evolved to expect. (Species that depend on learning depend on the environment to complete their young.)

From time immemorial, we can presume, the rhesus species newborns could count on having a female monkey to meet its needs. (Including, it seems, the need to cuddle against something comforting.)

But the unnatural environment devised by the scientist deprived one group of rhesus newborns of that natural mothering necessary to bring rhesus monkey nature into proper fruition. And so – no surprise! – they are messed up and unhappy.

Now, if my Breakthrough Idea is valid – i.e. if an inevitable systemic force independent of human nature has shaped the human world in ways contrary to human needs – that means that we civilized human beings are in a situation to some degree akin to that of those wire-raised Rhesus monkeys. Not shaped by the life-serving needs of the creature.

We’d be foolish to see those messed-up monkeys as showing “Rhesus nature.” So also, to the extent that our environment is like the wire “mothers,” it would be foolish to imagine that human nature is what the picture that’s presented in human civilization, which – like the wire mothers — has been importantly shaped by an “unnatural” force.

What we see in our civilized human world is what we become in an environment importantly at odds with what we evolved to expect to complete us.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *