The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Human nature

Human nature is the range of human behavio(u)r that is believed to be invariant across long periods of time and across very different cultural contexts.

Discussion on what accounts for human nature incorporates the question of what accounts for human behaviour in the individual person which has been described popularly as the 'nature versus nurture' dilemma, where 'nature' represents the 'genome' of a person and 'nurture' represents a person's environment. Researchers however consider the effect of both one's genetic make-up and environment both separately and in unison to account for the development of each individual's behavioural make-up (and consequently human nature as well).

When "nature" is contrasted with "nurture" the meaning of "nature" is often narrowed to "genetic," and a falsely dichotomous cast is given to the discussion. But if "human nature" is understood as any invariant element in human behavior, then this element can have characteristics not derived from the gene code -- derived, say, from the physical characteristics of neural tissue, (see Weber-Fechner law) or from pre-natal experience.


Arguments for invariance

All individuals and all societies have a similar facial grammar . Everyone smiles the same, and the way we use our eyes to convey cognition or flirtatiousness is the same. Evaluations of facial attractiveness are consistent across races and cultures with a preference for symmetry and proportion which are explained by scientists as markers of health during physical development attributable to good genes or a good environment. Human females find male faces that are rated more masculine and less caring, more attractive during the part of their menstral cycle when they are most fertile. In utero exposure to testosterone (normal for the male fetus) alters brain development towards greater spatial and mathmatical potential, greater physical roughhousing during childhood play, and to find females attractive once puberty is attained. Female brain development with its emphasis on verbal fluency is the default, absent exposure to testosterone.

No success has ever been scientifically demonstrated in re-assigning an individual's handedness. Although an individual may change their external behavior (picking up scissors with their right hand instead of the left, for instance), their internal inclination never changes. Even people who lose a limb, who physically do not possess the ability to pick up scissors with their left hand, will try to do so if they are 'left handed.' The percentage of left-handers in all cultures at all times remains constant (because left-handedness is a recessive trait).

Newborn babies, far too young to have been enculturated to do so, have measurable behaviors such as being more attracted to human faces than other shapes and having a preference for their mother's voice over any other voice.

Arguments for social malleability

The Duke of Wellington is said to have become indignant upon hearing someone refer to habit as "second nature." He replied, "It is ten times nature!"

William James likewise referred to habit as the fly-wheel of society. Habits, though, are by definition acquired, and different habits will be both the effect and the cause of very different societies.

Some have argued that the role for nurture comes not from the absence of innate impulses in human nature, but from the plethora of such impulses -- so many, and so contradictory, that nurture must sort them out and put them into a hierarchy.

Influential views of human nature

As a general rule, any -ism important enough to be both defended and attacked, probably states or implies a distinctive view about human nature. Platonism, Marxism and Freudianism may serve as examples of this rule.

Plato took a conception of reason and the examined life that he learnt from Socrates and built both a metaphysics and, more to our point, an anthropology around it. There was an intellectual soul, resident in the human head, and there was a appetitive beast, resident in the belly and genitals. The duty of the former is to keep the latter tamed and, in time, to welcome death as an escape from this uncomfortable co-habitation.

In one disguise or another, Plato's dualism was immensely influential. It insinuated itself deeply into Christian theology — a process that began, perhaps, as early as the Gospel of John. Descartes' famous contrast between the soul that thinks and the body that is extended is a distinctive take on Plato, as is Kant's contrast between the noumenal and the phenomenal aspects of human nature.

What all these views have in common is the following structure: "there exists an invariant human nature, and my theory discloses it better than other theories." This structure does allow for progress in history — because coming to know ourselves better is progress. But human nature itself, as the object of that knowledge, is considered a constant. Indeed, in Kantianism, human nature in the really-real sense can't be said to change because change requires time, and time is a feature only of the less-real, phenomenal, world.

Hegel represents an important break with this Platonic hegemony. Building on his concept of the dialectic, everything is, so to speak, up for grabs: as humans come to know themselves better, the object of knowledge necessarily changes.

Karl Marx inherits that Hegelian dialectic, and with it, a disdain for the notion of an underlying invariant human nature. Sometimes Marxists express their views by contrasting “nature” with “history.” Sometimes they use the phrase “existence precedes consciousness.” The point, in either case, is that who a person is, is determined by where and when he is — social context takes precedence over innate behavior; or, in other words, the main feature of human nature is adaptability.

  • "Human Nature" is often used as a counter argument to Marxism. However, it is not that Marxists entirely reject the concept of human nature, rather they contend that many of the behaviours exibited by humans in Western capitalist societies - particularly excessive self-interest, and lack of social responsibility - are by no means fixed or innate.

In one sense, this position is as far from Plato as is possible. But in another sense, it comes back around to a platonizing dualism, except that the beast and the mind aren’t at war within each human body, as Plato suspected — for Marxists, the beast is the past and its burdens, while the mind awaits in the future.

In this spirit, Marx once wrote that all of what we call history would be better seen as pre-history, and that once the abolition of social classes and communism are achieved, only then will the true history of the human race begin.

The Austrian school of economics, in the years around 18711940, developed its own views largely in opposition to Marx, and in opposition to a group of historicist scholars. In the process, they developed a distinctive view of human nature.

In structural terms, their view returned to that of the thinkers mentioned in this survey prior to Hegel. Like Descartes or Kant, these thinkers believed that there exists an invariant human nature, but that progress is possible in history through the more complete understanding of that nature. They conceived of human nature in terms of bounded rationality and of the pursuit of marginal utility, and they believed that the pursuit of this utility in the marketplace would create a condition of spontaneous order that will be more rational than any alternative that might be planned, given the bounded rationality of any possible planners.

During the same period of time, Austria also hosted the development of psychoanalysis. Its founder, Sigmund Freud, believed that the Marxists were right to focus on what he called "the decisive influence which the economic circumstances of men have upon their intellectual, ethical and artistic attitudes." But he thought that the Marxist view of the class struggle was a too shallow one, assigning to recent centuries conflicts that were, rather, primordial. Behind the class struggle, according to Freud, there stands the struggle between father and son, between established clan leader and rebellious challenger. In this spirit, Freud heavily criticized the Soviet Union, writing in 1932 that its leaders had made themselves "inaccessible to doubt, without feeling for the suffering of others if they stand in the way of their intentions."

Compare with:

External reference

  • 1986 Seville Statement on Violence --
  • Introduction and Updated Information on the Seville Statement on Violence --
  • Martin A. Miller, Freud and the Bolsheviks: Psychoanalysis in Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union (New Haven, CT 1998).
  • [1] - Newcastle University debate on Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate
Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12