The Problems with Human Nature by David Williams
Monday, October 9, 2023
Every day, the news presents a host of difficulties that seem insurmountable. Some of the threats are global, things we humans have never been forced to confront before, such as Climate Change. Others are regional, covering a plethora of topics, from gender issues, to social and environmental rights, to ethics, morality, and politics. And many troubles are timeless, such as our continual propensity for war. But whatever the dilemmas, all are linked to our humanity—what might be called the Curse of Our Human Nature—if Human Nature can indeed be said to exist. That debate has raged on for centuries, from the outright denial of Human Nature to the delineation of Human Nature along two opposing forces: Nurture and Nature. For years the social sciences and humanitie
s have seen humans as tabula rosa, blank slates at birth, declaring that learning alone creates who we are.
But genetics, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and other scientific disciplines have clearly shown that the 100% Nurture story is not true. Yet, a biological definition of humanity means that we are who we are, in good part, is by virtue of everything that has come before us, as we have inherited the genes passed along to us from our ancestors.
I, for one, believe that a Biological Human Nature exists—that there are traits that define our species in the same way other species can be defined—blue whales, zebras, cuttlefish, with each species having similar
enough characteristics to allow them to be categorized as particular kinds animals, even though variation within a species will always occur. I agree with E.O. Wilson, that in the Nature/Nurture debate, the hard sciences have won—meaning that the split between Nature/Nurture is now seen more like Nature 60% and Nurture 40%, instead of 0% to 100%.
If indeed we are primarily biological beings, our continual problematic behaviors must have their roots in our genes. A few are listed h
1. Tribalism, our distrust of Others (leading to constant warfare).
2. Our distrust of members within our own tribe (hence the worldwide practice of identifying some people within the group as witches and blaming them when something goes wrong—leading to murder or ostracization).
3. Our tendency to elevate psychopathic and authoritarian strong men as leaders (Trump, Putin, Xi, Kim Jong Un).
4. Our preference for magical thinking and mythology over science (only 13% of Republicans have a great deal of confidence in scientists, according to PEW).
5. Our inability to create equitable societies due to hoarding, greed and selfishness (the top 10% of adults on earth hold 85%, while the bottom 90% hold the remaining 15% of the world's total wealth).
6. Crime, our ability to rob, steal, or even kill others of our species for personal gain.
7. Short Sidedness, our inability to think into the future (and confront systemic worldwide environmental catastrophe).
8. Our overall tendency to treat females as less worthy than males and relegate them to second class citizens or worse (a nearly universal practice that has led to the shaming of women at menstruation, to genital mutilation, slavery, economic degradation, and more).
And these are just a few.
When we look at these “curses” of human nature, it doesn’t take rocket science to see that all these traits stem from the fact that we are very much animals—that the curse of human nature is really that we have not been created whole cloth in the image of God, at all, but rather (as Darwin and Huxley discovered) that we are descended from earlier animal forms, and related most closely to our cousins—the chimps. Antecedents for our worst impulses stem from our animal nature. But so do our greater qualities, such as morality, love, affection, our ability to form cohesive societies, to work together, raise our babies, and even to play and have fun. All come from our animal kin, which is why we have the better angels of our nature as well as the worst. For us, the question should be how to make “a more perfect union,” or how to create societies where the worst angels fall and the better angels rise. That we are dealing with biology instead of mere learning does make this much more difficult. While we can’t reshape out entire genotype, we can use culture to affect our biology, to elevate our higher selves. After all, the terrifying Mongols of history are now Buddhists. The Vikings are now peace-loving Swedes. Women in most of the world are no longer relegated to chattel. Slavery has been eliminated across most of the planet. And overall, murder has gone down worldwide, not up, from ancient times. But by not denying our biology, we have a much better chance at getting hold of our dispositions and using culture as a tool to ameliorate our condition, as well as the condition of our fellow animals (who we have nearly obliterated from the earth).
The columns forthcoming will focus on exposing how our animal nature and our human nature are one, the hope being that such illumination will allow us see more clearly how we, as a species might combat our own worst tendencies (aggression, selfishness, and greed) and arrive closer to ideals that the most enlightened spiritual traditions have given us hope we might become.