Why We Disagree about Human Nature

Elizabeth Hannon; Tim Lewens

My review 2023-09-26

This is an anthology. It is, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag. That said, the various contributions do make up a fairly diverse and well-presented set of viewpoints. What does the idea of human nature mean? What is it supposed to do? Is it meaningful in light of the combined influence of nature and culture on human existence?

Tim Lewens writes a nice introduction to both the debate in general, and the contributions in this volume.

Edouard Machery defends his nomological account of human nature: It characterizes human nature as a set of traits that human beings tend to possess as a result of the evolution of their species. The traits need not be distinctive of humans, nor need they be shared by all humans; they merely need to be typical. I have some sympathy with this view, but there are problems, for instance with the trait of sex: is being male of female typical? Clearly that trait, having two possible values (yes, that is another debate) should be included, but it appears that the nomological account does not do that.

Grant Ramsey offers an alternative in the shape of a trait bin and trait cluster account. Here, traits come in a limited set of possible combinations, that may vary over a human being's life. It can therefore handle the development of a human being. This approach also seems able to handle the influence of culture, broadly construed, over a human being's life. My own views are closest to this account, although I would present it differently.

Karola Stots and Paul Griffiths emphasises the developmental trajectory of a human being, and how various influences overtime mould the human being. They argue that human nature is not embodied in one input to development, such as the genome. Organisms are fundamentally processes, they say, and therefore a developmental systems account is most appropriate. I sympathize, but I am not entirely clear what it means in concrete terms.

Cecilia Heyes thinks the idea of human nature should be patched up rather than eliminated. She discusses the idea of natural pedagogy as a concrete example of how one could discuss one facet of human nature. Natural pedagogy proposes that human infants genetically inherit a well-organised package of biases, tendencies and skills making them receptive to deliberate attempts by adults to convey information. She analyses the evidence for the genetic basis and finds it to be weak. She suggests that a hybrid of the nomological view and what she refers to as "evolutionary causal essentialism" might be fruitful. She thinks "Mother Culture" does a lot of the hard work in preparing children to be taught. I am not fully convinced by her arguments, but they require some serious thought.

John Dupré wants to view humans as processes. He says that seeing human behaviour as a uniquely developed capacity for flexible response to the environment makes it unsurprising that it is difficult to provide a definite account of human behaviour. Even though he says that humans are neither blank slates, nor machines with a predetermined programme, he ends up saying that since the notion of human nature is commonly associated with a set of fixed properties, it is safest to dispense with its use altogether. I find this conclusion fundamentally dissatisfying. If humans have a uniquely developed capacity for flexible responses, then that is part of human nature.

Kim Sterelny says that a kind of field guide description of humans is possible, but that that would not be the same as a theory of human nature. He thinks the idea of an evolutionary "key innovation" that set humans apart from their immediate ancestors is mistaken. Human evolution is based on positive feedback between multiple factors and capabilities. The idea of human nature masks this complicated evolutionary history. Sterelny's discussion is multifaceted and highly interesting and goes on to culture and cooperation as essential parts of the story. But as for the other human-nature-skeptical essays, I am not convinced that it shows that there is no place for an empirical description of human nature.

Kevin Laland and Gillian Brown are on the war path against the idea of a human nature, and demolish three different conceptions of it. Either they are untenable, or they do not do any real work. They emphasize the plastic nature of human development. They concede that certain aspects of behavioural development exhibit consistency and stability over space and time, but their focus is on plasticity and gene-culture coevolution. At the end of the day, their argument seems to boil down to the statement that the idea of human nature is somehow dangerous. My point: that does not invalidate it.

Peter Richerson thinks that whether one is for or against the idea of human nature is correlated with how strongly one commits to the tenets of the Modern Synthesis. He argues as if the coevolution of genes and culture is forbidden by, or at least not handled by the Modern Synthesis. I do not see that he makes that case. He discusses the ideas of a number of thinkers in brief sketches, and makes the case that the gene-culture coevolution idea is an alternative to human nature. I appreciated the many insights that his text contains, but I am not fully convinced. I do not quite see why accepting the fundamental influence of culture on human evolution in and by itself invalidates the idea of a human nature.

Christina Toren attempts to provide an anthropological point of view. Unfortunately, this text evinces excruciating verbiage. That is, it excels in using many difficult words and convoluted sentences. I find it hard to distil anything of interest out of it. The main point seems to be that one should study human ontogeny as a microhistorical process. Ok? She says we need a unified model of human being. The distinction between nature and culture must go. At the end, she displays her woke credentials in a garbled sentence that says: "It seems obvious to me that an acknowledgement that ontogeny is through and through a historical process would put paid to ideas of 'culture' and 'human nature' and, in so doing, provide for a proper understanding of how certainly we condemn future generations to a deepening of the inequalities and injustices that we are failing to address." I find the latter part incomprehensible. It reads as if her proposal would deepen inequalities, which is obviously not her intent. But what have inequalities do to with any of this, anyway?

Maria Kronenfeldner describes seven reasons why there is disagreement about human nature. She points out that nature and culture are almost always used in a dualistic, antithetical pair, but that reference to nature has usually been done as a move to impose a certain kind of authoritative understanding. She reviews the use of the concept of nature from the Greeks via the Enlightenment and the early days of Darwinism with Francis Galton as a central figure. She goes on to the development of cultural anthropology by Alfred Kroeber. She concludes that the former essentialist idea of nature has been replaced by three scientific concepts: a classificatory, a descriptive, and an explanatory nature. This is an interesting historical review. Its goal is not to propose a particular view of human nature.

And there concludes the book.