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Is there such a thing as human nature?

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on November 18, 2008


A couple of years ago I co-taught a course in philosophy and science with a colleague in the Philosophy department at Stony Brook University. At some point the issue of “human nature” came up, and my colleague looked at me with a mix of surprise and pity: human nature, she maintained, is a quaint concept that has been long abandoned by serious scholars, so why are we still talking about it? Tell it to James Fowler and Darren Schreiber, who recently authored a paper in the prestigious Science magazine (7 November 2008) by the title “Biology, Politics, and the Emerging Science of Human Nature.”

Interestingly, Fowler and Schreiber start out with a nod to philosophy: they mention Aristotle’s conception in The Politics that “Man is, by nature, a political animal.” The paper, in fact, is about the biology of politics, a subject that some people in the humanities will surely find oxymoronic, but that has been forging some interesting scholarly alliances between biologists, cognitive scientists and political scientists. Fowler and Schreiber’s main thesis is that the human brain seems to have specific abilities to deal not just with social interactions, but more particularly with political situations (the implicit argument being that the two have been pretty much inextricable for most of human history).

Some of the evidence for a biological view of politics is rather coarse: twin studies show that variation in the tendency to adopt a political ideology is at least in part rooted in genetic differences, though interestingly whether one ends up being a Democrat or a Republican is largely a matter of cultural influence. Other human behaviors that are alleged to have a significant heritable component include attitude toward risk, degree of altruism, and bargaining. More intriguing, I think, neurobiologists have found direct evidence of the involvement of neuro-receptors in specific political behaviors. For instance, the DRD2 gene, which codes for a dopamine receptor, is linked to voter turnout through its influence on one’s tendency to affiliate with a political party (any political party), although of course dopamine receptors also influence a host of human behaviors that are not related to politics.

Even more interesting are studies of a neural circuit that consumes a large amount of energy in its baseline state and that turns out to be related to our moral judgments and to our monitoring of social interactions, as well as to our ability to think about the mental state of other people. Interestingly, this complex circuit increases its activity significantly when people are asked to make judgments about political issues, while in subjects who do not follow politics the same circuit is deactivated.

To some extent, of course, none of this should be surprising. Everything we think and do must be rooted in our brain at some level, unless one wishes to invoke a form of spooky dualism about mental states. Similarly, that our genes have something to do with our social behavior is also not an astonishing notion, considering that we evolved as social animals for a long time, and that we in fact even share the rudiments of moral action with our primate cousins, such as the bonobos.

Still, are we in fact going to see a developed science of human nature, as Fowler and Schreiber maintain? Will that drive the sciences and the humanities further apart into mutually incompatible and increasingly hostile attitudes? Or would it instead contribute to a new, more encompassing approach to knowledge? An approach that puts the emphasis on what historically separate disciplines can teach to each other once their reciprocal viewpoints are considered seriously instead of being dismissed out of hand?

Human nature is certainly not a sharply defined concept, nor does it have to be. If one accepts the evolutionary view of things, than one does expect fuzzy boundaries for pretty much everything in biology, including whatever characteristics are supposed to be species specific. Nonetheless, I maintain that to reject talk of a human nature out of hand, as especially continental philosophers have been doing (think of the historic debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, not to mention my Stony Brook colleague’s attitude), is fundamentally misguided. Recognizing a “nature” to humanity does not imply some sort of rigid determinism about human behavior. Talk of human nature also does not entail a silly form of reductionism that trivializes the complexity of human culture. Then again, to reject the idea of human nature despite the advances of science means trivializing the biology of being human, and we do that at our own peril. The Delphi oracle’s imperative was to know thyself, and that knowledge surely must include a hefty contribution from biology.



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