Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Why we disagree about human nature

Elizabeth Hannon & Tim Lewens (Eds) Why we disagree about human nature.Oxford University Press, 2018. 206 pp. £30 hbk.

JULY 1, 2019

By Simon Jarrett

If one day a disturbingly precocious child were to ask what part you had played in the nature/ nurture war, what would you reply? Were you with the massed intellectual ranks who, since the philosopher David Hull’s ground-breaking 1986 classic ‘On Human Nature,’ have denied that there is any such thing as a common nature for all humans? Or did you join Stephen Pinker’s 2003 counter-revolution, when The Blank Slate sought to reclaim the ground for the Enlightenment, and the idea that there is something essentially the same about all humans across time, space and culture?

If you are not quite sure where you stand, or perhaps too sure where you stand, then this pleasingly eclectic collection of ten essays on human nature, and whether we can meaningfully talk about such a thing, will be of great help. Its contributors, who come from psychology, philosophy of science, social and biological anthropology, evolutionary theory, and the study of animal cognition, include human nature advocates, deniers, and sceptics. We could perhaps call the sceptics ‘so-whaters’ – they agree there may be something we can attach the label ‘human nature’ to, but query whether it really matters, or carries any explanatory weight. These people would take our (hopefully apocryphal) infant prodigy aside and say, ‘well there are some conceptual complexities here that make it quite difficult to give you a straightforward answer.’

Human nature remains, alongside consciousness, one of the great explanatory gaps, a question that permeated philosophical enquiry in antiquity, lay at the heart of Enlightenment ‘science of Man’, and now forms a central anxiety of modernity.  The over-arching problem is, in essence, this: are there traits and characteristics that are biological, and not learned or culturally acquired, which we can say form something called the nature of the human, and which not only define humans as a unified entity but also differentiate them from all other species? In which case, what on earth are they? Or: are we essentially constructed by culture, our traits and characteristics formed by experience, language, learning and social relations, and once we strip away these veneers we find no inner essence that unites us a human species, no meaningful shared oneness other than what we have made ourselves? In which case, what on earth do we mean by ‘we’?

As Hannon and Lewens’ title suggests, we all disagree about human nature and – as the final chapter warns us – are probably destined always to do so, not least because of the term’s epistemological slipperiness. However, one thing on which the contributors find consensus is that the essentialist concept of human nature – ‘that to be human is to possess a crucial “human” gene, or a distinctively “human” form of… intelligence, language, technical facility, or whatever’ (pp.2-3) – is dead. The essentialist idea was killed by Charles Darwin, because if species variation occurs across time and space then there can be nothing invariable in their form and structure, and therefore nothing that we can call a fixed, universal and unchanging ‘nature’. If humankind has adapted, evolved and varied over millions of years, and across numerous environments, what common nature can exist amongst all humans, past and present?

Read the whole thing.

Leave a Reply