Support Aeon Donate now A strange thing is happening in modern philosophy: What makes this strange is that, not only does the new attitude run counter to much of the history of philosophy, but — despite loud claims to the contrary — it also goes against the findings of modern science.
This has serious consequences, ranging from the way in which we see ourselves and our place in the cosmos to what sort of philosophy of life we might adopt.
Our aim here is to discuss the issue of human nature in light of contemporary biology, and then explore how the concept might impact everyday living.
The existence of something like a human nature that separates us from the rest of the animal world has often been implied, and sometimes explicitly stated, throughout the history of philosophy. The Epicureans argued that it is a quintessential aspect of human nature that we are happier when we experience pleasure, and especially when we do not experience pain.
In contrast, many contemporary philosophers, both of the so-called analytic and continental traditions, seem largely to have rejected the very idea of human nature. We beg to differ. What exactly does science tell us about the idea of a human nature? From Charles Darwin onward, the scientific consensus has been pretty clear: Our particular lineage gave origin to the species Homo sapiens at leastyears ago, resulting from a long evolutionary period, which unfolded over millions of years from the point of divergence from our most recent common ancestor with the chimpanzees, our closest phylogenetic cousins.
Put that way, it would seem that biology does indeed do away with any idea of human nature: How Culture Made the Human Mindthat small percentage translates into thousands of structural changes at the genetic level, which in turn can be combined to yield millions of ways in which humans are distinct from chimpanzees.
In light of this, we think that the picture emerging from evolutionary and developmental biology is — contrary to the widespread opinion among contemporary philosophers — one that very much supports the notion of human nature, just not an essentialist one.
Human nature is best conceived of as a cluster of homeostatic properties, ie of traits that are dynamically changing and yet sufficiently stable over evolutionary time to be statistically clearly recognisable. These properties include characteristics that are either unique to the human species, or so quantitatively distinct from anything similar found in other animals that our version is unquestionably and solely human.
Take language, for instance. But no other living species has anything even remotely like human language, with its complex grammar and high levels of recursion where a linguistic rule can be applied to the results of the application of the very same rule, and so on. Other animals, such as octopuses, have large, complex brains and nervous systems, but no other animal has both the size relative to the body and especially the structural asymmetry and layering of the human brain; for instance, its enormously developed frontal cortex, which is in charge of reward, attention, short-term memory tasks, planning and motivation.
The list could go on and on, but the basic point is that it is fallacious to state that there are no fundamental differences between humans and other animals just because the boundaries are fuzzy and dynamic over evolutionary time. As Justice Potter Stewart said, in a case about pornography versus art in But I know it when I see it.
We all know it when we see it. Now, if human nature is real, what are the consequences from a philosophical perspective? Why should a philosopher, or anyone interested in using philosophy as a guide to life, care about this otherwise technical debate?
The temptation to link existentialism with the idea of a tabula rasa is understandable. In one of his more radical statements, he wrote: We had lost all our rights, and first of all our right to speak.
They insulted us to our faces … They deported us en masse … And because of all this we were free. Even Simone de Beauvoir thought he took it too far, particularly when he told her that her seasickness was all in her head.
In her autobiography The Prime of Lifeshe wrote: I, on the other hand, claimed that stomach and tear ducts, indeed the head itself, were all subject to irresistible forces on occasion. This is human nature: To be human is to live in ambiguity because we are forever caught in a tension between the facts of our lives and the will to overcome them.
Biology might seem to offer a simple explanation for some limitations. This is both a wrong and a harmful way to think about our nature. Historically, women have been defined primarily by the same biological functions they share with other animals, tethered in myths about femininity, and robbed of the opportunity to transcend.
Natural obstacles provide a different sort of limitation. It might be absurd for de Beauvoir to persist with sailing if she vomits constantly, but giving up on her goals because of seasickness is stupid, too. To transcend is to recognise our resistances and failures, and to rebel against them creatively.
This perspective matters because it emphasises that, while there are fixed elements to our being, we are not fixed beings, since we are or ought to be free to choose our projects.
Neither biology nor natural obstacles limit our futures to a great extent, and how we live out our human nature will vary because we give different meanings to our facticities.
An authentic life is about acknowledging these differences, and stretching ourselves into an open future.Download-Theses Mercredi 10 juin WORLD CITIZEN BLOG and UPDATES 70th Anniversary of the World Citizen Movement. By David Gallup On May 25, , Garry Davis stepped out of the US Embassy in Paris after taking the Oath of Renunciation of citizenship.
Internally we have our brains and body type that show we are human, even though gorillas, apes and chimpanzees might have those similar features us humans for example have smaller jaws, larger brains and we our bi-pedal.
Goodall, a British primatologist and anthropologist, is considered to be one of the world’s expert on chimpanzees. We were struck by the massive response to our post on how it’s possible for individuals to have the same B.M.I. but very different bodies.. Readers told us about their muscles, and about being.