Select Page

Human nature


This article is dedicated to two biological scientists of our times – Harvard Professor of Cognitive Science Steven Pinker and American biologist, theorist, naturalist, and conservationist Ed Wilson.

‘Know thyself’

The Delphic exhortation


‘Man will be better when you show him what he is like’

Anton Chekov

Remains of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi

Apollo was the god of the Sun, light, truth, prophecy, medicine and healing.
This Doric building dates to the 4th century BCE and rests on the remains of a former temple built in the 6th century BCE which itself stands on the site of a 7th-century BCE construction attributed to the architects Trophonios and Agamedes.
Once, inscribed in Greek over the entrance was the injunction ‘Know Thyself’
In Greek mythology the site of Delphi on Mount Parnassus above the valley of Phocis was ordained by Zeus, the king of the Gods.
It was believed to be the centre of the Earth – marked by a stone, the omphalos or navel of the Earth (Gaia).
The temple was home to the oracle and priestess Pythia and in its hearth burned an eternal flame.
From 586 BCE Delphi was the site of the four-yearly panhellenic Pythian Games, not only the usual athletic contests (not so grand as the athletic contests at Olympia) but also the popular competitive mousikos agon or music festival.
Photo: Roger Spencer 18 June 2014

Greek philosophers 2,000 years ago in wrestling with difficult questions about the material, social and political world around them, produced a simple dictum: ‘know thyself’. This statement is used many times by Plato in his Socratic dialogues: it was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and inside the temple it was expanded to ‘Man, know thyself . . .  and thou shalt know the gods.’ Years earlier the Sophist Protagoras (c. 490–420 BCE) had famously declared that ‘Man is the measure of all things‘.

These ancient Greek maxims stress the point that, of necessity, our perceptions of the world, the social and political systems we have devised, the conflicts of ideas that have cost so many lives, the reasons we laugh and cry . . . all find a focus in our humanity, in the way we are – in our biological and psychological nature, our human nature.

The Greek message is a simple one. To manage the world and ourselves effectively, to live The Good Life ‘sustainably’, we need to know as much as possible about ourselves – our strengths and weaknesses, where these come from and how they can be managed. Ancient Greek humanitarianism placed humans, rather than divine providence, at the centre of things . The Epicurean School, in particular, challenged citizens of ancient Athens to acknowledge that it is ‘us’ who create the future, not the gods or fate.

As Greek society itself demonstrated and, as we have learned from the great wars of the twentieth century, there is no simple way of managing human fallibility, but knowledge of its origins and manifestation is a good place to start. One major role of education is to ‘ . . . make up for the shortcomings in our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world’.[6]

Human history, as the interaction between humans and their environment, is grounded in our human nature. This is presumably what Harvard historian Ian Morris means when referring to history as a sub-discipline of biology.

Even so, modern science is currently transforming our old perceptions of language, thought, and the mind by giving us new insights into the way we are. We have the opportunity to use this new knowledge to our advantage.

Human nature

What do we really know about ourselves?

Science has achieved much, unravelling the fine detail of the operation of our body organs and chemistry. In 2003 we finally decoded the complete human genome, every last molecule that determines the way we are . . .  but we are still left with much to learn about the last great scientific frontier, the human mind and brain. We are, right now, on the brink of unravelling one of nature’s greatest secrets . . . the nature of ‘human nature’.

Probably the most articulate living student of human nature is Harvard Professor and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. In his books, Pinker outlines his view of human nature, looking critically at some of the ideas of the past that are now being replaced by the findings of modern science – former views that are still used to explain personal behaviour and which play a role in political and social decision-making.

Three books are directed at language as a window into human nature: The Language Instinct (1994) which was an overview of the language faculty and the connection between sound and meaning; Words and Rules which looks at the units of language and how they are stored in the memory and structured into innumerable combinations; and the last, The Stuff of Thought (2008), looks at meaning (semantics and pragmatics).

Three other books are more directly focused on human nature: How the Mind Works (1997) tries to reverse-engineer the mind in terms of cognitive science and evolutionary biology; The Blank Slate (2002) explored the concept of human nature and its moral, emotional, and political colourings; while the former The Stuff of Thought examined what we can learn about our makeup from the way people put their thoughts and feelings into words.

The later The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) was an in-depth analysis, and support for, the counter-intuitive thesis that violence has, overall, declined through the course of human history.

Pinker[1] begins an analysis of human nature in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) with the following quote which echoes closely the sentiments of Shakespeare in Hamlet (see Reason & rationality):

What a chimera then is man! What a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sewer of uncertainty and error, the glory and the scum of the universe.
Blaise Pascal – 1623-1662

Pinker defines human nature as the ‘commonality of basic human responses across cultures … it encompasses our common pleasures and pains, our common methods of reasoning, and our common vulnerability to folly‘, it is the totality of ‘Universal patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour‘. Most importantly human nature is not something mystical, it is open to scientific study.

Historical misconceptions

Pinker begins by dismissing three great misconceptions from the past:

Empiricism & the blank slate

There is a long intellectual tradition that assumes we are born with minds that are completely blank (tabula rasa or blank slate) and that what follows during our lives is the ‘writing’ of our experiences into our consciousness. From these experiences are derived our subsequent behaviour, values, and beliefs. Philosophically this was known as the empiricist school and though going back to the ancients was perhaps most famously propounded by Enlightenment English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) who succinctly expressed its essence in the phrase ‘there’s nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses’.

We know now from scientific research that this is simply not true. We are not born with minds that are ‘blank slates’. At the very least the brain at birth brings an innate capacity to ‘process’ and structure sensory input (innate mechanisms) and there are many of these, not least of which is the capacity to acquire language. We are now rapidly learning about these innate mechanisms and the way they work.

The noble savage

There is also a long tradition associated with the idea that humans born ‘innocent’ and are subsequently corrupted by the imperfections of society. This is a claim attributed most notably to French polemicist Jean-Jaques Rousseau (1712-1778) and 18th century Romanticism ‘… nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state‘. Included among the innocent are ‘savages’ who have retained their innocence by existing in what was called in the 18th century a ‘state of nature’, a condition often contrasted with ‘civilisation’.

Rousseau was dissatisfied with much that he saw in society and was attacking views like those of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) who had, a century before, claimed that life in a state of nature would have been ‘… solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Hobbes believed that this state of nature could only be improved by appeal to a higher authority which, he suggested, would be a divinely ordained monarchy, which he called the Leviathan.

In his books Pinker examines the theories of Rousseau and Hobbes and, using violence as a measure, provides extensive empirical evidence of an uneven but progressive decrease in violent death through history starting with the high rates of violence found in the archaeological remains of hunter-gatherer communities and decreasing up to the present day (even taking into consideration the carnage of two world wars). With anthropological and psychological evidence Pinker comes down firmly on the side of Thomas Hobbes.[2] and pointing out that the state of purity and innocence envisaged by Rousseau is a fiction.

The ghost in the machine

Throughout history the mind and brain have been regarded as two separate things. This view is tied to the religious and Platonic idea that the body contains a ‘soul’ or spirit which can be separated from the body, perhaps even having human-like experiences, making choices and interacting with other souls and spiritual beings. This view is no doubt supported by the difficulty we have in relating such seemingly abstract things as ideas, mental images, emotions, dreams, and thoughts to processes going on in the brain.

Though we certainly have difficulty in equating our mental states to physico-chemical processes there is overwhelming evidence from modern medicine through the effect of chemicals, medication, studies of brain activity through brain scans and stimulation, and the extensive evidence revealed from brain damage and surgery, that all of the mental states mentioned can indeed be related to structures and events going on in the brain: that brain activity and mental states are physico-chemical events. In contrast there is no convincing evidence of souls or disembodied spirits.

To a younger generation this outline of the brain and behaviour might present few problems but it is a synthesis that has only arisen in about the last 50 years. A generation or two ago to have imagined that an account of something so complex as mental states could be presented in such direct scientific terms would have been regarded as arrogant and hubristic in the extreme.

The modern synthesis

So, scientific research demonstrates that we are not born pure and innocent. We are born with certain genetic predispositions, many of which are universal human characteristics (given the right circumstances we could all kill). But these predispositions are not inevitable: they are not set in stone but subject to individual and collective regulation. Our brains are highly complex biological computers that structure our sensory input and function by means of physico-chemical processes.

Nowadays this view is hardly controversial but it is still the source of major resistance. So what are the sources of concern that make people so reluctant to accept its thesis?

Objections to the modern synthesis

Pinker rejects religious views (like that of the soul inhabiting the body or head) and outlines why he thinks people find the existence of a given human nature repellant and for the following claimed reasons: it is dehumanising, it robs us of our dignity and freedom, and it may be both socially and politically threatening. He further argues that these concerns are based on four unfounded fears: fear of inequality, fear of imperfectability, fear of determinism, and fear of nihilism.


The fear of inequality, that if we are genetically different, if we are wired differently as individuals of groups, then this could be used to condone racial, sexual or other discrimination and oppression. This assumes incorrectly that possible biological dissimilarity must result in dissimilar policy. But this is a false equivalence: socio-political policy and choices do not have to relate to differences in our biology even if they exist.


The idea of early innocence and purity gives us a Utopian hope for human perfectibility. On the other hand if we are born with certain predispositions to undesirable behaviour (characterised by Christianity as being imperfect and tainted with original sin) then we can expect conflict and other unpleasant consequences, to which we must respond with socialisation and discipline, along with the application of law and other socio-political constraints. Pinker points out that today the view of childhood innocence has, for example, promoted the idea of non-intrusive child rearing: also the recent hope that our institutions can correct behavioural anomalies … rather than the more traditional view that aberrant behaviour is to be anticipated as part of the human condition.

The fear of imperfectability is that if anti-social or undesirable traits are under genetic influence then attempts at social reform and improvement are futile. This is clearly incorrect as the connection between undesirable motives, tendencies, or predispositions and outcomes is not inevitable. The desire to kill or have sex with someone may have some genetic basis but it can be regulated. We all know this. Pinker draws attention to the decrease in violence over time in spite of what was almost certainly a uniform predisposition over the course of our history. He also draws attention to philosopher Peter Singer’s idea of an expanding sphere of moral influence whereby our moral sympathies have extended beyond our immediate kin to others and even the animal kingdom.


The fear of determinism, that if everything follows direct causal pathways then we have no capacity for choice and are therefore no longer responsible for what we do. But these are not mutually exclusive and we are neutrally-wired so as to respond to many contingencies including credit and blame. For many people this is dehumanising, turning sentient beings into chemicals and clockwork. Even worse, it implies a kind of determinism or reductionism that robs us of free will, the freedom to choose, and our conscious humanity. For religious people it seems to replace the richness of a spiritual essence with a crude and clockwork materialism. Even so, science clearly identifies our brains as complex information processors and this need not destroy the way we feel about them or diminish their wonder.


The fear of nihilism, that biology or biological explanation strips life of meaning and purpose: that evolutionary and biological explanations are ultimately demeaning. For Pinker the idea that the universe has some purpose is one we must simply discard in the absence of any credible evidence to the contrary. This does not mean that human lives are either purposeless or meaningless – ‘Even if in some metaphorical sense our genes are selfish, and evolution amoral and without purpose, that doesn’t mean that we are selfish, amoral, or without purpose’.

Knowing ourselves

From the earliest times the world’s great art and literature has delved deeply into the drama of human nature, but this was ultimately an unknowable metaphysical realm. Feeble human attempts to really understand it were simply arrogance. Bound by the constraints of long religious and philosophical traditions (outlined above) the scientific assault on the mind, behaviour, and hence human nature, was a late starter, only really making headway in the late 20th century and, although progress is rapid, still with much to resolve.

Here is a brief outline of the path leading to today’s science of the mind and human nature:

Progress was only really possible following the arrival of the theory of evolution and the laying of foundations in genetics. It was these two fields of knowledge that gave scientific purchase and coherence to investigations of the relationship between organism, environment, and behaviour.

The scientific race to understanding human nature (nor necessarily framed in these terms) began with studies in experimental psychology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries which divided the subject into two schools, the structural (the fundamental components of mental activity relating to chemistry and physics) and functional (consciousness, experience, and the way the mind equips us for the world).

Recognition of a mental subtrate to expressed behaviour was expressed through the idea, in the 1870s, of ‘instinct’. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was one who began to delve into the dark recesses of mind challenging the idea of sin and scrutinising instinct operational in the unconscious mind, source of assorted passions and desires (the id) and requiring some form of regulation (the super-ego). In Civilisation and its Discontents (1930) Freud set out a non-religious account of the tensions that arise both within individuals and societies as they wrestle with the management of innate or instinctive unconscious aspects of their nature.

But the scientific basis of this psychoanalysis and other forms of deep psychology or psychotherapy – the Analytical Psychology of Carl Jung with his mental archetypes, and other theories related to our unconscious motivation – revealed many useful insights but remained murky, theoretical and inscientific (extremely difficult to test conclusively). Calls for greater scientific rigour were met in the early 20th century by the school of behaviourism which became dominant in the 1950s. Behaviourism avoided the shadowy aspects of the mind by concentrating on observable behaviour. But this behavioural one-sidedness could not last and an assortment of humanistic schools arose based on broader themes: humanistic psychology, gestalt psychology, existential therapy and so on.

The scientific field suddenly opened up as a modern multidisciplinary cognitive revolution began in the 1950s. A new fusion of psychology, anthropology, and linguistics also drew on the young fields of artificial intelligence, computer science, and neuroscience. By the early 1970s and 1980s behaviourism had passed and cognitive science had become the dominant field of research. On its way in the 1960s psychologists began looking more closely at the contentious area of the genetic aspects of the mind. Behaviourism’s ideas of stimulus, response and reinforcement did not seem to adequately account for much that went on in the brain and the cognitive psychology studying mental processes like perception, memory and learning became well known through the work of people like the linguist Noam Chomsky whose wide-ranging approach became known as cognitive neuroscience.

A totally different line of investigation had also appeared in the 1960s and that was the study of animal behaviour (ethology) and this was united with human socuial behaviour to produce the new discipline of sociobiology instigated by E. O. Wilson in 1975. Evolutionary biology was now a formal academic discipline in universitie and, a little later came the application of evolutionary theory to the study of mind, as evolutionary psychology. With evolution so central to our understanding of our physical bodies it was high time similar principles were applied to the study of our physical minds. In fact the old mind-brain distinction had nearly disappeared.

The one-time dichotomy of structural and functional psychology has now proliferated into a marching crowd of disciplines all armed with the latest technology. Wikipedia now lists more than 50 independent disciplines related to the study of our brains and behaviour.

Contentious claims about our ‘true nature’ are no longer taboo; the factors to be studied have become less abstract and more critically and scientifically circumscribed and the race to contribute to this frontier science is on. Out of all this is emerging a picture of how we actually tick – a scientifically-based theory of human nature that is free of ghosts and unsubstantiated theory.

Gradually scientific light is being used to at least inform, and in some cases exorcise, old sources of intellectual and philosophical confusion and concern: the nature of the mind, mind and body, body and soul, other minds, free will and determinism, solipsism, nature and nurture, nature and culture, empiricism and rationalism, idealism and materialism, reductionism and holism, noble savages and brutes, evolution and creationism.

The future

In the 18th century a humanitarian ethics arose as the force of reason was brought to bear on matters like ‘slavery, cruel punishments, despotic monarchs, and the execution of witches and heretics’.[3] The reason for our rejection of these old practices now seems embedded in Western culture. We are familiar with the precariousness of such matter but are cautiously optimistic that we are unlikely to go back to the way things were before. This we can call moral progress and to this list can now be added improvements in the treatment of women, children, racial minorities, gay people, and domesticated animals.

There are two further points relating to the future. Firstly, although there is every indication of moral progress over much of the world this characterisation of human nature indicates that this cannot lead to a moral Utopia.

Pinker, in the Preface to his 800-page book on the decline of violence, begins with the assertion that ‘Across time and space the more peaceable societies tend to be richer, healthier, better educated, better governed, more respectful of their women, and more likely to engage in trade’. He then outlines a history of violence drawing attention to major historical trends and the factors that have mitigated for violence and peace:

Historical trends

  • Pacification – Over millennia a five-fold decrease in violence as a result of the transition from raiding and feuding non-state hunter-gatherer societies to urban agricultural societies. Self-interest as in Pax Romana.
  • Civilization – In the 500 years from the Late Middle-Ages to the 20th century a 10-50 times decrease in homicide. Consolidation of central states and kingdoms, justice system and trade increase.
  • Humanitarian Revolution – In the 17th and 18th centuries of the Enlightenment the removal of socially sanctioned violence (despotism, slavery, duelling, torture, superstitious killing, cruelty to animals). Huge reduction in death penalty for non-lethal crimes
  • Long Peace – cessation of Great Power warfare after WW2: worst war by total numbers but not by total world population
  • New Peace – After 1989, and in spite of perceptions: reduced conflict resulting from civil wars, genocides, state repression, and terrorist attack
  • Rights Revolution – Following the model of the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 , rights have been various statements of civil rights, also rights for women, children, gay people, animals and others. This is violence on a smaller scale including ethnic minorities

Perhaps more importantly for the future is his examination of the factors influencing these trends. Pinker lists five psychological factors potentially influencing violence or peace:

Towards violence

  • Predatory violence – instrumental violence used for simple ends like stealing, smash and grab
  • Dominance – desire for prestige, glory, or power. From macho or heroic behaviour to racial, ethnic, national or religious claims to superiority
  • Revenge – urge to retribution by punishment or justice
  • Sadism – pleasure in another’s suffering
  • Ideology – a shared belief system that justifies violence to achieve its ends

Towards peace

  • Empathy – sympathetic concern for the condition of others and alignment of their interests with our own
  • Self-control – anticipation of consequences of behaviour and the desire to modify them accordingly
  • Moral sense – sanctification of norms and taboos in a group of people sometimes leading to less violence but not always (as when tribal, authoritarian or puritanical)
  • Reason – a means of developing a more detached view of ourselves and of assessing factors mitigating towards violence or peace

Finally there is the question of how historical factors may have influenced declines in violence and he lists five:

Historical influences

  • Leviathan – Inhibition of violence through the a socially-sanctioned state, judiciary and police system
  • Commerce & trade – creating mutually beneficial dependencies that reduce the possibilityof demonisation, dehumanisation and gratuitous violence
  • Feminization – based on the assumption that men have a greater propensity for violence
  • Cosmopolitanism – literacy, mobility, mass media resulting in the embrace of people outside your circle of sympathy
  • Escalator of reason – recognition of the futility and counter-productivity of violence, a realisation of the privileging of self-interest, realisation that violence is a problem to solve not a contest to win

Decrease in violence cannot be taken for granted: it was bought at a high price and calls for constant vigilance to avoid complacency.

Evolution of the human mind

Answers to the difficult question ‘What is human nature? can come from many disciplines but for the biologist the answer must lie in our evolution. We are ‘the way that nature made us’. The suite of characteristics we list as being distinctly human are largely a consequence of the coevolution of our three major characteristics: social interaction that extends beyond our kin; the use of language (allowing the trading of the cheapest and most effective goood – information); technological skill. Each of these skills multiplying the power of the others. Evolutionary psychology has drawn attention to a bedrock of factors that bely the idea of our minds as blank slates. Most obvious here is behaviour that can be clearly related to ancestral environments but which is today no longer appropriate, for example, our currently detrimental love of sugar and fat in foods. More contentiously there is our violence, the desire for revenge, and obsession with sport. Perhaps the strongest evidence of the genetic component of our makeup comes in comparisons of identical twins separated at birth. Quantitative psychological tests indicate very close correlation in intelligence and personality and all kinds of behaviour from tendency to become a smoker to political attitudes. This kind of evidence has given rise to the First Law of Behavioural Genetics, that ‘all behavioural traits are partially heritable’.

The cognitive niche

In a 2009 commemoration of Darwin’s 200th birthday and 150th anniversary of On The Origin of Species … Pinker gave a talk to the National Academy of Sciences in which he outlined his view of the evolution of the mind. The following is an abbreviated account of this talk published as The Cognitive Niche.[4]

Natural selection provides an explanation of ‘adaptive complexity’ (an expression favoured by Richard Dawkins as an alternative expression for ‘life’) and can explain the human mind without resort to the creationism, teleology and spiritualism suggested by Alfred Russel Wallace who also saw, in forager societies, no reason for the development of the abstract thought used today in science, philosophy, mathematics and many other fields of life because they provided no selective advantage.

Pinker proposed that there were two advantages: firstly, the filling of a ‘cognitive niche’ with the ability for improved manipulation of the environment through causal reasoning and social cooperation; secondly, the co-opting of the psychological faculties that evolved in the cognitive niche for metaphorical abstraction and productive combination as exhibited in human language.

Know-how, cooperation & communication

One way of thinking about natural selection is the way all animals survive by eating parts of other organisms. Survival is therefore more likely when defences are strong – animals developing speed, armour, and defensive behaviour while plants evolve poisonous chemicals and thorns. There then ensues a co-evolutionary and genetically-based arms race between predator and prey. The idea of a ‘cognitive niche’ implies that there is a position within the ecosystem for those organisms that can exploit the advantages of cause-effect reasoning and cooperation combined with imaginary mental representation of the future as a means of outcompeting other organisms.

By this means that strategies can be tested in real time while other organisms without this ability can only undergo ‘learned’ and evolutionary change, a much slower process.

There are three special traits associated with this cognitive ability:

a. Technology

We depend on many kinds of complex tools

b. Co-operation with people who are unrelated

Unlikely cooperation with other people who are not relatives is explained through mutualism or reciprocity. Reciprocal altruism is suggested by several cognitive adaptations including recognition of strangers and remembering their actions in terms of reciprocity, emotions that encourage cooperation and discourage cheating, and the drive to assess others promote oneself.

c. Grammatical language

Humans are unique in communicating with a language that is highly flexible and infinitely inventive in communicating about the relationship between basic cognitive categories: objects, substances, motion, causation, agency, space and time. This ability to reason, communicate and collaborate brings many survival advantages.

The cognitive niche is not defined by a set of physical environmental factors but the ability discern causal connections. Hunter-gather societies require extended training to acquire the knowledge necessary for hunting and this may account for our unusually long childhoods as a period of training.

Hominid evolution

Why did hominids specifically evolve sophisticated cognition, language and sociality at the time when they did?

Intelligence comes at a cost – a large brain that is difficult to deliver through the female birth canal and an organ that uses about 25% of the body’s energy and risks of damage. How did the benefits of intelligence outweigh the costs?

Hominid ancestors possessed traits that could be ‘value-added’ by intelligence: prehensile hands, bipedality, an opportunistic diet of meat as a quick and efficient source of protein and nutrient, the hunt demanding intelligence, group living also enhanced by intelligence. Sociality and carnivory contributed to human intelligence is supported by the fact that intelligence generally can be correlated with brain size, carnivory, group size, and extended childhoods and lifespans.

Coevolution of cognition, language, & sociality

Though a niche is usually regarded as a physical environment behaviour can alter physical surroundings altering the nature of the selective pressures. The cognitive niche was altered by incremental increases in cooperation, communication and know-how, each reinforcing the other, language especially allowing the transfer of experience rapidly from one individual to another without the necessity of re-learning again and again. This was both a means and incentive for cooperation as people traded ideas with goods and there is no advantage in sharing information with adversaries.

The cognitive niche can therefore be viewed as the interplay of language, intelligence, sociality, extended lives and childhood, enhanced father and grandmother investment, with diverse habitats and food resources all engaged in incremental coevolution.

The idea of the cognitive niche places some flesh on loose ideas like ‘culture’ through specific adaptations. Cooperation as an adaptation entails the themes of moral psychology and mechanisms for remembering people and their actions; linguistic adaptations include the innate apparatus of grammar, syntax and phonology.

In determining what is acceptable behaviour it is helpful to think of the relationships we enter as being of three kinds: dominance (formal hierarchical chain of command), communality (kinship, family and familiarity), reciprocity (mutual benefit as in business). Most of the annoying cautiousness of language, lack of directness, and embarrassment we experience in political and interpersonal relations relates to our difficulty in establishing our location within these three domains.

Emergence of science & abstract reasoning

How did the language and intelligence arising with the cognitive niche give rise to science and abstract reasoning? Pinker suggests that much of our science and reasoning is intuitive – more or less innate but that from this intuitive foundation have come more recent developments (listed in brackets) that are now either established or capable of being learned.

Mathematics deals with ‘one’, ‘two’ ‘many’ and then estimation; intuitive physics rests on Medieval impetus (not Newtonian mechanics); intuitive biology is creationism, essentialism, and vitalism (not evolution, population genetics & mechanistic physiology); intuitive psychology is mind-body dualism (not neurobiological reductionism); intuitive political philosophy is based on kin, tribe and retribution (not social contract); intuitive economics on tit-for-tat back-scratching and barter ((not money, interest, rent & profit); intuitions of morality on purity, loyalty, authority, conformity, reciprocity (not generalised fairness & justice).

But how do cognitive mechanisms actually engage this abstract reasoning?

Metaphorical abstraction

The mind works as an evolved computational system with specialised modular functionality. Our spontaneous and meaningful behaviour is the application of both intuitive and learned causal models of the world communicated through language which permits the transmission and accumulation of knowledge. Intuitive behaviour happens automatically like our perception, while rational behaviour requires conscious effort. Just as moral psychologists have isolated intuitive and universal moral intuitions so we have intuitive theories about objects, forces, paths, places, manners, states, substances and more. So, Pinker suggests, through psycholinguistics we glimpse the origin of abstract thought in metaphorical abstraction – where concrete situations are expressed in abstract terms. The mental tools we use for one aspect of our mental life may well be appropriated for those of another and this is evident in our language notably the metaphor we use in relation to space, force, agency, and causation. We harness their inferential power when we use express abstract concepts in concrete terms. For example, consider the following sentences and the different senses of the word ‘went’:

The messenger went from Paris to Istanbul (spatial transfer)
The inheritance went to Fred (metaphor, as if the inheritance moved spatially)
The light went from red to green (change of state or state-space)
The meeting went from 3:00 to 4:00 (a change in time as though it were in space on a time-line)

metaphor relating to space and force is linguistically ubiquitous – connecting abstract ideas to concrete phenomena. Space and time are frequently conflated as in the sentence He waited a long time.

The point is not that this is an interesting quirk of language but that logical and concrete descriptions of movement and time can be expressed in abstract terms as metaphor. So, the idea of a variable (as a position in space) and of causal change (the application of force) are basic to scientific thinking. Concrete concepts are applied to abstract ones with a similar logical structure. The brain did not evolve to carry out metaphorical abstraction but to make cognitive inferences in multiple domains.

Sociality in natural environments is adapted to kinship, dominance, alliances and reciprocity – left to our own devices in organisations we fall back on this mindset which leads to cronyism, deference to authority, and polite consensus – all advantageous to small societies but corrosive to modern ones.

Just as science requires people to use their cognitive faculties in new or unintuitive ways so successful societies require people to use their social faculties in evolutionarily unprecedented ways.

Our minds have evolved to reason about the causal structure of the world and to cooperate with one-other by sharing knowledge and negotiating agreements, all adaptations that have co-evolved. Access to new skills and bodies of knowledge has been facilitated through the process of metaphorical abstraction. Cognitive schemes and social emotions from one domain are transposed into another thus increasing knowledge and cognitive capacity.

Baron von Mueller
Steven Pinker – 21 October 2011 – Aged 54
Photo by Rose Lincoln, Harvard Staff Photographer.
Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology and a Harvard College professor.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Commentary & sustainability analysis

Human nature is now an object of empirical research, biology can be put to the service of liberal education, and our self-conception can be enormously and truthfully enriched. 

At some time in the future we will have to decide how human we wish to remain

Although human progress can be achieved by intuition and force of will, only hard-won empirical knowledge of our biological nature will allow us to make optimum choices among the competing criteria of progress

Ed Wilson, 1978

In his latest book[5] Ed Wilson summarises his thoughts on ‘today’. Here are a few of those thoughts:

We are about to abandon natural selection, the process that created us, in order to direct our own evolution by volitional selection – the process of redesigning our biology and human nature as we wish them to be


Our brains are poorly wired. Hereditary human nature is the genetic legacy of our prehuman and Palaeolithic past’,


How wisely we use our capacity to imagine possible futures depends on the accuracy of our self-understanding


We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own. Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us


What counts for long-term survival is intelligent self-understanding, based upon a greater independence of thought than that tolerated today even in our most advanced democratic societies[5]

Claims about what humans are really like are present in theories of economics, history, theology, political systems and structures, legal systems, attitudes to crime and punishment, the way we allocate praise and blame, even the way we interact with one-another every day.

Are we really greedy, self-interested war-mongers, or are we altruistic, communal, cooperative and caring? Perhaps we are a mix of these things? Our decisions about these matters can colour our politics including the way we perceive society and the way it should be run. For example, if we believe that we are ‘natuarlly’ selfish and violent than there is a clear need for a strong police force and controlling social structures but if we are more Utopian and believe that humans are ‘naturally’ cooperative and loving then any authority can be seen as a form of social oppression or discrimination. Are we all, underneath, obsessed with sex? Are children born completely innocent and later corrupted by society? To what extent can we train ourselves to flourish? How much of our behaviour is under genetic control? How do we reconcile the intuitive and reflective parts of our nature? Is it desirable to become more rational and how do we reduce irrationality? Can we train ourselves to carry through with commitments and improve decision-making? What are the advantages and disadvantages of reason?

These are all empirical questions relating to the structure and operation of our brains as it affects our perception, cognition, behaviour, and our general functioning both as individuals and within society. Behavioural geneticists study what it is that makes individuals different while evolutionary psychology looks at characteristics that people have in common.

Once the domain of religion this is now a field of scientific study.

An article on human nature seems to have little to do with either plants or sustainability?In this article it is argued that, contrary to popular belief, we can today, in spite of ourselves, chart a path of progress for humanity moving from the past and into the future. This path is clear in the domain of science and technology but much more controversial in the moral sphere. Many would argue that the ideas of moral progress and moral improvement were discarded, and for good reason, in the 19th century.

Pinker’s analysis is refreshing and valuable. It clears away much of the intellectual clutter of the past making us aware of the subtle assumptions embedded in our language and the history of sterile philosophical debates. nature and nurture, nature and culture and more.

Though human nature concerns itself with the universal and innate, including the less desirable aspects of our nature, our cultural possibilities appear almost limitless. The dark side of human nature need only hold us back as far as we allow it to.


  • Confronts head-on the fact that we all carry within our ‘human nature’ the factors that can operate for better or worse outcomes
  • Promotes reason as a means of assessing trends in history
  • Argues compellingly for moral progress
  • Promotes an objective, quantifiable approach to ethical issues
  • Takes the mind out of the realm of metaphysics and into the realm of science and therefore provides a means of analysing human nature in a way that can assist moral progress
  • From a moralistic mindset to an empirical mindset: not why is there war but why is there peace?
  • Reassessment of modernity, the move’s from tribe, religion, family to reason, cosmopolitanism, universality and science. Nostalgia – what price, nuclear war, terrorism, street violence. Reinstatement of the ideas of progress, improvement, and civilisation

Steven Pinker is a ‘public intellectual’ describing himself politically as a moderate liberal democrat: he is a strong advocate of the Enlightenment tradition that favours the replacement of faith with reason and science. Summoning up an extremely impressive arsenal of evidence he invites us to re-engage with the intellectually unfashionable Enlightenment ideas of civilisation, moral progress, and human improvement.

Our behaviour is a consequence of not only our beliefs and desires (our human nature) it is also a response to factors out side ourselves in the organism-environment continuum in which we exist. We can choose to focus our attention on any point of this continuum. On the one hand ‘what we do’ is clearly a consequence of ‘who we are’. But, by the same token, ‘who we are’ can be beneficially influenced by ‘where we are’. In the constant interaction between nature and culture our task is to manage (environment) our predispositions (human nature) to our greatest advantage (reason).

Key points

  • In trying to find rational solutions to intractable problems we often find that ends are thwarted, not so much because there are different logical ways to achieve those ends, but because we are hampered by ‘human nature’. For example, a Christian explanation of why we have not created a perfect or Utopian human society might be that it is because humans are imperfect themselves, they are tainted with original sin. A more scientific view would be that we all have within us certain traits (instincts, innate mechanisms, drives) that can inhibit rational progress or, at least, make our lives very difficult at times – traits like greed, selfishness, jealousy, and fear. Clearly the better we understand these traits the easier they will be to manage, and the smoother our lives shoud be
  • Although we can define this set of innate traits very simply as ‘human nature’ we do gain some insight into potential lines of scientific research by defining them as evolutionarily-derived universal innate predispositions. What this definition tells us is that by ‘innate’ we mean that these traits are ‘universal’ – they occur in all humans regardless of their culture. The idea that they are ‘predispositions’ implies that though these traits are universal, they may be manifest in our behaviour to varying degrees and at different times: most can be regulated by cultural factors. Finally, in trying to understand the origin of these traits we must inevitably look to evolution. Interpreting our behaviour in evolutionary terms requires extremely careful analysis (see evolutionary psychology) but the journey has begun and will have at the very least some therapeutic value
  • Science is currently trying to reconcile views of the mind that emphasises innate mechanisms with those of social science that tend to view the mind as a general-purpose cognitive device shaped almost entirely by culture
  • Human nature and its management was once considered a mystical factor of human existence: it is now open to scientific investigation in a way that has the potential to make practical improvements to our lives

Psychology timeline

pre 1830s
– Many observations on the operations of the human mind going back to antiquity as the philosophy of mind.

1890s– Psychoanalysis – School founded by Sigmund Freud and in 1911 the International Psychoanalytic Association was formed with Carl Jung the first president. .

1913 – Analytical psychology – a consequence of the separation of Carl Jung from the ideas of Sigmund Freud.

1950s – Cognitive revolution – connection of psychology to information theory, computer science, generative linguistics, and artificial intelligence. .

1958-1974 – Behaviourism (radical behaviourism) promoted by Harvard Professor B.F. Skinner

1970 – Behavioural genetics – In 1951 Calvin S. Hall introduced the term “psychogenetics” which was replaced by “behaviour genetics” which gained recognition as a discipline in 1960 with the textbook Behavior Genetics by J.L. Fuller and W.R. Thompson. Nowadays it is widely accepted that most behaviours in animals and humans are under some degree of genetic influence. Theodosius Dobzhansky was elected the first president of the Behavior Genetics Association in 1972; the BGA bestows the Dobzhansky Award on researchers for their outstanding contributions to the field. In the early 1970s, Lee Ehrman, a doctoral student of Dobzhansky, wrote seminal papers describing the relationship between genotype frequency and mating success in Drosophila,[9][10][11] lending impetus to the pursuit of genetic studies of behaviour in other animals.

1973 – Cognitive science – term coined and the first journal and society formed although the subject dates back to cyberneticists in the 1930s and ‘40s, computation in the 1940s and ‘50s with a major attack on behaviourism by Noam Chomsky in 1959.

1992 – Evolutionary psychology – became mainstream with the book The Adapted Mind by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby although in the 1970s-‘80s evolutionary biology had arrived in universities but its history can be found in the ethology of Dutch biologist Nikolaas Tinbergen and Austrian biologists Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch and given major impetus by the book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis of Edward O. Wilson in 1975. Behavioral ecology placed less emphasis on social behavior by focusing on the ecological and evolutionary basis of both animal and human behavior.

Baron von Mueller
Ed Wilson (1929- )
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Media Gallery

Concepts & Reasoning

New College of the Humanities London – 2019 – 1:10:39

The Human Brain

New College of the Humanities London – 2019 – 1:22:28

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019

College. Psychology Department 1951.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email