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 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’
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).