From the Mailbox – “Human Nature, Yes or No?”

Posted by on September 16, 2011 in From The Mailbox, Thoughts | 2 comments

My twitter friend Inchoneb submitted the following question via my feedback form:

“Human Nature”. Yea or nay.

It’s a pretty open ended question, but I think I have a few things to say about it.

When talking about human nature I think the very first and foremost thing we need to realise is that we are all animals. Humans are great apes, and therefore have the same propensity for nature within us. Humanity is not removed from nature, although there are those who like to think that we are; religious folk and evolution deniers for example. So this being the case, the real question is “To what degree do we as humans rely on, or are we influenced by, our own nature?”

What does “nature” in this sense actually mean though? Is it the innate qualities of an animal that make it act in a certain way, or is it something like a tendency which can be changed through conscious decision making? Well I guess the answer in the non-human animal world is the former. We know through observation that we can predict the actions of most animals. We can, for instance, say that a shark will kill to eat, a bird will migrate once a year from one climate to another, or that a salmon will return to its spawning grounds. We can look at an animal species and, through observation, make a list of behaviours that each animal has, and can predict what they might do in certain situations. We can know by watching the life-cycle of everything from a bacteria to a sperm whale the way that they behave according to their nature. Every animal has a basic propensity to live long enough (through feeding) to pass on their genes to the next generation (through breeding). This is what makes a species successful, and it is in their best interests to do this, to propagate their own species.

So what of humans? Given that we are animals, I’d say there has to be such thing as “human nature”. We too have the basic behaviours of feeding and breeding, only we have something extra thrown in to complicate things. We have the ability, above all other animals on earth, to reason and rationalise, to plan and create, to make conscious decisions based on facts, and to alter ourselves and our surroundings to better suit us. This is not a small difference, for it allows us to change not only our environment, but our behaviours also.

I’d say that human nature is something that at its basest level is much the same as nature in any animal, but that we complicate our nature by making judgement calls on actions, we control ourselves so that we can better coexist, and in the case of etiquette and societal factors imposed on us by religion and the like, are able to deny our nature because some actions in our nature can be destructive of others.

Take for example our need to breed. This is something that has become taboo among most because it requires an intimacy with another human being that no other action has. We as thinking animals not only find this intimacy to be a very personal thing to ourselves, but because we are empathic, we respect the right of this intimacy among others also. There are those among us who are uncomfortable with the notion of others breeding, and to a certain extent, sex itself is seen as a necessary evil among many people. Those who would like to control the actions of others have used this act of intimacy to tell others that it is bad,  and due to its interpersonal nature and the emotions we feel attached to the act itself, have successfully created and entire society of people who deny their animal nature.  This has caused humans to control the animal instinct to breed, and thereby has made sex something to be ashamed of.

Some would say that the act of controlling sex is a way to control human population, for our nature to breed is far stronger than out ability to control our nature through planning. In religion however this was never the intention, the intention was to have control over people, and what better way than to control the most animal of urges, to breed? The human population problem is something we have the power, both physically and mentally, to overcome, and in doing so we will be in control of our animal instincts, our human nature.

This is just one example of human nature, and there are more, but I think I can surmise that human nature is part of being human, just as dog-nature is part of being dog. We are no different from any other animal in that respect, but we differ in that we can weigh up the consequences of our actions, and change our behaviour accordingly.

Don’t forget, if you want me to answer your question, or have a topic you’d like to see me cover on the blog, send me a message here. And stay tuned for more “From the Mailbox” coming soon to this blog!

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2 Comments

  1. In the last 20-30 years many philosophers, social scientists and psychologists have suggested there is no such thing as a “human nature”. They think we are “fragmented” and can have multiple “identifications”.

    This is usually summarised as “anti-essentialism”, meaning there is no core “essence” to us, no “human nature”. They see our selves as socially “constructed”.

    I don’t have time to go into it further, but it’s very influential. *Back to my essay-writing*

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  2. Interesting read, Marty. Got to say that for the most part I agree with both you AND Jonathan. How to be concise?

    Environment+genetics=behaviour?

    Evolution is partly the process of giving our descendants better and better genetics to deal with the world in which they will live and breed and raise their own progeny. How does “better genetics” influence that? I think: it seems to do so by creating a long list of simultaneously independent and intertwining potential actions on a chemical level (protein synthesis?) that will determine how the organism responds (in the full sense, not just consciously) to the environment it finds itself in.

    The idea of being able to make conscious decisions is one that I am, of course, fond of; being human and all-too-aware of just how remarkable a notion “consciousness” is once you stop to consider it for even the briefest of moments. But that consciousness, like everything else, is a product of evolution. It can therefore, I suspect, be said to be no different from feet, cilia, neurons, hair, or toenails. Something that proved to be more useful than it was harmful to our survival.

    The dichotomous approaches and stances we seem to adopt on the subject strike me as creating more distraction than they do understanding.

    Anyway. Rant out.

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