Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Human nature and the human condition

Aspects of human nature - like our capacity for language, reasoning or emotions - are amenable to scientific analysis that looks at where they come from and how they work, using tools like evolutionary biology, genetics, or neuroscience. But not everything about us that is important is innate. Many deeply entrenched features and characteristics of human life are contingent not essential. They come from our human history, not our human biology. Such aspects of the human condition - like marriage, sports, and war - resist scientific analysis and must be studied in a more humanistic way.

The key to grasping the difference between these two distinct modes of anthropology is to look beyond how important and even seemingly ubiquitous certain characteristics are in modern human populations. We must insert a question mark between the empirical fact that a feature is characteristic of human life as we know it, and the empirical claim that this feature stems from human nature itself i.e.  that it is intrinsic to homo sapiens qua species.

Sometimes this is easy to tell. No one - I hope - would argue that cooking is part of human nature, despite its ubiquity and importance in our evolutionary history, because it so obviously requires external tools and resources that it is clearly an invention. Sport is also obviously not part of human nature since it has appeared too recently. (Playing games is not the same thing, though it obviously shares some constitutive elements.) But some features of human life have long confused researchers who mistake their contemporary dominance for biological naturalness. I will look at three particularly controversial cases: war, religion, and gender.


War is an unfortunate and seemingly intractable aspect of human existence that is often attributed to human nature - i.e. our innate aggressiveness and/or abstracted social forces such as the Hobbesian competition for resources or glory. But, as the anthropologist Margaret Mead pointed out in a celebrated essay ("Warfare Is Only An Invention - Not a Biological Necessity") the facts tell otherwise. The key idea of organised group violence essential to the 'war package' is absent from some more isolated parts of the world, nor does its presence correlate with levels of inter-personal aggression or material/organisational sophistication. The scientific theories of the naturalness of war are definitively refuted by this lack of correlation, a fact they studiously ignore. Though some such theories may be relevant for understanding the course and nature of contemporary warfare, they do not explain the existence of war itself.

So what is war? In her essay Mead argued that war should be understood as an invention that has wrapped itself around us, bringing immediate gains to those who pick it up and master it, and immediate losses to those in their proximity who fail to do so. That makes it part of humanity's history, mediated by our human experience, rather than the direct product of either our genes or the universal iron laws of economics.


Religion is generally taken to be an autonomous and distinct aspect of human nature whose origins and operations are amenable to scientific analysis. Scientists have been busy searching for the 'religion gene' in our DNA and trying to capture the 'religion brain module' at work by scanning the brains of people at prayer. This investigation assumes that religion is a natural feature that is stable enough to withstand scientific scrutiny. But religion as we normally understand it is actually a package that bundles a number of distinct features: specific ideas about supernatural agency, moral codes, rituals, certain kinds of experiences, membership of a community of fellow believers, and specialist institutions like churches and clergy.

It is not surprising that the scientists have been unsuccessful, that the harder they search for 'religion' inside us the more the package seems to dissolve. Cultural anthropologists could have saved them a lot of trouble since their research clearly shows that this concept of religion is a relatively recent invention by humans, and although dominant is far from being ubiquitous even in our modern world.

It is true that religion-compatible behaviours are very common and may plausibly have direct origins in human nature, such as belief in super-human agency, magic, origin stories, sacred rituals and places, ecstatic experiences, etc. Essentialists therefore respond to the critique by widening their definition of religion to incorporate these via some claim to 'family-resemblance' (just as believers in the essentialness of war stretch their definition to include any interpersonal violence).

I think one should be automatically suspicious of the self-serving character of this extension. Such characteristics are found only in a fragmented way (not as the full 'religious package') and it isn't clear why we would call them 'religious' if we weren't already so focussed on lumping things into that category. The fact that one could plausibly include communist ideology, vegetarianism, Western consumerism, and general altruism in such an expansive family of 'religious' traits suggests that it isn't exactly cutting nature at its joints, as a good scientific category should.


Gender offers a particularly interesting, and controversial, case for the application of this distinction, since there clearly are some natural physiological distinctions between men and women. I will concentrate here on the common belief that gender roles are substantially hard-wired and are therefore natural, and that science proves this.

If sexual differentiation is natural, women and men really are hardwired to be complementary to each other - matching soft female empathy to cold male logic, nurturer to provider, nurse to doctor, etc. - as Rousseau, and now an assortment of scientistic neurologists and evolutionary psychologists, have argued so conveniently. These scientists note that human societies are heavily gendered e.g. that 'even in the liberated west', women express more concern about the feelings of other people than men do. They also note that there are some physiological differences in brain structures between men and women. They then spend a lot of time trying to find ways to correlate the two.

If they are correct, then significant feminist claims are empirically disproved, since, as the saying goes, 'you can't change human nature'. So attempts to help women achieve excellence (e.g. Nobel prizes for anything but literature) are doomed efforts at social engineering. We would do better to reconcile ourselves to the different but complementary interests and strengths of men and women, for example by ensuring that 'women's professions' get a fairer share of social status and pecuniary reward.

On the other hand, does this scientific evidence really stack up? The natural essences approach consists of a search for physiological or 'evolutionary strategy' differences that will explain the 'fact' that men and women are innately different, i.e. it is correlation seeking rather than mechanism testing. That makes it rather biased in the kind of answers it can produce.

In any case looking for answers so far away - in the brain, or the savannah environment H. sapiens evolved in 200,000 years ago - seems rather obtuse. Surely we have evidence right in front of our eyes about how our more or less insidious socialising norms and institutions re-produce gender? Mary Wollstonecraft pointed this out in response to Rousseau's superficial justification of the way things are, way back in 1792.

Evidence of natural difference is not evidence of relevant difference. As Plato noted a very long time ago (in Book 5 of The Republic) the fact that men and women are naturally - physiologically - different in certain ways is not necessarily any more relevant to their abilities than being long-haired or bald is relevant to being a good cobbler. A further argument is needed to move from such facts as that women can give birth, or that 5 year old girls tend to have a strong gender identity (dress up as princesses and play with dolls, etc.), to conclusions about women's 'natural' inability to do mathematics or run companies or hold political office. And that argument is nearly always absent or spurious.

A more contemporary reprise of this point can be found in Cordelia Fine's scathing and systematic critique* of  the neuro-scientific evidence for the naturalness of gender, which she argues is so methodologically flawed as to constitute neurosexism rather than science. Fine points out, for example, that surveys reveal what people think they should feel and so do not constitute a real test of whether women are actually, let alone 'naturally', more caring. And she points out that mapping sexual differences in brain physiology is a trivial exercise (mere phrenology) without some demonstration that these differences directly produce significantly different functioning.


The distinction between human nature and the human condition has implications that go beyond whether some academic sub-fields are built on fundamental error and thus a waste of time (hardly news). The foundational mistake of assuming that certain features prominent among contemporary human beings are true of H. sapiens and therefore true of all of us has implications for how we think about ourselves now. There is a lack of adequate critical reflection - of a true scientific spirit of inquiry - in much of the naturalising project. It fits all too easily with our natural desire for a convenient truth: that the way the world seems is the way it has to be.

For example, many people believe that to be human is to be religious - or at least to have a 'hunger for religion' - and argue as a result that religion should be accorded special prominence and autonomy in our societies - in our education, civil, and political institutions. American 'secularism' for example might be said to be built on this principle: hence all religions are engaged in a similar project of searching for the divine and deserve equal respect. The pernicious implication is that the non-religious (who are not the same as atheists, by the way) are somehow lacking in an essential human capability, and should be pitied or perhaps given help to overcome the gaping hole in their lives.

Anatomically modern humans have been around in our current form for around 200,000 years but while our physiological capacities have scarcely changed we are cognitively very different. Human beings operate in a human world of our own creation, as well as in the natural, biological world that we are given. In the human world people create new inventions - like religion or war or slavery or romantic love - that do something for them. Those inventions succeed and spread in so far as they are amenable to our human nature and our other inventions, and by their success they condition us to accept the world they create until it seems like it could not have been otherwise.

Recognising the fact that the human condition is human-made offers us the possibility to scrutinise it, to reflect, and perhaps even to adopt better inventions. Slavery was once so dominant in our human world that even Aristotle felt obliged to give an account of its naturalness: some people are just naturally slavish. But we discovered a better invention - the market economy - that has made inefficient slavery obsolete and now almost extinct. Which is not to say that this invention is perfect either. The human condition concerns humans as we are, but not as we have to be.

*Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, 2010, Icon books 


  1. Take as an example, work; work is part of the human condition yet though it is not human nature to work it is rooted in a human nature that includes being an animal in an environment with resource scarcity and the human tendency to use tools and be cooperative.
    Similarly, writing and literature is part of the human condition; but is rooted in language and abstract thought which are part of human nature.
    Every thing that is part of the human condition builds on or effects characteristics that are part of human nature

  2. Absolutely - Invention is a matter of arranging existing components (including previous inventions) into particular constellations that do new things. What I'm getting at is that we can't read off human nature (how humans have to be) from our inventions (what we happen to have discovered how to do and be).

  3. how does this relate to Satre's take on human nature vs human condition? He doesn't believe in human nature by I don't understand his version of the human condition.

  4. Hey Anonymous,
    this may help partially a bit
    here the human condition means what it's like to be alive at a specific place and time
    while Sartre means the dilemmas of existence like being conscious of our mortality.
    As for Sartre's take on human nature, it's been a while since I've read him, but Sartre's human nature is complementary to his take on the human condition, whereas in this post, though they go together in a way, they are really two different things. Here it means those universal attributes that all men have naturally.
    Philosopher's Beard may correct me; but that's my best shot

    1. Cheers, HB.

      I'm too ignorant of Sartre to offer an opinion of my own.

  5. How would you place love in this framework?
    My guess is that however central in our lives, love is a part of the human condition, not human nature. It is a social bond with an affective component, with emotions and the social bond forming a part of human nature and together building love

    1. Love seems part of human nature (it's also part of the nature of many animals, especially mammals) but romance, I would agree (following CS Lewis) is a modern - or at least a medieval - invention.

  6. Could you please explain to me more clearly what exactly human nature is?

    1. I should do that properly in a revised version of this post, because at the limits there is some blurriness between human nature and the human condition (like gene-culture coevolution: lactose tolerance, language, etc).

      But, basically, human nature concerns those features of human existence which are necessary characteristics of human beings qua H. sapiens, while the human condition concerns those features which are merely contingent. Necessary features are nowadays examined 'scientifically', in terms of the essential factors that make us what we are, like our genes, or our genes in combination with external forces like competition. Contingent features may be distinguished from necessary features through perspicuous contrast: the men are from Mars, women are from Venus view of gender cannot really be natural (a matter of physiology) since we can see in other societies (including historical ones) that human males and females can relate to each other in a variety of ways.

  7. This is awesome! i needed to write an essay on the philosophy of human nature and the true nature of human beings and this helped me out tremendously. Thank you!
    ~ an appreciative high school student

  8. The causes of nature and nurture are too complex to be clearly demarcated yet. They interact. Nature has many contributors that result in cultural outcomes by the time something can be observed; and the application of cultural transmission may mask coincidence with nature (we teach children to eat vegetables rather than candy but genetics will favor eventually eating veggies anyway). And nurture can have been established on a point back when the worldwide human population was under a hundred and they could have established a convention robust enough that we rely on it today. Prof. Brown's book Human Universals makes the argument for genetic likelihood and cultural possibility even for near-universals while Prof. Steven Pinker (I think in The Blank Slate) takes the same list as proof of nature as sole cause. You mention cooking; the controlled use of fire may have preceded cooking, as all-night campground fires allowed our ancestors to come down from trees and sleep on the ground safe from predators who wouldn't chance attacking the sleeping meat. Language, especially natural language such as English, is cultural (i.e., it's learned) but is fundamentally shaped by nature, as Noam Chomsky established; we store nouns and verbs in separate areas of the brain and the simple forms of most major languages have only a little over two dozen switches that babies and toddlers learn for norms (e.g., subject-verb-object vs. subject-object-verb, the latter found in Japanese). War, which has been discovered in primates conducting group raids leaving members of other primate bands dead until an entire band is dead or possibly scattered, implying a significant possibility of genetic inheritance of war as an acceptable tool, in its human expression cannot yet be shown to have no genetic cause to accompany a cultural cause. Defining war meseems easier than defining religion; I lean to religion being 'the set of beliefs most fundamental to a person', thus expressing as including faith in statements that are forbidden to be questioned. If that's a workable definition, the reliance on a fundament leans strongly to a genetic component for religion. Researchers seeking a religion gene are, I suspect, seeking a God gene, i.e., seeking a genetic cause specifically for a monotheism gene. But faith may have evolutionary survival value in providing a guide to survival without having to await proof of each statement encompassed by faith (if specific guides are often right or wrong, most people born with wrong guides will die too early to reproduce). Thus the ability to have faith may have had a genetic cause even apart from any content of a given faith. (I have faith in physicists' measurements of the speed of light, which I don't have time to measure, and likewise for most laws of physics, chemistry, etc., and that drinking milk is unlikely to kill me, but faith in the reputedly-proven may be distinct from faith in the never-proven.) And faiths sharing common content worldwide may point to genetic causation for the shared beliefs apart from faith itself. On gender, exaggeration infects much and does so too much. Evidence suggests that genderal characteristics neither distribute without the slightest regard to sex nor divide perfectly by sex. Civil rights workers have made excellent cases that members of denied groups were forbidden to demonstrate their capabilities as either normal in spite of group membership or even exceptional. A scientific claim that a man's brain was (I think) 3 percent bigger than a woman's on average was treated as if his brain was twice as big as hers. Advice to employers to hire the best regardless of cost thus becomes usually a reason to hire only men, because there's no time to examine in depth more than a few leading candidates.


    1. Hmmmm. I was rather aiming at a defense of genealogy rather than a reprise of the nature-nurture debate.

  9. When we believe in religion then we accept the fact that our ability to investigate all events is limited as we live for a short period of time,any evolutionary process brings with it a number of changes that impact our lives but if we ponder over its pros and cons then in the long run we follow only those principles that are accepted by the majority of the people as natural conditions also play an important role in the development of a better world we don't ignore it and like to be consistent with nature,indeed attempts have been made by aristocracy to force the evolution in its interest which ultimately brings frustration to larger community of the people.

  10. There is a British psychologist Christopher Badcock who on his psychology today website argues for religion being rooted in mentalism as one of the two poles of human psychology the other being the mechanistic. He calls his theory the imprinted brain theory.
    He's presented some corroborating evidence and shows how his theory makes sense of a lot of things and it is parsimonious.
    Anyway his theory may show religion as being rooted in human psychology and therefore human nature.
    You should look at his blog. Its an up and coming theory and may affect your argument involving human nature and religion