Evolution and human nature

Many in university literature departments have denounced the notion of human nature as ‘essentialism’, a belief in human essence. For many in the modern humanities and social sciences there is no human nature, only the construction of local culture, and to think otherwise can only endanger hopes for changing what we are and do.

This position is confused. Even to deny a universal human nature and insist only on local cultural difference already constitutes a claim about human nature: that the minds and behavior of all humans, and only human, depend solely on culture*.

This happens to be false: our minds and behavior are always shaped by the interaction of nature and nurture, or genes and environment, including the cultural environment. And false too, about other species, many of which have culture, and at least one other, chimpanzees, have a different culture in every group observed in the wild and could not survive without their local culture*.

Even on an everyday level we could not engage with other humans without an implicit theory of human nature.

We do not respond to other people as if they were dogs, mice or chimpanzees. Bared teeth on a Rottweiler mean one thing but something very different on a smiling human face.

If many in literature departments reject the idea of a human nature, let alone of evolution’s power to explain it, many in other fields from anthropology to religion and sociology have recently recognized that the deep past that shaped our species can help to explain our present and our recent past.

Evolutionary aspects of the mind may not be as accessible in the fossil record as we would like, but evidence has converged from many sources across species, cultures, eons, and life stages , from evolutionary theory; from observation and experiment with animals and human infants, children, and adults; from game theory, artificial intelligence, and computer simulations; from clinical and cognitive psychology and neuroimaging, that many aspects of our minds and behavior have been configured over evolutionary time.

By nature we have much in common before and even after local culture shapes us.

Human differences

Although an evolutionary view of human nature will often focus on ‘universals’, on common features of our brains and behavior, it does not ignore or deny enormous cultural differences between peoples.

Human differences have been exaggerated in contrasting ways over the century and a half since the publication of On the Origin of Species, first in a racist, then in an antiracist direction.

In the late nineteenth century, the heyday of Western imperialist expansion and laissez faire capitalism, Darwinism and especially the notion of ‘the survival of the fittest’ (not initially Darwin’s term) were seized on by Social Darwinists to justify the idea that the strong deserve to win, since the their success in competition ‘proves’ their superiority (whatever happened to intelligence, logic, humanity and empathy as the defining features of an intelligent species). They and others used this to rationalize a ‘science’ of human racial difference, and, unsurprisingly for the times, European racial superiority. The result was ‘the mismeasure of man”*: a program to measure ‘racial’ differences to ‘prove’ racial superiority of some human ‘races’ and the inferiority of others.

Modern evolutionary approaches to human nature have nothing in common with this program. Science itself shows that despite differences strikingly visible to us, humans are genetically an unusually uniform species (three humans selected from around the world will differ genetically much less on average than three chimpanzees selected from any of their shrinking African habitats) and that there is more variation within a local ethnically homogenous population than between one ethnic population and another*. Ware of the ghastly consequences of racism in the twentieth century, modern evolutionary psychologists stress ‘the psychic unity of humankind’ and focus more on what human minds have in common than on differences.

The nineteenth century Western assumption that the West embodied the standards by which all peoples should be judged caused a reaction among early twentieth century cultural anthropologists. Top reject the idea that observed differences in behavior arise from biological differences and to show that they do not prove superiority or inferiority, cultural anthropologists and sociologists stressed the malleability of human nature under the pressure of culture.

Early twentieth century anthropologists insisted on the power and variety of culture, but although they claimed an almost limitless diversity of human behaviors, the behaviors they observed actually remained within narrow boundaries. No human culture, for instance, ‘even begins to compare to with the social system’ of any of our closest primate relatives.

Physiology renders visible the huge differences between human and great ape sociosexual systems: all adult male chimpanzees try to couple with all adult females in their group, their massive testicles testifying to the intensity of male sexual competition; among bonobos, the other species closest to us, fervent and frequent female female couplings result not only in enlarged clitorises but also in female alliances holding the balance of power; among gorillas no other male dares attempt to contest the dominant silverback’s sexual control of all the adult females, and in the absence of direct male sexual competition, these huge apes have tiny testicles.

In the late 1960s the anthropologists’ insistence on human differences began to permeate the humanities as well as the human sciences, and seem like a moral crusade, a rejection of the hegemony of a Western sense of human nature.

Roland Barthes, for example, criticized ‘the mystification which transforms the petit bourgeois culture into a universal nature’. Many in the humanities and social sciences began to deny human nature and to excoriate ‘essentialism’*.

But as some anthropologists realized late in the century, their stress on human diversity had led them to overlook human universals*. On the receiving end, a Samoan scholar bemoaned Margaret Mead’s enormously influential depiction of her people: she ‘took away our oneness with other human beings…We are no different from you.’ To insist only on difference and deny commonality actually frustrates the commendable motives that led to the rejection of narrowly Western standards of human nature. Without any sense of all that we share in what the Ghanaian-American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah calls ‘the one race to which we all belong’*, what can be the basis for our special concern for human beings, for human justice?

A critique of unquestioned Western assumptions about human nature was needed, but the anthropological critique extended by Barthes and Michael Foucault in the 1960s and dogmatized over the following decades was shortsighted. It did not look nearly far enough. While structuralism and its more or less rebellious offspring continued in the direction set by early twentieth century social sciences, the natural sciences moved in the opposite direction, toward the first comprehensive scientific attempt to understand human nature in the context of evolution and human, animal, and artificial cognition and behavior.

The best way to critique Western bourgeois assumptions about human nature is not to deny that human nature exists, but to apply the hard tests of science , examining humans against other species ; in many cultures, from hunter gatherer bands to modern industrialized states; in many ages, in their history and their arts, especially the arts of orature (oral literature) and literature: to investigate human universal and human particulars, similarities and differences.

Far from denying cultural difference, an investigation of human nature that takes into account our evolutionary past makes it possible to explain cultural difference in a way that insisting that humans are completely ‘culturally constructed’ cannot. Constructed out of what in any case?

The argument that people are culturally different because of their culture, or because humans are shaped just by culture, is merely circular*. Moreover, explanations of differences in, say male and female behavior in terms of ‘our culture’ or ‘their culture’ look empty when we realize that similar systematic differences exist not only across human cultures but also in hundreds of animal species.*

An evolutionary account of human nature can show the advantages of sociality, and of social learning, in many species, culminating in the unique human susceptibility to culture. The extent of human cultural differences has been made possible by the evolution of the mind.

Without the complex shared architecture of the mind, culture could not exist. Because of the that shared design, there are many universals across cultures: there is a human nature.


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