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Learning how to live well requires understanding human nature. We have a nature like any other animal. Our nature is likely the most powerful force in our lives. Understanding our own nature and that of those around us is necessary if we are to progress toward being making good decisions, being happy, and thriving.
My understanding of human nature in general, and my own particular nature, has changed with experience. My early assumptions about human nature have, in time, proved to be wrong or simplistic. What I have learned about human nature has changed my approach to living in substantial ways.
A Blank Slate?
The blank slate view of human nature influenced my early life. It was the dominant view of human nature at the time with many smart proponents from John Locke to B.F. Skinner. It included the noble savage view that humans in their natural state are selfless, peaceful, and one with nature. Our bad characteristics and behavior is the result of society and its conditioning.
It is an appealing world where everyone starts life with the same basic capabilities and where life outcomes depend primarily on environment and other controllable factors. It was a world where inequality and undesirable differences could be fixed.
This view had political implications. If the environment determines outcomes, then all we needed to do was change the environment to eliminate many of our social problems. Government could solve persistent social problems. If everyone was well educated, then all could have equal success in life. Reason, intelligence, and planning could fix things. We could control our destiny. The potential for humans seemed limitless.
The blank slate view provided an antidote to the dark eugenics exhibited in Nazi Germany. We saw the horrible consequences of viewing different groups as fundamentally and genetically different. Viewing differences among peoples or races let to viewing some groups as superior to others. The blank slate view could put an end to that type of thinking.
Sadly, the blank slate view of human nature proved to be fundamentally wrong. It took years of life experience and learning for me to realize its weakness as a theory of human nature. Scientific advances in evolutionary biology and psychology have been particularly influential in changing my thinking. I’ve grown to understand that human nature is far more complex and less changeable. We are born with a genetically encoded nature (with variation among individuals) which has a powerful influence on our behavior and how we live. This innate nature is not immutable and environment influences behavior in many ways. It’s not all nature and no nurture. But our innate nature is very powerful and should not be ignored.
Insights from Evolutionary Psychology
Evolution provides a compelling model for understanding human nature and explaining why much of our nature is innate. It starts with the premise that human behavior, like physical characteristics, is influenced evolutionary forces. Those forces reward traits and behaviors that improve survival and remove traits that don’t. The evolutionary forces and mechanisms are complex and our understanding is improving.
We know about Darwin, random genetic variation, natural selection, and the origin of species. Research on Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos shows natural selection rewarding finches with beaks suited to the seeds of the environment, even yielding measurable beak change year-to-year in response to changing weather patterns and resulting seed sizes.
Evolution and the information passed on through DNA affects behavior as well as physical characteristics. Our psychological characteristics are the result of the same evolutionary process that produced opposable thumbs. Evolutionary psychology is the study of how evolution affects behavior, emotions, thinking processes, and personality. Its rapid growth has yielded many important insight into the human condition.
Much in our nature – sexual desires, empathy, love, desire for status, sense of fairness, cooperation, etc. – was selected because individuals with those characteristics survived and reproduced better than those without them. It is a simple, brutal, random process where some inherited behavioral traits improved our ability to survive. Over millions of years this has produced what we call our nature.
Evolution has no direction or end point. It doesn’t progress toward more complexity or intelligence. Evolution doesn’t care about our happiness or the greater good. It doesn’t know the future. It is merely the result of random genetic mutations affecting reproductive success. What works for one generation is more likely to be passed to the next.
Our nature is not necessarily good or bad from a moral perspective.There are many aspects of human behavior we consider bad today, violence for example, that aren’t bad from an evolutionay standpoint. Somehow those “bad” characteristics increased reproductive success.
No longer is the blank slate view of human nature the best predictor of our behavior. It has become clear that we are born with behavioral tendencies, emotions, thinking processes, and a sense of right and wrong that are powerful, even dominant, in affecting how we act.
This is not an either-or choice between nature and nurture. Both are in play. The environment we experience affects how our nature is expressed. Our experiences can reinforce certain behaviors and suppress others. We do have some free will and can make choices. But what has become clear to me is that our hard-wired nature, what is determined by our genetic inheritance, is much more powerful than I realized. It takes much effort to control, guide, suppress and enhance our natural tendencies.
There have been many excellent books providing the scientific theory and research grounding this view of human nature. They include well known books such as The Selfish Gene, The Moral Animal, and The Blank Slate. The evidence for the basic evolutionary psychology model – and the view that evolution and genes play a powerful role in who we are and how we behave – is compelling for me. What is startling is the progress science had made in gathering evidence to support this theory.
Personality is a part of our nature which deserves to be highlighted because it has such an impact on our lives. Like all human characteristics, there is wide variation among people. There is the same issue here as with other human characteristics of human nature. That is how much how much of our personality are we born with? What can we change? How does it affect our lives and our decisions on living.
Personality seems to be largely innate. One need only look at very young children to see differences that emerge long before the social environment can have much effect. Most personal experience reinforces this view. Does you know anyone whose basic personality changed significantly during their life? In fact, if someone’s personality changed we would suspect mental illness.
There is much good research on personality. Perhaps the most widely known is the work of Carl Jung who identified psychological types. This was further developed by Katharine C. Briggs and Isabel Briggs Meyers into the well-known Meyer-Briggs test for personality types. Research on twins showed that personality characteristics are largely inherited. More research using data from genetic testing confirms that personality (and other characteristics) have a large and likely dominant role in determining our basic personality characteristics.
We can mask or hide our personality. People can learn to appear to be something that they are not. That is, of course, what actors do for a living. But that learning does not change how you feel inside and the personality you default to when you don’t have to act.
To illustrate this point, I am, by nature, an introvert. The introversion/extroversion is one of the fundamental personality characteristics. Tests have shown that I am not just somewhat introverted, but very introverted. I have always been an introvert. For decades I didn’t understand this and instead simply wondered why I felt so different from other people. Introverts are a distinct minority.
Understanding that we cannot change our fundamental personality is an important lesson. When we understand our personality, we learn what we are likely to be good at and what will be difficult. We can learn how others perceive us and what we need to do to work well with others. We learn how to act against type. I have learned how to behave like an extrovert even though I am not comfortable and retreat to introverted behavior as soon as I can.
We may not like the fact that personality, like so much in life, is to a large degree beyond our control. But if we ignore the facts, we can be very wasteful in our efforts to change and become the best person we can. The facts about personality allow us to temper some of our natural tendencies which may be ineffective and to enhance those tendencies that are valuable to ourselves and others.
Emotions Drive Most Behavior
Emotions are a fundamental expression of our nature. They are the actuating mechanism for many of our actions. They are critically important for our behavior and moral judgments. Like personality, the more we understand about this aspect of our nature the better we will be able to modify our behavior, become better people, and feel happier.
Most of us make moral judgments quickly based on feelings. We “know” right from wrong, virtue from vice. Few of us take the time to reason out moral decisions. We just do what we feel is right. Feeling driven moral decisions are easier and faster than following a deliberative, rational, and fact-driven process. We rarely have the time, or the philosophical framework, to make daily behavioral decisions based on a rational analysis and applying a priori moral principles.
This approach to making moral or ethical decisions has long been observed. Several moral philosophers, most notably David Hume and Adam Smith, made the case that moral judgments arise from emotions. “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions” is a well know Hume quote, suggesting we use reason to inform us but that our emotions motivate us. Hume and Smith argue that sympathy or empathy is a key emotion driving many of our ethical decisions. Our ability to empathize with others leads to many widely accepted moral values such as fairness, loyalty, honesty, and cooperation.
Since the time of Hume and Smith science has provided explanations for how emotions and morality are linked and how that linkage came about. The fields of evolutionary biology and behavioral genetics suggest that we are hard-wired for many of the emotions forming the basis for our moral judgments. Research has shown that babies have innate moral systems that affect behavior. Moral codes have been found in other species such as chimpanzees. It is likely human evolution favored individuals with certain emotions that resulted in behavior such as cooperation. This behavior made them more successful and humans advanced as a result. A genetic basis for feelings of empathy has been shown in scientific studies.
The interaction between environment and emotions is complex and shows how we have adapted our emotions to suit the situation. For example, research on empathy and stress shows that stress produced hormones block empathetic emotions. This effect was observed in mice as well as humans. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Empathy and the resulting moral behavior are positive in normal times. But when under stress (e.g. threats from outside forces, hunger) empathy could be a liability. Empathy for your attacker could be fatal, removing your DNA from the gene pool.
The whole range of human emotions including anger, love, and jealously, can be looked at in this evolutionary and genetic light. We have these emotions. The extent to which each of us has them varies – some people may be more prone to anger or empathy that others. But we would be foolish to ignore that we have these emotions or to think they are taught. At best we may be able to temper and manage them.
The implications of a biologically based human nature
The implications of a biologically based human nature produced by evolutionary processes are staggering. If our genes have so much influence over behavior, good and bad, what does that say about free will? How free are we really to act when neural pathways and hormones are constantly pushing us in one direction? What about the effectiveness of culture and public policy to change human nature and behavior? If culture cannot change our underlying nature, must culture forever battle the dysfunctional expression of human nature? Is that a battle culture can win?
Much of our moral code rests on our more positive sentiments such as empathy. But if empathy is simply part of a successful propagation strategy for genes, does that erode the foundation for our moral code? If it does, how do we build a replacement?
The task, if this premise is accepted, is figuring out how to live and developing a philosophy of life that takes it into account. Abandoning the blank slate view means altering our understanding of what is controllable and what is not, (or perhaps better understanding the degree of control we have). It has implications for our definition of what good is and the strategies for how to achieve it. Understanding human nature is part of the practical knowledge Aristotle views as an essential virtue. Without that understanding, we can be well-intentioned but ineffective in leading an ethical life and thriving.