Human nature, a Humean take

david-hume-caricature-gary-brownby Massimo Pigliucci

Human nature is a funny thing. Some scientists, like biologist E.O. Wilson [1] and linguist Steven Pinker [2] are pretty convinced it is a real thing, and that it seriously constrains what we are going to do with our lives (the entire discipline of evolutionary psychology, or sociobiology as it was known in its first incarnation, is predicated on it).

Then again, plenty of philosophers I have talked to in recent years seem to be genuinely surprised that one could still talk about such a thing in all seriousness [3]. Surely that quaint idea went out the window after decades of criticism of genetic determinism, they say. This, of course, despite the fact that there is a long and venerable tradition in philosophy of perfectly comprehensible talk about human nature [4].

Indeed, even people like Pinker seem to be sending somewhat mixed messages about the whole concept: on the one hand he vehemently (and justly) attacks the idea of a “blank slate” (though I don’t actually know too many people who hold onto it in anything like the original, strong, Lockeian version [5]). On the other hand, however, he claims — huge data sets in hand — that human beings have been able to yield to the “better angels” of our nature and have progressively built societies characterized by less and less violence [6].

Because of my original training as an evolutionary biologist interested in nature-nurture issues [7], I guess I never understood the (alleged) dichotomy. My basic take is that human behavioral traits (“human nature”) are the result of a continuous and inextricable interaction between our genes and our environments — which means that it makes no sense to ask what percentage of what we do is “caused” by genes and what percentage by the environment. If you add the well established concept, in evolutionary biology, of phenotypic plasticity — the idea that different sets of genes help produce wider or narrower ranges of behaviors in response to the quality of environmental inputs, and that the majority of these environmental inputs are nowadays the result of cultural forces — you’ve got a fairly solid framework to argue that yes, there is such a thing as human nature, but no, it isn’t unchangeable.

You might think that this would reassure both the scientists who insists (rightly) that human beings are not infinitely malleable blank slates, and the humanists who are (again, rightly) weary of the sinister socio-political implications of strong biological determinism. Everybody wins, can we go home now?

No, unfortunately it ain’t that easy. Too many scientists doggedly insist in not taking their humanist critics seriously enough, and too many humanists equally stubbornly resist giving even an inch to anything that smells like “biogilization.” It is not by chance that C.P. Snow famously called this divide “the two cultures” [8].

But the debate in question is far from new, and perhaps it will help taking a closer look at one of its most interesting previous incarnations, dating back to the Enlightenment, and featuring some of the most prominent British empiricist philosophers, chiefly David Hume. I will summarize the debate as reconstructed in a lovely paper by Michael Gill published a number of years ago in Hume Studies [9]. Gill bases his analysis on what Hume writes in the aptly titled, given our topic, Treatise of Human Nature [10], and sets it against the background of a controversy concerning the origins of human sociability then raging among Bernard Mandeville (who was actually Dutch), Francis Hutcheson, and Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury [11, 12, 13]. Throughout the following, of course keep in mind that all of this was pre-Darwin and pre-Mendel. Nonetheless, at the end I will attempt to bring Hume’s ideas as they emerged from the debate with his contemporaries up to speed and we’ll see what sort of Humean modern view of human nature we may be left with.

Gill’s main thesis is that Hume developed a “progressive” account of human nature, against the backdrop of a discussion among three of the so-called “late philosophers” in England, the above mentioned Mandeville, Hutcheson and Shaftesbury. They all agreed that human beings are social, but disagreed on the origins of our sociability: for Mandeville (in classic Hobbesian fashion) it is self-interest; for Hutcheson and Shaftesbury it is natural benevolence.

Shaftesbury presented as evidence of our benevolent nature the fact that we derive so much pleasure from friendship and other social interactions, and even from the very fact of doing good deeds. Similarly, Hutcheson said that we have an innate sense of public good (we feel good when others are happy, cringe at others’ misery) and moral good (approve of virtue and disapprove of vice).

Mandeville was of a very different opinion, according to which our basic nature is selfish and we organized in groups only to protect ourselves, first from natural dangers, then increasingly from each other. Modern society’s complex “commerce” and “standards of politeness” are made possible by our ability to communicate and write, but are still rooted in our original selfish nature.

What about Hume? On the one hand, he was no egoist (in the Hobbesian sense), as he thought humans are endowed with natural virtues. On the other hand, he squarely said that justice is not natural, but rather the result of (cultural) “artifice.”

A major part of Hume’s argument is that justice is not common among pre-civilized humans, and it requires training. It cannot, therefore, be natural. (Yes, I know, modern readers rightly cringe at this sort of statement, but bear with me a little longer, we’ll get to how Hume has now been corrected and updated on this point by recent empirical research.)

To understand Hume’s further discussion we need to keep in mind that for him a virtue consists of having a certain motive for action. Now the motive for justice cannot be regard for justice, on pain of circularity. It can’t be self love either (although it did exist in pre-civilized humans, and is therefore natural, according to Hume), since this will often be in conflict with justice. Hume also rejected regard for public interest as a motive for justice, thus apparently (but only apparently!) landing squarely in Mandeville’s camp.

Indeed, Hume went so far as to conclude that “In general, it may be affirm’d, that there is no such passion in human minds, as the love of mankind, merely as such, independent of personal qualities, or services, or of relation to ourself.” Emotions about other human beings, maintained Hume, are always directed at particular individuals, not at humanity in general. The converse is true as well: we don’t get a sense of justice by generalizing our feelings for particular individuals, because sometimes we ought to and do behave justly toward people we deeply dislike.

Hume agreed with Mandeville (and with Hobbes) that we have developed societies because we would otherwise have a hard time surviving on our own. So, societies originated out of the self interest of individuals. The fact that justice then also arises from selfish motives can be derived from the observation that we simply wouldn’t need justice if we were naturally disposed to respect the interests of others.

Where Hume began to diverge from Mandeville is with the latter’s contention that, essentially, we are all hypocrites when we talk about morality. For Hume, rather, people have genuine moral feelings of justice. Hume’s middle way between Mandeville on one hand and Hutcheson and Shaftesbury on the other, is the idea that we initially want justice for selfish reasons, but eventually develop a mental association that leads us to approve of justice even when it runs counters to our selfish motives.

To recap the situation so far: Hume agreed with Mandeville that justice is an artificial virtue originating in self interest; but he also agreed with Hutcheson and Shaftesbury that people exhibit genuine non self interested feelings of justice. All three of his predecessors would have thought these two positions to be mutually incompatible.

One way to look at this is that the three in question adopted (different) static, “originalist,” views of human nature. Hume, by contrast, upheld a dynamic, progressive view, where originally selfish motives can develop into genuinely altruistic ones. [14]

The Humean engine for this change is the famous principle of association: we begin by disapproving of acts of injustice that do not affect us (because they tend to be harmful), and we end up conjoining disapproval and injustice in general. Which means we develop a broader disapproval of all unjust acts, including those that benefit us. This mechanism, says Hume, applies not just to justice, but to all morally relevant sentiments.

Gill makes a final interesting point by drawing a distinction between two senses in which one may ask about the “origins” of something: chronological and functional. For instance, we could ask what is the origin of the Constitutional powers of the American government and provide two very distinct, not mutually exclusive, answers: they came from a Constitutional convention held in Philadelphia in 1787; and they are rooted in consent of the people (at least in theory). The first answer is chronological, the second is functional.

Gill suggests that the three pre-Humeans simply assumed that chronological and functional explanations coincide in the case of moral sentiments, while Hume’s innovation consisted in decoupling them. Here is how Hume himself very clearly put it: “Thus self-interest is the original motive to the establishment of justice; but a sympathy with public interest is the source of the moral approbation which attends that virtue.”

What are we to make of the Humean solution to the Mandeville-Hutcheson-Shaftesbury debate, from our post-Darwinian and post-Mendelian perspective? Roughly speaking, we could say that both Mandeville, on one hand, and Hutcheson and Shaftesbury, on the other, were early versions of what today we would call biological determinists — they only disagreed on the qualitative nature of that determinism (selfish for Mandeville, benign for the other two). And of course I have already mentioned Locke’s “environmentalist” view, even though he was not directly involved in the tale recounted by Gill (and was increasingly disparaged by Hume, as the years went by).

Hume’s position, however, can be updated in a more nuanced and interesting way, from the vantage point of modern biology and social science. At the risk of stretching Hume’s own intention (but, really, I am interested in what to make of human nature, taking Hume only as an inspiring starting point), I am going to suggest that his acknowledgment of a “natural” status for our moral feelings is a due and reasonable concession to the “naturist” camp in the nature-nurture debate. There is no getting around it: human beings are a particular biological species, characterized by a historically inherited genetic environment that constrains the way we act, feel and think. What elevates this to the lofty status of “human nature” is that our closest evolutionary cousins (bonobos, chimpanzees, and other great apes) have a significantly different genetic and behavioral repertoire — despite of course a certain number of (expected, since we are talking about evolution) similarities.

But Hume’s principle of association can be profitably recast as an embryonic theory of cultural evolution, according to which we are capable of generating novel (genuine) feelings out of a combination of experiences and our ability to reflect on those experiences.

Even so, we need to acknowledge that Hume was at the least partly wrong on empirical grounds — a correction he would have very likely not objected to, given his interest in grounding “moral” philosophy (i.e., all philosophy outside of natural philosophy) in a better understanding of human nature. As it turns out, a mounting body of work shows that not only members of all human societies (“primitive” or not), but even other species of primates show clear signs of an innate sense of fairness, which is the grounding for our concept of justice [15].

Moreover, and this is far more problematic, we also need to admit that — despite much interest and a number of valiant efforts — we really don’t quite have a good theory of cultural evolution at hand. I tend to be somewhat skeptical of Darwinian-type theories of cultural evolution, for the chief reason that culture seems to be much more obviously a Lamarckian-type process. And I truly think nothing of so-called memetics, for a number of reasons that I will perhaps get into (again: [16]) at some future time (but mostly, because “memes” are a rather uninformative, if not downright misleading, metaphor and nothing else).

At any rate, the basic, somewhat Humean (or Hume-inspired) outline of what I’m thinking about is that human nature — i.e., what it is to be human, as opposed to, say, being chimpanzee — evolves both genetically and culturally, with the two constantly interacting with each other, and yet, I think, with the cultural component becoming more and more independent of the genetic one.

Consider, as a controversial example, Pinker’s own theory in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that violence has more or less steadily gone down throughout human history (yes, despite two world wars in the 20th century!) at the least in part because of our ability to talk to each other and originate and spread (philosophical) ideas about democracy, justice, and so on. If Pinker’s outline is even remotely close to the truth, then we have a situation where pre-existing feelings of intra-group fairness and cooperation, which we inherited from our primate ancestors, gradually, via cultural evolution, got more elaborated and became applied more broadly, generating what Peter Singer refers to as our enlarging circle of empathy and moral concern [17].

The idea is that if, indeed, we are making moral progress (as Singer suggests, and as Pinker-style data seem to confirm), then this in an important sense counts as a change in human nature, but it is one achieved largely via cultural evolution, itself grounded in our specific genetic heritage as social primates.

There is, of course, much more to be said to satisfactorily fill in the details of this sort of broad picture, but the picture itself is certainly one with which Hume would have been pleased.

_____

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] E.O. Wilson, On Human Nature, Harvard University Press, 1978.

[2] S. Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Viking, 2002.

[3] See, for instance, J.J. Prinz, Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape Our Lives, Norton, 2012.

[4] J.J. Kupperman, Theories of Human Nature, Hackett, 2010.

[5] See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Locke.

[6] S. Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Viking, 2001.

[7] M. Pigliucci, Phenotypic Plasticity: Beyond Nature and Nurture, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

[8] C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures and a Second Look: An Expanded Version of the Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Cambridge University Press, 1964.

[9] M. Gill, Hume’s progressive view of human nature, in Hume Studies 26:87-108, 2000.

[10] D. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 1738 (Project Gutenberg version).

[11] Bernard Mandeville (15 November 1670 – 21 January 1733), was a Dutch philosopher, political economist and satirist. Born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, he lived most of his life in England and used English for most of his published works. He became famous for The Fable of the Bees.

[12] The Rev. Francis Hutcheson (8 August 1694 – 8 August 1746) was an Irish philosopher born in Ireland to a family of Scottish Presbyterians who became one of the founding fathers of the Scottish Enlightenment.

[13] Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (26 February 1671 – 4 February 1713) was an English politician, philosopher and writer.

[14] For a modern version of this, see E. Sober and D.S. Wilson, Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, Harvard University Press, 1999.

[15] See, among others: F. de Waal (et al.) Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved, Princeton University Press, 2006.

[16] See: M. Pigliucci, Memes, selfish genes and Darwinian paranoia, Rationally Speaking, 26 July 2009; as well as: M. Pigliucci, Is cultural evolution a Darwinian process?, Rationally Speaking, 11 March 2013.

[17] P. Singer, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Princeton University Press, 2011.

86 thoughts on “Human nature, a Humean take

  1. Excellent article, so I look forward to your writing on memetics as it does seem quite a compelling theory to me. In addition, I am not (yet anyway) convinced that our moral progress is due to a change in human nature. I think it could equally be explained by the same human nature operating under different circumstances. I would imagine that you will write more on that as well. Keep up the good work.

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  2. If I understood Massimo correctly, I think the idea is that “Human nature” is not as traditionally conceived to be dichotomous between nature and nurture but rather a complex interaction of genes X environmental interactions. As such, the “Change” in human nature can be conceived of the broad flexible abilities of our genes that lead to cultural changes over time.

    I would generally agree with this view and as a researcher in the field myself, I’m confused by people like Pinker who should know better than try to misrepresent how scientists think about these issues (referring specifically to Blank Slate book).

    The only thing I would perhaps add to the account Massimo provided is accounts for behavioral and symbolic evolution, which I think are a central part of cultural evolution but at times are helpful to take separately.

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  3. Research suggests human nature is mainly mammal and primate nature. Human exceptionalism is not support by physiology or biology. By definition, all human characteristics had to be inherited from other species. Humans descended from other animals, they did not rise above with some exceptionalism. Even language is not exceptional with songbird songs being a very good analogy to speech. Chimpanzees can express different and specific warning signals.

    So called “altruism” is found in all social species along with social insects.

    in fact, the contribution of genes is being experimentally determined while culture may be mainly a response to “parasite load” – the prevelance of infectious diseases – in a habitat. Very good new research on this, great papers, and it makes intuitive sense.

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  4. Excellent article.

    My own tuppence worth is that since the brain is something that evolved to model the environment then it is no surprise that it is something that can change with a changing environment..

    I think that Mandeville was correct at least in that commerce was a large factor in changing human nature.

    I would say that technology too was a big factor. Writing technology, printing technology and transport (especially marine) technology.

    And I don’t see why it should be particularly controversial that human nature can change over time through the intellectual exchange of ideas.

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  5. I think most are agreed that brain will change in response to a changing environment. However, I think that the “evolutionary psychology” approach is that it does not change fast enough. That is, we have brains optimised for primitive conditions living in a modern world (which is not always to our advantage). It seems from some of the comments above that we may be disagreeing on the definition of the phrase “human nature”. I would tend to understand it as that nature that we are born with and on top of which we build behaviors and that this has been fairly constant and relatively unchanging over a long period of time.

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  6. It could be that case that human brains are not just bigger versions of chimp brains, but computationally exceptional in terms of being capable of (computational) recursion and reflection. Then ‘human nature’ would not be limited as ‘chimp nature’ is, but it is something that human brains can continuously create and update on their own.

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  7. You say “relatively unchanging”, but relative to what?

    And “optimised for primitive conditions” is not necessarily inconsistent with the ability to change. If our brains were optimised for technologically pampered conditions then we might not be so mentally agile as we are with brains optimised for uncertain conditions and the need to survive an environment of scarce resources.

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  8. I think that what does set humans apart from our mammalian cousins is our language capabilities, so that “human nature” is largely “language nature.” Language is the most significant impetus to evolution of cultural change and the medium through which we come to appreciate altruistic patterns of behavior analogous to what Hume was observing. Other species may be altruistic to some extent, but it rarely extends beyond the range of kinship to populations they haven’t encountered directly and can have reciprocal advantage in treating kindly. Language provides a way for us to gain an understanding and an empathy for other populations so that we progress towards greater awareness of what is healthful for all populations.

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  9. I would tend to understand [human nature] as that nature that we are born with and on top of which we build behaviors …

    I wouldn’t agree with that concept of “human nature”. What we are born with is a genetic-based recipe for human nature, not a blueprint. That recipe has to play out through development, and the end product will depend hugely on that gene–environment interaction (in the same way that the “nature” of a cake depends on the cooking as much as on the ingredients). For example the “human nature” of a child left in one of those orphanages with no human contact beyond the minimum will be very different from that of a child brought up in a loving family. Note, by the way, that “nurture in a loving family” is also something that is (partially) genetically programmed. Any complete disentangling of the effects of genes and environment is not only hard but close to nonsensical.

    Having said all that, which pretty much agrees with Massimo’s article, I do disagree with Massimo on one point:

    which means that it makes no sense to ask what percentage of what we do is “caused” by genes and what percentage by the environment.

    If we are talking about the *range* of genetic variance and a given range of environmental factors then it is entirely sensible and coherent to discuss the relative proportions in which they influence the outcome. Some outcomes can be almost entirely genetic (e.g. eye colour), others entirely environmental (e.g. whether you speak English or French), and most are in-between, but the ratio can still be an interesting and worthwhile topic to investigate.

    For example, is “likelihood of ending up in jail at age 22” something that — given the variation in environment in a particular society — is more affected by that variance in environment or is it more affected by variance the genes? If it were 20:80 as opposed to 50:50 or 80:20 then that would be worth knowing.

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  10. Many researchers are working very hard to experimentally prove human brain exceptionalism, since that has been a core cultural belief since Darwin.. The studies I have read only show similarities with other species.

    H brains are just appropriately larger versions of mammal brains – nothing exceptional has been found, yet. The evidence is that consciousness, decision making and free will are cultural constructs and do not exist in the physiological process of the brain. This has been proven repeatedly for over ten years.

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  11. There are some demographic challenges to human evolution now. The selection factors are far less on a massive population. If some trait were to be beneficial, how would it ever be passed onto 7+ ppl?

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  12. Hi Coel. Are we just disagreeing about terminology? If I accept your definition of human nature, then we will need another term for the inherited component of it. I would argue for the definition I have suggested. Given the phrase “nature versus nurture”, which I believe is a discussion on the relative impact on human behaviour of our inherited behaviours versus our learned behaviours, the word “nature” might suggest that human “nature” referred only to inherited behaviours. I’m willing to go with the flow on this so that discussion can move on. However, I often despair of non-scientific discourse when it seems that the participants cannot even agree on terminology.

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  13. Yes, the easiest trait to perceive and share socially is language. Likely not as important as it is quick and easy to socially exchange.

    Let’s think of biological principals first. All of H traits are descended from prior species – so language was inherited. Traits do not take quantum leaps and thus all traits can only be built on prior phenotypes..

    Second, experiments and field studies are in fact finding language with syntax, etc in other species. What has happened is brain research methodology, for all species, is getting better at an accelerating pace. Look at the song bird research it’s wonderful.

    A simple Google search will call up the latest research immediately.

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  14. There is massive amounts of very complex but excellent research being done on genetic contributions of pretty much everything, esp diseases. A Google search will answers many of the above questions. Genetics are so determinant that individualized medicine is the evidence based preference.

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  15. Hi Brian,

    If I accept your definition of human nature, then we will need another term for the inherited component of it.

    Your proposal would work if “human nature” were additive, a simple process of inheriting some behaviours and adding to them environmental/cultural behaviours.

    However, it’s not simple addition, it’s a complex convolution. What we actually inherit is not any nature or set of behaviours, but instead a recipe that, when played out in an environment, produces our nature/behaviours. Thus it doesn’t make sense to talk about the “inherited” component of our nature.

    By the way, I consider the phrase “nature versus nurture” to be horribly misleading for all sorts of reasons (including the one just stated). Another reason is this: The nurturing and childhood environment is under genetic influence. We nurture our children because we’re genetically programmed to.

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  16. The evidence is that consciousness, decision making and free will are cultural constructs and do not exist in the physiological process of the brain. This has been proven repeatedly for over ten years.

    Really?? What evidence is that? I’d have said that all of those things certainly exist (so long as we’re not talking about anything violating laws of physics, and thus taking a “compatibilist” interpretation of “free will”). The whole point of the brain is decision making! I do agree with you, though, in arguing against human exceptionalism, and would suggest that many mammals exhibit consciousness, decision making and compatibilist free will.

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  17. My comment is one of discordance. I profoundly dislike the adjective “Humean”. In this I am inspired by Robert Graves’s manual of editing, “The Reader Over Your Shoulder” (1943).

    I studied Hume (and Lucretius) in depth for my final exam in graduate school, and have been marked by both for the rest of my life.
    Never once did it come to my mind to ever use the “Humean” adjective (no more than “Lucretian”). Everytime I needed to refer to something related to Hume, his life or his work, the genitive “Hume’s”, or the circumlocution “according to Hume”, etc. did the work I expected from my quotation.
    The artificial introduction of “Humean” seems unnecessary, even for the contrast in the title of “human” versus “Humean”. It’s used again 5 more times in the text of this essay.

    1. “at the end I will attempt to bring Hume’s ideas as they emerged from the debate with his contemporaries up to speed and we’ll see what sort of Humean modern view of human nature we may be left with.”
    
[“Hume’s ideas” naturally leads to the parallel “Hume’s modern view”]

    2. “The Humean engine for this change is the famous principle of association”
    
[Nothing wrong with “Hume’s engine”]

    3. “Gill suggests that the three pre-Humeans simply assumed that chronological and functional explanations coincide in the case of moral sentiments, while Hume’s innovation consisted in decoupling them.”
    
[“the three predecessors of Hume” preserves the idea of “pre-” and is even clearer than this rather ridiculous-sounding introduction of a new evolutionary species]

    4. “What are we to make of the Humean solution to the Mandeville-Hutcheson-Shaftesbury debate”
    
[the “Hume solution” is a nice parallel of the “Mandeville-Hutcheson-Shaftesbury debate”]

    5. “At any rate, the basic, somewhat Humean (or Hume-inspired) outline of what I’m thinking about is that human nature — i.e., what it is to be human, as opposed to, say, being chimpanzee — evolves both genetically and culturally,”
    
[“Hume-inspired” is presented in second place, unjustifiably. as if “Humean” seems somewhat forced and in need of a more appealing formulation.]

    My suggestion would be to drop “Humean” entirely. It does no justice to the clarity of Hume’s thesis and arguments. It feels awkward, its sound is not very euphonic, its written look not very engaging, and it adds no clarity whatsoever to what Hume stands for.


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  18. Let’s stop talking about humans and go to the mouse. How does this recipe work, in what time frame?. Any citations? None of the great minds of the past knew anything about the medical facts or brain > behavior. Not sure how their work is now relevant.

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  19. How does the recipe work? By the process of embryology and childhood development (starting with genes making proteins and thus other stuff, etc). Timescale? Of order 18 years. Citations? Oodles.

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  20. BMM said: “i just report the studies i have read.

    Actually I don’t think you have ever cited an actual study, you have just alluded to them. It would be nice to see a cite or two yourself if you are asking others for cites.

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  21. Brian Mulligan wrote: “Excellent article, so I look forward to your writing on memetics as it does seem quite a compelling theory to me.

    Can you point to any current academic research on memetics? And do you mean “meme” in the sense that Richard Dawkins originally suggested, as a recognisable hardware structure in the brain?

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  22. BMM wrote “Research suggests human nature is mainly mammal and primate nature.”

    Human nature is completely mammal and primate nature and you don’t need any research to tell you that because – well we are mammals and primates, so it is true by definition.

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  23. That is a model that can be tested. Is there any evidence of that in animals? Without counter-factual thinking, which requires language, how would it work? Without language how could it be measured? How low on the species ladder does this FW go?

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  24. Yes, and it is an empirical question. However, there are increasingly strong studies on the similarities so the evidence is still coming in. Of course, the cultural objection to us just being another great ape will always “win” over any evidence – that is human nature. But medical physiology is what it is.

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  25. The papers i am seeing just show more and more identity with mouse and even fruit fly and shrimp brain > behavior physiology at the molecular level. This makes sense since the basic behavior problems needed to be worked out at the begining of life, by definition.

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  26. It seems to me that there is an almost religious need to downplay the differences between us and other primates in some sections of the science community.

    If we discovered a new species of monkey that could fashion a rudimentary wheeled device out of bark and twigs we would regard this as an astonishing ability and one that sets it apart from any other non-human primate that we know of.

    But when there is a species that can build a machine that can take people to the moon there appear to be many in the science community who want to say, ‘so what? That is no different to what other animals can do’.

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  27. I actually see that happening on both ends, with some people trying to champion an irrational version of human exceptionalism versus a irrational version of continuity of humans to non-human animals. In many ways we are like every other species but in many ways we are completely unique compared to all other species out there, with language and complex cognition being the easy one to name.

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  28. Compatibilist “free will” is simply goal-oriented choice-selecting behaviour. Yes, there is plenty of evidence of animals showing that.

    How “low” on the species “ladder” does it go (both concepts in quotes are dubious by the way)? Like many biological concepts “free will” is a continuum. It’s like asking the same about intelligence, and bacteria can display rudimentary degrees of intelligence. At the most basic level of all, one can say that a thermostat has “free will” (right at one end of a continuum with us at the other end). I don’t see that language or counter-factual thinking are needed.

    As for quantifying “free will”, it would be along the lines of the number of different behaviours that an animal could display in response to the normal range of environment that they operate in.

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  29. Everything about animal behaviour comes down to physical brain stuff at the molecular level. Of course environmental inputs have a big influence on that molecular-level brain stuff just as the genetic recipe does.

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  30. The question is whether the difference between us and other animals is only one of degree, or is some sort of metaphysical divide. The “so what?” response is just saying that the differences are of degree.

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  31. Massimo,

    I can only access internet once a day at the moment; also, it takes too much time for me to scroll down the comments from a café. My reflections here may overlap with comments of others. If so – my apologies.

    Your admirable post addresses two issues. The one I’ll be treating here is: “The idea is that if, indeed, we are making moral progress…” (the other is “cultural evolution”). I’m afraid Steven Pinker has “anchored” the issue in moral terms – making a dispassionate assessment difficult.

    Strike out “moral progress,” please. If one cuts out the morality, one sees a species that, from a couple of thousand individuals, has managed to grow to 7 billion of beings living at the same time in some form of structured and articulated social network. This has taken place over a time span of less than 50’000 years. Though highly advantageous in many respects (joint and collective intentionalities), close cooperation also brings stress. As the population grew in size, it managed somehow to contain intra-group and inter-group stress. It did so through a whole array of means, ranging from gossip (DUNBAR), to recreational sex (de WAAL), to the construction of “social reality” (SEARLE) that far exceeds material reality in its complexity, and the acquisition of enablers – technological change – that allowed it to transform the material context in ever new ways. Both micro- and macro-level “regulators” were at work.

    Indeed, violence – the dysfunctional system – has diminished. Disease/hunger no longer wipe out much of the population. On the social side, 25% of French people were vagrants just before the French Revolution: such levels may obtain today just in a few megalopolis. I reckon that wars of conquest are no longer feasible (Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan), basically because imposing one’s will on another group (regime change) is both all too costly and we don’t know to bring it about. Of course, affrays will continue, as well as ideology-driven bouts.

    At the “macro-level” enablers have (so far) allowed us to overcome material and social constraints. There seems to be no end in sight; in fact, “development as freedom” (SEN) is coming closer to reality as enablers create virtual worlds. As a result (?) ideologies are no longer what they used to be: from “vital worldviews” they have become “preferences” (COOPER) around which accommodation is possible (beware: the “narcissism of small difference” also obtains). Enforcement of social realities is moving from repression (FOUCAULT) toward prevention and nudging – a more “docile” society is emerging.

    Please note, Massimo, that social and material enablers sustain (and transform) each other. We speak of “commercial culture” and we can’t tell whether it is commerce that drives culture, or culture that drives commerce (pace Weber).

    (At this stage at least) we may spot correlations, but can’t discern causation in any “scientific” way.

    The price of all this is a larger “footprint” on the physical and social environment. The system may no longer be self-regulating, and in need of new ones. We are on a dialectical, hence dynamic path: we need both more conformity and diversity in order to survive. It will be a question of developing material and social enablers, but also of leads and lags until these “stabilizers/diversifiers” catch. It is all contingent.

    Are we making “moral progress?” I may quote Zhou Enlai on the French Revolution. When asked whether it was “a good thing,” his alleged reply was “too early to tell.” This is not “oriental weaseling” as much as it is humbling recognition that one can only judge (better/worse) what is not in the process of (silently) transforming itself.

    Ah: evolution of culture? Well, it’s a creole history (storia meticcia in Italian).

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  32. I’m usually on the anti-exceptionalism side of the debate, but I think you take it too far. Yes, almost all human attributes have at least some rudimentary analogues in other animals, but I think the degree to which abilities such as language, abstract thought, large-scale planning and co-operation etc have developed in humans does indeed mark them out as exceptional. For example, I would hazard to guess that no other animal species on earth has ever had a philosophical debate about their own exceptionalism. This is just one of the many things that humans can do that no other animal can even approximate.

    Some kind of runaway positive feedback loop such as sexual selection has massively over-developed human mental abilities in much the same way that peacock’s got their tail or pachycephalosaurs their thick skulls.

    In other words, we’re basically freaks of nature, and there’s no point in denying it!

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  33. Hi Coel,

    I was thinking about making the exact same criticism of Massimo’s article, and I was going to use the exact same examples: eye colour and language!

    I wonder are these just the most obvious examples or did we both get them from somewhere else?

    In any case, I think you’re right that it does make sense to recognise that different phenotypes are influenced by the environment to different degrees. However, in Massimo’s defence, I’m not sure that this difference can be so easily quantified as to yield a percentage figure. Different ways of calculating the difference might yield very different numbers, and there’s as yet no agreed way to calculate it.

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  34. Hi Massimo,

    I enjoyed the article. I think that as well as your community engagement, it is your choice of fascinating topics to discuss and debate that draws me to your blog posts.

    As well as Coel’s point above (i.e. that it might make sense to talk of nature versus nurture after all), I would defend Pinker against your apparent position that the views put forth in The Blank Slate and The Better Angels are in some sense incompatible.

    The Blank Slate is an attack against a view which does not prevail among the well-informed, but does exist among the general public. This is the view that how a child turns out is primarily a function of parenting and the home environment. He may seem to you to be attacking a straw man, but I really do think that many people are ignorant of the degree to which genes and the wider cultural context influence behaviour, and it is these people he is addressing.

    Anyway, you say this book is “justly” motivated, so I suppose your issue is more with “The Better Angels”.

    But this book is reporting and discussing what seems to be a fact: that violence has decreased enormously over time. Do you dispute these facts or something about his account of it?

    I haven’t read the book, but I have heard it discussed at length. My understanding is that Pinker does not argue that this decline is inevitable, or that it will necessarily continue. He’s primarily working to counteract the media-driven assumption that the world is becoming progressively more violent, while also offering some hypothetical explanations for the decline in violence.

    I don’t think anything in this is contrary to his thesis in the Blank Slate, which argues not that we are entirely genetically predetermined but that the influence of our genes and the prevailing culture is perhaps larger than commonly imagined, especially as compared with direct parental influence. The decline in violence is compatible with this, either through selection effects for “peaceful genes” or through gradual changes in the prevailing culture.

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  35. BMM, Coel,

    In order to test for free will you would need to define what it is you are testing for. A definition of free will is a philosophical problem, not a scientific one. If we adopt a compatibilist definition such as Dennett’s then moral responsibility is a major part of it.

    If moral responsibility is our guide, then we need to define moral responsibility. I think responsiveness to reward and punishment is a major part of that, and that’s finally something we can empirically test.

    By this criterion, dogs have free will.

    If you’re not satisfied with that, then that just illustrates how there’s a lot more philosophy to sort out before we can begin to answer the problem.

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  36. Coel wrote: The “so what?” response is just saying that the differences are of degree.

    If it were just that then I would have no beef, but they are playing down even the degree. Take this media release from the University of Adelaide, entitled “Humans not smarter than animals, just different”. Mind you, that is not a journalist’s spin on their claim, that is actually the title the University gave to the media release: http://www.adelaide.edu.au/news/news67182.html

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  37. I would agree that the “not smarter” claim is ridiculous, but that claim is likely as much to do with spinning the result to get publicity (that university press release may well have been written by a press officer tasked with that aim).

    One can sort-of justify it by declaring that the ability to distinguish between oodles of different scents makes dogs “smart”, but to me that is a misuse of the term “smart”.

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  38. BMM,

    “Human exceptionalism is not support by physiology or biology. By definition, all human characteristics had to be inherited from other species. Humans descended from other animals, they did not rise above with some exceptionalism.”

    As others have pointed out, it isn’t a matter of exceptionalism, and of course there is an evolutionary continuity between humans and other life forms. But it seems pretty undeniable to me that whatever quantitative differences we have with other species have gotten to the point of counting as qualitative ones. How many other species on earth can write essays reflecting on their own nature?

    Brian,

    ” think that the “evolutionary psychology” approach is that it does not change fast enough.”

    Right, but actually recent research shows dramatic genetic changes in the human population over the past w tens of thousands of years, particularly in genes associated we brain activity.

    Joel,

    “Language provides a way for us to gain an understanding and an empathy for other populations so that we progress towards greater awareness of what is healthful for all populations.”

    I tend to agree. It baffles me when people downplay the importance of language, bringing up that other animals communicate as well. Yes, they certainly do. But, again, they don’t write blogs…

    Coel,

    “What we are born with is a genetic-based recipe for human nature, not a blueprint. That recipe has to play out through development, and the end product will depend hugely on that gene–environment interaction.”

    Precisely, which is why I think the concept of genotypic norm of reaction from evolutionary biology is a particularly useful way to think about this.

    “If we are talking about the *range* of genetic variance and a given range of environmental factors then it is entirely sensible and coherent to discuss the relative proportions in which they influence the outcome.”

    Depends on what you mean. What I was rejecting was the standard “x% of this trait is controlled by genes and y% of it by the environment” kind of talk. There are fascinating technical reasons for why that sort of approach makes little sense. Interested readers may want to take a look at my book on phenotypic plasticity, or at some of Richard Lewontin’s classical papers on the subject.

    Roo,

    “Everytime I needed to refer to something related to Hume, his life or his work, the genitive “Hume’s”, or the circumlocution “according to Hume”, etc. did the work I expected from my quotation.
    The artificial introduction of “Humean” seems unnecessary.”

    I disagree. “According to Hume” has a different meaning from “Humean.” The first one refers to what Hume actually wrote, the latter to a view of things inspired by Hume, but that may go beyond what Hume actually said.

    Robin,

    “It seems to me that there is an almost religious need to downplay the differences between us and other primates in some sections of the science community.”

    You noticed that too, eh? And as you know, I come to this from a completely secular perspective…

    Aldo,

    “Strike out “moral progress,” please.”

    I don’t see why. The concept is perfectly coherent, though of course the details are debatable.

    “Are we making “moral progress?” I may quote Zhou Enlai on the French Revolution. When asked whether it was “a good thing,” his alleged reply was “too early to tell.” This is not “oriental weaseling” as much as it is humbling recognition that one can only judge (better/worse) what is not in the process of (silently) transforming itself.”

    Well, to a point. There is no reason to abstain from provisional, revivable judgments. Especially about something (human cultural evolution) that has been going on far longer than the French Revolution.

    DM,

    ” I would defend Pinker against your apparent position that the views put forth in The Blank Slate and The Better Angels are in some sense incompatible.”

    I wouldn’t say incompatible, but in some degree of tension.

    ” this book is reporting and discussing what seems to be a fact: that violence has decreased enormously over time. Do you dispute these facts or something about his account of it?”

    I’m not competent to do that. However, a number of thoughtful reviewers have pointed out that the data, the data analysis, and especially the broader conceptual framework, are debatable. I don’t think the debate has settled yet.

    “I don’t think anything in this is contrary to his thesis in the Blank Slate, which argues not that we are entirely genetically predetermined but that the influence of our genes and the prevailing culture is perhaps larger than commonly imagined.”

    Rut, but I find that in some degree of tension with the whole evopsych research program, of which Pinker is a major proponent.

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  39. Hi DM,
    In some cases it is indeed possible to produce percentage figures. Take my example of “probability of being sent to jail by age 22”, for which a hard number is available (in any given society). Then you compare outcomes for identical twins reared apart with outcomes for other twins and for the general population, and you can straightforwardly produce percentage contributions that are genetic vs environmental (at least for the range of genetic variation and the range of environmental variation covered by the study). Of course one has to be careful not to over-interpret the results, but it is possible to study this stuff in a quantitative way.

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  40. I only have time for a quick comment. There does not seem to be any mention in the article of the gross effects of civilization on individual behavior. I think you can explain the apparent increase in cooperation/morality simply in terms of the enlargement of the group according to E.O. Wilson’s view of eusocial behavior. We are still genetically predisposed to treat individuals who are not members of our group with less consideration than we do the members of our group, with the only change being that our group has vastly expanded to include practically all humans. Therefore, I would say that there is such a thing as human nature, which has not changed. It is simply that the context for the expression of human nature has changed.

    I might add that Singer’s “enlarging circle of empathy” reflects a basic misunderstanding of human nature. The fact is that highly diverse groups of humans are gradually assimilating into a contentious super-group. For example, die-hard American racists are being pressured into accepting a black president. Extending this apparent newly-found empathy to animals borders on the ridiculous, because animals are not members of our group. Most people will never care that the packaged meat that they purchase in supermarkets comes from killing and slicing up cattle. The existence of morality can only be explained in terms of the survival benefits that it has conferred on humans.

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  41. OK, I accept that there might be some tension between the two Pinker books and between evopsych and cultural progress. This is only a problem if you take evopsych proponents to be saying that evopsych is the only useful perspective to adopt when explaining human behaviour. I don’t think any evopsych proponent would deny that culture also evolves.

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  42. Hi Coel,

    I’m not convinced it’s that simple. Yes, I know there are outcomes that are quantitatively measurable, but I’m not at all sure it’s so easy to represent the contributions from environment and genes as a dichotomous percentage adding up to 100%.

    You might get one value for societal contribution with one set of societies and a very different value with another set of societies. Do you weight the different societies according to their populations or treat them equally or what?

    Suppose in one society everyone ends up in prison and in another nobody ends up in prison. Looking at this, we would conclude that it’s 100% determined by environment. Now suppose we add a third society, where either both sets of twins go to prison or neither. In this one society, it looks like it’s 100% genetic. So we have three societies, does that mean it’s 67% cultural and 33% genetic? Until we add another society and get different figures again?

    You might think it tends to some stable figure as we add more societies but there’s no limit to the amount of variation possible in human society so it makes no sense to think that there is a definite figure for how much is contributed by environment and how much is contributed by genes. All we can say is that each has some influence.

    Let’s take a toy example, ignoring poor sample size and try to come up with some quantification of the following data set, with columns for different societies and different rows representing different sets of quadruplets.

    Yes: was imprisoned
    No: was not imprisoned

    Society A || Society B || Society C || Society D
    Yes || Yes || Yes || No
    No || No || No || No
    Yes || No || Yes || No
    Yes || No || Yes || No
    No || Yes || Yes || No
    Yes || Yes || Yes || No
    No || No || Yes || No
    Yes || No || Yes || No
    Yes || Yes || Yes || Yes

    I personally have very little idea how to turn this into a cultural influence/genetic influence number. There may be a way to do it, but it’s not evident to me, so the fact that there is quantitative data does not mean that it’s trivially obvious that a percentage divide of the kind you propose is possible.

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  43. It’s hard to see what kind of statements about culture could be made, independent of cultural beliefs and local language norms – mainly English, without being based in biology.

    Do social behaviors like empathy, what is culturally labeled, morality, etc, not exist in our social animals? Even ants and bacteria are found to sacrifice for the group, etc.

    Again, the fear of the outsiders has been studied as a very logical response to threats of infectious diseases – about 40k years ago. Not so useful now.

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