Nowadays, it is a cliché to invoke biology, psychology or the newest branch of cognitive science to defend the claim that there is such thing as a Human Nature. We find appeals to this notion every time someone explains in terms of intrinsic properties forged by Evolution why some particular group exhibits a different behavior or response when compared to a larger population or a different group. This has occurred in topics such as a intelligence, empathy, verbal and spatial cognitive capacities, and even on the realm of self-governance .
Most of these claims have to do with grouping people in terms of race, ethnicity, sex/gender, sexual orientation and any other trait that seems amicable to a purely biological understanding of the trait itself and how it is connected to the body of the Subject as a whole. Once these schemes of classifying humans are accepted, they are used to explain variations in a myriad of topics. Culture, understood in symbolic or material terms, is normally set aside in these approaches.
Good examples of this practice are all of those studies claiming that there is an I.Q. gap between whites and blacks in the U.S. Or all of those claiming that gay men have verbal and spatial cognitive capacities more similar to straight women than to fellow straight men (Rahman & Wilson, 2003). Finally, the gendered brain is probably the most well known example of the approach (see, for example, Fausto-Sterling, 2000).
Nonetheless, as most scholars, and not a few outsiders to the Republic of Science know, not all of those who invoke these concept are bigots, racists, homophobes or misogynists. There are indeed instances of the concept of Human Nature at the service of more progressive agendas. The very idea of Human Rights is more or less dependent on this idea.
A different and very instructive example can be found in all of those studies showing that sexual orientation or gender identities are at the core of the Self and are most likely inborn and fixed. This has served to reject the view that homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals and trans individuals are sinners, criminals, perverts or sick persons. It has also served to repudiate those so called “reparative therapies” which claim to fix what is not broken.
Notwithstanding this last point, Human Nature is probably one of the most contested terms in the history of Western Modern thought. As such, it had a central role in the famous Science Wars of late 20th century. These wars polarized the academic world with the creation of two mayor blocks or, to be more historically accurate, with the strengthening of an already existing divide (see, for example DeLamater & Shibley, 1998, or Lloyd, 2005, who provides an excellent analysis of a particular case study). On one side of the divide, we had most biologists, psychiatrists, medical doctors and biologically minded psychologists. On the other side were sociologists, historians, cultural anthropologists, social psychologists, psychoanalysts, etc.
The now infamous dichotomy of Nature vs. Nurture became one of the axes of this debate regarding the (1) accuracy, and (2) political usefulness of the concept of Human Nature. More concretely:
1. The debate about how accurate this dichotomy is, as its central concerns, had questions such as: is culture in some sense derived, controlled or conditioned by nature?, If so, are we truly free? Do we have free will or are we controlled by our pre-cognitive, pre-reflexive instincts? How sensitive is this “nature” to environmental aspects such as education, morals, etc.?
This point brings into light the question of how well the dichotomy actually describes the relationship between our evolved animal bodies and minds and the culture we produce through them.
2. Political usefulness: a major concern in these debates had to do with the possible social consequences of embracing the concept of human nature. The fear of a new eugenic movement of some sort was in the background of this discussion — with the obvious reference to Hitler’s Germany as a good remainder of why this should be avoided. For most social scientists, the very idea of human nature erases the social and collective responsibility we have to each other, it also erases the responsibility of institutions such as the State. Moreover, it downplays the effects of major inequalities produced by colonialism, racism, capitalism, homophobia, etc. Finally, the opposers saw in this concept a negation of human variability through the mobilization of an assumed common nature that is inherently imperialistic and, so, characteristic of Western colonialism. But for those who embraced the concept, it represented a realistic diagnosis of a bedrock unable to be modified by current social policies and, hence, the necessity to design new policies informed by biology.
For the defenders of the concept of human nature, it showed how our actions, beliefs and moral intuitions are heavily dependent on our biology and, thus, on our evolutionary history; here, culture tended to be seen as a veneer layer just recently added to an old human core. For all of those in opposition, the very concept of human nature was a menace to be fought because it de-emphasized the role played by social institutions such as the State, it also failed to pay attention to processes of exclusion and intolerance and how they become embodied.
This is not the place to revisit the complex history of these debates, and I am very much aware of the nuances excluded by such a short reconstruction, but there are two major points that I would like to bring into light before discussing the main argument of this essay.
First, although the dichotomy of nature vs. nurture is now over a 100 years old — it was, after all, introduced by Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton — there is no reason to believe that it will remain an axis able to structure the relationships among different fields within the academy. Thus, my point is that we should seriously consider this confrontational antagonism between the natural and the social sciences as an historical contingency and not a structural feature. This might be the first step to overcome the controversy.
Second, we need to keep in mind the specific context in which these confrontations developed in the anglophone world and, more specifically, in the United States. The rise of the American religious right with its rejection of evolution, on the one hand, and its decry on the rights of sexual minorities, on the other, has produced a very complex battlefield of ideas in which natural scientists, specifically evolutionary biologists interested in human evolution, are now facing not one but two front lines. One against the above mentioned religious right, the other against social scientists claiming that culture or nurture cannot and should not be discarded in any attempt to understand human history, including human prehistory.
This point is of the upmost strategical importance because it sheds light on why this confrontation has been so acerbic. It would seem that social scientists have largely failed to recognize how their critiques can be refunctionalized by the religious right as weapons against the legitimacy of natural science. It also explains why natural scientists have accused social scientists of being intellectual impostors in order to defend their epistemic authority.
Clearly, it requires a lot of imagination to devise new and productive forms of relating the natural and the social sciences. Recognizing the historicity of the conflict, the strategic positions of those involved, and the agendas they possess seems a fundamental first step. Offering common goals and arguments capable of promoting a more interdisciplinary attitude would probably come second.
Before discussing the role of political emotions in all this, it is fundamental to offer a common goal and, I believe, human welfare and dignity might be such a goal —after all, who is going to seriously reject this as a desirable aim. Nevertheless, aiming at human welfare and dignity is one thing, developing public policies suited for this task is a different and very challenging one. The contribution of philosophers to a task like this might demand engaging in a serious discussion of how to design and implement policies, on the one hand, and in clarifying the relevant terms and values guiding the discussion, on the other. Justice and dignity look like promising candidates for a serious philosophical examination.
If this is so, then paying attention to the very complex ontology of human (and non human) bodies might end up being an obligatory passage point for any theory of justice — here I am borrowing Bruno Latour’s term, although with a slightly different sense (Latour, 2005). After all, even though concepts such as justice or human welfare and dignity seem to be very abstract, their justiciability — i.e., their capacity to be operationalized in a legal apparatus — necessarily requires addressing both the materiality of human bodies as well as their cultural embeddedness.
The materiality of human bodies forces us to recognize how justice goes hand in hand with the elimination of poverty, disease and economic inequalities. These material aspects of the human body are inextricably intertwined with both the causal structure of the body itself and with the way in which our cognition is temporally extended, embodied, embedded and scaffolded by material devices and material arrangements that facilitate our actions and make our lives more fulfilling. One example here is instructive and easy to offer: let us imagine how our lives would be without gadgets such as the computer or the smartphones and the access they provide not only to knowledge of many sorts but also to apps able to guide us in foreign cities, or to help us keep in touch with friends in different places in the world.
At this point every constructivist should recognize how a radical deconstruction of notions like disease, sickness or vulnerability may be counterproductive if we arrive at the conclusion that these terms are purely the consequences of power or hegemony and lack any material and causal basis. Certainly, these terms have political histories and are open to a variety of social interpretations in which the boundaries of these categories or even their perceived moral valuation have more to do with politics than with biology, but it is a non sequitur to claim that they are purely political.
This materiality is fundamental for justice because we are not a Cartesian res cogitans. Freedom is more than freedom of speech or belief, and justice is more than the capability of choosing without coercion or being considered a citizen with just political and civil rights. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said long ago freedom from want and freedom from fear are also fundamental categories in any comprehensive understanding of what human rights should be. And both of these demand a recognition of our material embodiment and the necessity to search for political and institutional mechanisms that ensure our material wellbeing — including the recognition of how the causal structure of our bodies sets a common minimum for every person on Earth.
However, the cultural embeddedness of humans cannot be neglected because, even though we are animals with bodies and minds produced by evolution, we also have different cultural affiliations affecting not only how we think but also how we feel and what we strive to accomplish. Every human being possesses a consciousness and exercises a will and a moral conscience, thus making us epistemic, ethical, aesthetic and political agents. This agency might seem more ethereal than the causal structure of our bodies but nonetheless it arises from it.
Consequently, freedom of speech or belief necessitates a recognition not only of our agency but also of the fact that cultural embeddedness leads to different forms of experiencing this agency. Even freedom from want and freedom from fear are connected with this point because what we fear is not a psychological invariant and certainly neither what we want nor the livelihoods in which we engage to obtain it are invariants either.
The material-cultural duality of the body might resemble the nature vs. nurture dichotomy, though here the emphasis is not on what divides and contrasts but on how the material and the cultural embeddedness of bodies arise from a complex material ontology in which culture can and usually is materially realized. Hence culture literally constructs and causally affects human bodies through the very structure of these and not by its systematic denial.
If I am right, then the Science Wars were a particularly counterproductive period in the history of science because they led us to a partial and dichotomous view of the body and, thus, instead of allowing us to develop and execute a more integrative notion of justice, what they actually did was to undermine justice by fundamentally denying how personhood, just as cognition and emotion, is always temporally extended, embodied, embedded and scaffolded.
In a sense, we could say that what I am advocating here is the admission that in justice development meets development. One of the intended senses is close to the very idea of social development as found in the Human Development Index created by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and further developed by Martha Nussbaum in her “Capabilities approach.” The other intended sense has more to do with recent theoretical insights in evolutionary biology, specifically in the fields of Evolutionary Developmental Biology (EvoDevo), Ecological Evolutionary Developmental Biology (EcoEvoDevo), Niche Construction and Extended Inheritance .
Curiously, what all of these very different programs have in common, among other things, is an emphasis on how the material scaffoldings of development are what produces a form that was not pre-formed or pre-given in any kind of blueprint. These scaffoldings are paradoxically responsible for both plasticity and robustness because they not only allow the organism/person to cope with her environment and its unexpected challenges by being resilient but also by being innovative.
In the concrete case of human development, the capabilities approach has emphasized on one hand material as well as cultural aspects such as bodily health and integrity and control over one’s material environment, and on the other hand political control over one’s social environment, access to education in order to develop practical reason and thought and, also, the necessity of affiliation with others. A fulfilled person is one who has had access to the entire spectrum of capabilities and, so, realizes her potential and is able to strive and enjoy.
This implies a rejection of biological determinism without rejecting biology. This is especially clear regarding handicapped persons. The capabilities approach acknowledges how the causal structure of our bodies might lead to disabilities, but also how our social scaffoldings might be able to compensate for these, thus allowing persons to have fulfilled and happy lives.
In the other case, Evo-Devo and allied fields, we find a variety of proposals in which genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, ecological and symbolic inheritances are scaffolding each other not only in the production of animal form but also in the production of its habitat and behavior . The capacities of animals are not thus written in their genes in a sort of blueprint but are the result of a causal construction that, even though it is not rigidly deterministic, it is clearly influenced by biology. As in the previous case, the disruption of a particular inheritance channel might be detrimental and corrosive but it might as well be manageable if other channels remain functional.
Obviously, a deeper analysis is required if we are going to defend any profound connection among all of these programs to further develop this insight. Nonetheless, our preliminary discussion already promises a decentering of the topic of justice from the locus of human agents: if development meets development, then most living organisms might become subjects of an extended theory of justice concerned with the environment and animal rights. At least Sen and Nussbaum have expressed these views and to attend to the ontology of bodies and their development might be useful if we want to ground this sort of ethical claim.
Finally, I would like to offer an example in which this new arrangement among fields might already be visible: this is the case of political emotions. Martha Nussbaum is again a good example of this shift. In one of her most recent books she discusses the link between homophobia and disgust as a paradigmatic example of a political emotion (Nussbaum, 2010; see also Nussbaum, 2013). It is an emotion because it involves not only rejection and moral disapproval but also disgust, including those bodily sensations characteristic of it. And it is political because homosexual persons are not a primary source for disgust but are constructed as such through social dynamics of exclusion in which homosexuals are symbolically associated with feces and decay.
It is important to add that not all political emotions are negative: sympathy and empathy are examples of positive political emotions. Anyway, political emotions are interesting because they emphasize the bodily nature of emotions and feelings without reducing them to purely physiological processes. In political emotions the intentional content is not discarded but included and politicized by acknowledging how such content is conditioned by social dynamics.
This again sheds light on the connections between development and politics because, up to now, no one has seriously claimed that homophobia is inborn and fixed. Disgust might be a universal emotion, it most likely has an evolutionary history and, nonetheless, the fact that it admits historical and social conditioning evidences the very plasticity of emotions and how they are recruited into culture. We might actually say that, contrary to the ethos of the Science Wars, affirming that people become homophobes throughout their development when they are exposed to bigotry and intolerance and claiming that this has a bodily nature, is not at all tantamount to asserting our incapacity to fight against it but, paradoxically, it might come in handy when we design public policies against homophobia. This is so because we are not dealing with a purely discursive and cognitive intolerance but with a deeply entrenched emotional attitude that might become pre-reflexive and pre-critical very early on in our lives (Mc Manus, 2015).
So, to conclude, the relationships among philosophy, biology and justice are complex and keep evolving. The Science Wars and the nature vs. nurture debate might have structured the relations among fields as if only antagonism and mutual distrust were possible. A lack of attention to the historical contingency of this arrangement and how it was also shaped by a conflict of natural science with the religious right, on the one hand, and with the humanities and social sciences, on the other, has led to a very acerbic confrontation. But both biology and humanities have continued their internal developments towards new ontologies that now might be much more compatible than we normally realize . Political emotions are maybe the best example of how, in justice, development meets development.
Acknowledgments: thanks to Rasmus Winther for encouraging me to write on these topics. Thanks as well to many colleagues in Mexico and abroad, specially to Edna Suarez, Vivette Garcia, Gisela Mateos, Teresa Ordorika, Adriana Murguia and Octavio Valadez and the seminars at UNAM and UAM-C.
Fabrizzio Mc Manus is an Assistant Professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) where he works at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Sciences and Humanities (CEIICH). Currently, his main lines of research are concerned with the construction and medicalization of sexual identities in Mexico, the concept of explanation in developmental biology, and analytic feminism applied to biology and biomedicine. He has written a book — in Spanish — on science and homosexuality in light of philosophy of science.
 Jonathan Marks (2012) has accurately named these approaches as Evolutionary Ideologies.
 Loci classici are Jablonka & Lamb (2015), Oyama (2000), and Laland et al (2001) to name but a few.
 The topic of behavior, in general, and emotions, in particular, has been insightfully analyzed by Griffiths (1997). He has also connected this discussion with the topic of human nature in his (2011).
 I have also argued in favor of this point in my (2014).
DeLamater, J., & Shibley, H. J. (1998). Essentialism vs social constructionism in the study of human sexuality. The journal of Sex Research, 35: 10-18.
Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York: Basic Books.
Griffiths, P. (1997). What Emotions Really Are. The Problem of Psychological Categories. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Griffiths, P. (2011). Our plastic nature. In S. B. Gissis, & E. Jablonka (Eds.), Transformations of lamarckism: From subtle fluids to molecular biology (pp. 319-330). London: The MIT Press.
Jablonka, E. and M. Lamb (2005). Evolution in four dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life. Boston: The MIT Press.
Laland, K., Odling-Smee, J. and Feldman, M. (2001). Niche Construction, Ecological Inheritance, and Cycles of Contingency in Evolution. In Oyama, S., Griffiths, P. and Gray, R. (eds.) Cycles of Contingency. Developmental Systems and Evolution. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
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Lloyd, E. (2005) The case of the Female Orgasm. Bias in the Science of Evolution. Boston: Harvard University press.
Marks, J. (2012). Evolutionary ideologies. In A. Poiani (Ed.), Pragmatic Evolution: The Applications of Evolutionary Theory (pp. 297- 312). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mc Manus, F. (2014). La Filosofía de la Biología y los Estudios de Género. Una simbiosis demorada. Crítica: Revista Hispanoamericana de Filosofía, 46(137): 113-118.
Mc Manus, F. (2015). Emociones Políticas y Constructivismo Social Evolutivo. El Asco como sustento de la Homofobia. Interdisciplina, 3(5): 161-186.
Nussbaum, M. C. (2010). From Disgust to Humanity. Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nussbaum, M. C. (2013). Political Emotions. Why Love Matters for Justice. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Oyama, S. (2000). Evolution’s Eye. A systems view of the Biology-Culture Divide. Durham: Duke University Press.
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