Not long ago, I finished an astonishing book called “The Western Illusion of Human Nature” by Marshall Sahlins, an anthropologist and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago (where I spent a formative year from 2008 to 2009). Ever since 2004, when I took an introductory class on Shakespeare at Brown University, I have been immensely skeptical of the notion of “human nature,” mostly because, as Mark Twain once quipped, “generalizations aren’t worth a damn” (think about it). My dislike of the term has amplified over the years as I came to see “human nature” as not just a hasty generalization but also a profoundly negative and deterministic outlook on life.
Genetic determinism: The descendant of “original sin”
Why are we the way we are? A simple glance at nearly anything in any inhabited city should give you a preliminary answer: When you consider all the buildings, roads, vehicles, elaborately clothed tourists, mobile phones that can connect to wireless data, you take in – from every angle – so many things that humans “weren’t intended to do.” We weren’t “intended” (by whom? by what?) to extract crude oil from the ground so that it could be refined into gasoline that would power trucks that would deliver a Wi-Fi- and Bluetooth-enabled watch to someone’s doorstep. We weren’t “intended” to eat dairy, gluten, or whatever else the peddlers of dietary fads have deemed the mythical source of all our ills. We weren’t “intended” to turn California into an agricultural superpower capable of producing almonds, artichokes, strawberries, and so many other foodstuff at unprecedented scale.
What I’m saying: Our world exists because of culture, with all of its “unnatural” or “unintended” things being cultural evolutions peculiar to peoples and periods of time. Moreover, all of its perks and drawbacks are the results of cultural choices about what is acceptable and important. The fact that we don’t have universal health care in the U.S. but pay programmers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year? That’s a cultural attitude, not a predetermined genetic outcome.
Human cultures predate the homo sapiens sapiens species by thousands of years, and our evolution – with peculiarities like helpless infants – has been guided by our complete immersion in culture from cradle to grave. Consider this: Even throwback diets like paleo, which aim to escape contemporary culinary habits by going back to what “cave men” ate, are still completely beholden to the artificial and culturally determinedselection of the best-tasting and best-looking fruits and vegetables (there were no perfectly golden, creamy bananas “in nature” before human began cross-breeding cultivars) and the most-consistently bred livestock (raising even a single cow requires immense amounts of food, grown with “unintended” methodologies, and supported by “unnatural” antibiotics and drugs) available. Aesthetics and prejudices (e.g., the unwillingness to eat insects or dogs in the West) play a huge role in simply influencing what is even on the table . We are no more “designed” to eat only preagricultural foodstuffs than we are to speak only pre Indo-European languages.
The idea of a savage man in the wilderness, eager to kill someone just to get his own immensely healthy and faultless food and all the while in desperate need of an iron-fisted enforcer (i.e., Hobbes’ Leviathan) is a myth that owes more to the pessimism of the English Civil War and the legacy of the vile Abrahamic religions than to any actual evidence of how humans organize their lives and groups. It assumes the worst about us and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, marketed by a culture eager to exercise control mechanisms and tell us what is and isn’t “natural” and “intended.”
The eagerness to impart everything to genes, to a built-in “human nature” that is most usually associated with greed, sexual wantonness, and violence, is a remarkably flimsy idea that is nevertheless mentioned with such gravitas whenever someone has to condescendingly explain a “harsh truth” to someone else. I mean: Would you listen to someone babble on about the Christian notion of “original sin” to you in explaining why bad things happen? “Human nature” is “original sin” in another guise: St. Augustine hypothesized that original sin was transferred from one person to his children via semen, a ridiculous argument that nevertheless has been reincarnated in the notion that there’s a certain “human nature” genetically copied across the generations that is accountable for everything from men cheating on their spouses to office managers being ruthless political animals who must be corralled.
We impart to our own species a level of savagery that we wouldn’t assign to the worst of our relatives in the animal kingdom, and that doesn’t even exist in species like wolves that are often associated with evil despite their comraderie. We paper-over the obvious cultural destruction wrought by specific religions by instead saying that all this evil was instead inevitable because it had everything to do with “human nature” and nothing to do with fundamentalism.
What if instead of fixating on the negative traits we think are passed from one human to the other, we stepped back and consider how immensely in debt we still are to a Western cultural tradition that, for thousands of years, has put the “holy books” of the Abrahamic religions and the thoroughly pessimistic secular texts of Thucydides and Hobbes on a pedestal? We seem to see newborns and children as creatures that must be inoculated against some kind of savage nature, and then as adults held in check by paternalistic bureaucracies that prevent any lapse into a mythical “state of nature” that, due to culture’s pervasiveness, could never even have existed in the first place.
Almost any behavior that one would try to explain by appeal to “human nature” could be explained another way. Jacques Fresco once remarked about how he visited a Pacific island where everyone was naked all the time, and yet there was no evidence of constant sexual leering or abuse. If nothing else, his remarks are a good jumping-off point for thinking about how, say, Western uptightness about sexuality and a long legacy of optional sexism, rather than some inevitable “human nature” imprinted on the genome, has enabled things like catcalling and micro aggressions.
Yes, yes, I know – we don’t know much about genetics yet, and eventually we will able to explain everything via super-intelligent machines that can easily sequence DNA and analyze decisions. Bear in mind that the prioritization of such creations, as well as the ways in which they measure things (who decides how and what to measure, and how to interpret the results?), are all cultural realities, too and could be reversed.
My sense is that we greatly, greatly oversubscribe to the notion of “human nature” because of the historical circumstances we live under, in which there is a dominant single power (the U.S.) with global reach sufficient to create a de facto common language (English) that in turn makes everything seem homogeneous, at least on the surface. If and when this state of affairs changes, I think we will eventually see the world’s disparate cultures and natures finally move out of the shadow of “human nature.”