The Natural Slate
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Do you think there is a good case that our human nature is highly evolved, and quite specific and even predictable in its tendencies?
Many people object to this idea, since it implies that our individual personality and general nature is substantially given to us by our genes, rather than by our culture or our own choosing. Some, including prominent philosophers and psychologists, prefer to think of us born more or less as a “blank slate” upon which either much writing or choice is possible. A list of these thinkers is far-ranging and brings together people who agreed on little else. It includes Locke, Marx, Skinner, Rogers, and others working in their traditions.
But there is insufficient evidence to support this extreme idea of a blank slate. Studies of identical twins, for example, suggest that at least half of personality is inherited and perhaps even more. Instead of a blank slate, I would like to discuss with you the new science of our nature and the idea that we are born with as a “natural slate.” This natural slate – a tabula natura rather than a tabula rasa – implies considerable biological structure at birth, and both vulnerability to situational influences and capability of learning and self-directed change throughout our lives.
If we accept the idea of a natural slate, I will caution you up front that we must live with certain consequences. If our inherited or innate human nature is strong and definitive, it must influence us and may override our conscious intentions and personal choices in important ways. It may even compel us to question the true degrees of freedom we have in the world, and whether our intentions and choices area always as conscious and personal as we hope and would like them to be.
Should our ancient genes be powerful determinants of personality, as some scientists now suspect, we must then endeavor to become far more attentive of them, individually and collectively, and look for unintended biases and false preconceptions they may bring to our modern lives and society. If our minds are naturally strong – if our minds have minds of their own, with their own prerogatives long-evolved in nature – we must consider the ways these prerogatives may intrude into our lives and articulate themselves in our personal and general environment. We must consider equally that they may do just this when we least expect or want such intrusions, or in ways that are hard for us to accurately see or sense.
These considerations are important and now more than academic, since scientific inquiry into our human nature is trending toward the conclusion that our genes are strong and personality mostly received. This research increasingly suggests that our conscious self and processes for making evaluative choice might be recast as relative latecomers, and even lightweights. It compels us to consider that we may only be in partial control of our internal environment (as is more obviously the case in our attempts to control our external environment). Our genetic and natural predispositions, in turn, might be seen more accurately as universal and unchanging – or at least naturally resistive to change and uninformed intervention – and contributing to an inevitable human condition or range of conditions.
In short, a strong biological nature means that we each may be less free than we might want to believe, or even than we may be actively encouraged by our minds to believe. If our human nature continues to prove strong under scientific scrutiny and investigative techniques, we will be compelled to reconsider past ideas about our basic nature and natural potentials, and the facts and demands of this nature in our plans and actions for the future.
For all these important reasons, you can perhaps begin to see why the new science of our human nature and individual personality – conducted in a variety of fields, including sociobiology and evolutionary psychology – has proven so controversial. This formal inquiry promises to overturn centuries of thinking and dominant modern notions of our human condition. It surely will upset established scholarly positions in this area and accelerate the long shift in the center of gravity of our universities toward the natural sciences. And today, this new science simply leaves us wondering anew who and what we really are.
Problems with the Blank Slate
An excellent introduction to the developing science of our evolved human nature, and now rapidly changing ideas about the role and influence of nature and nurture on personality and society, is the psychologist Steven Pinker’s insightful and thorough book, The Blank Slate – The Modern Denial of Human Nature.
In his book, the inspiration for my title and our discussion, Pinker draws on a number of sources – notably the scientists E.O. Wilson, Robert Trivers, Richard Dawkins, and John Maynard Smith – to produce a relatively complete and thought-provoking summary of the recent science of our human nature. His central conclusions: 1) we have a strong human nature, 2) we are subject to important constraints by this nature in our individual choices and social policies, and 3) scientific study and examination of our nature has and surely will make us wiser and our condition improved.
As a counterpoint to these ideas, opponents of a strong human biology assert that our original, evolved human nature is weaker than some now propose. They argue there is considerable evidence our innate nature can be reliably overridden. This shaping of our nature can be accomplished by learning and new awareness, through the force of culture and context, by designed incentives and disincentives, or simply through personal will and resolve.
Such ideas are quite common today, in popular and academic culture. Together, they form a contemporary consensus, or intuition, about the nature of our human nature. This consensus is, in some regards, a reaction to earlier and more conservative thinking before modern times. This conservativism includes traditional and medieval notions that saw our condition as more static and which may have helped to inhibit progressive thinking and change for centuries. The idea of a weaker and more malleable biological nature is of course the basis of much of modernism and many modern social movements – in philosophy, politics, economics, sociology, psychology, and the arts.
But if we hold a view that sees our innate nature as more changeable, we must also live with another set of consequences and imperatives. Most notable among these is the idea that careful control of society and fairly activist social engineering must be an overriding public imperative, whether through government, ideology, or both. This must be true if we are seen more as a making of our culture and environment than our biology, and thus naturally subject to fairly wide varieties of fortunate and inopportune states as individuals and groups.
Another consequence of viewing people as substantially shapeable, and thus individually less substantial, is the pervasive modern idea that all or most standards and values should be viewed as relative and even arbitrary – and changeable with the times, our needs, and our ideals. As we can see in our era, this thinking promotes certain amounts of both chronic nihilism and idealism. It encourages experimentation, accepts skepticism as a position rather than a mode of inquiry, and invites artistic license and the deconstruction of form. It elevates contempt as a mark of learning, and accepts or expects reasonable contempt for existing society, roles, authority, law, and order.
This second idea is of course in contradiction with the first, but both are clear hallmarks of modernity and pillars of our contemporary outlook. We are a people of law and lawlessness. We are eclectic and contemptuous, but seek authenticity and meaning. We assert our independence amidst obvious dependence – on technology, organization, and our neighbors. That these two ideas are present in us and contradictory seems hard to deny. That they are the source of chronic discord and disaffection in our times strikes me as an interesting hypothesis. That their generally unexamined coexistence in us offers a profound insight into our basic nature goes to the heart of our discussion today.
The contemporary idea of human malleability – often expressed by the proposal I mentioned that we are each a “blank slate” to some degree – continues in our time with considerable force, even as it is wrought with this central contradiction. Blank slate thinking at least in part draws its impetus and strength from the facts of the dramatic change which have come with industrialization and the rise of modern life. Now, however, this new but aging conception of our nature must share space with still newer ideas, as well as some resurrected older ones, which sees our biology playing a larger and more unified role in human affairs than was more recently thought.
Beyond new scientific evidence we will discuss – suggesting a strong human nature and genetic basis of personality – contemporary blank slate thinking must contend with the obvious failure of a great number of modern social initiatives premised on the idea of pliability in our human character and larger condition. Such social engineering failures range from criminal justice reforms to urban renewal efforts. They include educational initiatives and new approaches to the management of the economy and alleviation of poverty. And they include the attempted wholesale reshaping and control of society that was the aim of Marxism.
The persistent failure of social initiatives based on the idea of a weak or readily-shapeable human nature suggests a seeming intractability of this nature, or at least a modern misunderstanding or mismanagement of it. With hindsight, we can moreover begin to see that our social environment in the developed world did not change as rapidly in many regards during the twentieth century as it did in the previous two centuries.
Modern European and North Americans of the 1920s are familiar to their counterparts today, despite radical changes in technology and social content since then. But we are both markedly different from people who lived before modern times – in the many centuries before an important new social architecture and progressive initiatives that marked the start of the modern age, even as they were crafted largely from a more innatist or “strong nature” perspective on our human condition than is typical today.
With this extended introduction of the ongoing controversy and key fault lines surrounding the debate about the strength of our biological nature, including genetic determinants of personality and their effects on our social environment, I would like to explore the scientific findings fueling this controversy, using Pinker’s book as a principal resource. As we will discuss, the emerging science of our human nature offers important new insights and opportunities for fuller life, and perhaps for far greater individual and community health and well-being.
As I have suggested, this science asserts, first and foremost, that we are not blank slates, but rather natural ones. It proposes that we are slates formed over great expanses of geological time, and shaped by the pressure of specific functional requirements. It asserts that we are etched with considerable markings and will reveal intricate troughs and ridges, once upwelled from the earth and exposed to light.
This newer view emerges from a much finer and more precise examination of our nature than ever before, and suggests equally finer and more precise care with ourselves and our technological society.
The Science of Our Nature
During my introduction, you may have wondered if our discussion was leading to the old “nature versus nurture” debate. It of course is, but with the new twist of recent scientific findings. Your initial reaction may be that this debate does not end – does not come to definitive and actionable conclusions. I would ask you to suspend for the next few minutes this common assumption, an increasingly anachronistic one given new advances in our understanding.
In fact, as the debate about the influences of nature and nurture in our lives has moved from the humanities and professorial lecterns to the natural sciences, laboratories, and computers, a great deal of progress has been made to resolve it. Today, thanks in part to CAT scanners, statistical modeling, and database analysis (for example, the study of the comparative personalities of twins I mentioned before) we are much closer to an evidence-based and reasonably clear understanding the relative roles of nature and nurture in shaping our personalities. This new understanding is leading not just to an identification of where specific influences lie and how they work, but also has begun a new grappling with the often startling conclusions and implications of this emerging science for individual life and public policy.
In the Blank Slate, Pinker goes well beyond simply summarizing recent empirical findings. He provides a careful and perceptive analysis of the personal and social implications of this new scientific probing of our nature and the sources of personality. Notable in this regard is his research-based outline of the essential requirements and limitations that our innate nature places on us, discussion of successful and unsuccessful efforts to work with our human nature to alter our human condition (recently and in our slightly more distant past), and indication of likely future opportunities to improve society – given science that suggests both a strong innate nature and potential strategies for improved human nurture.
Pinker commences his book much as I have begun our discussion today, with a survey of modern questions concerning our biological nature and the implications of its scientific study. This survey includes discussion of popular fears and academic controversies, ones that find, or sometimes foster, unsettling new ideas in the empirical study of our human nature, limitations, and biases. The ultimate fear, of course, is that science will conclude we are wholly determined by our biology and inimical to change, and that many of our social ills are inevitable, leaving less room for either faith-based or humanistic initiatives (both of which ironically use scientifically-derived technology to promote their causes and often encourage the scientific management of society).
Pinker’s survey and analysis of emerging research into human personality ultimately casts popular fears as generally misplaced, and most academic controversies as unjustified and even irrational (except as they further the interests and careers of established theorists). Beginning principally in the second half of his book – after a review of current and what are today often quite counterintuitive scientific findings regarding our human nature – Pinker offers an extended discussion of the implications of these findings for important areas of contemporary life, and by implication, for human life more generally.
In this discussion, Pinker highlights important new social opportunities suggested by scientific research into our nature. These include steps to: 1) improve politics, 2) reduce violence, 3) promote equality, 4) better nurture our children, and 5) strengthen the arts. In each case, he shows how we are perhaps more limited in certain ways than we intuitively and commonly realize, but also living amidst important opportunities to work around the natural personal and social limitations we do face, and create better and more informed conditions for ourselves and others.
As I have suggested, his specific prescriptions for change in contemporary human life often run contrary to current and recent thinking, and to many traditional ideas and ideals, even as they suggest opportunities for new positive change in many or most areas of modern life and society. For this reason, I would strongly recommend Pinker’s Blank Slate to my readers wanting a better grounding in current evolutionary science and its investigation of personality. His book will also provide insights to people interested in uses of this research to better understand our nature and enhance our lives and well-being today. It also provides important suggestions on ways the science of our nature is likely to help people craft more optimal social policies and improve conditions for the future.
I would also recommend Pinker’s book, and the discussion that follows here, to two other categories of readers who sometimes find their way to my writing. If you share in the common view today that sees all things in nature as an unmitigated good, you may be operating within a new and increasingly pervasive contemporary condition called the “naturalistic fallacy” and might use Pinker’s writing to gain a more complete view of the state of nature and its evolutionary processes.
Similarly, if you have adopted and advocate a “go with the flow” approach to contemporary life, also a new and popular social product of our relatively prosperous and secure times (and the hard and often unflowing work of many people), you might find Pinker’s book both instructive and cautionary. In this vein, Pinker offers new insights into important limitations our innate nature places on us, and the opportunities that a more attentive, scientifically-informed, and carefully-chosen life creates for us – whether in our individual lives, communities, or global society – versus strategies of convenient and opportunistic improvisation.
Three Revealing Questions
To begin a more detailed discussion of the modern science of our human nature, we might ask three questions. These questions probe and frame the scientific investigation and new findings regarding our nature, including the controversies they create for some people today and the rethinking of our current state of life they encourage for us all.
1. First, is there a problem?
As a first question, we simply might ask: why there is so much resistance to the idea of a strong human nature? I have already introduced the explanation – a dominating biological nature implies a weaker conscious self, one that is more in service of and controlled by the imperatives of our biological nature, and in turn less free either to lead itself or to follow ideals. This consequence must be increasingly true to the extent that our human nature and innate personality is found to be more fixed and forceful in our lives.
Pinker argues that this fear of “determinism” – attitudes and behaviors dictated by our biology – is unfounded. Regardless of how we might advance arguments for or against the existence of free will, and thus for or against determinism, there is no logical reason that a reasonably free conscious self could not have evolved in nature (and good reason to think this is precisely the case). Such an autonomous self could, and likely does in humans and other advanced animals, possess a set of executive algorithms designed to assess and question the rest of the brains predilections, as wells as the predilections of other brains.
More to the point, there is nothing in modern cognitive science, neuroscience, genetics, or evolutionary psychology that that suggests that we cannot maintain personal responsibility for our actions. These fields are well along at concluding we are sentient and intelligent beings and can reasonably understand the probabilistic impacts (costs and benefits) of our actions in both physical and moral terms. Importantly, findings suggesting a strong but sure-sighted and intelligent nature may even posit us as freer than constructs proposing a more malleable character, since this treats us as less susceptible arbitrary and limiting environmental influences and manipulative conditioning – whether by totalitarian regimes, commercial interests, or devious psychologists.
Despite these basic and quite fatal failings of deterministic thinking, Pinker identifies three groups of people, and quite strange bedfellows, that are especially resistant to the idea of a strong biological human nature. In the extreme, each even fiercely opposes and finds morally repugnant the making of our human nature an object of scientific inquiry:
- Activists – the first group encompasses social activists in and out of academia, intelligent people that one might think would be committed to freedom of inquiry and would themselves want to inquire deeply into the science of our nature and its applications for promoting social progress. (This is in fact beginning now, but is lagging the pace of science and represents a generational change in attitudes about the scientific study of humans). Pinker traces quite strident actions on the part of some in university life to undermine or prevent empirical research into our human nature, and discusses their concerns that innatist thinking could engender new conservativism and regressive social policies – worries that explain but scarcely excuse their sometimes vitriolic and distorted attacks on scientists working in this field (and the general decline of discourse between the arts and sciences over the last thirty years).
- Romantics – a second and related group of people resistant to human nature science is perhaps less radicalized than the first, but is equally concerned about scientific inquiry into our human nature and the direction and purport of its findings. This second group are the many people today, in and out of academia, who harbor romantic ideals about wild nature and whose thinking (feeling really) is increasingly eroded by new scientific findings about nature in general and our human nature in particular. Probably few of us are not at least partly in this camp, since many of us moderns admire the natural world – though through the historically new perspective of relative modern affluence and tranquility. But we each risk letting what may be our innate “biophillia” (evolved love of nature) get the better of us, when we admire nature from a gauzy distance and comfortable urban lives, and do not seek more objective understanding of its empirical truth. As suggested before, the naturalistic fallacy of seeing nature, and our original human nature, as universally good is a common error of our time, and even an important barrier to progressivity in our individual lives and fuller understanding of our species opportunities for the future.
- Traditionalists – a third and less related group, but equally opposed to or suspicious of the scientific study of our nature, are of course social and religious conservatives – who often believe in and base their cosmology on the existence of an incorporeal soul within us and invariant moral code above us. These conservatives correctly understand that modern sociobiology, neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, and other scientific investigations of humans, if successful, will eventually leave no room for metaphysics or the existence of an incorporeal soul. But often, unfortunately, they incorrectly assume this work also will leave no place for moral and familiar sentiments either, and thus frequently believe that immorality, and even nihilism, will result without our having souls apart from nature – especially ones that face the prospect of eternal reward or suffering if they stray from traditional lines in the sand. As we will discuss, this instinct is not wholly without merit. Modern scientific findings do suggest that reliable pleasures and pains do strongly influence human behavior, but also that this set of incentives can be administered by progressive and secular society as easily as a theocracy, and perhaps more optimally and adaptively.
2. How strong is the pushback?
Based on this discussion of the key fault lines in the controversies over the study of our human nature, we might ask a follow-on question to the first: is the resistance to the science of our human nature really that strong? Based on Pinker’s compilation of the sustained and fairly extensive attacks on the scientific study of our nature over the last two decades or more, and the popular dismissal of now established findings that one encounters in daily life, I think we have to say yes, and perhaps unconditionally so.
Each of these three groups has strong moral or philosophical concerns or fears about progressing inquiry into our basic nature, or strong material interests in or positive affections toward a current or earlier status quo. Whether intentionally or not, the effect of their fears and efforts is to promote a largely pre-scientific and ambiguous understanding of our nature, and the upholding of social structures and norms that have their origins in the Bronze Age.
As Pinker describes, the diversity of practical efforts against the new science of our nature, and the strength of popular consensus dismissing its findings, is remarkable. We can see it in the actions of radical professors and others with self-defining intellectual positions and entrenched interests at odds with the unfolding findings of science. Opposition appears in the work and views of reformers and citizens with strong ideas and emotions about nature and conservation – many despairing our industrial and seemingly denigrated times. And we of course see opposition from religious leaders and their followers upholding older systems of valuation and social control.
The stakes are high for all these people, at least in the short run. At stake for them is personal order and conceptual familiarity. And the truth is that the conclusions that will be drawn from the scientific inquiry into our nature, in our time, are likely to shake the world as we know it, and then shape society and impact the social order for centuries after our time. But all are limited in seeing only risks and disruptions in traditional ideas and modern order, and not new opportunities for human progress waiting.
3. Is the resistance well-founded?
As a third and final question to help advance our discussion, let me simply ask: are those who fear the scientific study of our biological and genetic influences, and resist its emerging findings really so wrong? Here again, I think the answer is resoundingly affirmative. The many reasons why this is so forms the bulk of Pinker’s book, a compelling mixture of summary and analysis of the growing body of scientific evidence in favor of a new, more natural, and more detailed view of our human nature.
The careful review of the emerging science of our nature that Pinker offers us undercuts entrenched and quite pervasive modern and traditional thinking. This includes ideas of people existing as blank slates at birth and living as relatively malleable beings throughout childhood and even much of our life, with the resulting imperative of top-down social or religious initiatives to condition us optimally. The new science of our nature and its growing findings equally undercut more general or popular objections to this study, concerns that findings of a strong human nature – our having a strong evolutionary endowment and a “natural slate” within us, instead of a blank or incorporeal one – leads inevitably to inequality, imperfectability, determinism, or even nihilism.
As I will summarize next, Pinker presents the actual science of our human nature to date and shows convincingly that objective study does not lead in any of these directions. Instead, this science has begun to offer us a new and much clearer portrait of us, one with a distinctly human face. Far from being distorted and grotesque, this new human portrait is one that is both familiar but far more contoured and detailed than in earlier conceptions. For this reason, we have good reason to suspect that the science of our nature will offer a new window on ourselves – one that is startling, more balanced, and perhaps containing opportunities for fuller life
Looking at the emerging science, my belief is that this science is unmasking and more deeply revealing the all-too-human nature we know already – and do not know well enough or are deceived about – in profound and ultimately liberating new ways.
Uncovering Our “Natural Slate”
To help us understand why all this is so – why we are not blank slates by nature, why a strong biological nature does not lead to and even may prevent chaos or tyranny, and why a more informed sense of our nature can engender new life opportunities and a more progressive society – Pinker asks us to consider the locus for all this fear and controversy, the functioning human brain.
Our human brain of course has been demonstrated as the seat of our human nature and individual personality, however strong or weak this biological nature may be. If you are skeptical of this idea, as some are in the classes of people I mentioned before, consider the long and widely demonstrated fact that injury or manipulation of our brain diminishes or alters our nature and personality – modifying our self and its discernable patterns of perception, emotion, and cognition. If you would like a specific example of this phenomenon, search for information on the natural experiment in brain and personality alteration that is the case of “Phineas Cage.”
Though some might like to see our brains and the selves they engender as reasonably blank and readily influenced (as “silly putty” as Pinker suggests in a wry moment), and thus in need of considerable programming to ensure sociability or optimality, a number of objective facts suggest otherwise:
- Telling complexity – the human brain is enormously complex and highly organized, with many specialized areas providing quite specific functional capabilities – including perception of subtle social cues, moral feeling and empathetic intuition, and logical and other forms of reasoning – to a degree that is far beyond what would be needed if the brain’s primary role was restricted to processing environmental learning.
- Vast scale & scope– the innate circuitry of the human brain is not just complex but staggeringly intricate as well, with an astonishing three dimensional architecture comprised of over three billion chemical bases in our genes, and containing roughly one hundred billion neurons making one hundred trillion connections with one another.
- Systematic & highly evolved– while complex, our human brain is also highly systematic and an extension and evolution of the smaller brains of simpler animals, each sharing a common cognitive approach that emphasizes information gathering, calculation, and cognitive feedback (as Pinker points out, three pillars of the new “computational theory of mind” that explains the workings of the self far better than proposals of blankness and also implies a reasonably strong innate structure in our brains).
- Physical variations matter– extensive experimentation has confirmed that differently shaped or weighted brains operate differently and result in “differently shaped” selves – with varying individual personalities, and patterns of thinking and feeling – just as genetic variations influence our brain structure and produce variations in our attitudes and behaviors.
- Newborns are not blank– science has now documented clear basic natural functioning of the brain before and after birth, independent of our circumstances, and a common developmental progression in all healthy children across all cultures. As suggested before, extensive cross-cultural surveys show that at least fifty percent of personality traits of identical twins are shared, regardless of whether the twins are raised together or apart. This provides a strong indication of the minimum extent of our innate biological nature, especially when we consider that at least some of the remaining half of personality is attributable to natural variations in either gene expression or brain development during fetal gestation, sources of individual personality that are essentially independent of environment.
- Cultures are similar– though we may romanticize about cultures other than our own or of the past, new cultural data and new studies of old data suggest that cultures are more similar than previously thought or assumed, differing primarily in level of technology and political development, suggesting a strong innateness to human life and character. Pinker summarizes research showing that all cultures share important critical features and people in them make use of similar evolved human capacities essential to social equanimity: 1) knowledge gathering and sharing in remarkably specific areas, 2) ability to read the goals and intents of others and to learn from them, 3) capacities to ensure reciprocity and identify social dereliction, and 4) methods to ensure transparency and resolve conflict. Scientists studying human nature increasingly hold the view that cultures are more similar than dissimilar, and that cultural variations are readily explained and rightly seen as a singular, culture-forming human nature placed in varying settings. Indeed, the rapid formation of culture and familiar human order in natural experiments involving sudden new groupings of diverse sets of people, without time or opportunity for significant conditioning, provide compelling support for this view.
- Languages are similar – our human capacity for language, Pinker’s professional specialty, offers another revealing window into our natural character, and suggests a common and quite significant innate circuitry in this critical component of our human brains. After all, all human languages utilize the same parts of the brain and engender similar brain activity, and all languages reduce to a very small number of common patterns of thought (a far smaller number of patterns than one would expect if language was primarily a cultural artifact or conditioned process).
I should close this part of our discussion by adding that Pinker mentions more formal objections to these emerging scientific findings and their generally “innatist” direction, coming from within the scientific community itself, or by educated people using the facts of science to argue for a weaker view of our human nature. Pinker explains and addresses three principal scientifically-oriented objections in wide, but gradually shrinking, circulation today.
One objection to the idea of a natural slate is that we do not have enough genes to create the functioning human mind (“mind” here meaning the operating self, as opposed simply to the physical structure of the brain). Proponents of this view often point to the fact that we have only about double the number of genes as much simpler animals, and reason that this is not enough encoded information to create our human nature. People who raise this objection normally do not specify what number of genes would be needed to create the human mind, and of course implicitly assume that genes are additive and not multiplicative (that they work more like 50+50=100 than 50×50=2500).
A second objection from within or around the scientific community is the hypothesis that the adult human brain can be explained as a conditioned “neural network” (as an interlinked and self-connecting organic database) requiring only limited innate circuitry (especially, the ability to make probabilistic connections between data objects). Pinker points out how this objection overlooks the fact that extensive experimentation with computer-based learning networks has failed to generate artificial intelligence of sufficient complexity and precision to mimic human or animal brain functioning. In all cases, learning networks must be augmented by specific capabilities to resolve ambiguity, categorize objects, and compute implicit relationships – precisely the functional areas of our brain now posited as innate by scientists.
The third objection suggests that our human brain is quite plastic at the neurological level, even if it is more fixed anatomically and physiologically. This line of reasoning often calls attention to stroke victims and others with damaged brains or senses that have learned to “re-wire” their brains to work around their disability and function more normally. Pinker suggests that a closer analysis of these cases leads to a more limited and cautious view of plasticity, and that the replacement functioning often suffers from shortcomings that are predicted by scientific findings and theories of natural brain specialization. He suggests that we good cause to see the brain as more fixed than malleable, with even simple autonomic processes we may take for granted requiring complex innate circuitry and highly evolved biological functioning (for example, separating objects from a field or differentiating colors).
Evolution and our Nature
If we have intricate, complex, and relatively specialized brains, ones subject to consistent patterns of development and expressing recurring human behaviors across cultures, and substantial empirical data to suspect we are evolved with a reasonably strong basic nature (much like other animals), what are the implications for us today?
What can modern cognitive science, neuroscience, genetics, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology tell us about ourselves and our human condition that we don’t know already? What errors do they point to in either traditional or modern conceptions of our nature? And how, especially, can these disciplines help us to live more happily and adaptively today, and avoid repeating the mistakes of our past or making entirely new ones in the future?
There is little doubt for many that enduring answers to these critical questions lie in science’s ability to more deeply understand our place in the world and to elaborate a general theory of human flourishing. I think it is fair to say that for most scientists, Pinker included, such a theory must include and may even be founded on evolutionary theory. This implies an uncovering of essential evolutionary principles related to all social animals like human beings, and then production of a general theory of our human nature and human potentials based on this natural foundation. Since I don’t know the extent of your knowledge of the science of evolutionary dynamics, let me lay out a few important ideas, and then turn to the principal findings that Pinker summarizes for us, spanning the new fields I mentioned investigating our natural slate.
Likely, you know already that evolution implies a “survival of the fittest.” In Charles Darwin’s time, this phrase grew out of a recognition that the attributes of individual members of a plant or animal species naturally vary randomly to some degree. Darwin’s insight was that sometimes the changes provide survival and reproductive advantages to the individual plant or animal that possesses them, encouraging the variation to spread in the species (i.e. by “natural selection”). Sometimes, random natural variability has no effect on survival and reproduction rates, causing the attribute to potentially linger or drift in the species. But often, significant attribute variations have negative effects on survival and reproduction, and thereby naturally curtail their own transmission within a species.
Today, this is still the basic view of the evolutionary processes that underlie all life, except that we now know that attribute variation is based primarily on genetic variation (genes were discovered after Darwin’s time) and that evolution is principally a process of genetic variation and selection. I make this statement, even as scientists now theorize that cultural attributes and learning are subject to a similar potential natural variation and environmental selection through social and cognitive dynamics (and thus can be reinforced without genetic encoding). An example of this is driving on the right or left side of a roadway – such practices random and arbitrary, and are reinforced without genetic changes, simply because variation from cultural norms proves either too difficult cognitively or too dangerous in practical terms.
Natural evolution itself is a long, vast, and continual process of usually small random variations in each new individual of each species, some helpful but most not, in the acid test that is the challenge of survival and reproduction in nature. This slow and intricate process occurs over remarkably large periods of time, in timeframes that test our natural human intuition (and that thus suggest innate qualities of our intuition). For perspective, watching paint peel is a far more dynamic and action-packed drama than observing biological evolution, with paint peeling on the order of 10,000,000 times more rapidly than the historical evolution of single-cell bacteria into modern humans.
But since there is nearly endless time in the life of a middling star like our sun and any life-enabling planets it may harbor, even the inhumanly slow and random walk of natural evolution can lead to vast and compounding states of change and development, producing life-forms and interdependent ecosystems of remarkable variety and complexity. If you would like another intuitive analogy to get a better sense of the potential for small compounding changes to create vast works of biology over long stretches of time, imagine putting one cent in a bank and leaving it there for, say, a billion years, to grow at a modest interest rate and (perhaps unrealistically) assuming no bank charges. Can you guess the result? I’ll give you a hint: my popular spreadsheet program could not manage the number.
With this short description of the inner workings of evolution in mind, we can surmise next that our genes and evolution itself are blind actors on the stage of nature. Genes and nature broadly are unintelligent, unemotional, and amoral (meaning not moral, rather than immoral), just like our insensible cent deposited in a primordial bank vault. Simply because of the character of natural chemistry in our universe and the force of physical complexity, our genes are inherently subject to randomness and variation. They don’t “mean” to vary – they just do, naturally, much in the way that throws of dice just vary. Genes can neither steer nor judge themselves anymore than our small coin can in a bank vault. Living entities can become more “red in tooth and claw,” to quote Tennyson, or more loving and nurturing, in the spirit of Rogers, if these attributes are naturally selected – if the attributes are reproduced more quickly in a particular species or in nature more broadly relative to converse attributes.
In spite of evolved life’s potential for blind baseness, scientists now theorize that as the natural world (or any evolving system) becomes more highly evolved, it naturally begins to favor or be internally biased toward strategies of greater cooperation or reciprocity, even as this course is again a blind phenomenon of random variation and natural selection. This phenomenon is driven by the fact that, after many rounds of reproduction and selection, many or most of the system’s more competitive (and less organized and objectively efficient) positions become “taken” and dominated by established players or species, who are then naturally-selected to specialize to hold these positions quite effectively.
Newer players in the progress of evolution thus must adopt new and often more inventive strategies if they are to displace established players and extract resources from the fabric of the existing ecosystem in large measure. This natural fact of life is a truth of all evolving systems and can be seen at work in the seemingly diverse cases of newcomers seeking to displace large eagles from commanding roosts, finding sunlight in a valley of redwoods, adopting new words for novel life experiences, or unseating a dominant software company.
In a way that is not yet appreciated by many people, simple natural selection thus trends not just toward organic complexity, but to higher states of ecological cooperation and social organization as well. But if the production of genes that enable cooperation (movement to greater complexity, efficiency, and self-organization) is a natural evolutionary trend, it is not a sign of wisdom or intelligent design in nature. Instead, this development is rooted in the nature of complexity itself and the opportunities that naturally emerge and persist for more complex and harmonious forms of order, once simpler (and collectively less efficient) species and ecological structures are widespread in an evolving system. Importantly, I might add that this natural tendency applies both to systems in wild nature and to our society, and that the rise of more efficient, cooperative, and adaptive social structures should be the true meaning of the phrase “Social Darwinism”
On this point, I would also add that people today often believe or fear that to understand nature and life in this new way, as an evolving but undirected system, is to rob it of its majesty and full scope. Many believe that a blindly evolved nature is inevitably smaller and less inspiring than a consciously created one. While this may be personally true for some people, I would point out that many of our most insightful scientists are also quite spiritual in their outlook, and that our evolving universe can be seen as awe-inspiring in its vast scope, breathtaking in remarkable scale, and mysterious and even demanding our reverence and humility at bottom. These facts encourage us to see the remaining and even increasing wonder contained in this new scientific understanding of nature, and suggests that newer secular and older sacred views of the world are reconcilable or synthesizable into a new whole. My own personal experience is that these two views involve different capacities of our brains, and that we can and even must toggle between them to craft a complete and fully human view of nature and our place in it.
Between the extremes of baseness and harmony, natural evolution and our chemical genes work in extraordinary ways, producing a counterintuitive richness of processes and outcomes. The specific actions of genes and the practical basis of evolution are more easily visualized, even as they result in astonishingly complexity, in the case of plants. Through the random and sightless genetic variations we have discussed, amidst the added sightlessness that is the fate of a plant, an individual plant seed might be created, for example, that leads to leaves that are slightly larger or darker or more acrid than its neighbors of the same species.
This “mutated” plant will then make what seeds it can through sexual reproduction, with its new mutation in tow for better or worse. Its life course will naturally promote its variation in its ecosystem, and perhaps offer still newer variations in the genes of its seeds. Ultimately, all such changed seeds will be either more, equally, or less successful in nature, and the gene pool of the species will be biased in the direction of this individual’s mutated genes, or not.
Animal reproduction works in similar, if more complex, ways. But before considering animal and human evolution, it is important to point out that even in the seemingly simple and senseless case of plant evolution, we can expect and do see clear natural strategies emerge from random genetic variation and the implicit competition of plant genes that results in the environment. In addition to the more straightforward tactics of enhanced species size, robustness, and growth rates, plant genes in fact naturally evolve to follow at least five evolutionary strategies:
1. Parasitism – relying on another plant to aid reproduction, as in the case of vines
2. Pre-emption – the rapid blocking of sunlight or alteration of soil conditions to keep away other plants, as in the case of many species of trees
3. Cooperation – as when stands of a plant species block incursions of other species or when multiple plant species alter a local climate for their shared benefit
4. Synergism – when plants rely on one another or occupy complementary niches to ensure conditions favorable to them, as in the case of forest stratification
5. Condition-dependent behaviors – frequently seen in variable climates and terrains, when plants take different forms, for example, in rainy or dry conditions or at different altitudes
Again, all these seemingly thoughtful attributes and behaviors can be fully explained as the result of randomly evolved, naturally or blindly selected, and genetically encoded attributes of the plants involved. Together, these actions of plants, acting without brains or senses, provide important insights into the natural potentials contained in all evolved forms, and initial guidance for the range of human attitudes and behaviors we might expect to find in our midst today.
Let’s now move from the more straightforward evolutionary dynamics of plants to that of animals and humans. Once evolution creates animals – with their senses and brains, and fins and feet – genetic selection and natural exploration of these same species strategies gets a bit more complicated, especially if the animal lives socially among its own kind during all or most of its life as humans do. With animals, and especially with strongly social animals, the genes and resulting attributes that are selected through reproduction, though still blind and senseless themselves, are often at work in a much more complex environment and subject to far more varied selection pressures and reproductive opportunities.
In the case of natural selection involving animals, including complex social animals like humans, the wind and rain are still present and the climate still changes, and animal offspring are subject to many of the same essential perils of nature as plants. But now, in order for animal genes to be replicated, they must contend with other evolutionary constraints. In addition ensuring genes that cause pollination and seed scattering, animal genes and attributes will be favored that help individuals to get food and protect them from aggression, and that often keenly sensing and at least slightly discerning mates will find attractive. Eventually, for the reasons we have discussed, animal genes will be further selected that reliably foster the success and harmony of cooperative social groups, circularly resulting in attributes that the individual and group will naturally evolve to hold in high esteem.
Given these considerations, we should expect and do in fact find through scientific inquiry that many of the evolutionary strategies employed by plants mentioned above also occur in animal species. We of course find that the evolutionary variables in animals contributing to these strategies are more numerous, and that the strategies themselves are more nuanced. Instead of adding to the complexity of our discussion, however, I would like to simplify it, and prepare you to consider the important implications of evolutionary theory for a nature-based outlook on human life and our human nature.
Across all animal species, the genetic and behavioral strategies we have discussed, plus variations and others we might include, can be reduced productively to the idea that animals act with regard to our own species in one or more of three essential ways: 1) socially or cooperatively, 2) opportunistically or competitively, and 3) anti-socially or parasitically. Through science, we can see each of these intra-species strategies or approaches throughout the natural world, with examples from many species. We also can see these strategies in our human condition, today and in our history and across cultures.
As animal and human behavior is studied, we further observe that social animals, and humans specifically, are usually specially adapted or equipped by evolution to carry out one or more of the strategies within the distinctive setting that is their social environment. For example, animals adopting anti-social behaviors make use of action patterns evolved to maximize stealth and prevent detection. Animals acting cooperatively, on the other hand, are evolved to do so visibly, to enhance status and encourage reciprocity. Thus, in examining the expression of these three strategies, we find that context and situational forces often mater a great deal. In particular, the specific factors of transparency, equality, and reciprocity often determine the timing and general dominance of the behaviors within a social species.
Through the force of natural selection – the environmental testing of blind, randomly-varying, and opportunistically self-reinforcing genes – individual members of animal species are gradually constructed to act in one or more of these general ways within its own species. Perhaps surprisingly, animals generally can even be expected (absent self-understanding) to unconsciously favor one of the three social behaviors over the other two, in proportion to the likelihood that the behavior has led to the advancement of its species genes over the course of its recent evolutionary history.
To summarize this part of our discussion, these three natural modes of social conduct can be restated as the following potential modes of intra-species behavior:
- Cooperate and foster the species – acting in either absolute or reciprocal altruism, in ways that seek to advance one’s own genes and the gene’s of others
- Compete within the species in a bounded way – behaving in ways that are more self-focused and often less than optimal collectively, but not to such an extent that species advancement would be curtailed if the conduct became a species norm
- Exploit weak points in the species – operating in relatively unbounded ways that accomplish individual reproduction, but that are functional only if the behavior is an exception to the dominant species pattern
As suggested, the overall behavioral category that will dominate in a social species like our own depends on both nature and nurture. In current and still quite early studies of human behavior and associated genetics, as an example, there is some data to suggest that an individual’s genes matter to some degree in determining dominant personal behavior within these aggregate categories. These findings point to an innate bias in at least some of us to naturally favor one of these general strategies over the other two.
But a larger set of emerging data suggests that, at least with humans, context and situational forces may matter much more than our individual genes and their innate preferences in determining our human attitudes and behaviors at this scale – especially the key environmental factors I introduced: 1) transparency, 2) equality, and 3) reciprocity. In principle, this is because we are generally evolved to seek social standing and esteem, as an aid to reliable genetic transfer, and will not readily jeopardize these forms of long-term “social capital” in the face of immediate and genetically more dubious opportunities to satisfy our primal instincts.
Looking past smaller idiosyncrasies and individual predilections attributable to our genes, ongoing research suggests that while some of us may be genetically biased to be generally more angelic or devilish, most of us seem innately inclined toward bounded competition in our general conduct. This finding explains why, except in extreme genetic portfolios (for example, the small percentage of people with apparently strong innate sociopathic tendencies), we are most likely to behave in relation to our social setting, and the intentional or unintentional framing and incentives it matches up against our waiting natural opportunism.
For this reason, special care with our social systems and settings is strongly suggested by evolutionary theory, rather than the popular misconception of a lassie-faire approach. Only with special care, or the most fortunate vagaries of chance, can people be encouraged toward and expected to reliably act in the cooperative and most beneficial end of our natural behavioral range.
Such concern with our social fabric requires a thorough and advancing understanding of our evolved human nature, but offers in return the potential for higher order, more harmonious, and more adaptive modes of life for us all. It is admittedly an idea that creates as many questions as answers for people today, but it is also one that is not without historical antecedents – since the promotion of social transparency, equality, and reciprocity is the heart and power of modern democratic political systems.
This revolutionary and pre-Darwinian model of governance saw the need and potential to steer our variable behavior in more favorable directions, and has now proven but hardly exhausted this important idea in practice.
I hope this brief summary of contemporary evolutionary science proves helpful to you in better appreciating our evolutionary inheritance, the underlying mechanisms and potentials contained in our human nature, and the important implications a natural understanding of our species has for the mastery of individual and collective life.
Let’s now turn to consider our evolutionary endowment as it appears in and is influenced by human society and culture today, and the newer, science and evolutionary-based understanding of modern human life, culture, and social institutions they increasingly suggest is needed.
Implications of the Natural Slate
Though controversial and engendering fear in many people today, I suspect that we will eventually feel gratitude for the work of Pinker and the other scientists I mentioned earlier in our discussion. They, and many others, are endeavoring to unravel critical questions about nature and evolution, and its many implications for understanding our natural character and promoting the advancement of human life. As I write this, however, these scientists often must perform their work courageously, amidst suspicion and strident criticism from society and even members of the academy.
Given my area of focus, this work is especially important for me, since it can be expected to surface important new opportunities for healthier, more compelling, and more sustainable human life, and for improved management of both the natural and human systems around us. There is now a rich and growing body of findings concerning our innate nature emerging in our time, which Pinker admirably summarizes and then demonstrates how it has begun to form a new and much richer conception of our highly-evolved, highly-social, and reliably-variable human nature.
Though still a new area of science, the evolutionary-based inquiry into our human nature has three important and essential trends already: 1) bringing forward and re-articulating a number of perennial ideas from the humanities, 2) demonstrating quite specifically how other ideas about our nature are incorrect and can be expected to lead to less than optimal social policies and human conditions, and 3) elevating the central importance of inquiry and expanded human awareness in the task of mastering and advancing human life at all levels.
If you would like to learn about emerging findings in the science of our evolved human nature, and are willing to keep an open mind amidst what might be at first highly counterintuitive ways of thinking, consider some of the key ideas Pinker proposes are now becoming firmly established in our time:
1. Humans have natural perceptual, emotional, and cognitive biases – most of us are familiar with simple optical illusions – for example, the fact that a cluster of concentric circles appears to move or shimmer when we gaze at it. But we often fail to realize the tip of a larger iceberg that these small self-deceptions constitute for us (just as we will generally underestimate the size of the submerged part of a real iceberg). Such simple perceptual predispositions are part of a quite large set of innate biases in our human brain and innate nature that scientists have begun to catalog and consider. This larger set of natural biases includes not just perceptual idiosyncrasies like optical illusions, but the following as well: a) a tendency to attend to the near-term over the long-term and the familiar over the unfamiliar (even in cases when we know this is to our disadvantage), b) our inclination to rationalize or moralize actions and beliefs that we favor (even to the point of misleading ourselves), c) our predisposition to select facts that support our beliefs and choices, and d) our penchant to frame problems and issues in ways that are intuitive and cognitively resonant to us. This last bias is especially important and points to the reason why we struggle with writing, higher mathematics, complex science, and modern moral ambiguity – all are areas where we have no natural intuition and must rely on analogy to aid comprehension. This natural bias and window on our innate intuition explains why math problems are easier to solve when reframed as situational dilemmas, and why complex political issues are so often reduced to black and white moral choices in practice. Our most obvious natural biases become more apparent when we are made aware of them and learn to look for them in our lives, but research suggests that other biases are harder to see and counter, with important implications for the quality of our lives and society. Pinker discusses a number of natural emotional or moral biases that may be quite hard to perceive and control in our life experience, suggesting a need for social systems to mitigate them and create more optimal life. These natural biases include: a) our tendency to see people of higher status as more pure and moral (and to show undue deference to them), b) our propensity to associate impurity and immorality in people of lower status or from outside our social groups, c) our inclination to seek esteem through higher status and to associate this pursuit with moral progress (even when we commit immoral acts to attain status and as we may live banally amidst higher status), and d) our related and often highly unconscious predisposition to see ourselves as right and righteous (and our opponents as wrong and manipulative). There is little reason to doubt that these biases once had survival advantages for our blind genes on the plains of Africa, but they are telling quirks of our nature that now demand attention in our individual lives and social policies, in today’s complex society and if we are to rise above them. A final and perhaps most curious natural bias that science has discovered is our tendency toward active self-deception. Since there was often higher reproductive value in earnestness rather than correctness in nature, just as there still is today given our natural emotions and sexuality, genuinely but incorrectly believing we are committed to relationships and enterprises when our conduct does not objectively bear this out appears to be a natural human trait. Though the overall subject of our innate biases is an awkward topic, such persistent biases and even our tendency toward self-deception are important features of our inherited nature. Such foibles are often easier to see in others than ourselves, but they ones we must we must work against (and live with humbly amidst) in our quest for higher individual and societal quality of life.
2. Humans have an innate capacity for violence and self-righteous aggression – a first and quite important learning about our evolved human nature is our innate capacity for violence and even extreme brutality, especially when strong emotions of rightness or impurity are invoked (whether following retribution by others, public humiliation, or the shame of a blemished conscience) or in conditions where there are low costs to violent actions. This aspect of our natural slate may seem obvious to some of us, but it is important to point out that many people today believe human violence and anti-social behaviors are largely or wholly conditioned by society and were not present in our original state in nature. This is the pervasive myth of the “noble savage,” a romantic belief that has gathered increasing strength since the 1700s, but an idea that is entirely undercut by the facts of our archeological record – including the fossilized remains of murdered individuals and extensive findings of human weaponry (useless for hunting) dating back tens of thousands of years. Though this idea is abhorrent to many of us, for reasons we will discuss in the next section, it is actually uncomplicated from an evolutionary perspective to understand why violence, within our species and leaving aside hunting, would be a central part of our human condition and find a place in our genetics and innate nature. As we have discussed, natural social life and reproduction favor cooperation or at least bounded competition within human social groups. But this first condition affords opportunities for genes that lead at least some individuals to take advantage of others situationally and quite harshly, both in and out of our natural social circles. We thus should expect the evolution of genes aiding the detection and outing of cheaters (non-reciprocators and strong competitors), as well as the prospect of three major categories of innate violent tendencies. One category is our potential for proactive violence for group advantage against other groups, which seems widespread by many measures of our behavior toward human groups other than our own. A second expected capacity for violence involves facilitating personal gain within one’s group, with genes for this form of violence likely naturally limited in scope as we have discussed (since they cannot dominate or exist unchecked in our human gene pool without reducing group reproduction). The third expected category of violence-promoting genes of course comes from the fact of the first two, and involves genes that foster wariness of strangers and/or the promise of virulent retaliatory violence, simply to increase the cost and reduce the threat of violence in the first place. This third set of violence-promoting genes, unlike the second, can and probably must become naturally widespread to ensure species reproduction (especially in our original state of small migrating bands living in lawless conditions). All of these natural influences on our genetic composition are now theorized to have resulted in the strong moral emotions and aggressiveness toward disrespect and aggression that most of us feel, emotions which promote group cohesiveness and social order in nature (and the reproduction of genes), but can lead to less than ideal outcomes in complex modern society. Examples of the disadvantages of innate suspicion of others and highly moralized aggression, which is the typical narrative underlying violence in popular fiction and fact, include: a) circular and self-perpetuating patterns of violent retribution, whether feuding families or warring clans, b) a natural aversion to unfamiliar people and our casting them as impure, immoral, and threatening, c) our use of natural emotions to moralize self-serving brutality and violence, d) an innate tendency to exclude others and decline objectively beneficial new relationships, even in conditions of peace and reliable safety.
3. Humans have an innate capacity for benevolence and cooperative behavior – a parallel and equally important lesson about our human nature is our innate capacity for acts of kindness and extreme selflessness, especially when strong emotions of love and devotion are invoked or there are high benefits to our actions (whether reciprocity by others, social esteem, or the pride of an elevated conscience). Just as genes for strong social or moral emotions exist in us to encourage aggressive natural responses to violence and anti-social behavior against us and our group (emotions that help to prevent such behavior in nature, even as they can lapse into loops of self-perpetuating antipathy and violence), we are also evolved with genes that lead us to have similarly potent natural affections and feelings of intimacy when cooperating with others within our circles of reciprocity. These concentric zones of rapidly increasing emotional strength are also called “moral circles.” They are often limited to reciprocating members of our family, band, and clan, but can extend with new perspective to include all people and even members of other species and life generally (as we see poignantly in the strong moral feelings and concern that underlies the animal rights and environmentalist movements). These strong positive emotions toward others within our circle are a complement and stark contrast to the more violent and vigilant natural capacities within us, and can be equally useful to natural social cohesion and cooperative human life (our optimal state and the most pervasive pattern of behavior today, despite a modern ethos that naively elevates and celebrates our natural competitive behaviors and may counter desirable social cohesion). But like the genes that enable our more watchful and aggressive capacities, those that promote social cooperation and interpersonal affection have shortcomings too, ones also require new awareness for optimal life today. Our natural social affections can be quite limited if uncultivated and of we live in small or isolated social groups, or in groups subject to conditions of significant stress, In both cases, the result is tribalism of one form or another, reinforcing moral circles and social bonds that are overly narrow and suboptimal, and reducing naturally beneficial pro-social human behavior in modern society. Because of their often steeply graded quality, our natural social affections can also leave us indifferent to the suffering of people outside our group, or to human and animal suffering that we do not directly experience (if our natural moral and intimate feelings are not invoked). These natural situational disaffections toward others can also help us to moralize and tolerate inadequate investments in society, public goods, and even the future.
4. Humans are malleable by nurture, but only to a point – as you might have surmised already, the three previous ideas begin to frame both the innate opportunities and natural constraints involved in influencing human attitudes and behaviors in society, its communities and groups, and our own lives. If we are naturally evolved and endowed with strong innate biases, and strong social and moral emotions – ones that work to encourage constructive reciprocity and forestall cheating and aggression – we can see that any progressive movement to optimize our attitudes, behaviors, and social conditions must account for, make use of, or skillfully circumvent these and other natural cognitive and perceptual biases. Pinker proposes that attempts to help people behave more universally and beneficially toward one another must specifically involve at least four distinct efforts: a) implant costs and benefits around progressive goals to naturally promote them at the individual level, b) ensure transparency of both desirable and undesirable behavior to reduce gaps between intended and actual behavior and foster social accountability, c) expand moral circles and invoke conscience through increased social interaction and visibility, and d) raise general awareness of universal ethical principles and engender commitment to more principled life through education and nurturing You will note that I have used the conjoiner “and” here, and not “or.” This reflects research suggesting that, as individuals, we have naturally varying and varying intensities of moral emotions and multiple strategies are thus needed to drive progressive change across society and individuals (we must use both carrots and sticks). At the same time, it is important to add that schemes which appeal only to principles or emotions without imposing consequences and promoting transparency, or that do not prevent inequity and injustice in society, or that excessively impinge on natural individual freedoms are all bound to invoke strong negative feelings and encourage social disengagement and regressive rather than progressive develops. We saw telling examples of this waiting human dynamic in widespread natural experiments involving both totalitarian Marxism and lassez-faire Capitalism in the twentieth century.
5. There are natural differences in attitudes and aptitudes between people – as suggested already, people have differences in their genes and their resulting bodies and brains, and these lead to innate or natural differences between people in attitudes and aptitudes. It has been established scientifically, for example, that differently constituted brains are associated with differing personalities and individual tendencies (as examples, tolerance of risk and varying cognitive and perceptual abilities). This link between our genes and brains is complex, however, since identical genes can produce different brain predispositions via natural randomness in fetal development, and because similar inherited genes can be dominant or recessive in any individual. It is well-documented that some attributes are gene-driven and highly heritable, such as musical talent and mathematical ability, but there is also a great deal of randomness in our differences and the “bell curve” of any family’s or ethnicity’s dominating traits is likely to significantly overlap with all others. Our innate differences are thus sometimes significant at an individual level but less so at the level of groups. Because of this, Pinker takes pains to point out that no finding in genetic science in any way suggests that inequality of rights and opportunities is naturally justified – indeed, without a commitment to equality of opportunity as a society, we risk fostering injustice in eyes of many (treating others as we would not want to be treated and thus contrary to principled life), leading to strong negative moral emotions and their tendency to undermine society over time. The implication of the emerging science of our innate differences is instead that we must allow all comers to pursue their natural talents and opportunities in society, knowing that some will be more facile in different vocations than others and that great facility in certain vocations will be disproportionately rewarded by society. This last fact then requires a curbing of greatly unequal rewards in the interests of the social cohesion that is a precondition to all progression of talent and that makes great rewards possible in the first place. In this way, society delivers justice to the talented, to those that luckily benefit directly from talent, and to those that do not have special talent or reap its immediate benefits.
6. There is a natural human morality and clear moral imperatives – our discussion has already touched on the idea that a functional set of moral standards and enabling natural emotions can be reliably expected to evolve in social animals like humans, and that they can be especially strong where a species has evolved extensive child-rearing investments and high levels of cooperation for sustenance and defense from threats (whether from other species or other groups of its own species). Pinker highlights that evolutionary theorists postulate and scientists now find compelling cross-cultural evidence for four categories of natural moral emotions in humans, all essential to preserving “reciprocal altruism” and their enabling genes: a) condemnation of anti-social behavior, b) elevation of pro-social behaviors and encouragement of magnanimity, c) empathy for the circumstances of others, and d) self-conscious feelings of moral correctness and failure. These natural human emotions combine in our evolved social state to form three natural moral spheres – i) those we engage morally and reciprocally, ii) those we treat amorally and instrumentally, and iii) those we treat as immoral and threatening. When I call the three spheres natural, this suggests that the categories are universal and unchanging, even as there is of course permeability and people and things may move between them based on circumstance and cognitive framing. These ideas of course run entirely contrary to at least a century of increasing movement toward moral and cultural “relativism,” the idea that human morals and standards in any time or place are arbitrary and changeable. Though some values and ideals in any group or setting no doubt are less than universal, this line of reasoning is sometimes used to delegitimize functioning societies and legitimize utopian schemes (for example, in the case of Maoist thinking) or to rationalize individual conduct that would undermine society if it became widespread (such as the use of narcotics, a behavior which presupposes a largely drug-free and working society). In place of this relativistic thinking, the new science of our nature points to a new “moral realism” that sees many human social standards as innate and essential to the healthy functioning of human and even primate society. In its full expression, this new empirically-grounded realism also brings a new appreciation of how moral and social systems can lose their way and naturally degrade as well. This includes understanding how our natural human morality can become adorned with superfluous and even detrimental content though cultural evolution. It also includes recognition of our earlier discussion of the ways our natural moral sense can exclude others and lead to violence and suboptimal conditions – via unchecked moral prejudices, uncultivated and overly narrow moral circles, or a failure to understand and attend to the universal principles embedded in our moral sentiments, principles essential for fairness and the sustainable functioning of society.
7. Our natural differences extend to moral emotions and strength of conscience – while on the subject of our natural moral emotions and resulting imperatives for social order and progress, it is worth considering intuitive suspicions and now scientific findings that moral feeling or conscience is not evenly distributed among people, even after accounting for cultural and situational differences in people’s lives (including the relative lawfulness and fairness of one’s society). To better understand the reasons for this evolved natural phenomenon of varying individual morality, we need only consider what intensities, distributions, and patterns of moral emotions would foster human reproductive success and the transmission of their enabling genes in both wild nature and settled society. The short answer is the generally cooperative, moderately opportunistic, and socially scrupulous emotions that dominate our nature and its cross-cultural expression, which we have discussed already and are readily observed around us. But if we consider a succession of many thousands of generations of “generally cooperative, modestly opportunistic, and socially scrupulous” people living in differing natural and social situations over time, we can see that genes favoring other moral and emotional stances might find their way into our gene pool. One alternative is the case of genes that result in extremely principled and moral people. Some of us seem to have this as an innate predisposition and many an ability to become this way with cultivation. While this does seem an easier outcome for some and may even be an evolutionary handicap in many settings (since such people may fail to protect their interests or otherwise reproduce as prodigiously as they might), it can be shown that highly moral personalities and lifestyles are likely to be a successful human strategy in many settings and thus can be expected to be a reliable and reasonably broad genetic variation. At the other extreme, a naturally limited moral strategy (a “frequency dependent” strategy that can be an exception but not the rule for a group) involves selection of genes that result in a minimal or absent moral sense. In this case, people are born without genes associated with a robust natural conscience, predisposing them to live highly opportunistically and even antisocially (again, often depending on situational variables and incentives). Social animals with low conscience are thereby inclined to live to a greater or lesser degree as parasites within their society – reproducing by taking advantage of a dominant condition of goodwill and the resulting social vulnerabilities this condition presents, or by having high utility to society during times of aggression from other groups or species. Still, the extent of this genetic strategy is naturally constrained, since too great a number of people exercising it (and genes encouraging it) would lead to social degradation and lower overall reproduction (lower inclusive fitness). The idea that natural human reproduction in generally cooperative settings can be expected to produce some number of morally deficient people may seem incredulous, but studies of this hypothesis have largely confirmed the theoretically-expected result and have done so cross-culturally, revealing approximately 3-4% of males to be sociopathic, either situationally (i.e. when under stress or in conditions of low costs) or absolutely (without regard to external conditions). They are, in other words, largely or wholly unconstrained by moral emotions. Based on new research, this last sub-class of people is increasingly believed to be generally immune to rehabilitation and may require permanent separation from society (whether via imprisonment or other forms of segregation), which of course raises concerns about predictive accuracy and important moral and social policy issues – especially involving decisions to segregate suspected strong sociopaths before they have significantly harmed others (for example, in cases of chronic child bullies and criminals). Finally, between these extreme genetic strategies of abundant and absent moral emotions and in an important variation on our initial archetype of the vigilant altruist, there are people who are highly moral in conditions of transparency and when the costs of excessive selfishness are high, but far less moral (even if still highly self-moralizing) and more aggressive and opportunistic (and even if such opportunism is rationalized) when situational transparency and the costs of selfishness are lower. Such a strong “dual-mode” moral strategy is of course likely to be quite successful to the genes that engender this moral nature and, as a consequence, this forms a telling portrait of how many of us operate, if not consciously then at least objectively. For example, consider how many times you “bent” the rules last week – some, but only a small number of us, can honestly say never, though just as few of us would say constantly. Thus, we see theory revealed in practice, with differing moral emotions, demonstrably via varying genetic portfolios, and four expected general ethical archetypes within any acculturating society: morals, communitarians, opportunists, and amorals.
8. There is a natural misalignment of interests between people – although we have strong natural cooperative and even conformist tendencies as humans – suggesting an innate selflessness and commonality between people that undercuts earlier ideas that evolutionary theory implied a natural amorality between people – these behaviors and all of human conduct can be shown to be highly useful to our individual genes. On balance, they result in greater levels of successful human reproduction and genetic transmission in society over time, and thus ultimately can be cast yet again as self-serving behaviors (whether we are conscious of and intend this or not). As we have discussed, the idea of an underlying primacy of genetic interests and selection forces is increasingly revealed by science to be essential to understanding living nature in general and our evolved human nature in particular. With this perspective in mind, Pinker encourages us to consider that the content of both our greatest and meanest literature is largely centered on the competing interests of people, admittedly against a backdrop of generally cooperative conditions. He points out that unending and often poignant misalignments between people are a truth of human life and not just our literature, especially when sex and reproduction are involved. Contradictory or competing personal interests are of course part of all human relationships to some degree, resulting in a natural social friction that we all well know (and often work to understand to better prevent). In seeking to better understand our natural slate, it is important to note that the episodically antagonistic aspects of human life are predicted by modern genetics and sociobiology, and can be seen as quite natural in most human settings. Differing personal interests and our propensity for conflict have been shown strongly correlated with differing genetic interests. They are part of the evolutionary framework in which we live and we must understand to master our current human conditions – evolved states that are continually shaped to possess attributes which reliably advance human genes. Genetically-serving attitudes and behaviors, in high and low forms, are thus the foundation of our human condition, the reality of life that we all experience each day, and a fact that we must make room for in any robust understanding of our human nature. Our genes are natural facts of life that we must work with or around when seeking to improve individual and communal life, and especially when seeking to rise above the suboptimal aspects of our natural genetic scripting. Of course, when scientists say that people have “selfish genes” and that we have naturally competing and misaligned interests, they do not mean that we must therefore necessarily behave selfishly and competitively in an overt or chronic way. In truth, our interests and genes are often far better served through a reciprocating and generally moral life, and through adroit and conflict-reducing interpersonal skills. What is instead meant by mention of genetic selfishness is the fact that our life-enabling genes have been selected because they are naturally opportunistic, chemically linking with other genes whenever circumstances permit. Thus, regardless of how we intend to act around others or even what sense of self-identity and beliefs we have about ourselves, important underlying feelings and often unconscious drives are at work within all our lives, natural aspects of us that have reliably reproduced humans and their genes for millennia, and even as these forces and drives naturally vary across all human populations as we have discussed. In ground-breaking work that began with Robert Trivers, scientists now can now reliably model a good portion of human behavior based on predictions of genetic interests (the objective interests of our genes, which again are organic molecules that have no subjective life or outlook of their own). Our individual attitudes and behavioral attributes can be shown to be highly correlated to our implicitly perceived chances for reproductive success (or the success of those who have very similar genes to us). This new genetically-based description of human behavior predicts and explains a number of our more antagonistic human qualities occur across all cultures: a) why people naturally value and seek status (conspicuous and often socially and environmentally damaging consumption, leisure, and waste in modern times that nevertheless once engendered behaviors that reliably advanced genes in nature), b) why magnanimity and villainy are ever-persistent in society (both advance genes in selected settings), c) why women and men have different sexual inclinations in different social settings (maximizing our reproductive and genetic potential), d) why parents and children often see the world differently (different genes and interests), e) why there is a natural bias toward sibling rivalry (different genes and interests), f) why parents lose their adolescents to their peers (maximizing genetic currency and future adult support), g) why families and non-family members have different innate emotional inclinations (varying genetic alignment), h) why we are usually accepting of others in our reciprocating groups, guarded toward those outside of these groups, and genuinely hostile to actual or perceived aggressors (genetic advancement), and i) why our personality and personal orientation is often significantly correlated with our natural attributes and relative strengths compared with others in society (maximizing our genetic potential). All of these important behavioral and perceptual attributes are predicted via an understanding of our underlying genetic interests, and help to create the natural social frictions that come from free individuals pursuing their natural imperatives and tendencies, long-evolved to help our blind genes to regenerate. This does not mean we are necessarily slaves to our genes and our innate tendencies, or are destined to live at odds with others, unless we are left or made blind to or live in denial of this essential aspect of our human condition and natural inheritance.
9. State-ensured social transparency and coercive mechanisms are necessary for human order, peace, and growth – I mentioned earlier that many of us have a tendency to let our natural “biophillia” run away with us, leading to fictional ideas and romanticism about nature and our original human state on the savannahs of Africa. I have also suggested that a more objective and balanced view of evolved nature and our evolved human nature, while perhaps less immediately pleasing and even sobering in important respects, would far better serve the goal of optimality and progressivity in our lives and society. The case for such a new and more balanced view of natural human life grows increasingly strong as natural tendencies such as our bias toward situational opportunism and the natural presence of sociopathic personalities and genes among us are confirmed by science. Though we are apt to despair of our contentious times and long for the simple freedom of a relaxed life in rustic nature, in truth the option of retiring to a peaceful and solitary life in nature is available to many of us and for the first time in history. This entirely new potential form of human life is possible only from a dramatic expansion of law and order over the last three centuries, and an accompanying decline in our historical pattern of regular violence, in both proactive and retributive forms. Modern law and order, and modern peace and freedom, are the result of the rise of the modern democratic state and our popular ascent from material hardship that came with the industrialization we so often are predisposed to lament. In our time, and for the first time, we can now walk much of the earth without fearing the rampant lawlessness that marked all earlier epochs, and the general condition of human hostility and looming violence that once prevailed everywhere. Where there is government today by a modern liberal state, and its hallmark commitment to individual rights and the rule of law, Pinker points to data suggesting that human violence is reduced approximately one hundredfold (100 times) compared with pre-state societies – and by inference, with our original human conditions in nature, where individual life apart from our band and clan was impossible, due to both human and animal predation. Industrial life with government of society by a modern state – committed to ensuring social transparency and equality before the law, and cultivating reciprocating relationships and fairness in opportunity and distributional outcomes – offers many advantages over all known alternatives. The universal rule of law and impartial, state-administered justice in fact promise to result in increasing reductions in violence and coercion, the prospect of more cooperative and enriching social life, the likelihood of longer and less stressful life amidst advancing technology and material abundance, and the potential for expanding freedom and openness throughout the world.
10. New human awareness and progressive action is possible and essential – this last proposal emerges as an important theme of our overall discussion. Given the many ideas we have covered, we are right to conclude that we are constrained but not confined, and impassioned but not imprisoned, by our innate nature and genes. As compelling evidence of this, I would turn your attention to the undeniable fact that we can consider these ideas. For me, this critical feature of our modern human nature aptly underscores that we are individually and collectively free in important and potentially life-advancing ways. Equally, I think it illuminates the general path that the science of our human nature suggests we must take to promote freer, healthier, and more progressive life, both in our time and for the future. New awareness of our received nature, our innate human tendencies and genetic imperatives, leads to new understanding of the constraints we all face and the many opportunities for improved human life that wait in understanding the natural limitations we all share. In our individual lives, this includes recognizing our underlying range of natural emotions and biases, and moving to new choices that are conscious of them and thus that are transcendent of them at times too. We may be naturally inclined to think in the present and react to our immediate feelings, or to rationalize or moralize unexamined attitudes and behaviors. But this natural state of life hardly precludes more thoughtful, conscious, forward-looking, and objectively-beneficial choices, even if they are work at first, requiring perseverance and vigilance (a natural capability of ours) and even as they are never absolute (importantly, we have the capacity to see our choices in this way). At the same time, our modern quest for new awareness and improved personal choices must include a greater understanding of the importance of social context to both our natural and acculturated human attitudes and behaviors – our range of innate and socialized responses to different contexts and conditions, and especially our natural sensitivity to the situational triad of transparency, equality, and reciprocity I introduced. Included and quite important here is our strong natural human need for justice and fairness of treatment, without which we will inevitably struggle to promote sustainable societies and compounding physical conditions of peace and prosperity. Increased awareness of our nature must also include the realization that individuals can overcome their personal natures by degrees only and such efforts always can be significantly influenced by social conditions. This idea importantly suggests that sustained human progress is circularly an individual and social endeavor – requiring new individual awareness and choices, and social action to create enabling conditions and structures that promote learning, openness, personal responsibility, and social cohesion at an individual level.
Rebuilding From the Natural Slate
To conclude our discussion of the new science of our human nature, and to encourage new health-affirming thoughts and action on your part, let me highlight a final portion of Steven Pinker’s impressive Blank Slate.
I would like to end with an important and emphasizing distinction Pinker highlights – that of Thomas Sowell’s contrast between “Tragic” and “Utopian” visions of human life. In doing this, I want not just to summarize a key theme underlying Pinker’s work and the emerging science of our nature, but equally to suggest that we have a strong human need and opportunity to move beyond this dichotomy. This movement involves turning to a third and more informed way of looking at our inherited nature and human place in the world.
In the Tragic Vision of life, humans are seen as limited in important ways by our innate nature and inevitable condition of competing personal (i.e. genetic) interests. This view of life was of course common in pre-modern religion and philosophy, and can be seen in writings from many cultures. This more fated outlook perhaps best reflects the harder and less changing nature of pre-industrial life, but appears resurgent today in the early twenty-first century, despite clear progressive change in our times, and its persistence may thus reveal an innate tendency in some or all of us. In the Tragic Vision, we are viewed as subject to a limited natural scope of life and even condemned to repeating the sins and mistakes of our past, again and again. This theme is familiar in literature too, though often as a conscious dramatic device, portending and perhaps assuming an inevitable pattern of ever rising and falling human fortune. For me, images of Greek tragedy immediately come to mind – vulnerable Achilles, bound Prometheus and soaring and plummeting Icarus – and their caution to avoid hubris and the testing of our inherited limits.
In contrast to this outlook is the Utopian Vision of human life, a view increasingly common since the European Renaissance and especially since industrialization. The Utopian Vision sees our received nature more as a starting point and our history as history only. This newer view of our human state is pervasive today and easily seen in academic and popular culture, and may even find special resonance with certain human temperaments. The Utopian Vision posits our biological nature and human prerogatives as malleable and readily improvable, and the mistakes of our past transfigurable into lessons – as mistakes that need not be repeated and that can make us truer in time. Myself, growing up in a middle-class family in 1960s North America, this was certainly the message I was given (or at least the one I received). This outlook of course is embodied in the Greek hero Hercules, who was outwardly human but embodied divine virtue and exceeded our typical state in every measure.
Those of us who hold a more Tragic Vision of the world see calls for change as fraught with danger and folly, or at least as a likely squandering of scarce time and resources that could be better used to make the most of the inevitable facts and limitations of our human predicament. The tragically-minded among us today could cite the glaring failures of Marxism and Modernism as clear cases of contemporary people paying too little attention to the past and our basic nature and circumstances as people. On the other hand, if we are more inclined to a Utopian Vision of humanity, we would counter with the real and undeniable facts of progress made in our human condition and understanding in the last several centuries, even if this progress has been hard won and more work remains.
The more utopian-minded of us see the tragic view us unduly and unjustifiably conservative, and an outlook that encourages irrational and limiting passivity – in the face of positive change in our time and our opportunity for still more positive adjustment of society and our lives. The tragically-oriented would point out that much of our recent social progress is attributable to the rise of the modern state, a framework for social organization that is based on the Tragic Vision of our nature and successful only to the extent that it checks human excesses, creates transparency, and ensures the rule “of laws and not of men.” The tragically-minded of us might also point to the potential for most of modern technology to do as much harm as good, and to the obvious persistence of human vice, narrowness, and violence amidst the seeming progress and progressiveness of our time.
Two competing and, for some, entirely compelling points of view, but can either be a wholly right and apt description of our human condition?
As I have suggested already, a way out of this dilemma, is to adopt a third view of our nature and human condition, which I will call simply a “Pragmatic Vision.” This alternative – as a newer and more complete way to view and approach our individual lives and social policies – seeks to take what is empirically-accurate in the two competing views of our nature and condition, and then to synthesize them into a truer and fuller view of our human world. This view thus implies a new progressivism too, since it seeks impartial and reliable knowledge of our human world as it has been in the past, is today, and might be tomorrow.
If this Pragmatic Vision is to be valuable, true to itself, and not faltering into its alternatives, it of course must be more fact-based than its constituent parts (using and enabling scientific and evidentiary methods) and not simply conceptual diplomacy and synthesis for synthesis’ sake. Proponents of this vision must be willing follow the findings of science wherever they lead, and also understand that our use of science has elements of human art within it and thus the potential for tragic error. If our human nature and natural history are newly and now more precisely shown to be replete with biases and limitations, with waiting cruelty and regular self-aggrandizement, and even a tendency toward self-deception, this is our starting point – but also new objective knowledge available for us to use.
If earlier civilizations and modern utopian schemes have had their failings and failures, we can know each better and probe their successful aspects too. A Pragmatic Vision that is neither Tragic nor Utopian, that is fact-seeking and not ideological, requires our commitment to understand both human achievement and decline, and how each might be used to guide new human accomplishment. Instead of succumbing to or discounting the past, we can instead know it more clearly. Instead of succumbing to or discounting the future, we can endeavor to understand how we might better move forward into it, even if we must do this cautiously, to avoid new hubris and self-deception easily seen as such from future vantages.
Between and cognizant of two dominant and competing visions – that warn of endless repetition of the past or encourage us to remake ourselves and our nature suddenly – lies the possibility of a more practical and curious vision of our natural slate and human state, still hopeful and seeking but world-wise and more patient. A Pragmatic Vision might be too slow for some, in its insistence on evidence-based and verifiable change at any point in time, but also can help others take heart that this effort can lead to remarkable changes over time – by leveraging the enormous power contained in strategies of continual and compounding change (as in the case of our small bank deposit left to gradually grow, or our scientific and industrial revolutions). Equally, as a vision based on scientific and evidentiary methods, and their essential process of testing ideas against all possible facts (and not just selected ones), it helps to ensure that when we fail we do so incrementally, publically, and instructively.
From the standpoint of a Pragmatic Vision, we might acknowledge that our human condition is limited and constrained in important ways that we are beginning to more fully understand. We might live equally with the notions that nature is both wondrous and abhorrent to us and our human sensibilities. And we might admit that the process of human progress is often more random and less precise than we might like. But if we do this, we must also remember that new progress can come suddenly and unexpectedly if essential preconditions are met. In short, this vision can and might take inspiration from modern progress, while seeking to avoid modern naiveté, impatience, and pretention.
If there is to be a corresponding Pragmatic social movement, between the existing of trends of Conservatism and Liberalism, it must acknowledge our natural and long-evolved human condition, the inevitability that we must work with and from our nature, and that this nature will likely defy us whenever we defy it. But the committed Pragmatic also must inspire us to cultivate ourselves to be larger and broader in our lives than the imperatives of our selfish genes, and help society find opportunities to benefit from more principled and less reactive life. To accomplish this, the Pragmatic must build on and improve our successful modern movement toward greater transparency, equality, and reciprocity in all realms of life. This work incorporates many of the themes we have discussed: acknowledging the essential work of balancing and aligning individual and group interests, promoting human accountability and trust, fostering new human awareness and understanding, curbing thoughtless and socially-corrosive excesses, and creating settings where people can reliably and sustainably be at the best reaches of their nature.
This Pragmatic Vision does not assume a blank and malleable slate, or an ominous and insurmountable one. Instead, it proposes that we build and re-build – continually, patiently, and hopefully – and that we use our innate human ability to learn and adapt, again and again, failing often perhaps but not always.
This new vision for human life is one lived on and intimately aware of our natural slate, but with our naturally unlimited human potential in mind, a rising upland ahead ever ahead of us.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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