The Meaning of Human Nature

“Human nature” is an ambiguous term to begin with, but when applied to politics it justifiably raises eyebrows, the historically-learned immediately recalling wildly divergent, and often heinous, uses of the idea. By itself, it is about as clarifying as “freedom.” So here I will join the term with a technical outlook specific to wildism, along with a few distinctions that should help readers grasp our theoretical literature and purge from their mind any mixed associations with less rigorous or, worse, more repugnant meanings.

Scientific Materialist Worldview

At the risk of becoming tedious to our regular readers, I must again emphasize that wildism begins with a scientific materialist worldview, since so often I carry on these discussions for some time before discovering that the core barrier between me and my opposite is a difference in our metaphysical and epistemological assumptions. For instance, it is difficult to have a clarifying discussion about human nature when you are unaware that the other person believes firmly in a supernatural spirit.

So before proceeding let’s be clear that humans are fully material creatures, without any supernatural component whatsoever. This includes mind and consciousness, both of which spring forth from the brain. Furthermore, humans are products of evolution by natural selection, primates descended from a common ancestor with all other primates, and animals descended from an even more common ancestor with all other animals. Human culture, like animal culture, is built from a biological and material base and does not come “from above” as some autonomous, non-material force. In the same vein, human behavior stems from material realities, a combination of biological and environmental factors. Note that although it is feasible that human culture is built from a combination of complex instincts—anyone familiar with non-human animal behavior knows how complex instincts can really be—data seems to support more nuanced theories, such as gene-culture coevolution, which help explain the apparent disparity between cultural and biological evolution in the human species.

With all this established, we can dispose of any accounts of human nature that rely on the existence of a supernatural realm, including frameworks that require “culture” to be a non-material thing autonomous from biology. This of course challenges Marxist, Christian, and some feminist ideologies, among others.

The Concept of Nature

And again I will remind the reader of the wildist meaning of “nature” generally. Recall from “The Foundations of Wildist Ethics” (pp. 15-17) that “nature” is meant in contrast to “artifice,” both of which are descriptive categories of things that exist in the entire material realm, called “the Cosmos.”

Broadly, “artifice” is “that which is made or controlled by humans or their technical systems” and “nature” is just the opposite, not made or controlled. This distinction is important in environmental ethics and conservation, as well as in other fields where the impact of humans and their civilizations is a primary concern. If anyone questions the validity of the division, let him observe the stark difference between a domesticated animal and a wild one, or a farmed landscape and the wilderness, or a dammed river and a free one.

Finally, remember always to distinguish between the two dominant notions of “nature.” The first equates it, as wildists do, with “the non-artificial.” But common in the physical sciences and sometimes in everyday speech, “Nature” is equivalent with “the Cosmos,” meant to be a contrast to the supernatural rather than the artificial.

The Technical Meaning of Human Nature

The meaning of “human nature” follows intuitively from the meaning of “nature”: it is the part of human beings that is not made or controlled by them. Furthermore, the “naturalness” of human beings is a spectrum as it is in nature generally, and the degree of naturalness of a human trait, quality, or behavior depends on how strongly sustained it is by artificial energy input or how fully a product it is of that input. Essentially, a measurement of naturalness is a converse measurement of domestication, wildness being the quality of primary concern.

Human Variation

“Human nature” in this sense applies to the entire species, so the focus is on human universals rather than variation. As such, the concept of “human nature” is not relevant to the quality of naturalness as it pertains to aspects unique to individuals or human populations. Currently it is not even wholly within our ability to scientifically discern individual or population-level natures, although this is quickly changing.

Human Nature Versus the Essence of Being Human

Talk of human nature is not quite the same as talk of human “essence.” The latter tends to have an air of immutability about it, that is, once you’ve violated the “essence” you can no longer be considered human. However, this concept of “essence” isn’t really viable in the context of scientific materialism. We would be better off sticking to our technical concept of the spectrum from natural to artificial and to the biological concept of the species Homo sapiens. Of course, as the transhuman vision of cyborgs and microchipped brains becomes more of a reality, it might be useful to distinguish where on the spectrum from natural to artificial a human can no longer be called a human. However, that should be recognized as a separate measurement, and one not nearly as important in the wildist framework as the quality of naturalness is.

Human Nature Versus Human Biology

“Human nature” is also not equivalent to “human biology.” Of course, any study of human nature is going to be rooted in biological concepts, since we are biological creatures. But a human being’s biology can be artificial, and large portions of the current species now have biologies that are at least partially artificial (or at least more artificial than natural). A classic example is lactose tolerance, which developed in human populations that relied on animal husbandry and faced evolutionary pressures, leaving those who had lactose tolerance alive and reproducing and decreasing the population of lactose intolerant individuals. This is not of special ethical note, but technically it is the product of artificial rather than natural pressures.

Furthermore, many aspects of human nature, particularly the behavioral part, can be explained in terms that are not strictly biological (although of course these findings shouldn’t contradict biological understandings). And these parts, like the more concretely biological parts, can be artificial as well.

“Biological,” “Natural,” and “Innate” Do Not Mean “Unchangeable”

Some people believe that “human nature” means “unchangeable.” However, neither the wildist technical sense of the term, nor any of the concepts confused with it, are unchangeable. This should be clearest in the case of wildist technical terminology, since it explicitly acknowledges that natural things can be made artificial. However, it is also true for “biological,” as was noted in the case of lactose intolerance in humans, and this is only becoming more true with biotechnics. “Innate” behavior (versus “learned” behavior) is also changeable, usually only through biological modification, but in some cases through severe conditioning as well. Also remember that both “biological” and “innate” behaviors can reside anywhere on the spectrum from natural to artificial. For instance, one can observe innate but artificial behaviors in domesticated animals, like dogs.

Response to Marxist and Leftist Criticisms

Marxist and leftist critics argue that Darwinian accounts of human nature justify the oppression of the ruling class. For example, the wage gap is in the eyes of many leftists a product of patriarchal oppression, but some evidence seems to support the idea that the wage gap is a product of several factors that have little to do with oppression, such as natural gender differences in job preference.

However, arguing that this is the case is not the same as arguing that you should feel a specific way about it. If Marxists wish to live in a world without a wage gap, the wage gap need not be a product of oppression. They can simply argue for mitigation of our biological behaviors in cases where they can’t be outright changed, and as technologies become more advanced they can, of course, change them outright.

Nevertheless, I think Marxists are right to say that ascribing the quality of “naturalness” has political power. Although wildists speak of the quality in a somewhat technical and exact sense, the actual normative ideas behind wildism are widespread. People tend to value naturalness in many aspects of their daily life, and they are skeptical when they hear that their behavior, beliefs, or biologies are being artificially modified. Even the Marxist concern with oppression is a politic that favors nature over artificial institutions that deprive humans of their expressions of that nature, although clearly the empirical evidence simply has not supported the Marxists’ specific account. But to this I say that if people are concerned with naturalness, they are best off with a proper understanding of it, and this is granted not through dogma, but through scientific investigation. If this yields unfavorable consequences, then so be it. When facts are subordinated for the sake of ethical values, you only end up being more ignorant and less ethical, and that’s clearly not desirable.

Bibliography

Alcock, J. (2003). The Triumph of Sociobiology. Oxford University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1998, August). On human nature: Noam Chomsky interviewed by Kate Soper. Red Pepper.

Chomsky, N., & Foucault, M. (2006). The Chomsky – Foucault Debate: On Human Nature. The New Press.

Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (2007). Human Ethology. Aldine Transaction.

Jacobi, J. (2016). The foundations of wildist ethics. Hunter/Gatherer, 1(1), 6-55.

Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Penguin Books.

Wilson, E. O. (1975). Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Harvard University Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1978). On Human Nature. Harvard University Press.

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