The Myth of Human Nature

Jose Ortega y Gasset, the finest 20th c. philosopher you've never heard of

Gave This A Shot on the Beliefs Forum, Doubt It Goes Anywhere -- Try It Here

 

One often reads about "human nature" or claims about humans having a nature.  For example: it is often said that people are, by nature, greedy or violent or what have you.

Further, serious ethical claims are traditionally made in the name of human nature by claiming some actions "unnatural."  On these boards and elsewhere, the common opinion is that homosexuality, for example, is "unnatural" and, thus, wrong.

Consider for a moment this proposition: Humans have no nature.  What humans have is choice, freedom within the limitations of environment and inheritance.  Or, as the philosopher Ortega y Gasset once wrote: "Humans do not have a nature.  What humans have is. . . history."

This would mean we are mainly (auto)biographical beings, not biological ones.

What evidence would we have to make such a controversial statement?

What makes a human a human is what we have in common, not with other animals (biology) but with one another (culture).  I may have a genetic inheritance closely related to all other mammals, for example, but that does not describe why I am not "just another mammal" -- a zebra or a primate or what have you.

Sure, I have similar or the same needs as other animals, but I have choice about the way I pursue these needs -- or even whether I pursue them at all, or whether I invent new needs and wants to substitute for the inherited ones (no one, biologically, needs to read or write or make art, for example; humans invented those needs and the means to pursue them). 

So, what sets humans apart from the rest of reality isn't our nature, but the very un-naturalness of our being, the very artificial, cultural, free way in which we choose to live.

If this is true, one will have to do better when discussing ethics to determine whether something is right or wrong (such as homosexuality) than simply saying it's "unnatural."  Human being is unnatural.  Or, quoting Ortega again, "It is the nature of a human to have no nature."

What do you think and why?

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Comments 21 comments

Richard VanIngram profile image

Richard VanIngram 3 years ago from San Antonio, Texas Author

Thank you again, phdast7. I have a strong background in history as well and believe one cannot sufficiently learn any subject without grasping its history -- philosophy included. I look forward to reading your essays as I have time; I will male sure to take the time.


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Good evening Richard - What do I think? I think I will be following you. I think this was an extremely well written and important hub. I think some of your work is going to be above my head as I am a historian, and a good thinker, but have very little familiarity with philosophy and philosophers. I think I am willing to wrestle with some of your work anyway. I think I am in fairly close agreement with what you delineated in your hub. I think reading the comments was an education in itself. I think you might appreciate some of my essays. I think I will be sharing this essay.


greg 3 years ago

"Of course, the nice, simple answer is we ought to be killed off or commit species-wide suicide: that'd fix the problem. Or would it? Wouldn't that just side-step the issue of what to do and avoid our responsibility of learning how to live here?" human beings already learned how to live here...some STILL know how to live here. its the western-centric ones who have lost the ability to live symbiotically.


Richard VanIngram profile image

Richard VanIngram 4 years ago from San Antonio, Texas Author

Anthony: Seems to me "Mother Nature" played some role in getting us here -- we have as much or as little right to exist as what we are (beings with choice) as anything else does. The question is: what do we choose and by what standards do we live? Certainly, we are making a wreck of the planet overall. We have only recently, in history, become aware of this fact; and the ramifications are only beginning to dawn on some of us.

Of course, the nice, simple answer is we ought to be killed off or commit species-wide suicide: that'd fix the problem. Or would it? Wouldn't that just side-step the issue of what to do and avoid our responsibility of learning how to live here?

After we were gone, evolution would continue. Given enough time, perhaps another species would develop the level of rationality, freedom, and responsibility we have now -- and the problem would re-emerge.

If we'd been allowed to hang around and possibly own up to our shortcomings, we could have solved the problems this new species of self-aware and creative animal would face -- and the threats to the planet they would, like us, inevitably cause.

Perhaps our destiny isn't to be be killed off; it's to learn to live here and do it properly and well, and voluntarily.


Anthony 4 years ago

I think the world would be better if all the humans were killed off it were always saying "make it a better place" but we only want a better place for ourselves and I can't wait till mother nature kills everyone of our asses for

Betraying her


Richard VanIngram profile image

Richard VanIngram 5 years ago from San Antonio, Texas Author

NeoHumanist: We share the urge to reproduce, like the urge to eat with other animals; we also share autonomic functions such as respiration, perspiration, excretion; and we have involuntary responses such as blinking, pupillary reaction to light, nervous reactions to heat, and so forth. All of this is biological in nature -- things connected with bodily existence, things shared in varying degrees with other beings with bodies.

Again: none of this is specifically human. I am also affected by gravity, the need for sunlight, weakness in the face of extremes in temperature . . . physical forces in general affect me in a variety of ways and limit me, just like biological forces limit me or affect me; but this hardly means that what I am as a human can be reduced to an extension of "physical forces" any more than I can be reduced to my biology.

Biology, like physical forces, is what we are given by reality to deal with on our arrival; what we *choose* to do with or in spite of these biological urges and automatic responses IS human -- the accent being on the term "choice." For example, I have the urge to procreate, but this hardly means this is the only thing human sexuality is concerned with; in fact, we humans have labored extensively to aim sexual activity at all manner of goals: from pleasure to friendship, love to lust, power to self-expression . . . any and everything EXCEPT an underlying biological procreative urge.

The fragment of reality over which we have control, over which we can exercise some measure of creativity, IS human; the rest is simply animal (what we share in common with other animals, not what we share in common with other humans inasmuch as we are human). Animality is, roughly, passive; humanity is, roughly, active and creative. This is essentially what is meant by the idea "humans have no nature."


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TheNeoHumanist 5 years ago

I'm sorry but if humans do not have a nature, how can the urge to reproduce be explained?


Richard VanIngram profile image

Richard VanIngram 6 years ago from San Antonio, Texas Author

Thank you, Elena -- Nice to meet you, too! I obviously have many problems with the idea of "human nature." As you say, it does a very poor job of explaining human diversity in thought, culture, individuality, creativity, and so forth. Certainly, we can be studied in terms of our biology, but looking at a human solely in terms of biology tends to strain out most of what it means to be a human and, ultimately, to reduce the human (unfairly and unrealistically) to underlying material forces which are alleged to be completely deterministic -- e.g. genetics.

That is why the best ways to study humans are through history, philosophy, literature, and so on. These reveal more about what ways humans have chosen and may choose, and should choose to be human, given the framework of biology and physical reality within which we operate.

Again, thanks for reading!


Elena. profile image

Elena. 6 years ago from Madrid

Hi Richard. This was the first article I read from you (nice to meet you!), and then proceeded to peruse your other fine offerings. I come back to my original "finding" to comment.

Quoting Ortega y Gasset, which seems to be a favorite for you: "I am I plus my circumstance", which, in a way, is a sister assertion to "Humans don't have a nature. What humans have is. . . history."

I tend to see it the way you do, and the way Ortega did. The way we exercise free will is conditioned by history, culture and experience. If one thinks about it, should "human nature" be so and such a defining factor (trait), then there wouldn't be the diversity of positions regarding ... anything, from homosexuality to politics to .... If one thinks about it, should human nature be so, it wouldn't seem as if there were different human races within the same planet, depending on one's history, or circumstance.

We do have a biologic nature, but I don't think human biology is what determines how we behave. To put it rather bluntly and super inanely, if biology (nature) were such a defining factor, there wouldn't be fat people around. (Sorry, couldn't help ending with a silly crack, I hope you won't mind!).


Richard VanIngram profile image

Richard VanIngram 6 years ago from San Antonio, Texas Author

Thank you Anna/Spanglefeather. I am familiar with the idea of memes, and with Dawkins. In spite of the plethora of specious arguments he normally spouts and his near-religious devotion to the stillborn 19th c. idea of scientism, Dawkins does occaisionally come up with something that makes some sense. Well before him, a philosopher called Georg Simmel better explained the autonomy of "objectified thought" or "objectified spirit" in his discussion of what he called the two tendencies of human beings to create "more life" and the the "more than life" sphere of culture -- worth looking up if you've never heard of it. Thanks for reading ` Richard


Spanglefeather 6 years ago

Thanks for a very high- level discussion.

The thesis reminds me of another formulation, that of Richard Dawkins in "The Selfish Gene" of the idea of 'memes.' Memes transmit information like genes, but are stored in memory instead of cells. They can evolve, propagate and mutate like genes but they are ideas, not physical. Nevertheless this is what human culture depends on to live.

Anyway, thought I might point you toward that in case you were not familiar with it.

Personally I cannot stand Dawkins, who seems like a grumpy atheist and ruthless materialist -- but the meme idea was a fun and fruitful metaphor for looking at the human nature question.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme

--- Anna in Olympia, WA


Richard VanIngram profile image

Richard VanIngram 6 years ago from San Antonio, Texas Author

Paper Wolf,

When I use the term "practical reason," I am using it in a very old fashioned sense, as in classical Greek philosophy or Medieval Philosophy. Another way of saying it is "operative reason," but that is even less clear to a contemporary audience.

The ancients in the tradition of Plato and Aristotle split the uses of the intellect into two broad categories, the theoretical or "speculative" and the practical or "operative."

Theoretical reason is aimed at discovering "pure truth" -- truths for their own sake, such as mathematical truths or metaphysical truths or scientific truths and so forth.

Practical reason is aimed at discovering the good -- principles for right use of knowledge and things. Practical reason covers everything from the principles and uses of the arts and the crafts to anything in the ethical/moral sphere. Practical reason is used to discover how to do things well or make things properly -- from making a painting or a building well to making a good life and living properly.

Intellect and reason are always aimed at truth in the way the eye is aimed at light -- they need truths, theoretical and practical to function well -- but we must choose ways to exercise them in ways that are more or less effective: Mind does not automatically go in search of truth or arrive at it without much training and discernment and extended effort. To stick with the visual metaphor, we may be born sensitive to light, able to see, but to actually look in a human way is an aquired skill built up over time, with practice, with the acquisition of expectations and beliefs and ideas. The mind, in either its practical use or speculative one, works the same way: we learn to think through practice and by building up a fund of ideas and beliefs (and prejudices) and by refining these (or not).

Questions about "what a properly functioning human being would (should) think in given circumstances" is a very difficult question and complex. In the area of morality, there are universal principles we discover and have discovered that (being universal) apply to all people at all times, not because of "human nature" so much as because the principles are inherently valuable and humans cannot live a good life without being associated with them through thought and action. Even so, there can be a variety of acceptable ways to put these principles into effect in action in various circumstances -- many of which are equally as rational as several other ways to put the principles into effect. Moreover, just because these principles are universally applicable and valuable hardly means all ages at all times accept them or understand them or do a good job at interpreting them. (Including our own age, which is why morality is always a project to be worked upon in each generation, an unending project that will last as long as humanity does.)

Plus there is also the question of historical development and consciousness -- there is not one absolute standard of "rationality," I think; by which I mean "being rational" is always in a state of flux and development. It is not possible to expect peoples at all times and places to think and act with equal degrees of rationality. There is progress in knowledge as there is progress in culture and experience. One would be wrong to expect the level of moral rationality, for example, from a cro-magnon man of Ice Age Eurasia as one ought to expect of a 21st c. person of the same geographical region. The cro-magnon man may have been as reasonable and rational **as possible** for his age and circumstance, but much human experience, much history, much discovery in ethics has occured in the millenia that separate us from him. Humans have become more aware (in some areas) than in that age; what it means "to be human" and proper moral expectations from humans have developed substantially since the Ice Age.

People who are moral are always "as moral as could be expected for a person of their time and place and level of intelligence." This is another way operative or practical reason is different from theoretical reason -- it is always incomplete and imperfect, in need of work. So I will stick with using the term "practical reason" in relation to morality.


Richard VanIngram profile image

Richard VanIngram 6 years ago from San Antonio, Texas Author

BeiYin,

You say: "'Human nature' has its roots coming from animal nature." I disagree with this. Animal nature -- the object of the study of biology, etc. -- is more akin to the soil in which the roots of human being are sunk. Without this soil, no there would be no human way of being as we know it -- I have a body, for example, and it is biological and animal in structure. But what I am is not merely (or mainly) a body -- what I am *as a human being* is what I choose to do with and through my body; the animal inheritence is not what is human about me, but my choices, my actions, how well or poorly I live through the medium of embodiedness. Human being is autobiographical and historical, not biological.

You say:"Then this human nature is develloped through evolution with more capacities of mind and emotions and then being identified with all this. That's still 'human nature'. Observing this one might become aware of the limitation in it and want to go beyond it. But it is also part of human nature, to defend ones state of being and so being stuck in ones evolution..."

Evolution prepared the ground, the pre-conditions of human being, yes, but it appears a very odd thing happened at some point in human evolution -- the capacity to transcend natural and automatic processes, such as evolution. At some distant point in our collective past, some human being opened her eyes and became self-aware, became creative, imaginative -- was able to imagine ways of being that were entirely unnatural: in that moment, human beings created culture, a freely chosen way of being not inherited from nature. I stress it had to be freely chosen, as it continues to have to be freely chosen by each generation. Human progress past that point was no longer a product of natural selection, but the product of personal and communal effort to realize wholly imaginative projects created by free use of the mind. Should we all decide at once to sit back and refuse to use our creativity and effort, nature would not support humanity or a human way of being -- on the contrary, nature is quite opposed to humanness, or at least indifferent to it. It is us, by freedom and effort, who impose human ways of being, culture and civilization, history, autobiography, on raw nature and the "natural."

You say, " Most expressions (like yours) confirm their established condition and others with all kind of often absurd arguments. Then this is accepted and applauded... Every thing else will be ignored or eliminated, - that's also a behavior as part of human nature. Is there any body who wants to get out of it? "

First, my arguments are not absurd. There is neither a serious logical flaw in what I am saying, nor is there a serious flaw in my narrative of the development of a human way of being nor my description of what it is to be human. If there is, you have not shown either. Simply bemoaning the fact you dislike my position by labeling it "absurd" proves little beyond your dislike -- I see no proof or real argument in what you are saying here; just a string of assertions without evidence.

Argumentation, use of logic, assembling evidence, building propositions, use of reflection on experience and history -- none of these are, in the least, natural. These are inventions of human beings, highly delicate, requiring effort: they don't just emerge from nature like the evolution of a new sort of moth or plant. This discussion, on both of our parts, has nothing to do with having a nature, but with having a cultural and historical inheritence we are influenced by and more or less consciously claim and put to use. By choice. With purpose. Unlike my heartbeat or blink reflex or the feeling in my stomach when I am hungry -- none of which are propely human but are merely preconditions and limitions within which we live.

If there is anything we cannot escape, it is the need to choose: the need to identify needs, imagine a way to live that is proper, and use proper effort to reach them.


Paper Wolf profile image

Paper Wolf 6 years ago from Texas

So, the question is; What is it that determines whether a given way of acting or believing, given that your circumstances are thus-and-so, is rational or reasonable, in the relevant sense? The question is about the sorts of beliefs a properly functioning human being would have in the relevant circumstances. Which isn't a question of practical rationality. Our view as to what sort of creature a human being is will be dependent on what sort of beliefs you think their noetic faculties will produce when they are functioning properly, and which of their faculties or cognitive mechanisms are aimed at the truth. Yes?


BeiYin profile image

BeiYin 6 years ago from Ibiza Spain

'Human nature' has its roots coming from animal nature. You can observe this around you and also within yourself. Then this human nature is develloped through evolution with more capacities of mind and emotions and then being identified with all this. That's still 'human nature'. Observing this one might become aware of the limitation in it and want to go beyond it. But it is also part of human nature, to defend ones state of being and so being stuck in ones evolution... Most expressions (like yours) confirm their established condition and others with all kind of often absurd arguments. Then this is accepted and applauded... Every thing else will be ignored or eliminated, - that's also a behavior as part of human nature. Is there any body who wants to get out of it?


cathinfrance 6 years ago

Is nothing unnatural in human behaviour? You can argue exactly that simply by saying if something occurs it occurs in nature, springs from human nature, so it's natural. But if nothing is unnatural, then nothing is natural either. Maybe it makes more sense to talk about general human predisposiion. Most humans are predisposed to try and stay alive, but some circumstances override that. Most parents love their kids but in some cultures a father will kill a daughter for religious 'trangression'. With billions of people around, there'll always be *someone* doing something we think of as more or less unnatural.


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mobilephone guide 6 years ago

hahahah very nice. humans are indeed contradictory in nature.


Richard VanIngram profile image

Richard VanIngram 6 years ago from San Antonio, Texas Author

Thank you, Neil. There is a lot to think about with this subject . . . a lot that has been explored in the literature and a lot left to explore. Ortega y Gasset's work is under-read outside Europe and the Spanish-speaking world; his approach is much more refined than, say, Sartre's, which is similar, but not as well thought out.


Neil Sperling profile image

Neil Sperling 6 years ago from Port Dover Ontario Canada

I agree with your statement oi choice - Good Food for thought hub!


Richard VanIngram profile image

Richard VanIngram 6 years ago from San Antonio, Texas Author

Hi, elliot. I don't discount soul, but it would be a part of our given "circumstances," -- something we act through or with, like our eyes or arms;we are not our souls. We aren't bodies or souls, which are "things" with a fixed constitution -- we're persons, persons with bodies and souls. Personhood is an activity, something to be actively done, a verb, not a noun, I think. It is not fixed and purely determined.


elliot.dunn 6 years ago

that's an awesome quote - "This would mean we are mainly (auto)biographical beings, not biological ones."

maybe its our nature to be what you're coining unnatural. it's not my nature to fly or breathe under water but it is in my nature to be creative, thoughtful, intuitive, vocal, etc. i agree when you say that these aren't biological issues but do you account for a human soul of any kind?

very much enjoyed this - read it twice.

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