Approaching Human Nature Empirically

April 29, 2017, talk at the “Revisiting Maslow: Human Needs in the 21st Century” workshop at Princeton University.

Abstract: Human nature has been a subject of speculative thinking for ages. But it is an empirical phenomenon and, as with any empirical phenomenon, the only way to acquire objective, reliable knowledge about it is to begin with separating it from adjacent empirical phenomena. Today, developments in biology allow us to know exactly what separates humanity from the animal world, to which it also belongs — we, therefore, no longer need to speculate what makes us human. The talk will focus on what comparative zoology teaches us about human nature.

 

Humanity differs dramatically from non-human social animals in its behavior and the organization of its ways of life. No other social species, for instance, organizes its ways of life (i.e., its social order) so variably or allows such an enormous scope for individual creativity/deviance. Human societies are remarkably flexible in comparison to the rigid social orders of other intelligent social species, such as lions, wolves, and even primates. This vast difference makes humanity a reality of its own kind and, therefore, a separate subject of study, which justifies the existence of social sciences and humanities: for social sciences, too, despite their name, do not focus on the many complex and highly differentiated societies that exist, from those of ants and bees to those of baboons and chimpanzees, but exclusively on human societies. Yet, it proved impossible to account for this difference by the difference of the human animal from other animals, or genetically. Genetically, our species is different from other animal species to different degrees, clearly much more different from some than from others. But even species within our biological family – the primates – remain as drastically different from us behaviorally as are those on altogether different branches of biological evolution. Only 2% of the genome of our species, which we somewhat arrogantly and in ignorance of other animals’ cognitive capacities call homo sapiens, distinguish our animal nature from that of our closest genetic relative, the chimp. These two percent must account for the different shapes of our and chimps’ bodies and sculls, postures, distribution of bodily hair, the different organic diseases to which we and they are subject, our different life spans and procreation patterns – all the things that separate two closely related species from the same family, such as horses and donkeys, lions and tigers, or chimps and orangutans, etc., from each other. None is left in this small biological difference for the explanation of the vast differences on the behavioral level – the difference in the organization of our ways of life, which make humanity stand so completely out of the animal world.

But, if it is not our biology, then what? Comparative zoology provides an answer. While all other animals transmit their ways of life (primarily) genetically, we transmit our ways of life almost exclusively by means of symbols. This is a qualitative difference – a difference in kind, which puts us into a different category of being. This is what makes us human.

The process of genetic transmission is the process of life, the subject of biology. As animals, we are involved in this process and, as living beings, we share numerous biological needs with other animals. Like them, we must breathe and eat, like many of them, we must have shelter, like all the social animals, we must belong to a group, and so on – to survive as animals. But, in addition to being animals, we are also something else. In addition to being part of the process of life and subject to its laws, we also participate in a different, autonomous process (that is, a process ruled by other than biological laws) – the process of symbolic transmission of our ways of life, which we call culture. Culture adds a dimension on top of our animal nature, superimposing another nature on it, so to speak. It is this other superimposed nature that makes us human. Human nature is cultural, in other words. To understand it, we must analyze culture.

In the rest of the talk, if there is time, I can develop on this and actually analyze culture along the lines of the two first chapters of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience. What is clear even before such an analysis is that human needs (which are different from animal needs which can be deduced from the nature of the life – organic, biological – processes, which may be largely the same for a whole branch of the phylogenetic tree or, to revert to the Linnaean terminology, a whole class of animals, such as mammals) can only be deduced from the nature of the cultural process, in general, and, because of the extreme variability of cultures, from the nature of specific cultures. With human needs created by cultures, it would not stand to reason that needs of people in Tokugawa Japan, Imperial China, or tribal Arabia, for instance, would be the same as the needs of citizens of modern democracies.

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