Human Nature: Don’t Be So Sure You’re Right About It


Centaur Cacus Threatens Vanni Fucci, William Blake

by Agustin Fuentes and Aku Visala

When reading the news on a daily basis we’ve all at one point in time or another lost hope and cursed humanity to the deepest depths of hell: “human beings are just evil!” At the same time, faced with virtuous acts of self-sacrifice or courage, we’ve also had the opposite experience: perhaps there is still goodness in humanity. Acts of great goodness and unspeakable evil highlight a curious ambivalence –  the ambivalence of being human.

We are indeed paradoxes to ourselves. On the one hand, we observe great individual differences. Our friends have different interests, backgrounds and tastes. One likes heavy metal, whereas another cannot stand it. One is tall and introverted, the other short and extroverted. A colleague from Argentina has a different way of doing things than another colleague from Finland. It seems that we are, as individuals and cultures, truly distinct and different.

On the other hand, there seem to be many things that unite us. A mother playing with her children shows the same kind of love and care in New York and New Delhi. Wherever we go to we see wedding and funeral rituals, expressions of love and friendship, fear and hate. Perhaps we are, underneath our respective layers of culture, all the same.

These basic ambivalences of good and evil, similarity and dissimilarity, lead us to ask about human nature. Is there such a thing? Is there something that is at the root of being human, something that would unite us? Or does human nature consist merely of the basic human capacity to be endlessly molded by our experiences and culture?

The question of human nature has been and is a central topic of philosophy, ethics and the sciences. It is, however, most often the poet and the religious individual who are able to pose the question of human nature in ways that express our ambivalent experience of being human. Consider Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man”:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Skeptic side
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest.
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer,
Born to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled;
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

In the current increasingly globalized world, whether there is such a thing as human nature or not, can surely make a difference as to the way we live our lives. We are faced with controversies over the possibility of human enhancement, the ethical challenges of biological technologies, the beginning and end of life and various expressions of human sexuality. All these debates involve assumptions about what humans are like. Are there natural, psychological tendencies or not? To what extent is our behavior under our control? Where do our lives begin and end? What about the status of animals or sophisticated computer programs? Can we alter our development by changing our biology and is it moral or not to do so?

Some have claimed that biological and psychological sciences can and will answer most of these questions. Evolutionary biology and neuroscience will reveal to us what our nature is like. Others have rejected such attempts as crude scientism and sought answers from various philosophies, political ideologies, religions and theologies. We suggest that none are uniformly “right” but that many have an important contribution to the dialogue.

In what follows, we briefly introduce some contemporary scientific and philosophical debates about human nature. Our aim is not to provide a novel view of human nature but instead point out how human nature cannot be reduced to one single perspective or definition, scientific or otherwise. We maintain that the experience of being human does not reduce neatly into scientific categories. That is to say, what human nature is and whether we have one depends on some empirical issues but it also involves conceptual and normative content. As such, our inquiries into human nature are closely connected to various ultimate questions regarding the nature of the cosmos, human origins, teleology and the ways in which we obtain knowledge.

Simplified answers to these complex questions do not work. We should seek conceptual tools that enable us to be more exact about the concept of human nature and relevant questions. What we need is a transdisciplinary debate and sharing of ideas and data on humans.

The Politics of Human Nature

Philosopher John Gray caused controversy in intellectual circles by arguing for a certain kind of nihilistic view of human nature. In Straw Dogs (2002), Gray argues that the radical political and ethical consequences of human evolution have not been fully recognized. By his view, popular advocates of evolutionary naturalism, like Richard Dawkins, have failed to realize the radical consequences of their views: they hold onto a humanistic view of humans and human progress, even after giving up the metaphysical framework of Christian theism. For Gray, humanism and the faith in human progress are incompatible with an evolutionary view of humans. Given our biological imperatives, altruism and morality are both dropped at the first sign of trouble and self-preservation will take over. Our complex ethical systems are slaves to our passions and our passions are geared for survival and power, not collaboration or kindness.

For Gray, war and genocide are at least as human as art and prayer. Given this biological view, moral progress and technological progress do not necessarily go hand in hand: moral change is cyclical rather than linear. Technological progress can thus produce both better healthcare and more advanced tools of destruction.

It is not a surprise that Gray has received criticism from his fellow intellectuals. One of his opponents, neurologist and philosopher Raymond Tallis argues for a different interpretation for biological and neuroscientific results. Indeed, Tallis’ Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (2009) offers a sustained critique of all, who attempt to deny our freedom, morality or consciousness on the basis of biology and neuroscience.

Tallis accuses Gray and others from unjustifiably reducing “human worlds” to crude biologically determined worlds. Humans have inherited a dual nature that includes tendencies towards both violence and cooperation. In addition, Tallis emphasizes that our human nature is flexible and malleable: it is our ability to adapt to complex circumstances and shape ourselves via culture that makes moral progress possible.

This debate is a good example of why ‘human nature’ is still a relevant concept. What does biology actually say about the origins of human morality and its flexibility? Is it true that we are slaves to our biological imperatives or can we use our flexible minds to significantly change our behavior? These are clearly scientific issues of interest to biologists and psychologists. But these controversies do not end with biology and psychology: there are ethical, philosophical and even theological assumptions being made. How do we ground human dignity? How should we go about forming ethical theories? Is there inherent teleology to nature or not and what are the implications in each case?

Is There a Biological Basis for Human Nature?

19th and 20th century European philosophy and political theory had a strong tendency to reject the everyday notion of human nature often assuming that there is no such thing as a biologically given essence. We are thrown into the world and without the help of God or Biology and must decide what we want to be. This suggested a kind of anti-essentialism about human nature.

More recently hermeneutical and postmodern views proposed that the proper subject of the study of humanity is the interpretation of human experience. Here a dividing line is introduced: since there is no essential, biologically conditioned human nature, human actions should not be scientifically explained but instead understood “from the inside”. The sciences deal with facts, but since there are no discrete scientific facts about human behavior, another method is needed. The sciences study humans as physical and biological entities, whereas the humanities, philosophy and theology account for the personal, the social and religious world of humans.

One of the reasons why contemporary debates about human nature have been so vitriolic is that some scientists have strongly criticized these no-nature views and sought to revitalize something like the folk view of human nature.

Controversies were heightened in the ‘70s when the biologist Edward O. Wilson introduced the idea of sociobiology for humans. For Wilson under the veneer of individual and cultural variation, there is a shared set of biological dispositions and traits. Subsequently, it was the evolutionary psychologists that took Wilson’s basic idea and ran with it. Evolutionary psychologists, like Steven Pinker, maintain that it is not human biology itself that causes human behavior; instead it is the mechanisms of the human mind that are shaped by our evolutionary past. Our minds are adapted to solve specific problems in our ancestral environment. Thus, under the veneer of contemporary culture, we all still have these Stone Age minds.

The representatives of the no-nature view wanted to keep the sciences separate from humanities and the social sciences. Sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists brought their own, diametrically opposed, agenda to the table: the sciences reveal the real causes of human behavior and those causes are mostly biological instead of cultural, consciously rational or culture-specific. The humanities, psychology and social sciences need to be incorporated into biology.

Notice that robust human nature and the no-nature view are mainly preoccupied in explaining human behavior. The controversy is ultimately about where to look for explanations of human behavior: from innate biology or psychology or from culture and experience. If there are kinds of human behavior that have pretty much the same biological and psychological causes regardless of cultural context, then a theory of human nature is viable. If there is no innate human nature as the no-nature view insists and there are no general, scientifically tractable facts about human behavior (because human behavior is, say, so context sensitive), the scientific quest for human nature does not seem like a worthwhile enterprise.

We are of the opinion that neither of these extreme options is viable. Current scientific evidence from psychology, biology, anthropology and the social sciences coupled with plausible philosophical arguments suggests that both views are too simplified. Both views are intuitively satisfying, because the scientific one affirms our everyday notion of human nature and the other completely debunks it. Both perpetuate the deep-seated idea that we can clearly identify, and even disentangle, cultural and biological influences.

Against this we want to maintain, in the words of philosopher Jesse Prinz that “we must give up on approaches to social science that try to articulate how humans act or think by nature. Nature alone determines no pattern of behavior. Rather, the investigation of our natural constitution should be directed at explaining human plasticity.”[i] To be clear, this does not amount to throwing ourselves onto the no-nature horn of the dilemma. Instead, it is to reject the existence of biology that is not already shaped by culture and culture that is not already shaped by biology. It is to reject the layer cake metaphor of human nature in which biology forms the bottom layer on top of which culture and environment build the rest of the cake.

Given this interpenetration of biology, culture and sociality in human existence, we might be left with a view of innate human nature that is rather slim: it is neither the robust views of many scientists (especially evolutionary psychology and sociobiology) or the no-nature (or nature as irrelevant) view of some humanists and social scientists.

Three Concepts of Human Nature

One of the core problems in approaching this debate and its quandaries is that the concept of human nature itself is sloppily used. We must carefully tease apart normative and descriptive issues, scientific and non-scientific. To get a grasp of the concept of human nature, one should start with our everyday notion of what it means to have a nature. It seems that our folk concept of human nature is a source of much confusion, because all these various aspects are intertwined in it.

Common notions of human nature assume a specific essence to being human, a kind of trans-historical core for all human beings. If this were true, underlying all human diversity and variation, there would be something constant, some traits, tendencies and capacities that all humans shared. Usually this is cashed out by distinguishing human biology from the influence of culture and upbringing: we have the same genes on top of which culture and upbringing bake their cake.

This folk concept of human nature seems to entail that the essential and universal human features have the same causal history. That is to say, there is something very deep in human biology or some sort of a plan in nature itself that causes the similarities. Traditionally in the West, such causal powers were usually attributed to something like the Soul or the Self inside the individual or the purposes of God or brute purposefulness of nature.  The third aspect of the folk concept of human nature is a normative one: given that there is a purposeful human essence, some human actions, practices or societies are more natural than others. Unnatural is not only bad, but also wrong, whereas natural is good and right.

We should distinguish at least three overlapping concepts of human nature that are mixed up in our folk notion of human nature:

Innate human nature: the traits that constitute human nature are somehow produced by innate tendencies or causes (genetically specified or other) or are part of what we could describe as normal development. If it turns out that there are no such traits, then there is no human nature.

Universal human nature: whatever we (as individuals and cultures) share constitutes human nature. In other words, human nature is whatever is universal or typical among us. Conversely, if there are no human universals or typical features, there is no human nature.

Unique human nature: whatever separates us from non-human animals and other beings constitutes human nature. That is to say, human nature specifies what makes us unique. If it turns out that there are no such features and we are like all other beings, there is no human nature.

The “Moral” Species?

Let us briefly use an example to examine the notion of unique human nature. The quest for human uniqueness is, at least partly, the quest for defining what ‘humanity’ refers to. It seems that there are two different starting points here. The first anchors the notion of ‘human’ to the biological category of Homo sapiens. That is to say, for a being B to be human is for B to be a member of Homo sapiens as it is biologically understood. Usually, scientists and science inspired approaches under psychology, biology and anthropology implicitly fix the referent of “human” this way.

Somewhat opposed to such definition are those who take us to be first and foremost persons, thinking things with certain social, moral and intellectual standings. We are what we are not because we are Homo sapiens, but because we are self-conscious, free agents. Of course, accounts of what constitute “personality” or being a person vary significantly and some are closer to biological definitions than others. One possibility is to argue that persons are nothing more than Homo sapiens or some part of Homo sapiens (like brains), thus maintaining a close link between these two possible ways of defining humanity.  Nevertheless, we maintain that there are two different starting points here: on latter view, there might be relevant facts about us that are more appropriately approached by methods other than those of the various sciences.

The central problem in identifying ourselves with the biological category Homo sapiens is the fact that species concepts are notoriously slippery in evolutionary biology and paleoanthropology. Many biologists and philosophers of biology have plausibly argued that Darwinian population thinking does not require species having necessary and sufficient traits that would define their essence. Instead, species are seen as ever-flowing phylogenetic histories without clear boundaries. Given such arguments, there is no clear way of saying what counts as Homo sapiens and what does not. This might not be a problem for biology or psychology, since they can simply take contemporary living humans as prototypes of our species. But, nevertheless, it is a problem if one wants to use the notion of “human” to make some trans-historical, ethical or metaphysical claims about human nature.

The problem with the latter approach is that the concepts of ‘person’, ‘personality’, ‘agency’ and their cognates are contested among philosophers, theologians and scientists. Often persons are defined as having certain capacities for agency, intellect and relatedness that, in turn, ground the person’s moral value. For the most part, these capacities have to do with self-consciousness, self-direction, reason and language use.

Regarding the distinctiveness of humans as opposed to animals, things are even more complicated. Take morality, for instance.

Primatologist de Waal has famously argues that human morality is very closely related to a morality in other animals, and especially our primate cousins. De Waal sees the central establishment of social norms connected to emotional and even cooperative physiologies and behaviors in highly social mammals as an indication of the evolutionary (and thus biological) template for morality. For de Waal “the moral law is not imposed form above or derived from well-reasoned principles; rather it arises from ingrained values that have been there since the beginning of time.”[ii]

De Waal is essentially arguing that there is nothing unique about human morality. Humans can be characterized as being innately good-natured but this does not make them unique or distinctive. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has a hypothesis of moral psychology that resonates, to an extent, with de Waal’s notions and is strongly inspired by a multi-partite version of brain structure and function.[iii] In Haidt’s view, our moral responses are based on our moral emotions that are, in turn, caused by very specific and distinct cognitive systems. These ‘moral modules’ have evolved to deal with various challenges in our ancestral environments that have had to do with sharing, justice, trading and such. For Haidt uses the analogy of an elephant (our evolutionary history and its bodily/neurological realities) and a rider (our conscious verbal thinking) and the processes by which they influence one another, conflict, and cooperate to succeed (or not) in moving forward as a unit.

At the other end of the spectrum, Philosopher Jesse Prinz, has argued, like de Waal and Haidt, that our moral judgments are based on our moral emotions. But unlike the two, Prinz maintains that our moral emotions are neither directly under biological direction nor products of any kind of deep-rooted adaptive modular systems. Instead, the way in which we acquire emotions involves a complex interaction between our experiences, biological development and our cultural environment. Moral emotions have cultural origins.[iv]

Debates about morality offer plenty of examples how innate, universal and unique aspects of human nature are constantly getting mixed up. De Waal and Haidt differ on their views about the universality of human morality: for de Waal, core human morality is a rather uniform phenomenon, whereas Haidt acknowledges greater cultural variation along predictable lines. For de Waal, morality is a part of an innate and universal human nature, but it is not uniquely human. For Haidt, morality is also innate but it is uniquely human, since it involves mechanisms that are unique to humans. Finally, according to Prinz, morality is not innate to humans in any robust sense. Our moral systems and behaviors are based much more on our cultural environment and experiences than any biological grounding. For Prinz, morality is neither innate nor universal, but he might nevertheless agree with Haidt in saying that morality is uniquely human.

As we can see from the case of morality, human uniqueness is plagued with epistemological problems and different views locate human uniqueness in different places or levels. What is even more problematic is that oftentimes the notion of ‘uniqueness’ or ‘distinctiveness’ is not sufficiently clear as to make any kind of comparisons. What do we mean by ‘uniqueness’ anyway?

One way to understand this notion is to talk about the uniqueness of human performance. It is clear that humans can do things that other species cannot do. This is the most uncontroversial notion of uniqueness. We do not think anyone in their right mind would deny that humans have abilities that non-human animals do not have (spoken and written language, inventing the internet, coordination of efforts in a massive scale, etc.).

What is more controversial is whether human performance is based on unique capacities. Do humans have psychological or biological capacities that other animals do not have? It is clear that we share most of our capacities pretty much as they are with many other animals (perception, basic forms of reasoning, etc.). But do we have capacities that significantly differ from those of other animals?

Notice, that this type of uniqueness comes in degrees: it might be that our capacities differ from those of other animals but nevertheless be plausibly of the same type or kind. At what point does a quantitative distinction become a qualitative distinction? There seems to be no clear-cut way of determining this. If this is true, we cannot be sure whether we are unique in a strict sense or not.

Human Nature, Values and Worldviews

It is clear that biologists, psychologists and other scientists take an implicitly (or explicitly) naturalistic approach to human nature. Not only are humans identified with Homo sapiens, it is also assumed that whatever innate or essential features we have, they are scientifically identifiable. Many on the opposite, non-naturalist or anti-naturalist, side associate such assumptions with various scientifically imperialistic programs of colonizing or taking over humanities, social sciences and philosophy by way of, say, cognitive science, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology or some such other approach. For many theologians, humanists, and anthropologists, such enterprises involve an unjustified reduction of complex human cultural, personal and social reality to psychological mechanisms or biological forces.

It is true that issues revolving around innateness are mostly empirical and scientific. They turn on empirical evidence. But although other aspects of possible human nature, like universality and uniqueness, involve some empirical assumptions, it seems that they cannot be settled on purely scientific grounds. For such reasons, we must be careful against a kind of naturalistic bias in discussing human nature. We are not trying to say that naturalism must be false and the opposite must be true. Instead, we are saying that we should not let strong naturalistic assumption guide our thinking about human nature a priori.

Therefore, we should not the debate simply to the outcomes of various sciences. Many philosophical and religious traditions, for instance, have survived centuries with their distinctive worldviews and doctrines of human nature. In a large part, humanity still understands itself in terms of these great traditions and their practices are embedded in their cultures; they should be taken seriously as potential sources of collective wisdom on human nature.


[i] Jesse Prinz, Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind (New York: WW. Norton, 2012) p. 367-368.

[ii] Frans De Waal, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates (New York: WW Norton 2013 p. 228.

[iii] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (London: Allen Lane, 2012).

[iv] Jesse Prinz, The Emotional Construction of Morals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

About the Authors:

Agustin Fuentes is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame (USA), Aku Visala is an adjunct professor in philosophy of religion at Helsinki University (Finland) and a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Notre Dame. Both thank the John Templeton Foundation, The Center of Theological Inquiry, and the University of Notre Dame College for Arts and Letters for facilitating the ongoing Human Nature(s) project from which this essay arises.