Right and Left and 'human nature'

There was a time on university campuses when you could provoke a violent argument if you mentioned 'human nature' as an explanatory factor in human affairs. Marxists, postmodernists, liberals and common-or-garden sociologists would tell you emphatically, that the world is socially constructed. Some would argue that ideas of 'human nature' are merely rightwing code for excusing racism or a justification for a belief in the natural superiority of males or of the 'naturally' violent or selfish actions of human beings.

By contrast, they would argue for a notion of 'social constructionism', the ideas that human behaviour was a product of its social and cultural circumstances. This makes eminent sense, up to a point. A child raised in an abusive household will behave in quite different ways in adult life to a child raid in a supportive atmosphere. A society which erects well funded systems of education and health will produce humans who are quite different to those who grow up in poverty and poor health. We are products of our social environment.

But social constructionism has evolved into a dogma which is particularly strong among intellectuals and the academy. Popularised by psychology and social science, it argues that human beings are a product of experience and environment -- and ONLY of our experience and our environment. Our attitudes and desires, our virtues and vices, are socially constructed. They do not, must not and cannot be explained partly by human nature. To believe this is to commit the ultimate sin of essentialism, a belief that there is a human 'essence'.

From the time of the Enlightenment, idealists have opposed essentialism. They believed that the human possibilities were practically limitless; that 'Man', as well as society, could be perfected. Given the right social conditions, greed and selfishness could be eliminated.

Social constructionism, whether in its weak or strong form, is a dogma of optimism. If we assume that humans are constructed solely by 'the ensemble of social relations' then in order to have happier and better humans, we need only to change those social conditions.

But dogmatic social constructionism, like its parent, rationalism, is an inadequate tool of analysis and guide to social change today. The belief in the totally plastic nature of humans and hence their perfectibility is being increasingly shown to be grounded on false assumptions about the human species. Popularised by writers such as Peter Singer and books such as Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, studies of human beings and their behavior are strongly suggesting that some sort of basic human nature is present among all people regardless of their dramatic cultural variations.

Singer makes the point that for over a hundred years 'human nature' was the underlying reason advanced to try to prevent almost any kind of social reform. It was also a counsel of passivity and despair. For example, the supposed natural inferiority of colonised people was justified by 'human nature' just as votes for women were said to be 'against human nature'. For a long while a popular version of right wing Darwinism argued that all kinds of violent, competitive behaviour was due to 'human nature'. Only more recently have studies found that social, co-operative elements exist naturally among humans along with competitive ones.

But rather than exploring what kind of nature humans might have, optimists and social reformers have dismissed the whole idea as irretrievably reactionary and opted for social constructionism. And this occurred in spite of many progressive liberals and leftists glibly acknowledging that BOTH nature and nurture as forces shaping human beings. Yet in practice, many have opted almost exclusively for nurture (culture). The result is, as Steven Pinker argues, that an extreme position (culture is everything) 'is often seen as moderate, and the moderate position is seen as extreme.'

The bio-ethicist Peter Singer is one of a small but growing group of thinkers who believe that we can now be confident that some kind of nature is common to all humans. While wide variation exists across cultures in many aspects of life, other aspects show little variance. For example, humans are social beings and do not generally live completely alone. In his book 'A Darwinian Left' Singer says:

Equally invariant is our concern for kin. Our readiness to form co-operative relationships, and to recognise reciprocal obligations, is another universal. More controversially I would claim that the existence of a hierarchy or system of rank is a near-universal tendency - Women almost always have the major role in caring for young children while men are more likely than women to be involved in physical conflict both within the social group and in warfare between groups.

Other near universals which Singer identifies are the existence of sexual infidelity and sexual jealousy as well as ethnic identification and its converse, xenophobia and racism. Both competitive and co-operative tendencies exist among humans.

Acknowledging some sort of human nature does not mean that every feature is unavoidable or inherently worthwhile (many human tendencies pull in opposite directions). Innate tendencies are moderated or magnified by culture. The point is that to be blind to the facts is to risk disaster. If humans naturally tend to form hierarchies and ranking systems, it is the height of naivete to imagine that we can 'abolish' them believing that they will not re-appear in some new guise. This is a lesson from attempts to enforce rigid 'equality'. But this need not mean abandoning attempts to create situations of greater rather than lesser equality. There is a world of difference between a ranking system based on a peaceful democracy and one based on brute physical force.

Social change and human nature

Any plans for social reform must take account of the limitations presented by human nature. As remarkable as human diversity and capacity is, it is not unlimited. Any new political vision which assumes we can create societies without conflict or without self interest, is doomed to fail. Attempts at perfection, in politics or religion, have proven disastrous.

As well, in several chapters of this book I discussed idea of human nature and how it related to political philosophies. I'd now like to return to this discussion because it relates to the central concept behind the idea of a common humanity: what it means to be human. Most would agree that, at the very least, to be human means that people from diverse cultures share a common biological constitution as human beings. Acknowledging this scientific fact is important in dismissing pseudo-scientific ideas of supposedly superior and inferior races. As they say, there is one race, the human race.

Most would also agree that humanity's biological constitution is the result of a process of evolution. But as well as evolved physical characteristics are other common qualities about humans. The writer Robert Wright points this out in his book The Moral Animal:

We take for granted such bedrock elements of life as gratitude, shame, remorse, pride, honour, retribution, empathy, love and so on -- just as we take the air we breathe, the tendency of dropped objects to fall, and other standard features of living on this planet. But things didn't have to be this way. We could live in a planet where social life featured none of the above. We could live on a planet where some ethnic groups felt some of the above and others felt others. But we don't. The more closely Darwinian anthropologists look at the world's peoples, the more they are struck by the dense and intricate web of human nature by which we are all bound.

A growing scientific literature exists that gives good ground for thinking that some form of human nature exists. This research has not settled the question and the idea remains controversial. Many believe that any acknowledgment of a human nature implies acceptance of a rigid set of qualities which must exist in all humans in all times. The kind of human nature which those who have researched it talk about is rather a set of innate tendencies whose expression is tempered by historical, cultural as well as individual circumstance. Critics however, see only the changing circumstacnes reflecting the dominance of what might be called the 'social science world view' which looks only for social and cultural reasons for the way we are.

Nevertheless even among social scientists there is widespread agreement that humans are social creatures, meaning that they naturally prefer to live in groups and are not naturally solitary. It is here that we return to the main preoccupation of the chapter. These social groups are, specifically, families and local communities. For much of human history these communities often consisted of a number of extended families which inter-married. Today, what we call ethnic groups are very large groups of extended families, as the Havard psychologist Steven Pinker argues. Ultimately, these ethnic groups grow and sometimes become nations who are bonded by a common feeling of identity and loyalty. Pinker believes, along with others, that there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that the human mind evolved over a million years in the context of survival in small clan groups and that as a result ethnocentrism is a human universal. One aspect of this ethnic identification seems to be a preparedness to engage in conflict with other groups and the long history of inter-ethnic conflict from ancient to modern times - seen most recently after the collapse of the Soviet Union -- seems to bear this out. (In settler societies like Australia this occurred between the conquering tribes of 1788 and the indigenous people.)

Acknowledging that a disposition to ethnic identification is one element of a human nature has implications for political visions and philosophies. Basically, it means that we must accept limits on such ideas and visions. I have already argued that a fatal weakness of reforming visionaries (especially Marxists) was the misconception that humans are completely malleable and that traits such as self interest can disappear with the 'right' kind of social structure. For similar reasons we cannot imagine that ethnic identification will one day disappear. Social conditions will greatly shape its intensity and its expression but it will remain in some form.

But this raises a problem. Surely if we acknowledge that ethnic identification is a human universal we are condemning as hopelessly impractical the idea that we can appeal to a common humanity as a basis for opposing racism?

For instance, an Australian theorist of multiculturalism, Stephen Castles, summarily dismisses theories of human nature. He caricatures theories which indicate that all humans show a tendency to prefer kin and to develop group loyalty. This position he then transforms into the most extreme interpretation that racism is 'in our genes' and hence ineradicable and not tempered by other tendencies. If this is true, he concludes, 'then the only way to prevent it is to keep the 'tribes' apart. This is not a practicable nor desirable strategy in an increasingly integrated world.'

A different view is taken by another theorist of multiculturalism, Ien Ang. She argues that 'The main long-term goal of anti-racist educational programs should be the gradual development of a general culture of what I want to call interracial trust. It may be the case that some fundamental form of racism -- associated with ethno-centrism and intolerance against those who are different - -is part and parcel of human nature: it is deeply embedded in the very culture of human society.' It is likely that she is right. It is impossible to find a society which is not ethno-centric to some degree but it is quite possible to find societies which display a wide variety of behaviours towards people of other ethnicities, from a murderous suspicion to a peaceful trust or even better. And societies can display both qualities at different stages in their history.

The Australian philosopher, Peter Singer, in his book A Darwinian Left, agrees that ethnic identification is a human universal although societies differ greatly in their degree of tolerance or their degree of racism. 'Racism can be learned and unlearned, but racist demagogues hold their torches over highly flammable material', Singer argues.

But if a disposition to ethnic identification seems to be innate, so are other dispositions and capacities which moderate such feelings. Most importantly there is accumulating evidence that altruism or caring for others is biologically based. Perhaps not surprisingly, like ethnic identification, these capacities are also believed to be founded in humans' oldest social structure, families. Family members will routinely make sacrifices for each other to a degree that they will not repeat for non-family members.

That is to say that empathy and compassion begin as a local phenomena. The American philosopher Martha Nussbaum made this point when reflecting on the events of September 11, 2001. She pointed out that in the days and weeks afterwards 'the world has come to a stop - in a way it never has for Americans, when disaster befalls human beings in other places. The genocide in Rwanda didn't even work up enough emotion in us to prompt humanitarian intervention'. Nussbaum's point was about the nature of compassion (which she argues is an emotion which is probably rooted in our biological heritage). Humans experience compassion most strongly when it affects people like themselves and they often fail to experience it when tragedy is culturally distant. Such tendencies 'are likely to be built into the nature of compassion as it develops in childhood and then adulthood: we form intense attachments to the local first and only gradually learn to have compassion for people who are outside our own immediate circle.' Hence the tendency for compassion to stop at national borders. 'Most of us are brought up to believe that all human beings have equal worth. At least the world's major religions and secular philosophies tell us so. But our emotions don't believe it.'

But Nussbaum's point is that compassion also has a reasoned element and can be educated. Compassion can move outwards from its local, family base. When it does it begins to assume the characteristics of altruism, of empathy with others just because they are human.

This also happens to have been the view of the discover of evolution, Charles Darwin, whose words I quoted at the start of this chapter. In the language of his time he foresaw a growing tendency for compassion to expand outwards, building on a foundation of local empathy. If the people within one nation can sympathise with the other anonymous members of the nation, only an 'artificial barrier' was preventing the expansion of those sympathies to the people of all nations and races.

This 'artificial barrier' has proved much harder to surmount than Darwin thought, although advances have been achieved by different nations and peoples since his time. Perhaps the best known is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.