Is there such a thing as human nature?

For your consideration (needless Twilight Zone reference), I thought this was a fascinating article about human nature/human uniqueness by anthropologist Agustín Fuentes, formerly of Notre Dame and now at Princeton.

The ending, for the TL/DR crowd:

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.


The only thing seperating us from animals are morals and concious.

Unfortunately we are such disgusting beigns that we forsake them many times and we return to our ape like nature of fight or flight survival instics for some reason

Completely agree.

It is a conundrum. I think both are true. Human nature is one face of nature as a whole and looking to parallels between our activity and that of other organisms can be instructive. But we shouldn’t assume what we observe in other organisms sets a limit for what we can expect to find in ourselves. Now I want to read the transcript to see where he goes with it.

The article - not transcript - is off to a promising start. Especially loved the Pope poem which I shall share on pithy quotes now and link back to this discussion. I really like the sound of it read aloud. To quote Schwarzenegger, I’ll be back.


Very nice discussion! And it dovetails off of an excellent introduction to continental philosophy I am listening to by Simon Critchley:

“To my mind, the interest of the Heidegger–Carnap conflict does not consist in deciding who is right and who is wrong, but rather in viewing that conflict as a definitive expression of both a philosophical problematic and a cultural pathology that are still very much with us. If this is not recognized, then we risk a fruitless philosophical stalemate, namely the stand-off between scientism on the one hand and obscurantism on the other.”

Critchley also has a brilliant quote from Wittgenstein’s response to a 1929 Heidegger lecture:

“To be sure, I can readily think what Heidegger means by being and anxiety. Man feels the urge to run up against the limits of language. Think for example of the astonishment that anything at all exists. This astonishment cannot be expressed in the form of a question, and there is no answer whatsoever. Anything we might say is a priori bound to be mere nonsense. Nevertheless we do run up against the limits of language.”

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On the one hand I am highly inclined to agree with the denial of any “human nature.” On the other hand, any such denial is itself a claim about human nature.

My inclination against comes from a conviction that the human mind is a product of self-organization and even though we inherit a great deal of that by imitation of those around us, it nevertheless means that none of this is hardwired and much can be changed. On the other hand, I have seen some good arguments and evidence from psychologists and anthropologists for a good portion of our behavior coming from our biological roots, telling us that some of it is to some degree hard-wired. On the other hand, I would argue that flexibility is one of our principle adaptations and thus we can bypass and overcome such hard-wired biological inclinations.

And then there is the fact that sciences like psychology and sociology depend heavily upon statistical observation – which effectively becomes a study of human mediocrity ignoring the extra-ordinary found in our reformers and innovators. But the vast impact of the extra-ordinary people is undeniable, so ignoring them makes little sense.


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.

I agree with the sentiment. If we leave any of these out in a presort then it is likely our conclusion is already in place and our investigation is only for corroboration.

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.

He is singing to my choir. This should slow us down from enshrining our own naive intuitions.

… 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.

The tough part about studying human nature scientifically is that it is tough to control for nurture and probably unconscionable to run such an experiment. But if it’s our humanity we wish to understand there is an entire wing of academia all about that, the humanities. Just check your test tubes and microscopes at the door and study all you like.

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.

So obviously true and the only rules it violates are those operative ones we routinely apply based on past experience. The categorical error in applying rules of thumb acquired in relation to the world outside ourselves to that which does the investigating for purposes arising from our embodiment in that world shows how naive we can be regarding self knowledge.

Great read Jay. Just genius so far but I think I’ll save Three Concepts of Human Nature for after I’ve carped some embodied diem.


I think we have a nature that’s generalized to our species , just like with every other species and obviously individual personalities shaped by nature and nurture. I view humans as animals. We are primates. We are tetrapods. We are mammals. We are humans. What sets us apart is simply the intelligence we have and the range of emotional intelligence we can pull from. No other animals have hit this particular jackpot yet it seems .


Naturalistic bias? What’s that? As opposed to what?

I think our jackpot comes with hidden risks, though I wouldn’t opt to be some other kind of creature instead if given the choice. Every other creature has no choice but to live out the perfect fulfillment of its nature given what it’s habitat affords. Being dependent on interpersonal guidance at multiple points to discover how to live a fulfilling life given a nature we can only guess at, we can get it wrong in many ways. But when we get it right (or at least right enough) our lot must seem pretty great to other creatures. Of course when it goes badly a living hell is also possible. Adds another layer of meaning to the saying about the relative width of the road leading to paradise vs hell.


Of course. All power comes with the possibility of misuse and abuse. But refusal isn’t really an option. The very availability of power requires responsibility which must be seized quickly.

The environment is partially defined by the power the creature has to alter it. Compare the environment of a micro-organism with that of a large mammal. Same place really – the difference is all in the capabilities of the organism.

The human environment has become the human community not so different from the way the environment of our cells has like become the community of the multicellular organism.

Very true but that elicits more worry than celebration in me. I’m convinced that we’re putting ourselves at risk by thinning the web of life too much in our rush to make the common environment serve only our needs.

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Somebody’s an “Escher Fan”.


Seems to me that this question on this forum highlights the fundamental flaw in trying to associate a philosophical question with a scientific answer.
I argue that the innate human nature can’t be studied so easily in this manner. How can you test in a lab what a new born baby is thinking?
There really is only one place that answers this question.

I disagree. I think it is better to examine philosophy in light of what science has to say in related questions and science in terms of the challenges philosophy may bring. Separation leads to false positives and casual dismissals.

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The problem is, you cannot place science in front of the philosophical.
Epistomology is the driving frce behind the desire to gain knowledge. Science did not start that search…it is simply a tool that is manipulated and it’s results interpreted. It is the interpretation that is the problem with putting evolution before theology and this is why TEism remains a fundamentally flawed position. It cannot theologically reconcile the conflicts or doctrinal errors it encounters. So the Bible is then splashed with liquid paper where it clearly dissagrees with evolution. That is a fool’s errand.

The very first error in questions n is the reason for sin and it’s consequence…death. the Bible very specifically states…the wages of sin is death. Jesus died PHYSICALLY on the cross to make atonement for sin…he died PHYSICALLY.
A TEist cannot theologically claim death is not a consequence of sin. To do so is to throw out the entire Bible…and therefore Christianity. No person who holds that position can be Christian.

And neither can an OEC in your view. Did you figure this out on your own or do you have someone to thank for this view?

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I have a problem with phrases such as “human nature”, as this is context dependent. For theological discussions, I prefer discussing human attributes and how we view these within a moral/ethical context.

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“Human nature” goes to who/what we are so anything we can say about it will have to be more context dependent than the question. Maybe it is the kind of question for which we shouldn’t expect a concise answer.

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The meaning of what it is to be human is how I understood “human nature” at the beginning of the thread. I haven’t followed the subsequent comments that closely.

While we can and often disagree on what this meaning is, there is a tendency to think that it’s better if we just agree that this meaning is purely subjective, which is the same as saying there is no human nature.

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I apologize for starting a thread and disappearing. I have so much to reply to that I’ll break it into separate posts.

Heidegger certainly ran up against the limits of language. He’s mostly indecipherable to me. haha. Here’s an article you might like: Wittgenstein’s forgotten lesson: Wittgenstein’s philosophy is at odds with the scientism which dominates our times. Ray Monk explains why his thought is still relevant. A few snippets for the TL/DR crowd:



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