The many faces of human nature

Ivan Kenneally and Larry Arnhart continue their dialogue over Darwinian Conservatism. Ivan says:

…In the spirit of a “comprehensive science” as described by Leo Strauss, Arnhart recommends a more monistic approach that captures not only our natural inclinations but those that seem to resist and defy nature. However, it’s not clear to me that Arnhart’s (or Darwin’s) “naturalistic” account doesn’t achieve this comprehensiveness by refusing to take seriously the many ways in which human beings war with nature technologically and otherwise–his attempt to replace a traditional dualism with a Darwinian monism seems to simply collapse our efforts to transcend nature into an “emergent” property of nature itself. The problem with any theoretical monism is that it seems to require some measure of reductionism to fit all kinds of heterogeneous phenomena under the umbrella of a singular explanatory principle. It might be better to look for a “comprehensive” account that includes the sometimes inconsistent inclinations that make us unique and that is genuinely scientific because it takes its bearings from the experience we have ourselves and others as whole human persons.

I’ve already expressed some suspicion of “ultimate theories” and “systems.” I would offer that my own view of the utility of the sciences of human nature is of a proximate sense. Its straightforward use is more in establishing reasonable parameters in construction of a bridge, not in entailing that the bridge be constructed at a particular location. But, I do think it is important to distinguish various facets of human nature, and how they might differ in their relevance to our flourishing.

Some evolutionarily informed cognitive psychologists and anthropologists argue that our intuitions exhibit domain specificity. That is, humans are endowed with folk physics, folk biology, folk psychology, and so forth. Modern civilization is in direct contradiction to many of the intuitions of folk physics; and yet we humans seem to be able to carry on with the contradictions with our intuition without much suffering. Evolutionary biology contradicts folk biology, and genetic engineering will likely confound the biological boundaries between human and non-human more & more over the coming years. This seems to cause more distress, and some Creationists make an instrumental argument for why evolutionary biology is pernicious: if you teach children that they are animals, they will behave as such. I am generally skeptical of such contentions, though it is an empirical matter. It is when we come into the domain of folk psychology, and human relations, where our intuitions and human flourishing are most closely integrated. While humans seem to be able to utilize technologies which might contradict our intuitions upon closer inspection, the distress is minimal or superficial. But when it comes to working against our psychological biases the potential for robust distress is I believe greater; e.g., utopian experiments with free love and communal families tend to be ephemeral.

It may be trivially obvious that biology is ultimately reducible to chemistry which is reducible to physics. But the distinction between these disciplines remains because operationally the heuristics and abstractions which are useful in physics may not be useful in biology. Similarly, human nature may be one, but I think it serves us well to take into account various domains and elements distinctively. Though a taboo upon consumption of human flesh may simply be a relict of various ancient adaptations, I am generally skeptical of the utility in contemporary circumstances of a campaign to overcome the revulsion so as to make use of protein resources which are going to waste when old individuals die.*  The gadgets which our lives are girded by extend & enrich our native social and psychological well being; norms do not emerge from folk physics, they do emerge from folk psychology.

* I am well aware of cannibalism in various societies. I believe there are three main causes for this behavior. First, circumstances of very low protein availability, as in agricultural societies in Mesoamerica. Second, the individuals consumed were outsiders. Not part of the ingroup, and so somehow not totally human. Thirdly, ritual consumption of members of the ingroup. The last, from what I know, usually occurs when societies have a particular conception of ensoulment and the afterlife which makes this behavior rational.  In Mesoamerica these three aspects combined, as “Flower Wars” broke out against enemy nations to obtain captives for ritual sacrifice who were also subsequently consumed.

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