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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14 Responses to The many faces of human nature

  1. DCB says:

    On the topic of Mesoamerican protein availability, I recently read an interesting article derived from a 1978 argument against Dr. Harner’s hypothesis.

    Less interestingly, I agree that folk psych is less readily reducible than its environmental counterparts (this is less interesting only in the sense that I have no original thoughts to contribute at this time).

  2. David Hume says:

    re: cannibalism hypothesis, just to be clear, i’m not offering a monocausal model. that is, obviously nutritional deficiency isn’t sufficient, since people who eat other members of their ingroup are routinely ostracized or severely punished. so that’s why i don’t find the datum that aztecs weren’t eating each other persuasive. i think the key is that you eat those who are not part of your group. i find it plausible that religion was a necessary pressure to allow people to feel like they could break the taboo of eating people, but recent work in the past few years shows a lot of aztec cannibalism even by common people (burying bones in their yards, etc.). there was some sort of distribution system after of the sacrifice of the “meat.”

  3. A-Bax says:

    It’s amazing how much the concept of “purity” plays a role in religions. It seems to be a function of the revulsion reflex, which is in turn based on the universal experience of “disgust”. (Which Atran and Boyer, of course, have mcuh to say about).

    I get the sense that part of what bothers so many religious about evolution is, as Hume puts it, the confounding of the biological barriers between human and non-human. And that this confounding implicitly calls into question the “purity” of what it means to be human, (which then triggers the disgust reflex, etc.)

    Interestingly, much of the Left is also seemingly just as bothered by this same “confounding”. But, in their case, the unease stems more from the fact that as the line becomes more blurred, it’s harder to maintain the view that human nature is (nearly) infinitely pliable, and thus amenable to social engineering.

    Steve Sailer has a great pair of articles about Darwin’s enemies from both ends of the political spectrum:

  4. matoko_chan says:

    I have always been interested in the concept of martyrdom, as an argument that the biological basis of religious belief is hardwired very deep. But how many martyrs actually were given a true choice of recanting and chose instead the flames? History occludes the real circumstances, because the followers of the martyr always lionize their sacrifice. And are Islamic fundamentalist that homicide bomb purely motivated by religious fervor? I think some are, some have mixed motivations. But Porete, Bruno, Hallaj, Jesus?
    who knows……..

  5. matoko_chan says:

    And of course, the actions of “purist” fundamantalist guild that expunges the corrupted religious belief, or attempts to stop the spread of religious ideology…..fascinating…memetic hygiene…. analogous to stopping the spread of a plague.
    Donne said, “…men have died, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”
    Many, many men have died for religion.

  6. matoko_chan says:

    And wouldn’t parasites have been partial cause for an ancient taboo against same-species consumption?
    Do animals eat their own dead?

  7. Grant Canyon says:


    Off topic, but I never understood the utility of the expression “homicide bomber” as an alternative to the expression “suicide bomber.” The latter is, to me, is a much more apt and descriptive term. The bomber killed himself, which would be true, regardless of whether anyone else was killed, and “homicide bomber” doesn’t add anything to the conversation.

    Indeed, going by the strict meaning of the words, a USAF pilot who drops a bomb on a terrorist would be a “homicide bomber,” technically. So I don’t get the utility in the phrase. “Homicide bomber” seems to be trying to be PC or something. Maybe you could explain for me.

  8. matoko_chan says:

    oh….well the goal being to kill as many reps as possible along with oneself.
    Perhaps suicide/homicide bomber might be more clear, but I thought that was implied. A traditional suicide just kills themself, without the goal of killing as many additional “enemies” as possble. A better analogy would be the Japanese kamikaze in WWII. Maximizing collateral destruction.

  9. matoko_chan says:

    Strictly speaking, I don’t consider the jihaadis to be martyred for their faith……they are killing themselves, not being killed for believing.
    The whole jihaad-as-duty is just spin for recruiting purposes.

  10. ◄Dave► says:

    I never understood the utility of the expression “homicide bomber” as an alternative to the expression “suicide bomber.” … Maybe you could explain for me.

    I agree and it has always irritated me. I recall the genesis of the construct. It was during the Second Intifada while we were still trying to make sense of 9/11/01 in the Spring of ’02. Fox News was reporting horrific suicide bombings in Israel every few days, and other news outlets were starting to use the Muslim spin of “Martyrdom Mission” for PC purposes. This irritated some of the reporters/anchors on Fox and one made the point in an on-air discussion that their purpose was homicide, not suicide. They decided to make that point during their reporting, and the discordant phrase was born. ◄Dave►

  11. Grant Canyon says:

    “Perhaps suicide/homicide bomber might be more clear, but I thought that was implied.”
    See, I thought that the “trying to kill others” was implied in “suicide bomber” by the use of the word “bomber.” Interesing. Thanks.

  12. Ritebrother says:

    David Hume: “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.”

    Just an anecdote: This statement reminded me of an issue that arose in Pennsylvania in the early 90’s. A congessman (I can’t recall who) was very pubicly and vocally calling for the curtailing of biology teaching in PA schools because it “wasn’t a hard science like chemistry and physics.” The motives were obviously the perceived threat to biblical literalism, and the issue went nowhere. However, I recall being startled by the realization that the reducibility of biolgy to chemistry and ultimately physics is in fact NOT obvious to many people. So, while the distinctions are convenient and appropriate for the reason you mention, such parsing may contribute to misunderstanding by some.

  13. matoko_chan says:

    Since suicide means “kill self” then a suicide bomber could be taking out, say, a nuclear reactor, along with himself.
    Homicide bomber gives credit to one of the prime motivations, to maximize the loss of other people’s lives in the taking of one’s own.

  14. matoko_chan says:

    And not physics, math.
    Pythagoras (number is the ruler of forms and ideas and the cause of gods and demons) to Tegmark (In other words, our successful theories are not mathematics approximating physics, but mathematics approximating mathematics.)

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