Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Human Nature

I'm really glad I started this project, the comments have been fabulous. In this post I'm going to touch on issues that various people have raised, so while I have the monopoly of the top level here I don't want people to feel that I'm privileged in this discussion. Please do read everybody's comments, they're as good as what I have to say.

So, anthropologists and social psychologists have been on a quest for quite some time now to understand what may be universal about human behavior, and what may contingent. This problem gets conceptually complex very quickly because the possible contingencies interact, because we have to think about mutability over time as well as space, social position, and at the level of both individual variation within groups, and variation between groups, and because it is maddeningly difficult to sort out factual problems from arguments over definition and morality.

For this format, I have to simplify and strip down the discussion to get to the nut. That includes throwing down some categories without bothering to justify or even rigorously define them. This is just an outline, in other words.

Some universals are pretty obvious and well accepted. All humans are social beings, who live in groups and interact according to various social roles. Kinship is an important category of role relationship in every human society. Like all mammals we have the mother-child relationship but we also keep track of our fathers, our grandparents, our cousins, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews. Chimpanzees live in bands of related individuals, but it does not appear that they make much, if any distinction beyond motherhood, although father generally refrain from murdering their own offspring.

We universally have language, but we have thousands of different ones and they all change over time and have all sorts of regional and subgroup variations. There are commonalities at a very deep level but they are far from apparent. It is possible to say things in some languages that simply cannot be said in others. On the other hand, some concepts can be mapped quite clearly onto all languages. It is extremely important to note that language does not only represent reality. In fact most natural discourse has other functions, defined by speech acts, which are social resources exchanged through language -- such as making a promise, expressing feelings, praising, condemning, ordering, permitting, soothing, etc. I haven't gotten the big NSF grant to do the research to prove it, but I'm willing to bet 50 pounds of fresh Brandywine tomatoes that the taxonomy of speech acts is universal across human cultures.

And so on and so forth. Cultures are all built from these same blocks, but the constructions are astonishingly various, from the Spartan warrior culture to Polynesian fishers, from Haight-Ashbury hippies to Hells Angels biker gangs. Within every culture there is also enormous individual variation in temperament, talents, anti- and pro-social behavior.

There is also complex feedback between culture and the "nature" of the humans who are part of it. For example, we make everybody go to school. This not only develops specific skills such as reading and computing -- the use of which changes our brains, our temperaments, our beliefs, our social behavior -- and directly fills our heads with knowledge and beliefs, it also teaches us to live by a clock, to sit quietly in rows unless we have permission not to, to speak only in turn or when called upon, and so on. All of these are habits necessary to the work environment into which we will one day graduate. This makes our nature different from that of people who do not go to school, and therefore all of us are very unlike everyone who lived 3,000 years ago.

To finally get to the point, one of the important divides in our contemporary culture is between what I will label the conservative and liberal views of human nature. For the most part, these views are held by people who would merit, and likely accept, the corresponding political labels, but there are exceptions.

The conservative view is that there is an essential, fixed frame of reference human nature which has important moral status, and must be protected against threatening cultural forces or technological developments. The liberal view is that human nature is what we make of it, that we can strive to enhance it, expand it, grow it into new possibilities. Of course, these are just tendencies of preference and thought, and from either side one runs into paradoxes, which I'll let you work out for yourselves if you care to.

The reason I think this is so important is that the world in 50 years is not going to be very much like the world today, and even less like the world of the late 19th Century which is the American conservative Golden Age. We're going to need a different kind of human to succeed in that world. It will have to be a world of much greater equality between the genders, less individualism and more commitment to community, much greater comity and cooperation among communities and cultural groups (whether in the guise of nation-states or otherwise) and at the same time with far more universality of education, critical thinking skills, and opportunity. So that's a liberal position, obviously.

Next: Where do morals come from?

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