The nature of human nature

The cultural anthropologist Ashley Montagu once said that what cultural anthropologists were really interested in was “the nature of human nature”. So what do they think it is?

Today, all humans are members of the same species, homo sapiens. We know what our main features are: upright position freeing our hands, stereoscopic vision allowing us to see things in three dimensions, a long period of growing up, the anatomical ability to utter a wide range of sounds, and, last but not least, a powerful brain as the centre of our nervous system. These are all genetic features, inherited via our genes, and are what distinguishes us, genetically, from other animals and living things.

Before us there were other species of homo (Man) but which are now extinct. The most well-known of these was Neanderthal Man which only became extinct about 30,000 or so years ago. Then there were the likely direct ancestors of our species: homo habilis (which Richard Dawkins translates as “handy Man”) and homo erectus or upright Man. The currently available evidence suggested that the first Man, as distinct from the last Ape-Man, emerged about two million years ago.

But this is partly a question of definition since biologists distinguish the first Man from the last Ape-Man by brain size – an inevitably arbitrary, genetic distinction. Anthropologists have introduced another but non-biological distinction: the generalised making and use of tools. While the ability to make tools depends on biology (free hands, good eyesight, more powerful brain)  the actual making of the tools – and what they were and how they were used – does not; it is learned not inherited and, as such, part of what anthropologists call “culture”.

It is now generally accepted that the evolution of homo habilis  (toolmaking Man, if you don’t like Dawkins’s translation) into modern humans was not just a question of biology but also of culture; that it was a biological-cultural co-evolution. That, as Man made and used tools, natural selection favoured those with a more powerful brain and so a greater ability to learn and, crucially, to think abstractly (i.e. of something not present to the senses). Since abstract thinking and language are probably indissolubly linked, this depended on the development of the vocal cords and other parts of our speech organs. The end-result was us, some 150,000 years ago, on the savannah, or open grasslands, of East Africa.

Since then the most noticeable biological change was the development of the different varieties of our species – sometimes mis-called “races” – as isolated groups of homo sapiens adapted biologically through natural selection, over many thousands of years, to the different physical environments in which they lived.

Otherwise human adaptation has been cultural rather than biological: humans making use of their biological capacities, to build-up a social tradition so as to better adapt to their environment, which is then passed on to a new generation through teaching and learning rather than through genes.

“Cultural anthropology is concerned with the study of man’s cultures. By ‘culture’ the anthropologist understands what may be called the man-made part of the environment; the pots and pans, the laws and institutions, the art, religion, philosophy. Whatever a particular group of people living together as a functioning population have learned to do as human beings, their way of life, in short, is to be regarded as culture” (Ashley Montagu, Man: His First Million Years, 1957).

Culture allows humans to adapt to a new or changing environment much, much more rapidly than biological adaptation through natural selection ever could. Cultural adaptation is measured in decades while biological adaptation is measured in tens of thousands of years. Other animals do have a culture in the sense of a tradition of behaviour that is passed on through learning, but none can vary and develop it as humans can. So, the capacity for adaptation through cultural change can be said to be a distinguishing feature of our species. It is of course a biologically-determined capacity, dependent upon in particular a powerful brain and the capacity to speak and on the extended period of childhood during which culture can be learned.

This is “human nature”: the set of biological capacities enabling humans to learn, teach and develop culture, which is a non-biological means of adapting to the environment in which they find themselves. Faced with a new environment, humans can and do adapt their behaviour not their biological make-up. Because culture is non-biological and not fixed, the cultural anthropologists emphasised that educability, behavioural adaptability and flexibility was the key feature of human nature, what made us human:

“The most notable thing about human behaviour is that it is learned. Everything a human being does as such he has to learn from other human beings. From any dominance of  biologically or inherited predetermined reactions that may prevail in the behaviour of other animals, man has moved into a zone of adaptation in which his behaviour is dominated by learned responses. It is within the dimension of culture, the learned, the man-made part of the environment that man grows, develops, and has his being as a behaving organism” (Ashley Montagu, Man and Aggression, 1968).

This biological capacity for culture, for learning behaviour and passing on to other humans and to other generations, was clearly an adaptive advantage and it is this that has allowed our species to spread and survive in all parts of the world, despite the widely differing environments. Much less of the behaviour of other animals is learned (and what is learned is essentially repetitive from generation to generation) and much more is governed by what used to be called “instincts”.

This is a word that has long fallen out of favour in scientific circles, but it would simply denote a fixed response to a given stimulus – like the literal knee-jerk reaction in humans. Or moths flying into lights. Another, more complicated response would be squirrels reacting to the shortening of periods of daylight by going into hibernation.

What the brain does is to allow a period between the stimulus and the response. The more developed the brain the wider the range of possible behavioural responses that the organism can make on the basis of its own past experience. We are the animals with the most developed brain and it is one that allows us the greatest choice of behavioural responses. So much so, the cultural anthropologists argued, that it can be said that we don’t really have any instincts. According to Montagu, any “instincts” that might have existed in the pre-human ape-men from which we evolved would have disappeared in the course of evolution:

“Instead of leading to fixed responses to the environment, man’s evolution has been such as to make him the least behaviourally fixed and most generally educable or plastic of all living creatures. It is this very plasticity of his mental traits that confers upon man the position he occupies. The acquisition of this capacity freed man from the constraint of the limited range of biologically predetermined responses that characterises all other animals” (Human Heredity, 1963 edition)

“ . . . man is man because he has no instincts because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of his environment, from other human beings” (Man and Aggression).

The scientific consensus that was established in the 1940s, 50s and 60s was that it was “human nature” to be able to have a wide range of  behavioural responses to the environment; that human behaviour was learned not innate; that it was culturally not biologically determined. This was confirmation that there is nothing in the biological nature of humans that would prevent us living in the co-operative, non-hierarchical, society of self-motivated individuals that socialism would be.

Since then the biological determinists have regrouped and counter-attacked, claiming that there still are “biologically predetermined responses” in humans. They have made some headway in that biological determinism is more intellectually acceptable than it was fifty years ago. People like Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, Desmond Morris, E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker  – none of them anthropologists – have been able to achieve some popular success. But they have only done this by playing to the gallery, exploiting the fact that most people have a negative view of human nature – inherited from the Christian dogma of original sin and innate human depravity – and knowing that they could sell their books by pandering to this prejudice. Ardrey, Morris and Pinker also appealed to anti-intellectualism to ridicule and marginalise the scientific findings of the cultural anthropologists by painting them as an arrogant, liberal elite.

But they have failed to show how genes could determine human behaviour (as opposed to setting limits to it). Basically, genes are self-replicating codes for the production of the proteins in the cells of which we (and all other life-forms) are made. What they govern is the development and renewal of our physical, material bodies. They don’t govern behaviour – that depends, as the cultural anthropologists have established, on our social and cultural environment.

The biological determinists hoped that advances in genetics would back up their case, but it is proving to be their undoing. Molecular biologists are making huge advances in identifying and discovering the effect of individual human genes. And they are not discovering genes for any behaviour, only for how the human body develops and renews itself – and what happens when a gene is faulty or abnormal or unusual. In which case the person concerned will suffer some, usually crippling bodily defect, but which genetics holds out the hope of someday being able to correct.

The findings of the cultural anthropologists still stand. All human social behaviour has to be learned and so is culturally not biologically determined. A key distinguishing feature of our species is behavioural adaptability. Human nature is not a barrier to socialism.


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