Human Nature

Figure 1.--

Human nature is a term which refers to the intrinic distinguishing characteristics of humanity apart from culture. We know that adukts behave differently affected by the cultures in which thy were raised. Infants could theoretically be placed in any culture and do perfectly well despite their origins. This is a much more complicated topic than it may seem because some critical human behaviors such as language are believed to be learned at critical age periods and once missed the ability to learn lanuage is greatly impaired. This means that human nature can not be completelty separated from culture. Man has evolved to be a cultural being and thus culture is an essential part of human nature. This can be seem in feral children. The subject of human nature has been one which has fascinated man from the dawn of civiization. A wide range of issues emerged besides trying to separate intrinsic behaviors from culture. Issues include what intrinsic behaviors are, what causes them nd how they are transmitted, and how fixed human nature is. These questions are among the oldest and deepest questions in philosophy. And for most of human history, they were considered before the modern science of genetics and DNA were understood. The answers are, however, are not just theoretical, phuilosophical musings. They have vast implications in ethics, politics, economics, child rearing, theology, and ther areas. Human nature has been seen as both a justification for norms of conduct as well as presenting obstacles on living a good life or building a society. The Enligtenment ebraced human nature and idealized the nobel savage. This is seen in the American Declaration of Independence. Marxism takes a different approach. The Soviet Union sought to supress human nature and remake citizens as the new, improved Soviet Man which was probably a major reason the Soviet Union ultimately failed.

Feral Children

A feral meaning child growing up in the wild apart from other humans from a young age have been reported since ancient times. Some of these children are alleged to have been raised by nimals. Others my have lived in the wild on their own. Such children are very rare, but more than a hundred such children have been reported. One of the earliest are the legendary Romans, Romulus and Remus who were according to the legend raised by wolves. There have continued to be reports of such children into modern times. Since they did not experience enculturation they would seem to be way of assessing human nature. This has, however, not proved to be the case. Many of the reported feral children have ben frauds. Others have been abndoned because of handicps, most commonly mental retardation. But the greatest problem is that of language. This is a critical aspect of being human and if the developing young mind is not exposed to lnguage at a very young age, the child will not develop basic language skills. This has aowerful impact on their behavior. As language is a basic element of being human, it is difficult to assess human nature in such children.

Early Homonids

There is no precise date for the beginning of the Paleolithic period, but about 2 million years ago is a good rough estimate. It approximately marks the point at which homonids began to become human. Anthropolgists have found many early ape species in Africa. Most are evolutioinary dead ends. A few are in the lineage of modern man, but that line is not yet understood with percision. There were many species of Australopithecus. This is the homonoid genus that diverged from ape-like species. Archaeologists and palaeontologists generally believe that australopiths played a key role in human evolution. One of the australopith species is believed to have evolved into the Homo genus in Africa around 2 million years ago. Homo erectus was probably the first hominid to ldevelop a hunter-gatherer society--the life style of humans for most of our history. Most anthropologists identify H. erectus as the first homonid to look much like modern humans and to develop social relationships more like modern humans than the more ape-like Australopithecus species that preceeded it. The Homo specis tended to have increased cranial capacity which generally coincides with the increasingly sophisticated tools some times found with the fossils. Another important species was H. ergaster. Scientists are not entirely sure about the relationship between H. erectus and H. egaster These early fosil remains are extrenely rare and thus it is dificuklt to know for sure if they are really different species. Scientists are, however, making important strides in fitting together the relationship of these different species. A sucessor species, was also found in Africa about 1.8 million years ago, but spread all over the Old World. Erectus had a larger brain reflected in more sophisticated tools. He may also have discovered the use of fire. A key early Homo species was Homo habilis--the tool maker. The neolithic species can be dated with the appearance of H. habalis. This of course demonstrates the importance of tools is the making of modern man. H. habilis, like all the ape species in the human evolutionary line, lived in Africa. Homo sapiens or modern man originated in Africa about 0.4 million years ago. These people also spread throughout the Old World and eventually reaching the New World. One notable characteristic of H. sapiens is aack of genetic diversity, far less than most other species. It is believed that this reflects a kind of genetic bottle neck in which obnly a small number of humans survived. Some believe that this genetic bottle neck was caused by the eruption of the Toba mega-volcano and resulting in a mini-ice age about 75.000 years ago.

Stone Age People

There are two types of stone age people which may have insights as to human nature. Theoretically as these people are closer to nature and have been enculturated in a less sophisticated culture, there hehavior more significantly relects actual human nature. Here we are talking about fully modern people antaomically. There are two types of stone age people which may provide insights. First are the stone age people of pre-history from the evolution of Homo sapiens. Some may also want toinclude Neanderthals. There is a problem in studying their behavior as they no longer exist. Anthorpoligists can study fossils and artifacts, but there are limitations as to the behavior than can be setermined. The second group are modern stone age people tht have been able to avoid contact with modern society. The largest such groups are the Native American tribes of the Amazon. And their behavior and culture can be studied in great detail, although many have now been ffected by increasing cultural contact with modern society. Here technological trabsfer is a facor. A less obvious factor is that these people hve been driven into less desiravke areas by modern people. In addition, the surviving stone age people have been forced into enviroments of much highrer population density than was the case of stone age people in pre-history.


The Enligtenment

The Enlightenment along with the Renaisance and Reformation was a key step in the formation of the Western mind. Many of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers were French, but the Enlightenment was a movement which over time affected all of Europe to varying degrees. America was also affected by the Enlightenment, but the American exoerience was different, in part because of the Great Awakening. The Enlightenment is also termed the Age of Reason. Authors define it differently and there were many different aspects, but the Enlightenment at it heart was a basic turn in the Western mindset. The West for more than a milenium had been dominated by religion, often descrined as faith. Even the Reformation had not changed this. In fact the Protestants were often more consumed with faith and theological questions than the Roman church. With the Enlightenment, primacy was given to reason. Intelectuals began to think that objective truth about life and the universe could be achieved through rational thought. The advances achieved in physics, led by Sir Issac Newton in Britain, had a profound impact on European intellectuals. Enlightenment writers begasn to think that the same kind of systematic thinking could be used to understand and improve areas of human activity as well. A whole new system of aesthetics, ethics, government, and logic was developed based on reason. The Enligtenment was an era of great optimism. Enlightenment thinks were convinced that reason could dramatically improve society. They were not openly athiestic, but they were highly critical of religion which they often equated with irrationality and superstition. The Enlightement also attacked political tyranny. The intelectual ferment of the Enlightenment led to the American and subsequent Latin American revolutions as well as the French Revolution which had a much more pronounced impact on Europe. the Enlightenment prepared the foundation for both classical liberalism and capitalism. There were comparable movements in music (high baroque and classical) and art (neo-classical).



The question of violence in human affairs is an interesting one. It touches on the intrinsic nature of man and the institutions that he creates. The widely-held popular concept is that violence has been increasing and that modern times, especially the 20th century, was the most violent in human history. And even today in the 21st, the 24-hour electronic news cycle constantly reports on crime, war, and terrorism around the world. Certainl the wars of the 20th century, especially World War I and World War II, were the greatest conflicts ever fought with massive casualties. And this incuded especially horendous numbers of civilians during World War II. And the totalitarian powers (both Fascist and Communists) of the 20th centuries killed huge numbers of people. Asessing violence, however, is more complicated. Here both population and technology complicate the discussion. Surely in absolute body count, the 20h century has been the most violent. But surely a more accurate comparitive assesment would involve the percentage of people killed. The Bible describes very violent times. The Huns and Mongols depopulated whole areas. And because of the growth of population, the 20th century in relative percentage of people killed from violence has not been the most deadly. The other variable factor is technology. And here the assessment entails ethical questions. Is violence only measured from the body count. Which is the most violent act, a cave man bashing in the head of a rival over the carcass of a hare or an Allied air attack during World war II designed to end the capacity of the NAZIs to wage war. Here we get int the point of the violence. A few historians contend that that violence has in fact been diminising for millenia in human affairs and that not only the 21st century, but even the 20th century have been relatively peaceful times. Since the end of World War II there has been peace in Europe and the wars that vhave occurred have been much more limited. One factot here hs been peace-keeping efforts. One historian argues that peave keeping has been more effectove than commonly believed. [Goldstein] One journalist writes, "Man's inhumanity to man has long been a subject for moralization. With the knowledge that something has driven it down. we can also treat it as a matter of cause and effect. Instead of asking, 'Why is ther war?' we might ask, 'Why is there peace?' We can obsess not just over what we have been doing wrong but also over what we have been doing right. Because we have been doing something right, and it would be good to know what, exactly, it is." [Pinker] A key factor here is that both democracy and capitalism have taken decesions out of the hands of aristocratic elites that are all too send common people and state resources for war. The Markxists argued that socialism would end wars that captalists cause. In fact the Communists have along with the Fascists been the major pervaors of violence in the 20th century. It has been the liberal decmoracies with capitalist economies or mixed economies that have resisted war.


Clothes send all kinds of obvious and some more subtle signials as we have disussed in the image essay. Changing fashion trends showcase changing social views of childhood. Indeed the emergence of specialized children's clothes in the late 18th century coinside with the emergence of the modern western view of childhood. The modern concept of childhood is very different than the way children were viewed in the 17th century. It was in the Victorian age that modern concepts of childhood and family began to be adopted by increasing numbers of children. This is when the expanding middle-class began to adopt the new destinctive styles for children. This was not the case for working-class children. They had little or no childhood in the modern sence and there clothing tended to be the same style as their parents. In fact their clothes were often their parents old clothes, cut down to fit them. Only grdually did working-class children begin to experience a modern childhood. This shift can be observed to some extent in the clothes that the children wore.

New Soviet Man

The Bolsheviks inspired by Karl Mark and Communism seized power in Russia (1917). They held power for for 70 years and during that time undertook to create a new society and a new man, giving no consideration to actual human nature. This was a effort unprecedented in human history. The Bolsheviks announced the their intention to construct Communism throughout the entire world as their ultimate goal. In this new utopian society, private property was to be abolished. It was to be an atheistic society, not only denying the existence of God and an imprtal soul, but activly preventing people from practicing religious beliefs. Only the material aspct of life were to be recognized as reality. The new society was to be free of any ethnic affiliations. And only communists, the true blievers, were to have any authority in the new society. And that authority would be unlimited without any restriuctions on power. To achieve this objectiv, the Blosheviks decided from an early point that a new man would have to be created. The new Soviet man ws to be free of ethnic affiliations and ideas of private property. He would be trained to beready to sacrifice himself for the benefit of society. And he accept that nothing of him would remain after death. The Soviet man would be entirely materialist and atheist and believe that any meaning of life was in his usefulness to society and forwarding the ultimate goal of creating the better, wealthier, and happier Communist socirty described by Marx. It beame immediately obvious that certain existing classes of society would delay or actively impede this objective. This included several overlapping groups: aristocratrs, military officers, landowners, religiou believers, the wealthier peasants (kulaks), the middle-class, businessmen, ethnic groups, and others. So it ws decided that these classes had to be eliminated. The first efforts of elimination were timid comapred to what eventually became state policy under Stalin. Communists today blame the bloodshed and Gulag on the excesses of Stalin. The same process, however, unfolded where ever Communists seized power to varying degrees depending on the cultural heritage of the various countries. And because that The Communists ignored human nature, each of these socities proved abject failures, not only in economic trms but also in supressing ethnic and nationalist loyalties. The economic failire ws manifest in the low living standards throughout the Commnis wrl. It was most manifest in the split countries (China, Grmany, and Korea). A the Soviet Unin collapsed, on of the most powerful factors was ethnicity. And we can see in recent years that Russian ethnic and nationalist beliefs are just as strong today as it was before the Revolution.


Goldstein, Josuha S. Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide (2011), 400p.

Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declines (201), 832p.


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Created: 1:56 PM 10/14/2012
Last updated: 7:45 PM 4/20/2014