Scientific Research & Self-Development Activism
A while back when I was having dinner with relatives, they started talking and arguing about politics as usual, the economy, and how wars are fueled by corporate and political interests. My dad states that the government is after the wealth and resources from other countries. My uncle then replies, "They're greedy. It's human nature..."
When we see all the horrible things that we do to each other, many people would often say "it's because it's human nature." But when asked what exactly is human nature, I've gotten different answers. Why do many people blame our bad behavior on something that we know very little about? What exactly is "Human Nature"? It is blamed for pretty much every wrongdoing in the world, but is it really a valid explanation to bad behavior or is it a vague excuse for the way we act?
The Merriam Webster dictionary states that "Human Nature" is ": the nature of humans; especially : the fundamental dispositions and traits of humans." <== [ such a descriptive, informative, and enlightening definition of Human Nature, dontcha think? :p ]
Since I find the dictionary definition to be incredibly vague in my opinion, I decided to try a different approach. People often say that human nature cannot be changed. Referring to the dictionary definition above, what are the fundamental dispositions and traits of humans? Is it all set in stone or is it more malleable than we give it credit for? Is human nature dictated by genes or is there other factors that we must consider?
Do genes ultimately determine behavior? To attempt in answering that question, one has to look into Epigenetics, which is defined loosely as the study of the effects of the environment on gene expression. All organisms are products of the environment in which they live in. Environmental factors trigger biochemical reactions that influence which genes will be active or inactive. Environment can determine whether or not one will have different genetic diseases, disorders, and even certain human behaviors. For example, if someone has a gene that codes for violence or increased aggressiveness, it depends on the environmental factors in play that would activate that gene. Even though that person may have a predisposition to become an extremely aggressive individual, it does not mean that the person is destined to be aggressive as long as they did not grow up with abuse or violence at an early age. Knowing this, then the argument of Nature vs. Nurture is moot since epigenetics shows that it may be both Nature and Nurture that shapes an individual. We have the genes that code for certain behaviors, but it greatly depends on whether or not the environment in which we live in triggers those genes.
In the social sciences, "human behavior" is termed as the range of behaviors displayed by human beings, which are influenced by culture, attitudes, emotions, values, ethics, authority, rapport, hypnosis, persuasion, coercion, and/or genetics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_behavior). Perhaps then, to understand why we behave the way we do, we have to understand the environment. How we behave is largely influenced by society and our interactions with other people. If a child grew up in a poor neighborhood witnessing gunfights on a daily basis and nothing else, then we cannot expect him or her to become any better than what he or she has grown up with.
To conclude, perhaps "human nature" is not how we understand it to be. Perhaps human nature is simply the very basic biological functions of human beings - the need to reproduce, to eat, to sleep, to survive...etc, while our behaviors are changeable We simply do not know enough about "Human Nature" to point it out as the cause of all bad behavior in the world. To blame human nature for all the wrongdoings suggests that we are not placing enough responsibility on ourselves to govern our actions. We must be careful not use "human nature" to justify horrific actions. If we can change our behaviors, then wouldn't it be our responsibility to help prevent terrible things from happening? After all, it is as Edmund Burke had said: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Is "Human Nature" dictated by our genes or are our behaviors conditioned by our environment? Or is it both? What do you think?
In my view, phrases: "human nature", "homo homini lupus est" and alike, are all wrong. A human nature is shaped by various factors and in particular by genes, upbringing, environment, self-development, etcetera. In a word, it depends on a human being, if I can say so
I agree. I don't think that our personality and our behavior is purely genetic or purely influenced by environmental factors. I think that blaming our weaknesses on those things takes away from our responsibility to ourselves and each other. So I can agree with you there. We do have some choice in the matter since we are aware of our actions and why we act in a certain way.
Both of your viewpoints are indeed where my thoughts lie on this topic. I'm glad you brought up this issue of personal responsibility. Too often I think we can get carried away with notions of personality being predetermined due to one factor or another. Any thought-capable human has the capacity for forced personal change I think.
Though, I do think that depending on the individual, certain personal changes and personality types are much more feasible than others. That spectrum of the most feasible personalities and dispositions a person could have is what I think I would call "human nature." However, in line with Tea's thought, this definition is inherently based on the individual.
I think anyone would be hardpressed to find a universal intrinsic nature in humans. Indeed, we have all heard of outliers that do things other people would find very "un-human" like (suicide, masochism, BDSM maybe?, pedophila, etc.) Indeed, with enough data we might be able to put together several histograms of the most common traits/personalities/dispositions amongst humans. This might be the closest thing to a "univeral human nature" that we can achieve because, as I mentioned before, there will always be plenty of outliers screwing up "human nature" 2 std. deviations away.
"Gautama discovered that struggling to find answers did not work. It was only when there were gaps in his struggle that insights came to him. He began to realize that there is a sane, awake quality within him which manifested itself in the absence of struggle." (Trungpa)
So, answering the big questions involves “letting be”.
A very interesting topic.
Personally, I think there is no such thing as human nature. If i had to say what I think is meant by what people call "human nature" though, I would say something like: the behavioral pattern of currently living (and maybe recent generations of) humans, averaged over the entire population. In other words, I think what we percieve as "human nature" is just what is normal for the people we observe.
On to the question of Nature vs Nurture.
I think it is important to remember that that a gene does not, by it self, determine behaviour (violent, friendly, hateful, loving, religous or whatever), but the production of one or more proteins. These proteins allow/regulate chemical reactions in our bodies that eventually, through our nervous systems, leads to behavior when the effects of all the reactions come together. So I think drawing a direct line from single genes to behavior is wrong, but taking the (extremely vast, intricate, dynamic and complex) network of effects from gene products, chemical environment in our bodies and our plastic nervous systems... well, it gets complicated.
So, I think everything that can ever be called human nature, must stem from our genetics and internal chemical environment. I also think our genetic material is static, allthough epigenetics can change certain (very important) features of it, like expression rates, and so forth, but rarely the actual product. Since every cell in our body contains all our genes, I think it only has superficial effects on our lives. It can have huge impacts on the unborn though, since epigenetic alterations on just a single reproductive cell will change genetic material in ALL cells of your future child. On a side note, personally, I would put epigenetics on the Nature-side of the debate; the chemical environment around the DNA is not a direct effect of nurture, though it can be a cause (much like a gene is not the sole cause of behavior).
In summary, I think
1) human nature is just the population's average behavior
2) behavior is an effect of an extremely complex system of chemicals and physiology
3) epigenetics is still genetics, and is most important to consider when reproducing
When you say our genetic material is static, do you mean the DNA we're born with, as an individual? Or, that it stays static through generations?
Oh, sorry about not being more precise, and thanks for the follow-up. I mean on a personal level, as in, my genetic material is static through my life.
Most cells will likely experience some change in 'their' genetic material, from epigenetics for example. However, statistically speaking, they are unlikely to all go through the exact same change, on the same gene, and therefore the individual's genetic material as a whole is not really changed.
From my understanding, the study of epigenetics is new and we don't know a whole lot of how much power it plays in genetic development/expression over time. It is indeed most powerful within the womb, and the environment of the womb and effects of carcinogins are great examples of epigenetics.
I am inclined to agree with you about epigenetics being relatively weak in adulthood. However, I would not be surprised if epigenetics plays a relatively potent role in mental/emotional/physical development in growing children. Indeed, what is childhood if not a lengthy, more stable critical period (i.e. critical periods within the womb), where the creature is still growing and developing to the full potential of its genetic code. Besides, epigenetic gene and gene product regulation can have a lot of potential with changes in hormone balances, a growing prefrontal cortex, etc.
very good points about childhood development and gene expression influencing hormone balance etc.
I would like to add, though, that I think other factors play a similarly large, if not much larger, roles in keeping our internal environment in homeostasis, than adult epigenetics. Things such as what you eat, how you excercise, the medicines you take and the air you breath, directly change the chemical balances within you. In my head, this chemical balance determines pretty much what you think, and how you feel and act, so I think it is important to consider.
ps. I still classify these things as "Nature", not really sure where the line is drawn, and whether we even need it at all...
But how big is the influence of our genes? E.g., I would say that jealousy is part of human nature. If you look at polygamic life-styles where 1 man has many wives you are able to find wives that are jealous; and yet, for others it's totally normal. Do you think everyone is able to not become jealous, even if he/she has to share or give up his/her love? Or is it, because of our genes, just possible to train yourself to be less jealous and people who seem not to be jealous still are a tiny bit?
The need to create, that is what, in my opinion, constitutes human nature. Look around you, look at the world. The human race has created most of things that surround us: places to live, tools to use, games to play...the list never ends. Now take a look at other animals, what have they created? You will find animals do not create, and only rarely (most intelligent apes) will they be able to use objects, such as sticks, as tools. However, they do not modify the world, they do not carve a stick to make it more useful for a certain purpose. We do, and we are the only species who does.
You will find I wrote "need" to create, instead of "ability" or "capacity". Why did I do this? Well, recently I had a class on subjectivity, where we started to explore the origin of subjectivity. This took us all the way back to wall paintings that date from about 30.000 years ago. Now, apparently (and I am no expert), at the beginning, it was a single individual that did the paintings. They could tell this from the hand prints, they all belonged to the same guy. They could also tell that the cave was not one where people lived, but rather that someone went there specifically to paint. Based on this, and probably on some other evidence, experts arrived to an amazing conclusion: The paintings were not done to communicate. Why did they do it, then? To create. And that is all there is to it. We have the compulsive need to create, to change the world around us, and that is the only trait I can see as specifically human.
Regarding what others wrote about selfishness, adaptation, and so on, I believe they are all traits you can see in people, but they can also be seen in animals. Creation is specific to humans. Maybe it's not the answer you were looking for. Probably not the answer people think about when they think about human nature. Maybe we are just looking for answers like "intelligence", or "empathy".
But think about it..."creation". Isn't it the most awesome answer of all?
^ I like this answer. Kudos for you, dude!