Human nature  

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Allegory of the World (1515) from the studio of  Joachim Patinir
Allegory of the World (1515) from the studio of Joachim Patinir

"Scratch an 'altruist', and watch a 'hypocrite' bleed" --Michael Ghiselin, on human nature.

The 19th century was scandalized when Charles Darwin implied that humans were descendant from primates, much as in the 20th century when Sigmund Freud implied that all of human behavior was motivated by sexual urges.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Human nature refers to the distinguishing characteristics, including ways of thinking, feeling and acting, that humans tend to have naturally, i.e. independently of the influence of culture. The questions of what these characteristics are, what causes them, and how fixed human nature is, are amongst the oldest and most important questions in western philosophy. These questions have particularly important implications in ethics, politics, and theology. This is partly because human nature can be regarded as both a source of norms of conduct or ways of life, as well as presenting obstacles or constraints on living a good life. The complex implications of such questions are also dealt with in art and literature, while the multiple branches of the Humanities together form an important domain of inquiry into human nature, and the question of what it means to be human.

The branches of contemporary science associated with the study of human nature include anthropology, sociology, sociobiology, and psychology, particularly evolutionary psychology, and developmental psychology. The "nature versus nurture" debate is a broadly inclusive and well-known instance of a discussion about human nature in the natural sciences.



Human nature is the concept that there is a set of inherent distinguishing characteristics, including ways of thinking, feeling and acting, that humans tend to have.

The question of what causes these distinguishing characteristics of humanity and how fixed human nature is (e.g. nature versus nurture) has important implications in ethics, politics and theology because they are seen as providing standards or norms that humans can use when judging how best to live. The complex implications of such discussion are often themes which are dealt with in art.

The branches of science associated with the study of human nature include sociology, sociobiology and psychology, particularly evolutionary psychology and developmental psychology.

Brief history of the concept

In pre-modern scientific understandings of nature, human nature is understood with reference to final and formal causes. Such understandings imply the existence of an ideal, "idea," or "form" of a human which exists independently of individual humans. (This in turn is sometimes understood to imply the existence of a divine interest in human nature.)

The existence of an invariable human nature is a subject of much historical debate, continuing into modern times. Most famously, Darwin gave a widely accepted scientific argument that humans and other animal species have no truly fixed nature, at least in the long term. Before him, the malleability of man, even within one lifetime, had been asserted by Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Since the mid-19th century, the concept of human nature has been called into question by thinkers such as Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Sartre, a number of structuralists and postmodernists.

Scientific perspectives such as behaviorism, determinism, and the chemical model within modern psychiatry and psychology, are neutral regarding human nature. They can be offered to explain its origins and underlying mechanisms, or to demonstrate capacities for change and diversity which would arguably violate the concept of a fixed human nature.

Metaphysics and ethics

There are a number of perspectives regarding the fundamental nature and substance of humans. These are by no means mutually exclusive, and the following list is by no means exhaustive:

  • Philosophical naturalism (which includes materialism and rationalism) encompasses a set of views that humans are purely natural phenomena; sophisticated beings that evolved to our present state through natural mechanisms such as evolution. Humanist philosophers determine good and evil by appeal to universal human qualities, but other naturalists regard these terms as mere labels placed on how well individual behaviour conforms to societal expectations, and is the result of our psychology and socialization.
  • Abrahamic religions (most notably Judaism, Christianity and Islam) hold that a human is a spiritual being which was deliberately created (ex nihilo) by a single God in his image (according to the former two), and exists in continued relationship with God. Good and evil are defined in terms of how well humans conform to God's character or God's law.
  • Polytheistic or animistic notions vary, but generally regard humans as citizens in a world populated by other intelligent spiritual or mythological beings, such as gods, demons, ghosts, etc. In these cases, human evil is often regarded as the result of supernatural influences or mischief (although it may have many other causes as well).
  • Some astrologers believe that a person's personality and many of the challenges they will face in life are determined by the placements of the planets, each represents different aspects of their mental and physical nature. At the time of birth they may use many different techniques to 'guesstimate' the issues that will unfold throughout their lives and the actions that can be taken to gain the best results.

Free will and determinism

The issue of free will and determinism underlies much of the debate about human nature. Free will, or agency, refers to the ability of humans to make genuinely free choices (in some sense). As it relates to humans, the thesis of determinism implies that human choices are fully caused by internal and external forces.

  • Incompatibilism holds that determinism and free will are contradictory (i.e. both cannot be true). Incompatibilist views can either deny or accept free will.
    • Incompatibilist views holding to free will include:
      • Libertarianism holds that the human perception of free choice in action is genuine, rather than seemingly genuine, so that some of our actions are performed without there being any compulsion by internal or external forces to do so (i.e., indeterminism).
      • Thomism holds that humans have a genuine experience of free will, and this experience of free will is evidence of a soul that transcends the mere physical components of the human being.
    • Incompatibilist views that deny free will include:
      • Determinism refers to the logic that humans, like all physical phenomena, are subject to cause and effect. Determinism also holds that our actions stem from environmental, biological, or theological factors. A common misconception is that all determinists are fatalists, who believe that deliberation is pointless as the future is already caused; when in fact most determinists hold the idea that we should deliberate on our actions and that deliberating on our actions is part of the complex interplay between cause and effect.
      • Predestination is the position that God orchestrates all the events in the universe, human and otherwise, according to his will; however he does it in a way that includes the free choices of humans.
      • Biological determinism and social determinism are the views that human actions are determined by their biology and social interaction, respectively. The debate between these two positions is known as nature versus nurture.
  • Compatibilism is the view that free will and determinism can conceptually coexist. Compatibilist views include:
    • Human compatibilitism is the view that they are compatible because free will is merely the hypothetical ability to choose differently if one were differently disposed according to the physical factors of determinism.
    • Molinism is the view that God is able to predestine all events on Earth because he knows in advance what people will freely choose.
    • Contemporary compatibilists seek definitions of free will that permit determinism.

Spiritual versus natural

Another often-discussed aspect of human nature is the existence and relationship of the physical body with a spirit or soul that transcends the human's physical attributes, as well as the existence of any transcendent purpose. In this area, there are three dominant views:

  • The philosophical naturalist position is that humans are entirely natural, with no spiritual component or transcendent purpose. Subsets of the naturalist view include the materialist and physicalist positions, which hold that humans are entirely physical. However, some naturalists are also dualists about mind and body. Naturalism, combined with the natural and social sciences, views humans as the unplanned product of evolution, which operated in part by natural selection on random mutations. Philosophical naturalists do not believe in a supernatural afterlife. While philosophical naturalism is often assailed as an unacceptable view of human nature, it is promoted by many prominent philosophers and thinkers. The philosophical naturalist often will view religious belief as similar to superstition and as the product of unsound or magical thinking.
  • In contrast to materialism, there is the Platonic or idealist position. It can be expressed in many ways, but in essence it is the view that there is a distinction between appearance and reality, and that the world we see around us is simply a reflection of some higher, divine existence, of which the human (and perhaps also the animal) soul/mind or spirit may be part. In his Republic, Book VII, Plato represents humankind as prisoners chained from birth inside an underground cave, unable to move their heads, and therefore able to see only the shadows on the walls created by a fire outside the cave, shadows that, in their ignorance, the cave dwellers mistake for reality. For Plato, therefore, the soul is a spirit that uses the body. It is in a non-natural state of union, and longs to be freed from its bodily prison (cf. Republic, X, 611).
  • Between materialism and idealism lies the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose system of thought is known as Thomism. His thought is, in essence, a synthesis of Christian theology and the philosophy of Aristotle. Aristotle describes man as a "rational animal," i.e., a single, undivided being that is at once animal (material) and rational (intellectual soul). Drawing from Aristotelian hylomorphism, the soul is seen as the substantial form of the body (matter). The soul, as the substantial form, is what is universal, or common, to all humanity, and therefore, is indicative of human nature; that which differentiates one person from another is matter, which Aquinas refers to as the principle of individuation. The human soul is characterized as spiritual, immortal, substantial, and subsistent: it is the spiritual and vital principle of the human being, but is also dependent on the body in a variety of ways in order to possess these characteristics. Thus, no division is made between the "physical" and the "spiritual," though they are in fact distinct. This position differentiates Thomism from both materialism and idealism. Unlike idealism, it holds that the visible universe is not a mere shadow of a transcendent reality, but instead is fully real in and of itself. However, unlike materialism, Thomism holds that empiricism and philosophy, when properly exercised, lead inevitably to reasonable belief in God, the human soul, and moral objectivism. Thus, to a Thomist, it is obvious from the evidence that there is a God and an eternal soul.

In addition to these traditional philosophical distinctions between the soul and body, recent adaptations in humanistic psychology attempt to explain the natural transcendent purpose of human life. Richard Shweder of the University of Chicago separated human morality into three components: the ethic of autonomy, the ethic of community, and the ethic of divinity. The idea of religious fundamentalist countries is to uphold the ethic of divinity, which consists of protecting the divinity that exists in each person, even if that means imposing religious and moral laws on people of other faiths. Abraham Maslow, one of the founders of humanistic psychology attempted to demonstrate that spiritual life can be rationally explained as a naturalistic meaning. He claims that 'peak experiences'- moments of extreme self -transcendence, are the same amongst religious and secular people alike. Peak experiences make people see beyond the two dimensional world of self-advancement and try live a nobler life. Religions can thus be explained in a naturalistic sense as the coordination of transcendent ideas in order to maximize 'peak experiences'.

State of nature

animal behavior

State of nature refers to philosophical assertions regarding the condition of humans before social factors are imposed, thus attempting to describe the "natural essence" of human nature.

Views which see humans as inherently good

see innate goodness

Views which see humans as inherently bad

see innate cruelty

View which sees humans as having a "wounded human nature"

    • According to the Catholic Church, humans were created good but were wounded by their own free decision to sin. Humans were in a state of "original holiness and justice," but lost these due to original sin, committed by Adam and passed on by him as a state of nature to his descendants. According to its Catechism of the Catholic Church, "human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin - an inclination to evil that is called concupiscence. Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ's grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle." (CCC 405) [1]


There are a number of views regarding the origin and nature of human morality

  • Moral realism or moral objectivism holds that moral codes exist outside of human opinion—that certain things are right or wrong regardless of human opinion on the topic. Objective morality may be seen as stemming from the inherent nature of humanity, divine command, or both.
  • Moral subjectivism holds that moral codes depend on human opinion.
  • Moral relativism holds that moral codes are a function of human values and social structures, and hold no meaning outside social convention.
  • Moral absolutism is the view that certain acts are right or wrong regardless of context.
  • Moral universalism compromises between moral relativism and moral absolutism and holds that there is, or should be, a common universal core of morality.
  • Moral nihilism is the view that no morality exists.
  • Amoralism is the view that the concepts of moral right and wrong do not have meaning.


Meaning of life (philosophy)
  • Materialism and philosophical naturalism hold that there is no external purpose to human life. Proponents of this view often adopt the philosophy of secular humanism.
  • Teleology holds that there is inherent purpose to human existence. This purpose may arise from the inherent nature of humanity itself (what a human is "supposed to be," as in the case of objectivist philosophy), from mankind's relationship to the divine (what God wants humanity to be, as in the case of religion), or from both (as when the divine commands are seen as being in accord with the inherent nature of humanity and humanity's best interests).
  • Nihilism argues that existence is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.

Psychology and biology

A long standing question in philosophy and science is whether there exists an invariant human nature. For those who believe there is a human nature, further questions include:

  • What determines/constrains human nature?
  • To what extent is human nature malleable?
  • How does it vary between people and populations?

Since human behavior is so diverse, it can be difficult to find absolutely invariant human behaviors that are of interest to philosophers. A lesser (but still scientifically valid) standard for evidence pertaining to "human nature" is used by scientists who study behavior. Biologists look for evidence of genetic predisposition to behavioral patterns. Human behavior can be influenced by the environment, so penetrance of genetically predisposed behavioral traits is not expected to reach 100 percent. A type of human behavior for which there is a strong genetic predisposition can be considered to be part of human nature. In other words, human nature is not seen as something that forces individuals to behave in a certain way, but as something that makes individuals more inclined to act in a certain way than in another.

An enduring evolutionary psychology controversy often revolves around "human nature". Common evolutionary psychology explanations posit that the mind is made up of a massive number of interacting adaptations or "mental modules", the genes for which are a common human inheritance and result in a common human phenotype in the typical environments in which humans find themselves, and which constitute "human nature". This view has been critiqued as essentialist, as neglecting "natural" genetic, environmental and individual variation (and that the closest you can come is norms of reaction), and as equivocating between the levels of genes, developmental programs, and actual human psychology/culture, and between individuals and population averages.

Tabula rasa

John Locke's philosophy of empiricism saw human nature as a tabula rasa. In this view, the mind is at birth a "blank slate" without rules, so data is added, and rules for processing them are formed solely by our sensory experiences.

The contrary view is seen in E. O. Wilson's sociobiology and the closely related theory of evolutionary psychology. See below.

Behavioral genetics

The nature versus nurture debate. Behavioral genetics

Human genetic variation

Human genetic variation is the genetic diversity of humans and represents the total amount of genetic characteristics observed within the human species. No two humans are genetically identical, even monozygotic twins, who develop from a single zygote, have infrequent genetic differences due to mutations occurring during development and gene copy number variation has been observed. Differences between individuals, even closely related individuals, are the key to techniques such as genetic fingerprinting. Alleles occur at different frequencies in different human populations, with populations that are more geographically and ancestrally remote tending to differ more.

Arguments for invariance

All individuals and all societies have a similar facial grammar. Everyone smiles the same, and the way we use our eyes to convey cognition or flirtatiousness is the same. Evaluations of facial attractiveness are consistent across races and cultures with a preference for symmetry and proportion which are explained by scientists as markers of health during physical development attributable to good genes or a good environment. Human females find male faces that are rated more masculine and aggressive, less feminine and sensitive, more attractive during ovulation, the stage of their menstrual cycle when women are most fertile.

No success has ever been scientifically demonstrated in re-assigning an individual's handedness. Although individuals may change their external behavior (picking up scissors with their right hand instead of the left, for instance), their internal inclination never changes. Even people who lose a limb, who physically do not possess the ability to pick up scissors with their left hand, will try to do so if they are 'left-handed.' The percentage of left-handers in all cultures at all times remains constant (because left-handedness is a recessive trait.

Newborn babies, far too young to have been acculturated to do so, have measurable behaviors such as being more attracted to human faces than other shapes and having a preference for their mother's voice over any other voice.

In his book Human Universals, Donald E Brown presents his case and identifies approximately 400 specific behaviors that are essentially invariant among all humans.

Arguments for social malleability

The Duke of Wellington is said to have become indignant upon hearing someone refer to habit as "second nature." He replied, "It is ten times nature!"

William James likewise referred to habit as the fly-wheel of society. Habits, though, are by definition acquired, and different habits will be both the effect and the cause of very different societies.

Different human societies have held very different moral codes. Thus, regardless of whether objective morality exists or not, humans are clearly capable of imposing a wide variety of different moral codes on themselves.

Some have argued that the role for nurture comes not from the absence of impulses in human nature but from the plethora of such impulses—so many, and so contradictory, that nurture must sort them out and put them into a hierarchy.

Some believe there is no single universal law of behavior that holds true for all human beings. There are many such laws that apply to the majority of individuals (for example, the majority of individuals try to avoid dying), but there are always exceptions (some individuals commit suicide). Most animals, including humans, have an innate self-preservation instinct (fear of injury and death). The fact that humans may override this basic instinct is seen as evidence that human nature is subordinate to the human mind, and/or various outside factors. However, this may not be entirely unique to the human mind, as certain animals are observed to willfully commit suicide.

Finally, it has been noted that recent advancements in biology have opened the door to genetic manipulation. This means that we may soon have the possibility of altering our genes and therefore changing the instincts that are coded in those genes. (See transhumanism)

Influential views of human nature

Many influential schools of thought have defended particular conceptions of human nature, and integrated those conceptions into their other ideas. Among these are Platonism, Marxism and Freudianism.


Plato took a conception of reason and the examined life that he learnt from Socrates and built both a metaphysics and, more to our point, an anthropology around it. The soul in Timaeus consisted of a rational propensity, resident in the human head, a spirited tendency, resident in the heart, and an appetitive beast, resident in the belly and genitals. The duty of the 'rational' was keep the other two natures tamed, a belief concording with Sophism, in order to parallel the goodness achieved by the demiurge in the beginning of the universe.

In one disguise or another, Plato's dualism between the soul and the body was immensely influential. It insinuated itself deeply into Christian theology — a process that began, perhaps, as early as the Gospel of John. Descartes' famous contrast between the soul that thinks and the body that is extended is a distinctive take on Plato, as is Kant's contrast between the noumenal and the phenomenal aspects of human nature.


Plato's most famous student made some of the most famous and influential statements about human nature.

  • Man is a' conjugal animal (Nicomachean Ethics), meaning an animal which is born to couple when an adult, thus building a household (oikos) and in more successful cases, a clan or small village still run upon patriarchal lines.
  • Man is a political animal (Politics), meaning an animal with an innate propensity to develop complex communities the size of a city or town (see division of labor). As a political animal, in contrast to his family and clan life, man thrives in his rationality - most fully in the making of laws and traditions.
  • Man is a mimetic animal (Poetics). In this case, Aristotle emphasizes human reason in its purest form. Man loves to use his imagination, and not only to make laws and run town councils.

It is clear that for Aristotle, reason is not only what is most odd about humanity, but it is also what we were meant to achieve at his or her best. Much of Aristotle's position is still very much worth considering, but it should be mentioned that the idea that human nature was "meant" or intended to be something, has become much less popular in modern times.


Jean Jacques Rousseau, writing before the French Revolution, and long before Darwin, shocked Western Civilization in his Second Discourse by proposing that humans had once been solitary animals, and had learned to be political. The important point about this was the idea that human nature was not fixed, or at least not anywhere near the extent previously suggested by philosophers. Humans are political, and rational, and have language now, but originally they had none of these things.

Rousseau still saw himself as a student of nature, and did not deny the existence of a human nature, but it was only now to be defined in terms of the instinctive passions of the original irrational and amoral human, such as those associated with self preservation. This has been seen as breaking ground for shocking political developments of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as totalitarianism and brain washing.

He was an important influence upon Kant, Hegel and Marx, but he himself made it clear that he was partly developing the thought of Thomas Hobbes.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx's conception of human nature has been the subject of much misunderstanding. It is often believed that Marx denied that there was any human nature, and said that human beings are simply a blank slate, whose character will depend wholly upon their socialization and experience. It is true that Marx placed enormous importance on the view that people are influenced and, in part, determined by their environments. But at least in one stage of his development he had a very strong concept of human nature.

In that stage, Marx discussed the concept of 'species-essence' (from the German Gattungswesen, sometimes also translated as 'species being'). He believed that under capitalism, we are alienated - that is, divorced from aspects of our human nature. He envisaged the possibility of a society following capitalism which would allow human beings to fully exercise their human nature and individuality. His name for this society was 'communism'. However, it is worth bearing in mind that, since Marx's day, this term has been used with several different meanings, not all of which have been compatible with Marx's original usage.

Marx's understanding of human nature did not only play a role in his critique of capitalism, and in his belief that a better society would be possible (as already indicated). It also informed his theory of history. The underlying dynamic of history, for Marx, is the expansion of the productive forces. In The German Ideology, Marx says that two of the three aspects of social activity which ground history is the tendency of humans to act to fulfill their needs, and thereafter, the tendency to generate new needs [2]. This human tendency, for Marx, is what drives the continuing expansion of productive power in human civilization.

After The German Ideology, however, mention of 'species-essence' as such is virtually absent from Marx's writings. Some major interpreters of Marx, such as Louis Althusser, dismiss 'species-essence' as irrelevant to Marx's "later" writings, while others, such as Terry Eagleton, believe it continues to be an important concept in understanding Marx.

The Austrian school

The thinkers of the Austrian school of economics, in the years around 1871–1940, developed their own views largely in opposition to Marx, and in opposition to a group of historicist scholars. In the process, they developed a distinctive view of human nature, though one which drew upon earlier philosophers, esp those of the Enlightenment. Like Descartes or Kant, these thinkers believed that there exists an invariant human nature, but that progress is possible in history through the more complete understanding of that nature.

Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis

During the same period of time, Austria also hosted the development of psychoanalysis. Its founder, Sigmund Freud, believed that the Marxists were right to focus on what he called "the decisive influence which the economic circumstances of men have upon their intellectual, ethical and artistic attitudes." But he thought that the Marxist view of the class struggle was a too shallow one, assigning to recent centuries conflicts that were, rather, primordial. Behind the class struggle, according to Freud, there stands the struggle between father and son, between established clan leader and rebellious challenger. Freud also popularized his notions of the id and the desires associated with each supposed aspect of personality.

E.O. Wilson's sociobiology

In his book 'Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge' (1998) Edward O. Wilson claimed that it was time for a cooperation of all the sciences to explore human nature. He defined human nature as a collection of epigenetic rules: the genetic patterns of mental development. Cultural phenomena, rituals etc. are products, not part of human nature. Artworks, for example are not part of human nature, but our appreciation of art is. And this art appreciation, or our fear for snakes, or incest taboo (Westermarck effect) can be studied by the methods of reductionism. Until now these phenomena were only part of psychological, sociological and anthropological studies. Wilson proposes it can be part of interdisciplinary research.

An example of this fear is discussed in the book An Instinct for Dragons, where anthropologist David E. Jones suggests a hypothesis based on that humans just like monkeys have inherited instinctive reactions to snakes, large cats and birds of prey. Folklore dragons have features that are combinations of these three, which would explain why dragons with similar features occur in stories from independent cultures on all continents. Other authors have suggested that especially under the influence of drugs or in children's dreams, this instinct may give raise to fantasies and nightmares about dragons, snakes, spiders, etc, which makes these symbols popular in drug culture and in fairy tales for children. The traditional mainstream explanation to the folklore dragons does however not rely on human instinct, but on the assumption that fossils of, for example, dinosaurs gave raise to similar fantasies all over the world.

See also

See also

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