We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.”
― Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth
Human nature is a powerful force. A wise person understands human nature because it affects their ability to make and carry out good decisions. Assumptions about human nature guide our actions. Different beliefs can lead to different results. Therefore, insight into human nature increases our success in turning good intentions into good results.
Humans have a nature like any other animal. Our nature includes mental processes, personality, emotions, motivations, instincts, and behavior. An understanding of human nature is more than just knowing its features. It is learning why we have the nature we have and what guides its expression.
I wish I had understood human nature better earlier in my life. My choices and behavior would have been different had I known then what I know now. Unfortunately, life has taught me that many of my early beliefs about human nature were wrong.
The blank slate view of human nature was an early influence. This is the view that people come into the world with the same ability to learn without any pre-determined or set nature. We are a “blank slate” to be filled through interactions with our environment.
It was the dominant view of human nature for a long time, with many intelligent proponents from John Locke to B.F. Skinner. It included the noble savage belief that humans, in their natural state, are selfless, peaceful and one with nature. The bad characteristics and behaviors now result from society and its conditioning, not our fundamental nature.
It is an appealing world where everyone starts life with the same basic capabilities. Life outcomes depend primarily on the environment. Control the environment to fix social problems such as inequality and undesirable behaviors. Social issues seem solvable.
This view has political implications. Government could solve persistent social problems. If everyone was well educated, all could have equal success. Reason, intelligence, and planning could fix things. We could control our destiny, individually and collectively.
It is an optimistic view of human potential. We can be whatever we want to be. There are no inherent limits on our potential. The constraints are all in the environment, which we can control.
The blank slate view of human nature proved to be fundamentally wrong. It took me years of experience and learning to realize its weakness. Scientific advances in evolutionary biology and psychology provided the theory and evidence demonstrating that humans are far from blank slates and that human nature is more complex and less changeable than I had assumed.
We are born with a genetically encoded nature that drives our behavior and how we live. (with considerable variation among individuals) This innate nature is not immutable or uncontrollable. There is significant variation among individuals. Environment, including culture, influences behavior in many ways. It’s not all nature and no nurture. But our innate nature is powerful, and it is foolish to ignore it.
Evolution provides a compelling model for understanding human nature. It explains why humans, like all animals, have an innate nature. It rests on the premise that human behavior, like physical characteristics, is influenced by evolutionary forces – who survives to the next generation and who doesn’t. The evolutionary process rewards traits and behaviors that improve survival and remove attributes that don’t. We have long understood the evolutionary process for physical characteristics. It is the simple logic of extending the well-developed evolutionary model to human behavior and psychology.
There are many excellent books on evolutionary biology and psychology. Popular books include The Selfish Gene, The Moral Animal, and The Blank Slate. In addition, many academic studies provide the foundation and framework for the theory. The evidence for the basic evolutionary psychology model – and the view that evolution and genes play a decisive role in who we are and how we behave – is compelling. It is startling how much progress science has made in gathering evidence supporting this theory.
We know about Darwin, random genetic variation, natural selection, and the origin of the species. For example, research on Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos Islands shows natural selection rewarding finches with beaks suited to gathering and eating the seeds of the environment. In addition, studies have shown measurable year-to-year beak size changes in response to changing weather patterns and resulting seed sizes. Many other examples confirm the evolutionary process and show that it can effect rapid change.
The information encoded in DNA affects behavior as well as physical characteristics. Our psychological characteristics result from the same evolutionary process that produced opposable thumbs and large brains. Evolutionary psychology studies how evolution affects behavior, emotions, thinking processes, and personality. Its rapid growth as a scientific field has yielded important insights into the human condition.
Much in our nature – sexual desires, empathy, love, desire for status, sense of fairness, cooperation, etc. – was selected because individuals exhibiting those characteristics survived and reproduced better than those without them. It is a simple, brutal, random process where some inherited behavioral traits improve our ability to survive. Over millions of years, this has produced the mix of behavioral and psychological characteristics we call our nature.
Evolution has no direction or endpoint. It doesn’t progress toward more complexity or intelligence. Evolution doesn’t care about our happiness or the greater good unless it affects survival. It doesn’t know the future. It is merely the result of the random mixing of genes during reproduction and genetic mutations which affect reproductive success. What works for one generation is more likely to be passed to the next.
The process also can produce mismatches. For example, environmental changes can turn strengths into liabilities. The evolutionary process will tend to correct the mismatches. But often, the process is too slow, or the environment changes too rapidly. As a result, nearly all species (99.9%) that have ever lived are extinct.
The success of any scientific theory rests on its predictive ability and the absence of evidence disproving the theory. Here the evolutionary biology/psychology model is a far better predictor of human behavior than the blank slate model. It has become clear that we are born with an innate nature. We enter the world with behavioral tendencies, emotions, thinking processes, and a sense of right and wrong that profoundly influence how we act.
Our nature is not good or bad from a moral perspective. It results from a process that produces reproductive success. There are aspects of human behavior we consider bad today, violence, for example, that aren’t bad from an evolutionary standpoint. Somehow people with those “bad” characteristics had more children. The demands of today’s environment (society) influence our judgments of the moral qualities of our nature and its expression. Current moral codes are a way to control our nature to address mismatches between that nature and what is needed to be successful in today’s world.
While the generalized characteristics of human nature exist in most humans, there is much variation among individuals. Aspects of our nature, like physical characteristics such as height, are expressed on a continuum. The random mixing of DNA through sexual reproduction produces a variety of individual versions of broader human nature. An individual may fall anywhere on the continuum of any trait.
Our psychological traits are not a binary choice between nature and nurture. Both are in play. The environment affects how our nature gets expressed. Epigenetics studies how the environment affects the expression of genetically encoded behavior. Our experiences can reinforce certain behaviors and suppress others. Likewise, the current situation (for example, the immediate presence of an external threat) can trigger behavior that is absent under normal circumstances.
We do have free will, even though we may infrequently use it. We are not entirely robots programmed by our genes and the environment. But what has become clear to me is that our hard-wired nature, the characteristics determined by our genetic inheritance, is more potent than I realized. It takes much effort to control, guide, suppress, and enhance our natural tendencies. And there is wide variation in the degree to which individuals can control their nature. For some, control comes easily, while others struggle to exert free will and modify their behavior.
Viewing human nature as a product of evolution makes much observed behavior understandable. Our desires and behaviors, from sex to status to empathy to fear, have a context and a cause. Behavior can be viewed more objectively when the evolutionary reasons for that behavior are understood. Our behavior becomes less of a mystery.
Knowing what we are up against makes a big difference in how we choose to live. It alters the perspective on behavior. It led me to be more empathetic and understanding of behavior I may disapprove of or hurt me. It helped me be more sympathetic to people struggling to control their nature and more understanding of my struggles.
Personality is an aspect of human nature that deserves special attention. Personality is confusing because it is so variable. Elements of our nature, such as sexual desires, fear, and empathy, appear common to most people. But personality seems special, even unique, to individuals. Our personality affects how we think about the world, what we like and don’t like, and how we interact with others. Personality, in some respects, reflects the variability among individuals in how they express aspects of human nature. For example, some people are more empathetic than others. People can be at opposite ends of the scale of aggression.
There are the same fundamental questions about personality as there are for other characteristics of human nature. How much of our character are we born with? How does the environment affect personality? What personality traits can we change? Why is there so much variability in personality?
Personality has been well studied. Today’s most common personality framework is the “big five”: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Also well-known is Carl Jung, who identified eight psychological types. Katharine C. Briggs and Isabel Briggs further developed Jung’s views into the famous Meyer-Briggs test for personality types.
Research on twins shows the significant influence of genes on personality characteristics. More recent genetic testing studies using strengthens this view. We inherit a substantial part (research suggests 40% to 60%) of our personality.
Observe very young children; you can see differences long before the social environment can have much effect. Most personal experience reinforces the view that basic personality is primarily fixed. Few people experience fundamental personality changes in life. If someone’s personality changed, we would suspect mental illness.
We should separate personality from behavior. People can grow and mature. They learn to control parts of their personality. For example, someone who readily expresses anger can learn to suppress that desire and behave more moderately. Part of thriving is learning to control those parts of our personality that are destructive and undesirable. Likewise, people can learn to strengthen positive personality characteristics such as empathy. Fearful people can learn to be braver, and risk-takers can learn to be more careful.
We can mask or hide our personality. People can learn to appear to be something that they are not. That is what actors do for a living. It is often a necessary part of being able to work with others and be part of the community. But that learning does not change how people feel inside and the personality they default to when they don’t have to act.
I am an introvert. The introversion/extroversion scale is one of the fundamental personality characteristics. Tests show that I am not just somewhat introverted but very introverted. I have always been an introvert. However, I didn’t understand this for decades and wondered why I felt so different from others. Introverts are a distinct minority.
Understanding that much of personality is inherited is vital in learning to be happy and thrive. Like much in life, we may not like that personality is largely beyond our control. I wished at times that I had a different character. But ignoring reality can be wasteful and lead to unhappiness. There is probably nothing I can do to change from an introvert to an extrovert. Accepting that has helped me feel better about who I am and avoided the frustration and wasted time of trying to be different.
Our personality also helps determine what we are likely to be good at and what will be difficult. We can learn how others perceive us and what we need to do to work well with others. We learn how to act against type. I have learned how to behave like an extrovert when necessary.
We can choose professions that better fit our personalities. We will likely be more successful and happy with a good match since people tend to be good at what they like. For many, work is a significant part of life. Choosing the right vocation can make a huge difference in our happiness.
We may be more accepting of others’ personalities rather than trying futilely to change them. As a result, our relations with other people can be more fulfilling and productive. I have experienced a direct relationship between my happiness and my level of understanding of personality, especially my own.
Emotions are a fundamental expression of our nature. They are the actuating mechanism for much of our behavior. Like personality, the more we understand this aspect of our nature, the better we can modify our behavior, become better people, and be happier.
Most people make moral judgments quickly based on feelings. We “know” right from wrong, virtue from vice. Few take the time to reason out ethical decisions. Instead, we do what we feel is right. Feeling-driven moral choices are easier and faster than following a deliberative, rational, and fact-driven process. We rarely have the time, or the philosophical framework, to make daily behavioral decisions based on sound analysis and applying a priori moral principles.
This view of moral or ethical decision-making is not new. Several moral philosophers, notably David Hume and Adam Smith, argued that moral judgments arise from emotions. “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions” is a well know Hume quote, suggesting we use reason to inform us but that our emotions motivate us. Hume and Smith argue that sympathy or empathy is a crucial emotion driving many of our ethical decisions. Our ability to empathize with others leads to many widely accepted moral values such as fairness, loyalty, honesty, and cooperation.
Since the time of Hume and Smith, science can now explain the link between emotions and morality. Evolutionary biology and behavioral genetics suggest that we are hard-wired for many emotions forming the basis for our moral judgments.
Research has shown that pre-verbal babies have innate moral systems that affect behavior. Researchers have observed moral codes in other species, such as chimpanzees. Human evolution likely favored individuals with certain emotions that resulted in behavior such as cooperation. This behavior made them more successful, and humans advanced as a result. Scientific studies show a genetic component for feelings of empathy.
The interaction between environment and emotions is complex and shows how emotions to the situation. For example, research on empathy and stress shows that stress-produced hormones block empathetic feelings. Researchers observed this effect in mice as well as humans. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Empathy and the resulting moral behavior are positive in normal times. But when under stress (e.g., threats from outside forces, hunger), empathy could be a liability. Empathy for your attacker could be fatal, removing your DNA from the gene pool.
Human emotions, including anger, love, jealousy, and desire for status, are more logical from this evolutionary and genetic perspective. These emotions aid our choices and behavior in a dangerous world. The extent we have them varies – some people may be more prone to anger or empathy than others.
Understanding the evolutionary basis and role emotions play in making choices altered my view of behavior. So often, I was frustrated that people did not act calmly based on reason and facts. I realize now that reason takes a back seat to feelings in most situations. That improved my self-awareness; I am susceptible to this even when I think I am acting rationally. It also altered my approach to working with others.
The implications of a biologically based human nature produced by evolutionary processes are staggering. If our genes have so much influence over behavior, good and bad, what does that say about free will? How free are we to act when neural pathways and hormones constantly push us in one direction? What about culture and public policy’s effectiveness in changing human nature and behavior? If culture cannot change our underlying nature, must culture forever battle the dysfunctional expressions of human nature? Is that a battle culture can win?
Much of our moral code rests on our more positive sentiments, such as love and empathy. But if empathy is simply part of a successful propagation strategy for genes, does that erode the foundation of our moral code? If it does, how do we build a replacement?
Understanding human nature is necessary for thriving because we live with other humans. It is the dominant feature of our environment. Every day we must navigate through this complex world of other people following their natures while simultaneously dealing with our own. Human nature is a powerful force we cannot ignore.
The difficulty is our nature evolved to improve reproductive success in a world much different from what we live in now. As E. O. Wilson notes, we are stone-age creatures in a space-age world. Therefore, happiness rests partly on effectively addressing the mismatch between our neolithic nature and the needs of the modern world. We must enhance the positive aspects of human nature while controlling the negative.
Abandoning the blank slate view of human nature in favor of the evolutionary biology framework changes assumptions fundamentally of how much is controllable and how much is not. It has implications for our definition of what good is and the strategies for achieving it. Understanding human nature is part of the practical knowledge Aristotle views as an essential virtue. Without that understanding, we can be well-intentioned but ineffective in leading an ethical life and thriving.
Despite the problems our nature poses to living well, I remain optimistic that people can overcome them. Recognizing the situation is half the battle. The rest is applying knowledge, reason, and logic to use human nature to our advantage while avoiding its faults.