Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Interdisciplinary Depictions of Human Nature

From Wikibooks, open books for an open world
Jump to navigation Jump to search

DISCLAIMER: This page is currently being edited by UCL Arts and Sciences students as part of the 'Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20' Wikibooks - the project will be finalized by December 9th - please do not delete anything. Thank You.

Is human nature inherently evil?

  • Philosophy (classical/modern/postmodern)/ Theology
  • Psychology/Sociology
  • Religion and culture: The cultural environment as well as religion have an impact on our view of human nature. The idea of a flawed humanity is part of a narrative passed down for centuries. To what extent is this idea of human nature westernized ? How does this cultural belief system affect the objectivity of scientific research?


Human nature is most often defined as the set of fundamental social and psychological traits that dictate the dispositions of human beings. It forms a basis of how we conceptualise the world, allowing us to learn and form culture. Because it touches on the very essence of our humanity, the question of human nature has been at the center of an intellectual dispute for centuries and a focal point of research across disciplines. This page aims to contribute to the discussion with a particular emphasis on the inherency of violence in humans.

It will explore the cultural norms and methodologies that form the predominant theories, and then the effects of these 'truths' have on other disciplines and areas outside academia.

There has been an intellectual dispute for many centuries about the true essence of human nature, usually concluding either that humans are or are not naturally violent. As we will explore later, many disciplines, where human nature is critical or relevant, make the assumption that one point of view is correct. This means that prevailing 'truths' often have many sequitur consequences in other disciplines.

The Challenge of the Cultural Bias[edit]

Although different disciplines use different research methods (see below), the biggest challenge when trying to form a theory of human nature is the lack of objective evidence, independent from other factors. The 'Cultural Bias'[1] is the term we will be using for these external factors, which non-exclusively include: the prevailing societal opinion, religious background and socio-economic background of any academic. I will try to examine the most prevalent philosophical conclusions reached, as these conclusions had particularly wide-ranging effects on other subjects, but the same issues arise for any discipline studying the issue of human nature.


Theology and Religion, has possibly had the obvious impact on the debate. In Western Civilisation Original Sin and its accompanying connotations, such as a natural propensity for violence, were the predominant theory of human nature[2]. This prevailing opinion also ended up with wide ranging consequences in areas like Western Philosophy, including Thomas Hobbes. He himself was a self proclaimed Christian[3] and the prevailing sentiment may have contributed to his proclamation of a natural summum malus[4] (state of war) as being the natural human state.

Historical Influence[edit]

It would be simplistic to suggest that religion was a single reason for people's philosophical conclusions and with Hobbes the English civil war was also a huge piece of evidence for him "The reader wishing to imagine what life in anarchy would be like need no more than consider the fate of those who used to live in peace, under a single government, and who have now descended into a civil war".[5] Projecting current events onto a general statement of humanity is not only a tendency of Hobbes, as Thucydides (writing during the plague of Athens) made similar comments about human nature[6][4], there are of course many other examples as well. It seems self-intuitive that there would be a direct relationship between experience and conclusion, especially given that thought experiment, experience and observation are the key methods of evidence for philosophical theorising.

Philosophy and the difficulty of achieving Scientific Objectivity[edit]

How a Hobbesian view of human nature has impacted occidental thought

Ridley (1996, p.252) "the Hobbesian diagnosis still lies at the heart of both economics and modern evolutionary biology". [7]

Conflicting views about Human Nature[edit]

Nature versus Nurture[edit]

An evolved predisposition for killing (genetic) Vs. A social construct, influenced by the environment

Divergences in Research Methods[edit]

Example of anthropology and the problem of claims about human nature not based on data(I.e. ethnographic sources, subjective)

Social science is framed to exclude the concept of human nature, and this implies a dichotomy between the realm of biology and the realm of social. Nowadays, mainstream sociology textbooks still regard human nature as a blank slate following the traditional 'Standard Social Science Model' (SSSM)[8]. The Standard Social Science Model is closely related to social constructivism and maintains that culture shapes human behaviours (including violent behaviours). However, sociologists cannot establish their theories without making assumptions about human nature, and their explanations of the origin of human actions assume certain fundamental traits and dispositions of humans.[9] Due to the lack of empirical evidence on human nature, some concepts of human nature utilised by sociologists are found to be flawed and are constantly challenged by modern science.

Developmental psychological studies on infant cognition shed a light on the scientific research of human nature, and many of them prove that the ideas on human nature held by sociologists wrong. Several psychologists from the Yale Infant Cognition Center conducted a series of experiments on toddlers and infants which showed early altruism in young children,[10] which rebuts the assumption that human nature is a blank slate. The Yale team later discovered that the early altruism in human beings is limited, and humans are not noble savages as well.[11] However, Jeremy I. M. Carpendale and other scientists point out that there is a psychologists’ fallacy: psychologists’ explanations of children’s actions may deviate from the real ideas of these children.[12]This means the so-called early altruism may just a wrong interpretation of children's actions. The methodology adopted by developmental psychologists has its own problem, and while carrying out scientific experiments psychologists rely on certain assumptions on human nature as well. What's more, the gene-centred approaches which only focus on biological factors have been criticised by scientists. Therefore, some psychologists now advocate trying to discover the truth of human nature from a developmental systems perspective which eradicates the biology-sociology dichotomy.

Yet, social sciences have an essential role: R.W. Sussman stresses the importance of the anthropological input to scientific research to reach a more comprehensive understanding of human nature: "The differences in the expression and frequency of violence among humans will be explained mainly, by difference in their culture (..) and in their environment, and not in their biology and genetics."[13]

Misuse of Data[edit]

i.e. in science (see Pinker)

In War, Peace and Human Nature, Fry criticizes the interpretation of evidence and misuse of data

Emerging interdisciplinary views about the origins of violence[edit]

The myth of the ‘killer ape’ in question[edit]

If the representation of the bloodthirsty, primitive male, unable to control his violent urges has historically dominated scientific thought, consequently influencing the collective myth of the 'killer ape'; the self-evidence of this narrative has more recently been challenged by disciplines including archaeology, anthropology and primatology. Through their research methods, they provide a new lens for the apprehension of our topic. This a new theoretical perspective has

The Importance of Truth – Societal Implications of Human Nature[edit]

As explored previously, the standpoint accepted as true has an importance beyond the academic sphere, influencing the collective outlook.

In the light of our research, we may be tempted to question the societal implications of upholding a certain truth about human nature.Depending on the theory that is believed in, we educate individuals and look at society in a different way. These ideas encompass a great deal of social behaviour and social policy.

Depending on the dominant view, discourse about human nature can be used to propagate fear (p.5), as a justification for wars …

A bias among scholars, politicians and more generally society to talk more about war than about peace -> greater focus on what disrupts our daily life

New views within academia could allow the development of an alternative vision: the vision of a new socio-political system without war (Hand, 2010)

A more hopeful statement about human nature

  1. Fry, D. (2013). War, Peace and Human Nature. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press, p.1.
  2. (2019). BBC - Religions - Christianity: Original sin. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Dec. 2019].
  3. Mortimer, S. (2019). Christianity and Civil Religion in Hobbes’s Leviathan.
  4. a b Evrigenis, I. (2019). The State of Nature: The Oxford Handbook of Hobbes - oi. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Dec. 2019].
  6. REEVE, C. (1999). Thucydides on Human Nature. Political Theory, 27(4), pp.435-446.
  7. Ridley M. The origins of virtue. London: Viking (Penguin Books); 1996.
  8. Leahy, T. The elephant in the room: Human nature and the sociology textbooks. Current Sociology. 2012; 60(6): 806.
  9. Leahy, T. The elephant in the room: Human nature and the sociology textbooks. Current Sociology. 2012; 60(6): 816.
  10. Hamlin, J., Wynn, K. & Bloom, P. Social evaluation by preverbal infants. Nature. 2007; 450: 557-559
  11. Wynn, K., Bloom, P., Jordan, A., Marshall, J., & Sheskin, M. Not Noble Savages After All: Limits to Early Altruism. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2018; 27(1): 3–8.
  12. Carpendale, J.I.M., Kettner, V.A. and Audet, K.N. Helping or Interest in Others' Activity?. Social Development. 2015; 24: 357-366.
  13. Sussman R. Why The Legend of The Killer Ape Never Dies. In: War, Peace and Human Nature. ed. by. Fry D, New York: Oxford University Press; 2013. p. 109.