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

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Human nature is most often defined as the set of fundamental social and psychological traits that dictate the dispositions of human beings. [1][2][3][4][5]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, human nature has been at the centre of an intellectual dispute for centuries and a focal point of research across disciplines.

This chapter aims to contribute to the discussion with an emphasis on the inherency of violence in humans. It will explore the cultural norms and methodologies that form the research paradigms underpinning predominant theories of human nature, and the effects of these truths on other disciplines and areas outside academia.

Factors influencing the Truth[edit]

The Confirmation Bias in Philosophy[edit]

The lack of objective evidence available, combined with the difficulty to dissociate oneself from the object of study, constitutes a notable challenge when trying to form a theory of human nature. It is therefore particularly difficult to approach human nature from a positivist perspective.

Thomas Hobbes was the key proponent of 'summum malum'

In a similar manner, pre-existing opinions - shaped by beliefs, mental models, socio-economic background and prevailing societal views, can influence the research of any academic.[6] This is known as the confirmation bias. Its impact is particularly significant on the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke, whose theses on human nature have historically served as premises for other disciplines’ theories[7], as well as for the accepted opinion of whole societies.

Religious and Theological Influences[edit]

In Western civilisation, the idea of a flawed, thus violent, humanity embodied in the Original Sin is part of a narrative of human nature[8] passed down for centuries. This regnant sentiment certainly oriented western philosophical thought, among which Thomas Hobbes’ proclamation of a natural summum malum [9]- state of nature - as the natural human state. It can therefore be argued that by influencing the creation of a theory, religious ideology also conditions the reader’s mindset, and on a larger scale, that of society.

Historical Influences[edit]

The English civil war came as a justification for Hobbes' theory: "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".[10]

Projecting current events onto a general statement of humanity is not an individual tendency of Hobbes. In fact, Thucydides, writing during the plague of Athens, formulated similar views about human nature. [11] In an example of historical influences and in this case strong societal influences as well: John Locke arrived at his theory of 'tablula rasa' largely because of the Enlightenment movement. There is a direct relationship between experience and conclusion, especially because thought experiment, experience and observation are the key methodologies for philosophical theorising.

Nature versus Nurture[edit]

Two main theories have shaped the debate around the origins of violent behaviour: the “blank slate ” idea according to which humans are born without innate traits, is the standpoint from which most social sciences have studied human actions. On the other hand, evolutionary biology and psychology pose violence as an evolved genetic predisposition, influenced by biological factors. [12]

Locke's idea of the mind as a "white paper"(Book II, Chap. I, 2) is often opposed to Hobbes' state of nature

Sociology versus Evolutionary Biology[edit]

Mainstream sociology textbooks still adopt the traditional Standard social science model (SSSM) [13] (which establishes culture as the single factor shaping the mind) as the cornerstone for theories explaining social behaviour. This social constructionism approach entails the assumption of certain fundamental traits and dispositions in mankind [14], yet the lack of empirical evidence to support them makes the discipline prone to criticism by modern science. By proposing an evolving theory of human nature, Darwin challenged this very idea of a set and constant human nature [15].

Developmental Psychology[edit]

Developmental psychological studies on infant cognition are an example of scientific research challenging the tabula rasa theory. Following a series of experiments on toddlers and infants revealing early altruism in young children[16], several psychologists from the Yale Infant Cognition Centre interpreted the results as a rebuttal of the nurture argument. However, such findings were subsequently questioned as early altruism in human beings was shown to be limited. Such events could be explained by what Jeremy I. M. Carpendale calls “the psychologists’ fallacy”: psychologists’ interpretations of early altruism in children’s actions may merely be a reflection of previous assumptions.[17]

Given the limitations of the biology-sociology dichotomy, some psychologists now advocate for an alternative theoretical paradigm: an integrated model merging biological and cultural theories to unravel the question of human nature.

Alternative views about the origins of violence[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 Douglas P. Fry.[18] Drawing data from archaeology, anthropology and primatology as well as through 'game theory and cost/benefit analyses',[19] it is argued that humans' propensity for peace is much more widespread than acknowledged.

Societal Implications of Endorsing a Truth of Human Nature[edit]

The implications of a discussion about human nature go beyond the academic sphere. As previously explored, theories and society shape each other reflexively: theories are born from researchers' ontological and epistemological position, and can in return impact societal views. This allows for the emergence of societally accepted truths of human nature, an example of which is the idea of warfare as an evolved adaptation.

Depending on the dominant view, discourse about human nature can be used to propagate fear[20], or in the case of a genetic explanation of violence, to justify and lessen responsibility for conflict. There is also a tendency among scholars, politicians, and more generally society to concentrate on violent episodes, comparable to the media's tendency to focus on bad news[21]. However, it is also worth mentioning that an assumption of inherent peacefulness in mankind would require the vilification of some groups of people to explain the existence of violence in the world.


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