Some Uses of Biology: Three Perspectives

The frequently-used term “human nature” is typically used:

  • In conjunction with behavior;
  • As an (if not the) explanation of behavior;
  • With the behavior being referred to being of an anti-social nature.

These facts regarding the usage of “human nature” suggest several questions:

  • Insofar as biology is used as an explanatory factor relative to human behavior, does “human nature” (i.e., biology) just account for anti-social behavior? (So that “bad” behavior has its basis in biological “drives,” and “good” behavior is a result of conscious choice?
  • Can human behavior be explained just on the basis of biology? (So that biology accounts for both “bad” and “good” behavior?)
  • Can biology be used to explain human phenomena other than behavior?

The ensuing discussion addresses those three questions, with the conclusion of that discussion being that there are alternatives to “human nature philosophy.” Indeed, the discussion concludes, implicitly, that the term “human nature” is a holdover from the days of pre-scientific modes of thought, and as such should be expunged from the language.

Introductory Comments

If one thinks of human behavior as a process, one can identify a series of steps associated with a given behavior:

      1. Perception—seeing, hearing, smelling, or touching something.

      2. Reaction—which has two aspects (both of which are involuntary—and genetically-based):

            a. External—facial expression, gesture, and/or vocalization, a given manifestation being termed a certain “emotion.”

            b. Internal—physiological, hormonal, etc., changes occurring within the body, these often functioning to prepare the body for an action.

      3. Action.

There are, of course, exceptions to this sequence:

      1. A given perception may result in a reaction in some individuals, but not others. For example, the perception of a given vista may result in a feeling of awe in some but not in others.

      2. Some reactions tend not to have an associated action. For example, a feeling of awe typically does not generate an (overt) action. Given, however, that some individuals are more sensitive and creative than others, some experiencing that feeling may compose a poem or a song, may develop religious ideas, may be motivated to initiate an organization (e.g., John Muir and the Sierra Club), etc.

Another point worth mentioning is that if one, in reacting to some perception, is near other individuals, those others (most, if not all) are usually able to “read” the emotion being expressed by the individual in question, may themselves experience that emotion (“contagion”), and then also be motivated to engage in the action “called for” by the emotion.

An important distinction, however is that of behavior as it occurred/occurs with pre-“civilized” peoples vs. behavior as it occurs in “civilized” societies (i.e., those societies that post-date the Agricultural Revolution of 10,000 years ago, and are “products” of that Revolution).

It would appear that the actions of pre-civilized peoples consist primarily of those that are responses to reactions, or were rooted in biological “drives.” The case of “civilized” peoples is slightly different in that:

      1. Some actions parallel those that occur in pre-civilized societies in that they occur in response to involuntary reactions and “drives.”

      2. Some reactions that are followed by actions in pre-civilized societies fail to produce the expected action in a civilized society because they are suppressed, if but unconsciously. If such suppression becomes routine, a psychosomatic disorder is likely to develop.1

      3. Many of the actions that occur do so independently of reactions, occurring (see, e.g., my “Obstacles to the Good Society“):

            a. In response to a situation that one finds oneself in.

            b. In response to a belief system that “possesses” one.

            c. As a matter of free choice.

To this point my discussion has:

      1. Made no reference to “human nature.”

      2. Been non-normative in nature: It has refrained from using the terms “good” and “bad,” and has not even suggested such terms.

In “lacking” these two features, my discussion to this point has, then, been “deviant,” for discussions of (allegedly) genetically-based behaviors typically not only make use of the term “human nature,” but apply a value judgment (“good” or—more commonly—“bad”) to the behavior(s) attributed to genes. The question is whether it is useful—or even meaningful—to invoke the concept of “human nature” by discussing:

  • Ideas expressed by Thomas Henry Huxley [1825-1895] on the matter.
  • My ideas.
  • Ideas expressed by Dacher Keltner in his recent Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.2

What prompts my discussion of Huxley’s ideas are the claims, made, e.g., by primatologist Frans de Waal,3 that (a) there is such a thing as “veneer theory” and (b) this “theory” has its basis in the writings of Huxley. As both of these claims can be questioned, I first question de Waal’s claim that “veneer theory” is the name for something that actually exists; then, after discussing Huxley’s ideas—one’s that pertain in particular to human behavior—I will question a part (what, indeed, I regard as the key part) of the “veneer theory” claim leveled against Huxley.

First, a relevant passage by de Waal, appearing (p. 7) under the heading “VENEER THEORY”:

In 1893, for a large audience in Oxford, England, Huxley publicly reconciled his dim view of the natural world with the kindness occasionally encountered in human society. Huxley realized that the laws of the physical world are unalterable. He felt, however, that their impact on human existence could be softened and modified if people kept nature under control. Thus, Huxley compared humanity with a gardener who has a hard time keeping weeds out of his garden. He saw human ethics as a victory over an unruly and nasty evolutionary process (Huxley, 1989 [1894]).

De Waal is referring here to a 1989 edition of Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics. (I provide a link to an 1899 edition of this book below.) Below I list the three essays in this book that I will be referring to here. However, the 1894 essay that de Waal refers to is not the 1893 Romanes lecture. The 1894 essay (which de Waal references) contains a gardening reference, but the 1893 Romanes lecture does not (despite de Waal’s claim that it does).

As to the matter of whether “veneer theory” should be thought of as having a referent, let us first recognize that in science the function of a theory is to explain, and that it does so through deductive reasoning. What a theory explains is a law (i.e., a universal statement with firm empirical support), which in this explanatory context is referred to as an explanandum. A theory itself is a set of statements believed to be “true” (i.e., having empirical support), but without the requirement that all of those statements have firm empirical support—some being, perhaps, of a speculative nature. The theory itself is referred to as the explanans.4 How does a theory explain? By “producing” the explanandum. That is, if a given explanandum is deducible from the statements constituting the theory, the theory is said to have “explained” the explanandum. An additional point of importance here is that more than one theory may be proposed for a given explanandum, with there being no sound basis for selecting one theory over the others. In fact, several theories may be generally accepted simultaneously, under the belief that in a certain context one theory is appropriate, in another context another theory is appropriate.

In the case of “veneer theory,” the first question that arises is: What is the explanandum (i.e., what is it that it purported explains), and what is the explanation (i.e., explanans) offered? For the first part, the explanandum is the “law” that all of those creatures warranting the label “human” are, and have been, “anti-social”—by which it is meant (I assume) that humans are “selfish” (i.e., humans never do, and have never done, anything for other humans), “aggressive” (i.e., humans, in interacting with other humans, always do, and have done, so in a manner that is hurtful to those others), and …(?)

As to the second part of the question, the explanation offered by “veneer theory” is that humans exhibit anti-social behavior because they are “programmed” so to do; i.e., their genes dictate that their interactions with other humans be characterized as anti-social. Not just some times, but always.

What is the scientific status of this “theory”? Its basic problem is that it is an explanation offered for a non-law: It is simply not true that all interactional behavior by humans relative to other humans is, and has been, of an anti-social nature. Indeed, not only is this not a law; it is not possible that it could be a law: The human is helpless at birth, and without care, will die; the only reason that humans exist as a species at present is that they all received some care after being born—with some receiving “better” care than others, of course. It is conceivable that humans, upon being born, would receive care from members of some other species rather than humans. But if this were to occur, the result would be a “feral” being—one not recognizably human. Which fact points to the fact that what a given human “becomes” is only in part a function of genetic inheritance, with how that individual is raised (among other factors) also being decisive.

We can now conclude that because the explanandum associated with “veneer theory” lacks an empirical basis, any explanation offered for it is simply pointless—about as pointless as a “theory” that explains why unicorns eat only fescue grass. Let us, then, expunge the useless term “veneer theory” from our language.

Next, then, let us examine some of the ideas expressed by Thomas Huxley, relative to human behavior, in the latter part of the nineteenth century—with my earlier discussion of behavior above providing the benchmark for the discussion. Let me warn the reader in advance that I take my task here seriously, so that my discussion of Huxley is rather lengthy.

Thomas H. Huxley

I will be referring specifically to three of Huxley’s essays, all appearing in his Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays.5 The essays are as follows:

  • “Evolution and Ethics. Prolegomena,” 1894, p. 1-45. (Evidently this was written specifically for this book.)
  • “Evolution and Ethics,” 1893, p. 46-116. (This was delivered as the second Romanes lecture, in 1893.)
  • “The Struggle for Existence in Human Society,” 1888, p. 195-236. (This was originally published in the February 1888 issue of The Nineteenth Century, an important journal of the time.)6

The page numbers where these essays appear in Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays are listed because my references below are to page numbers rather than to essays.

As my interest here, in part, is in “human nature,” and Frans de Waal (among others) has seemingly suggested that Huxley regarded human nature as “nasty,” two questions arise here for consideration:

Did the concept of “human nature” play a role in Huxley’s thinking? If so, what was Huxley’s concept of “human nature”?

In addressing these questions, the first point that I would make is that I have found the term “human nature” used but once in these three essays. On p. 209 he stated: “Whether human nature is competent, under any circumstances, to reach, or even seriously advance towards, this ideal condition [that he had been discussing, beginning on p. 206], is a question which need not be discussed [for the simple reason that it will never be reached].” (In the same paragraph he made reference to “natural man”—by which I assume that he meant humans behaving according to the dictates of “human nature,” i.e., humans living in a pre-civilized state.)

The meaning that Huxley attached to “human nature,” not clarified on p. 209, must be gleaned from other statements he made in these three essays. But although the factor that gave rise to the development of “human nature” was discussed with consistency in these three essays, the content of that “nature” was not—as we shall see shortly. Thus, to assert that Huxley held a negative view of “human nature,” is to distort what Huxley actually stated relative to the matter.

Beginning on p. 9, Huxley (in the process of discussing gardening, and the “horticultural process”) distinguished between a “state of nature” and a “state of Art” (or “artifice,” as he put in on p. 11), and argued that a “cosmic process” produced the content of nature, whereas “artificial” things were the product of human action. However, Huxley argued that (p. 11) “man, physical, intellectual, and moral, is as much a part of nature, as purely a product of the cosmic process, as the humblest weed.” There is, though, a key difference between the “cosmic process” and the horticultural one; for (p. 13): “The tendency of the cosmic process is to bring about the adjustment of the forms of plant life to the current conditions; the tendency of the horticultural process is the adjustment of the conditions to the needs of the forms of plant life which the gardener desires to raise.” In short, in nature, environmental conditions dictate what plants will be found in a given area; with humans, however, people decide what plants they want to raise, and then create the environmental conditions necessary for their successful raising.

Where “human nature”—the concept, if not the term—entered Huxley’s thinking was in his explanation of the factor that gave rise to “human nature.” On p. 13-14 he stated: “The cosmic process uses unrestricted multiplication as the means whereby hundreds compete for the place and nourishment adequate for one; it employs frost and drought to cut off the weak and unfortunate; to survive …” On p. 81 he stated: “Men in society are undoubtedly subject to the cosmic process. As among other animals, multiplication goes on without cessation, and involves severe competition for the means of support.” And on p. 205: “One of the most essential conditions, if not the chief cause, of the struggle for existence, is the tendency to multiply without limit, which man shares with all living things.”

Huxley had, of course, borrowed the notion of “multiplication” from Charles Darwin’s [1809-1882] The Origin of Species (1859)—Darwin, in turn, having borrowed it from Thomas Malthus [1766-834]—who had argued, famously, that: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” (That is, populations—regardless of species—tend to grow at a faster rate than the food supply that they depend upon for sustenance.) Darwin had inferred from this (supposed) “law” stated by Malthus that the inexorable result would be (intra-specific) competition, with the “winners” in this competition having innate characteristics that differentiated them from the “losers”—so that as the “winners” produced progeny, and the “winners” among their progeny produced progeny …, over time the species would change in a slow, steady, progressive manner (in terms of the “success” variable(s), and any other variable(s) that happened to be correlated with it, added Darwin). (By implication, as the species changed, it would retain its “fitness” relative to the environment, but the interpretation of what “fitness” means has continued to be a matter of confusion; see my “Obstacles to the Good Society.”)

Huxley not only borrowed the notion of “multiplication” from Darwin, but borrowed Darwin’s inference from that “law” that “multiplication” would, of necessity, result in (intra-specific) competition. In his discussion (p. 196 ff.) of deer being prey of wolves, he evinced knowledge of the fact of predation, with its tendency to keep the prey species (singular and plural) in check. But for some reason Huxley (like Darwin, who also recognized the existence of predation) insisted on giving only competition (with conspecifics) a role in maintaining a given population at a “carrying capacity” level.

What “human nature” results did Huxley associate with the intra-specific competition that, he insisted, was a part of the “cosmic process”? He provided no consistent answer to this question.

Although Huxley’s discussion on p. 14 refers specifically to a garden (which explains his reference to frost and drought), his assertion that “to survive, there is need not only of strength, but of flexibility and of good fortune” can be understood as a general statement intended to any species. Insofar as that is a correct interpretation of this passage, so that we can think of it as applicable to humans, the statement “says” that those humans who survive in the competition that necessarily results from “multiplication” will have (a) strength, (b) flexibility, and (c) good luck. Note that with none of these “success” variables do we have a basis for labeling them as of an “anti-social” nature!

On p. 27 Huxley stated that “with all [of] their enormous differences in natural endowment, men agree in one thing, and that is their innate desire to enjoy the pleasures [of life] and to escape the pains of life; and, in short, to do nothing but that which pleases them to do, without the least reference to the welfare of the society into which they are born.” Thus, in this passage Huxley asserted that every human—whether they become “winners” or “losers” in competition that they must endure—have an “innate” tendency to behave in a manner that will add to their pleasure and prevent them from experiencing pain. Huxley added that they will do so without considering the “welfare of the society,” seemingly suggesting thereby that the exercise of these tendencies would result in anti-social behaviors. But the “pursuit of happiness” (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Jefferson) need not result in anti-social behavior; indeed, modern research (as will be evidenced in my discussion below of Dacher Keltner) has concluded that we humans are “programmed” in such a way that “doing” for others not only results in an increase in the well-being of the helpee, but in one’s own sense of well-being as well. Indeed, some (e.g., the Dalai Lama) would go so far as to assert:

      If you want to be happy, practice compassion;
      if you want others to be happy, practice compassion.7

That is, practicing compassion is a “win-win” sort of behavior!

In the same paragraph on p. 27 Huxley stated, immediately below the statement just quoted above: “That is their inheritance (the reality at the bottom of the doctrine of original sin) from the long series of ancestors, human and semi-human and brutal, in whom the strength of this innate tendency to self-assertion was the condition of victory in the struggle for existence.” Thus, in this sentence Huxley asserted (or at least implied) that the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain—motivated, as it was, by an “innate tendency to self-assertion”—would, of necessity, be of an anti-social nature. It is evident, then, that Huxley believed that the exercise of “self-assertion” would necessarily result in anti-social behavior, but he provided no convincing argument in favor of that assertion. Therefore, we have no definitive basis here for concluding that an innate tendency to pursue pleasure and avoid pain would necessarily result in anti-social behavior. Huxley claimed, in this passage, that it would, but we are not obligated to accept Huxley’s conclusion.

On p. 28 Huxley referred to “the mutual affection of parent and offspring, intensified by the long infancy of the human species.” Here Huxley seemed to say that humans, as parents (and whether or not they became “winners” or “losers”) had an innate tendency to have “affection” for their offspring, and that offspring had an innate tendency to have “affection” for their parents. And he added that the fact that the human infant required a long period of parental care “intensified” these tendencies, for both parent and offspring. The implication here is that although those who “win” in the competition that necessarily occurs with conspecifics may have some anti-social instincts (“self-assertion”), they also have an instinct which “drives” them to care for their offspring—a “drive” that is intensified the longer that care continues. What we seem to have in this passage, then, is an “admission” that “human nature” has both positive and negative elements.

Huxley followed the above-quoted statement by asserting (p. 28): “But the most important is the tendency, so strongly developed in man, to reproduce in himself actions and feelings similar to, or correlated with, those of other men. Man is the most consummate of all mimics in the animal world; none but himself can draw or model; none comes near him in the scope, variety, and exactness of vocal imitation; none is such a master of gesture; while he seems to be impelled thus to imitate for the pure pleasure of it. And there is no such another emotional chameleon.”

What he seemed to be saying here is that all humans—whether they become “winners” or “losers”—are born with an ability not only to “read” the emotions of others, but to “mirror” them—i.e., to feel the same emotion as was being felt by the individual being observed. Oddly, however, his statement that individuals do this for the “pure pleasure of it” suggests that this behavioral tendency is a chosen one, rather than one that is innate and involuntary. Perhaps Huxley intended to say here that when individuals react, spontaneously, to the emotion being expressed by another individual, they feel pleasure. But if this was Huxley’s intent, the question arises: If observing another display happiness makes one also feel happy, why would observing another display, e.g., anger, also make one feel happy?

It appears to me that muddled thinking was involved in Huxley’s comments here. It appears that Huxley was again saying, of “human nature,” that it involved both positive and negative aspects, but the precise meaning that he intended in this particular passage certainly lacks in clarity.

On p. 29 Huxley stated that “the greatest restrainer of the anti-social tendencies of men is fear, not of the law, but of the opinion of their fellows.” Here Huxley seemed to be asserting that although the survivors of the competition that occurred would have an innate tendency to engage in anti-social behaviors, those living in society would learn to restrain those tendencies. Such a conclusion is plausible, but it leads us to ask: If humans have an innate tendency to behave in an anti-social manner, how does one explain the facts that they have, nonetheless, (a) created societies and (b) then maintained them?! Huxley took as a “given” the fact that humans live in societies, but didn’t seem to recognize that his reasoning about humans presented difficulties in explaining why human societies came into being in the first place! Indeed, this was a major deficiency in his thinking.
Huxley knew that self-restraint was necessary for life in society, and that this could be learned (for it was not inherent in “human nature”); but these three essays provide no evidence that he ever grappled successfully with the problem of explaining why and how human societies came into existence. On p. 24 he noted, “Social organization is not peculiar to men,” and then proceeded to discuss ants and bees. How did he explain the origin of their societies? “Now this society [i.e., that of bees] is the direct product of an organic necessity, impelling every member of it to a course of action which tends to the good of the whole.” In other words, they created societies because they had to!—a “non-explanation explanation,” if ever there was one! He then went on to declare (p. 26): “I see no reason to doubt that, at its origin, human society was as much a product of organic necessity as that of bees”—which statement he then footnoted: Collected Essays, vol v., Prologue, p. 50-54. (I have not read the cited pages because I have not been able to convince myself that they would enlighten me on the matter.)

Note that the passage on p. 29 makes no explicit reference to “human nature,” but suggests that (what we would call) “human nature” contains anti-social tendencies, but also contains an innate ability to learn to behave in a manner contrary to one’s inherited anti-social tendencies. Indeed, in a famous passage Huxley stated (p. 83): “Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.” So that “human nature” is somewhat of a “mixed bag” in that one has inherited tendencies both to behave in an anti-social manner and to learn to behave otherwise! It seems clear that Huxley was gifted as an intellectual contortionist!

On p. 51 Huxley “admitted” that “the consummation [with humans] is not reached in man, the mere animal; nor in man, the whole or half savage; but only in man, the member of an organized polity.” Thus, humans not only had (what we would call) the “genetic material” to escape the degraded existence of the “’whole or half savage,” but acted on that “genetic material”—which fact Huxley judged to be “good.” Then, in referring to the “savage state” that had existed earlier (p. 51-52), he stated: “For his successful progress, throughout the savage state, man has been largely indebted to those qualities which he shares with the ape and the tiger; his exceptional physical organization; his cunning, his sociability, his curiosity, and his imitativeness; his ruthless and ferocious destructiveness when his anger is roused in opposition.”

Note here that the “qualities” that Huxley identified were a “mixed bag” of positive and negative innate tendencies. Huxley implied that although these tendencies were all dominant (if working in different directions) during the “savage” stage of human existence, we moderns still have these tendencies: We have inherited an ability for self-restraint, and are using that ability to suppress the “negative” aspects of our “human nature.” Thus, Huxley’s “message” in this passage was that although “human nature” is a “mixed bag,” an important part of that “nature” is an inherited ability to suppress our “negative” tendencies, and even choose to behave in a positive manner relative to our fellows. Indeed, Huxley stated (p. 205) that “society not only has a moral end, but in its perfection, social life, is embodied morality.”

Also on p. 51 Huxley stated that: “Man, the animal, … has worked his way to the headship of the sentient world, and has become the superb animal which he is, in virtue of his success in the struggle for existence. The conditions having been of a certain order, man’s organization has adjusted itself to them better than that of his competitors in the cosmic strife. In the case of mankind, the self-assertion, the unscrupulous seizing upon all that can be grasped, the tenacious holding of all that can be kept, which constitute the essence of the struggle for existence, have answered.” In this passage Huxley seems to have suggested that humans were “naturally” aggressive, unscrupulous, and selfish—i.e., had only negative innate traits. Conclusions that not only conflict with his conclusions stated elsewhere (as we have seen above), but conclusions that suggest that humans are unable, on the basis of their genetic inheritance, to create societies!

On p. 52 he asserted that “in proportion as men have passed from anarchy to social organization, and in proportion as civilization has grown in worth, these deeply ingrained serviceable qualities [referred to above] have become defects.” If, that is, we now assume that “human nature” is negative, but that humans, by some unknown magic, have nevertheless been able to form societies, we must recognize that our inherited traits present difficulties for civilized existence. My reaction: If Huxley’s premises are true, his conclusion logically follows; but Huxley had a habit of changing his premises, and although some of those premises might have empirical support, other premises do not.

On p. 26 Huxley wrote that “it is easy to see that every increase in the duration of family ties, with the resulting co-operation of larger and larger number of descendants for protection and defence, would give the families in which such modifications took place a distinct advantage over the others.” This seems to suggest that Huxley believed that societies came into existence through the expansion of families: As families (in a broad sense) expanded in size, cooperation within the family also became more prevalent (that behavior being used primarily to provide the group with protection), so that as such families grew in size, they gave their members “survival value” (what appears here to be a “group selection” argument). But Huxley did not clearly offer such an argument; and if one believes, though, that he did, and adds that Huxley thought of “human nature” as containing both positive and negative elements, one has a plausible argument. But such an argument only makes sense if one asserts that “human nature” has both “good” and “bad” characteristics.

On p. 81 Huxley stated: “Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it of another, which may be called the ethical process; the end of which is not the survival of those happen to be the fittest, in respect of the whole of the conditions which obtain, but of those who are ethically the best.” However, in another place Huxley seemingly contradicted—or at least qualified—this conclusion. On p. 31 he stated: “It is … to be observed that, just as the self-assertion, necessary to the maintenance of society against the state of nature, will destroy that society if it is allowed free operation within; so the self-restraint, the essence of the ethical process, which is no less an essential condition of the existence of every polity, may, by excess, become ruinous to it.” In developing this statement he made some interesting comments (p. 32) on the Golden Rule: “Strictly observed, the ‘golden rule’ involves the negation of law by the refusal to put in motion against law-breakers; and, as regards the external relations of a polity, it is the refusal to continue the struggle for existence. It can be obeyed, even partially, only under the protection of a society which repudiates it. Without such shelter, the followers of the ‘golden rule’ may indulge the hopes of heaven, but they must reckon with the certainty that other people will be masters of the earth.” Thus, although the Golden Rule is a good rule, the sensible person will realize that it is foolish to carry the Rule to an extreme.

Huxley’s discussion on p. 81 made no discussion, true, of “human nature”—except in suggesting that we have an innate ability to make decisions, and that in exercising that ability it is not inevitable that we will make decisions that, from a broad perspective, are wise.

On p. 200 Huxley stated that the “animal world is on about the same level as a gladiator’s show. The creatures are fairly well treated, and set to fight—whereby the strongest, the swiftest, and the cunningest live to fight another day.” And given that man is also an animal, the suggestion here is that the factors that determine “success” in the “struggle for existence” are the three listed. Note here first that the view of “human nature” implicit in this statement is not necessarily negative: For example, if the “strong” survive, an interpretation can be given to that conclusion that the strong who survive also have an innate generosity—so that the survivors consist of the strong and the not-so-strong.

Another point that needs to be made regarding the competition that Huxley thought occurred in nature is that the “multiplication” that, for Huxley (as for Darwin), was the cause of this competition, had created a situation which forced individuals to become competitive. That is, the competitive behavior that occurred may not have occurred in response to the internal factor of a negative “human nature” but, rather, to the situational factor of “multiplication.” This is a possibility not considered by either Darwin or Huxley, so “possessed” were they both by the notion that internal innate factors “had” to be the cause of the competitive behavior. It would, of course, be reasonable to argue that even if innate tendencies were not “originally” the cause of the competitive behavior, they would become so as a result of that behavior: Those individuals having a “competitive nature” would, ceteris paribus, have a greater chance of “succeeding” (i.e., surviving, and then having progeny) than those lacking such a “nature.” My point, however, is that although such an argument has merit, it is not one that either Darwin or Huxley ever made, so far as I have been able to determine.

What answers should I give to the two questions I posed at the beginning of this section regarding Thomas Huxley? They can be answered very briefly:

  • The concept of “human nature” did play a role in Huxley’s thinking.
  • It is erroneous to make the “blanket” statement that Huxley had a negative view of “human nature.” Rather, Huxley made a variety of statements relative to the matter—at times making claims that were of a positive (or at least non-negative) nature, at times of a more-or-less negative matter, and still other times of a “mixed bag” nature.

Huxley’s primary orientation was to actions rather than reactions—actions that either had a basis in biological inheritance, or in conscious decision-making. I quoted some of his comments on reactions, including his assertion (p. 28) that the human’s ability to react to the emotional displays of others was highly important. But if he actually believed this, why didn’t he develop it more than he did?

Huxley noted (p. 38) that although societies had developed over time, there had not been a corresponding development in “the physical, or the mental, characters” of humans—and Huxley did not see that growing “deviation” as a problem. Likely he would not have agree with René Dubos’s 1968 statement: “In many respects, modern man is like a wild animal spending its life in a zoo; like the animal, he is fed abundantly and protected from inclemencies but deprived of the natural stimuli essential for many functions of his body and his mind.”8 Evidently Huxley was so “possessed” by the notion that historical development is basically the story of continual “progress” that he was simply unable to consider the possibility that the “deviation” just referred to presented problems for humans—a point developed by, e.g., Noet T. Boaz in his Evolving Health: The Origins of Illness and How the Modern World is Making Us Sick.9

A final point is that although Huxley (“Darwin’s Bulldog”) was clearly familiar with Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859), these three essays provide one with no evidence that he had any familiarity with Darwin’s The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) or The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Darwin’s Origin had not (except by implication) dealt with humans, but Descent and Expression had, and indicate that Darwin had developed his thinking beyond what he had written in Origin. Huxley, however, seems to have gotten “stuck” on the Darwin of 1859 (insofar as his ideas were in agreement with those of Darwin).

My Views Involving Biology (stated very briefly!)

A tacit assumption underlying Huxley’s discussion of human behavior is that “natural selection” is a “law of nature,” applying equally to all species, and that the selection associated with “natural selection” (a) occurs on the basis of an innate trait or traits—one(s) that gives one “success” in one’s competition with conspecifics, and (b) results in slow, steady, progressive change in the given species—while (a notion implicit here) the species maintains “fitness” relative to the environment it occupies.10

My starting assumption, in contrast, is that (Darwinian) “natural selection” played no role whatsoever in human evolution, and that the relevant factors, rather, were (a) environmental change, (b) predation, and (c) (female-choice) sexual selection—none of which factors necessarily involves intra-specific competition. Although the first factor seems mainly to have played a role in our physical development, the latter two “mechanisms” evidently had an impact not only on our physical development, but our behavioral development (in terms of innate behavioral proclivities) as well. The latter has involved both reactions (with consequent actions) and actions (to allude here to my “process” discussion at the beginning of this essay), but my interest has been especially in the latter (with Dacher Keltner—discussed next—having an interest in reactions primarily).

As I noted earlier (in an endnote), Prince Peter Kropotkin [1842-1921] reacted negatively to Huxley’s 1888 article (“The Struggle for Existence in Human Society”) in The Nineteenth Century, because his own research in Siberia and his reading had led him to believe that cooperation, not competition, was the “law of nature.” Unfortunately, Kropotkin did not offer an explanation (i.e., a “mechanism”11 comparable to Darwin’s “natural selection”) for why cooperation is common in nature, and this “hole” in Kropotkin’s thinking may help explain why his observations and thoughts have been largely ignored over the years.

Research during the past few years, however, makes it clear that both predation and (female-choice) sexual selection have been the decisive factors in human evolution, and that both of these “mechanisms” have “operated” to give us (a) (involuntary) reactions that conduce “social” behaviors, and (b) actions (with a genetic basis) that do the same—those actions including caretaking activities that are essential for activating the potentialities latent in the genes.

This is not the place to detail the specific mechanisms associated with these factors (mechanisms that are not well known anyway!), but as I suggested earlier, I think it important to distinguish between human behavior as it occurred before the “Fall” into agriculture (with the Agricultural Revolution, and consequent rise of “civilization”) and behavior since that time. I suggested earlier the possibility that reactions, and actions motivated by reactions (along with “drives”), were characteristic of the pre-Fall period; and that since then, although we still have the same reactions that we had in pre-Fall times, the factors that explain actions are far more complex today—and some reactions that “should” result in actions, don’t (often thereby resulting in psychosomatic disorders).

What interests me especially is the fact that as our ways of life have changed (“advanced,” we are convinced), our biology has changed but little (a point recognized by Huxley). Prior to the “Fall” into agriculture, there had occurred a co-development of humans as biological entities and the way of life then existing. The gatherer-hunter way of life “directed,” in a sense, biological development; but, conversely, as biological development occurred (and especially as intelligence increased, and an ability to communicate developed), modifications occurred (“improvements”) in the gatherer-hunter way of life. Despite these facts, however, a basic consonance existed—and continued—between way of life and biology: the way of life “fit” the biology, and the biology “fit” the way of life.

At some point the growth in human intelligence led to developments in technology that enabled a sedentary way of life; and although the change from a “migratory” way of life to a sedentary one did not occur “overnight,” this change in the nature of the way of life had profound consequences.12 The change meant that individuals were now exposed to stimuli for which their bodies were not “designed,” and were unable to be exposed to those stimuli for which they were “designed.” It meant that individuals were now required to engage in behaviors for which their bodies were not “designed;” and were now unable to engage in behavior for which they were “designed.” It meant that individuals were now forced to use their brains in ways contrary to the brain’s “design,” and also were not able to use them in ways consistent with the brain’s “design.” Etc.

This “discrepancy” between the way of life for which we had become “designed” and the ways of life that we have been forced to live has been growing over time—at an accelerating rate since the Industrial Revolution (i.e., since about 1750 CE). And likely, this growing Discrepancy is the root cause of many—perhaps most—of the problems that we face today as humans: Given, however, that this matter has not been researched with any degree of thoroughness, one cannot be definitive about this.

Given that our way of life is “out of sync” with our biology, it should be clear that there are two possible solutions:

  • Modify our ways of life in the direction of our “design specifications”—at least to the point where whatever degree of Discrepancy exists is not a serious problem for us.
  • Modify our biology in the direction of the requirements of our ways of life.

Needless to say, neither course of action would be easy to take—with the second one having the additional problem of raising ethical issues. Given that we may near the threshold of “runaway” (so far as “global warming” is concerned)—assuming that we haven’t already passed it—the most likely course that we humans will take is … one of relative inaction! So that (as scientist James Lovelock has stated) the likelihood of our species going the way of the dinosaurs is very high indeed. Too bad!

Dacher Keltner

Psychologist (at the University of California, Berkeley) Dacher Keltner recently published a book—Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life2 —that is of great importance. In it he reports research done by himself, his students (often in conjunction with himself), and others, and asserts that (p. ix) “emotion is the source of the meaningful life.” The book addresses three questions (p. ix, x):

      “How can we be happy?”
      “What are the deep origins of our capacity for kindness?”
      “How can we be good?”

Keltner’s second question suggests that he will give an evolutionary account of our “capacity for kindness,” but the fact of the matter is that Keltner’s orientation is to empirical studies rather than speculation regarding the evolutionary mechanisms that have “given” us “kindness genes.”

It is of interest that Keltner’s first and third questions are answered by him—using empirical findings as his basis—by arguing that if we are good, we will be happy, and that being good is not that difficult given that we are “programmed” to be good. He quotes the Dalai Lama (p. 249) thusly:

      If you want to be happy, practice compassion;
      if you want others to be happy, practice compassion.

Despite the fact that this is an important book that warrants a detailed analysis, I will limit myself here to just two comments. First, although the book reports the results of a large number of empirical studies, it does so using a “self-help” perspective. Thus, the possibility that our problems are rooted in The Discrepancy, and will only be solved by either societal system change or drastic biological change is never considered.

Second, in terms of my “process” discussion at the beginning of this essay, it must be noted that Keltner’s orientation is more to reactions (and the actions that result from them) than to actions. Thus, he has chapters on embarrassment, the smile, laughter, compassion, and awe; and although he also has chapters on teasing, touch, and love, the actions associated with teasing and touching are closely related to reactions; and love is a complex emotion, with associated actions—and Keltner’s discussion of love is not particularly satisfying anyway. My main point here, however, is that there are many behaviors beyond the ones discussed by Keltner (see, e.g., my “Obstacles to the Good Society”), many of which are obstacles to the “good” that we were “born to be,” but those behaviors play no role in Keltner’s thinking. In other words, there is an important “hole” in his thinking, seemingly reflective of the fact that his orientation is to empirical research.

In minimizing here my discussion of Keltner, I do not mean to imply that I lack admiration for his book. Rather, I justify the shortness of my discussion here on the basis that I go into much more detail in another essay. Thus, if one wants additional information about the book (without reading it!), I recommend that other essay.

Conclusions

Darwin developed—invented, rather than discovered!—the concept of “natural selection,” believing (one would assume13 ) that it explained species change—just as breeding (i.e., “artificial selection”) is known to result in those changes in a species desired by the breeder. It turns out that the competition assumed by the concept14 is of minor importance as a causative factor, but it has been difficult to come to that realization. Why? If one is convinced that “natural selection” explains (monotypic) evolution, if one is faced with a situation that demands an explanation, one will (glibly) offer “natural selection” as the explanation—and, indeed, the evolutionary literature is filled with glib “explanations.” That is, rather than searching for an explanation, one will assume that one knows the answer in advance—so that one need not undertake any search. The result is that research into causes is inhibited, and research advance is retarded. It’s true that Darwin’s thinking “evolved” after the publication of his The Origin of Species in 1859; I am not aware, however, that he ever renounced a belief in the false doctrine (for human evolution, at any rate) of “natural selection.”15

Beyond this intellectual problem, however, there has been the problem that the dogma that competition is a “law of nature” has been used—in the form of Social Darwinism—as a “scientific” basis for excusing anti-social behaviors. If one is told that we humans are “naturally” competitive, one may be tempted to “use” this “fact” to rationalize behaviors that one knows to be anti-social—and be able to do so in good conscience. And this has been done, presumably. Therefore, acceptance of the “fact” that “natural selection” is a law of nature has had negative consequences.

A parallel can be drawn between “natural selection” and “human nature” in that both concepts have inhibited research, and both concepts have been used to justify anti-social behavior. As I suggested at the beginning, the concept of “human nature” is a pre-scientific one that no longer has value (if it ever did!), and therefore should be consigned to the dust bin of history.

The concept of “human nature” seemingly has an orientation to actions rather than reactions, and suggests that actions having a basis in “human nature” are of an anti-social nature. The concept does not hold that all actions are rooted in “human nature,” but seemingly suggests that those actions not having their basis in “human nature” are matters of conscious choice. The facts regarding human behavior, however, are rather different: Although involuntary reactions have their basis in biology, and some behaviors are responses to reactions, most actions are in response to situations, or the result of “possession” by a belief system, with only some actions involving true “choice.” “Human nature”—to repeat—is a concept with little or no value, except for excusing (i.e., “explaining away) anti-social behavior.

As the discussion indicates, references to biology, in discussing humans, can be varied in nature, and often contain deficiencies:

  • Huxley’s discussion focused on actions rather than reactions, failed to distinguish between pre-Fall and post-Fall existence, and utterly lacked in consistency from passage to passage.
  • My discussion focused on actions rather than reactions, lacked in specificity in discussing actions (emphasizing, rather, the pre-Fall/post-Fall distinction), and focused solely on the consequences attendant upon The Discrepancy (but without providing any detail).
  • Keltner’s discussion focuses on reactions, the primary virtue of his presentation being that he provides an abundance of empirical evidence in support of his contention that we humans are “born to be good.” By not distinguishing between pre- and post-Fall existence, however, Keltner provides us with no information regarding the nature of post-Fall existence that makes living in accord with this “design specification” difficult. Indeed, his “self help” orientation suggests that he is either unwilling or unable to understand those difficulties.

The need today is not only better to understand the “why” of human behavior, but to recognize that the thrust of human behaviors today is not only of a negative, but a dangerous, nature. It is negative in that our way of life is becoming increasingly “discrepant” relative to our “design specifications” as humans. And it is dangerous in that it has brought us to a situation where we are either very close to, or already in, “runaway,” so far as “global warming” is concerned; meaning that our very continued existence as a species is in question.

It is often claimed that our species is the most intelligent species yet “produced” by evolution. Our actions to date provide little in the way of support to that claim, but “the game is not yet over.” Let’s see if we can score a touchdown, despite the fact that the odds don’t seem to be in our favor!

  1. See, e.g., the old, but still valuable, A. T. W. Simeons, Man’s Presumptuous Brain: An Evolutionary Interpretation of Psychosomatic Disease. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1960. []
  2. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009. [] []
  3. Stephen Macedo and Josiah Ober, editors, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. The book consists of an essay by de Waal, followed by commentaries by Robert Wright, Christine M. Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher, and Peter Singer. The book concludes with de Waal’s response to these commentaries. []
  4. It should be noted that the terms “explanandum” and “explanans” are used with all explanations, not just with theories. []
  5. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1899. []
  6. Prince Peter Kropotkin (who was a geographer and anarchist besides being a prince) took issue with this article, and between September 1890 and June 1896 published a series of “rebuttal” articles in The Nineteenth Century. These articles were collected together into a book—Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution—published in 1902. Kropotkin was the kind of a person that I would have loved to have as a neighbor! []
  7. Quoted in Dacher Keltner, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009, p. 249. []
  8. So Human An Animal. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968, p., 16. []
  9. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002. []
  10. I am, of course, referring specifically to “natural selection” as conceived by Darwin (especially how he “defined” it in the first paragraph of Chapter IV of The Origin of Species. Nowadays “natural selection” is often thought of as a process involving changes in gene frequencies in a population; a definition that, because (unlike Darwin’s) it makes no reference to a mechanism(s) that causes these changes, borders on the vacuous. []
  11. The subtitle of Kropotkin’s book (“A Factor of Evolution”) suggests that he thought of cooperation as a causative factor analogous to Darwin’s “natural selection.” However, the content of the book provides no evidence in support of that suggestion. []
  12. See, e.g., Philip E. L. Smith, Food Production and Its Consequences. Menlo Park, CA: Cummings Publishing Company, 1976; and Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” 1987. []
  13. However, I have long suspected that Darwin knew that the concept of “natural selection” had little merit, and simply used it in an effort to become known as a great scientist. If he had an hesitation in using it, this hesitation would have been removed upon learning that Alfred Russel Wallace had invented the same concept: If two people arrived at the same invention at the same time, how could it possibly be wrong?! []
  14. Note that although competition is associated with “natural selection,” it is not associated with “artificial selection.” []
  15. Many still don’t. Even those who may not agree with the concept continue to use the term “natural selection,” giving it a meaning different than the one Darwin attached to the term. []

Al Thompson works (data management) for an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: A.Thompson@Astronautics.com. Read other articles by Alton.