Human nature

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Human nature is the fundamental nature and substance of humans, as well as the range of human behavior that is, believed to be invariant over long periods of time and across very different cultural contexts.

Brief history of the concept

Template:Unreferencedsection In pre-modern and non-scientific understandings of nature, human nature is understood with reference to final and formal causes. Such understandings imply the existence of a divine interest in human nature, and/or the existence of an ideal, "idea," or "form" of a human which exists independently of individual humans.

According to the accepted modern scientific understanding, human nature is the range of human behavior that is believed to be normal and/or invariant over long periods of time and across very different cultural contexts.

The existence of an invariable human nature is a subject of much historical debate, particularly in modern times. Most famously, Darwin gave a widely accepted scientific argument that humans and other animal species have no truly fixed nature. Before him, the malleability of man 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. The concept has also been challenged by views such as behaviorism, determinism, and the chemical model within modern psychiatry and psychology, which have tended to emphasize the idea that human beings might conceivably be explained as "matter in motion" in a way that is similar to the rest of nature. Recently the biologist E. O. Wilson formulated a scientific definition.

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 religion holds that a human is a spiritual being which was deliberately created (ex nihilo) by a single God in his image, and exists in continued relationship with God. Good and evil are defined in terms of how well human beings conform to God's character or God's law.
  • Polytheistic or animistic notions vary, but generally regard human beings 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 may have many other causes as well).

Holistic, pantheistic, and panentheistic spiritual traditions regard humanity as existing within God or as a part of Divine cosmos. In this case, human "evil" is usually regarded as the result of ignorance of this universal Divine nature. Traditions of this kind include Dharmic religions and other forms of Eastern philosophy (including Buddhism and Taoism), and Western philosophy such as Stoicism, Neoplatonism, or Spinoza's pantheistic cosmology. Certain kinds of polytheism, animism, and monism have similar interpretations.

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 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 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.

State of nature

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:
    • According to John Locke, humans in the state of nature have perfect freedom to order their actions according to the laws of nature, without having to ask permission to act from any other person. People are of equal value, and treat each other as they would want to be treated. People only leave the state of nature when they consent to take part in a community in order to protect their property rights. [1]
    • According to Rousseau, humans in the state of nature are naturally good, and bad habits are the product of corrupting civilization;
  • Views which see humans as morally neutral:
    • According to Pelagius, humans in the state of nature are not tainted by original sin, but are instead fully capable of choosing good or evil.
    • According to social determinism and biological determinism, human behavior is determined by biological and social factors, so inherent human instincts are never truly to blame for actions generally considered "bad" nor truly credited with actions generally considered "good."
  • Views which see humans as inherently bad:
    • According to Hobbes, humans in the state of nature are inherently in a "war of all against all," and life in that state is ultimately "nasty, brutish, and short." To Hobbes, this state of nature is remedied by good government.
    • According to the Christian doctrine of original sin, human beings are inherently corrupt creatures stained by the sin of Adam, and can only be redeemed by the grace of God through faith in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, whom they believe to be His morally perfect Son. In Protestant theology, the virgin birth is believed to make this possible, as original sin is thought to pass from the seed of man. Catholicism, however, holds that the natures of both Jesus and His mother Mary, as a holy vessel for the Messiah, were uncorrupted by original sin.
    • According to Bertrand Russell moral evil or sin is derived from the instincts that have been transmitted to us from our ancestry of beasts of prey. This ancestry originated when certain animals became omnivorous and employed predation (killing and thievery) in order periodically to ingurgitate the flesh as well as the fruit and produce of other once-living things to support metabolism in competition with other animals for scarce food-animal and food-plant sources in the predatory environment in which we evolved. Thus, the simple fact that we humans must eat other life or else starve, die and rot is the probable primordial origin of contemporary and historical moral evil; i.e., the bad things we do to each other by lying, cheating, slandering, thieving and slaughtering.


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 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.


Main articles: Meaning of life (philosophy); Meaning of life (science)
  • 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).

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. Genetic predispositions 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. Psychologically, the term "human nature" can be related to Freud's concept of the id and the desires associated with such an aspect of personality.

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.

An alternative view is seen in E. O. Wilson's sociobiology and the closely related theory of evolutionary psychology.

Behavioral genetics

The nature versus nurture debate. Behavioral genetics

Human diversity

Population genetics

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.[citation needed]

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[1] , Donald E Brown presents his case and identifies approximately 400 specific behaviors that are invariant among essentially 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. Identical twins have identical genes, and therefore identical innate behavior. If all behavior were innate, one would expect identical twins to behave in perfectly identical ways all the time. However, this is clearly not the case. In particular, twins who grew up separated (and in different environments) show the greatest differences in behavior.

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 will soon have the possibility of altering our genes and therefore changing the instincts that are coded in those genes.

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. There was an intellectual soul, resident in the human head, and there was an appetitive beast, resident in the belly and genitals. The duty of the former is to keep the latter tamed and, in time, to welcome death as an escape from this uncomfortable co-habitation.

In one disguise or another, Plato's dualism 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.

What all these views have in common is the following structure: "there exists an invariant human nature, and my theory discloses it better than other theories." This structure does allow for progress in history — because coming to know ourselves better is progress. But human nature itself, as the object of that knowledge, is considered a constant. Indeed, in Kantianism, human nature in the really-real sense can't be said to change because change requires time, and time is a feature only of the less-real, phenomenal, world.

Hegel represents an important break with this Platonic hegemony. Building on his concept of the dialectic, everything is, so to speak, up for grabs: as humans come to know themselves better, the object of knowledge necessarily changes.


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 by proposing that humans had once been solitary animals, and had learnt 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 now, but originally they were not. This broke important, and also politically dangerous ground, for the political events of the 19th and 20th century, wherein, to give the most shocking examples, totalitarianism and brain washing developed.

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 he nevertheless had a very strong concept of human nature. 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 Austrian school of economics, in the years around 1871–1940, developed its 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. - In structural terms, their view returned to that of the thinkers mentioned in this survey prior to Hegel. 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. They conceived of human nature in terms of bounded rationality and of the pursuit of marginal utility, and they believed that the pursuit of this utility in the marketplace would create a condition of spontaneous order that will be more rational than any alternative that might be planned, given the bounded rationality of any possible planners.

Sigmund Freud

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. In this spirit, Freud heavily criticized the Soviet Union, writing in 1932 that its leaders had made themselves "inaccessible to doubt, without feeling for the suffering of others if they stand in the way of their intentions.

E.O. Wilson

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.

See also

References & Further Reading

  1. Brown, Donald (1991). Human Universals. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 007008209X


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