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The Human Nature Project


Lionel Tiger

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 32.3, May / June 2008

Why is social science segregated from biology as though humans aren’t part of nature? We need a movement exploring our inner nature with all its mystery. Our genes are a crucial part of that story.

That relentless skeptic Bertrand Russell once announced that “Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions which move with him like flies on a summer day.” In a scientifically driven period of history such as the one we’re in, even more perilous are convictions that purport to deliver certainty as well as comfort. While science is by definition and intent designed to be questioned both by its practitioners and its consumers, it’s clear that the value of its results may be sharply affected by the plausibility of its initial assumptions and how searchingly it evaluates information. The English economist Alfred Marshall observed that “the most reckless theorists are those who allow the facts to speak for themselves.”

Of course, this is dangerous. Getting things right matters. I want to deal with old assumptions and new facts, and what should be done about them. My principal focus is the set of working principles and facts speaking for themselves that compose the idea of “human nature.” And to do this, I have to begin with a strange feature of modern as well as old universities: natural and social sciences are separate operations. Not only do they usually occupy different real estate, but their intellectual operations are often quarantined from each other both conceptually and in day-to-day practice.

However, think about how strange this is. Does the fact that natural science is one thing and social science another mean that social behavior is somehow not natural? For nearly all educational and research institutions, the answer to that question is yes. Perhaps vaguely, perhaps inadvertently, perhaps casually, or perhaps assertively—but still yes. The consequences are enormous not only for science itself but for social policy, legal theory, ethical analysis, and our understanding of the sources of pleasure and pain.

All this is the subject of my aria today.

It’s not a new song. Aristotle proclaimed that “Man is by nature a political animal,” and he meant it. But the political scientists and other social scientists who followed him largely focused on the word “political.” They virtually ignored the most important and arresting phrase, “by nature.”

While one shouldn’t take the liberty of imposing on someone else’s pleasure centers, nevertheless I can imagine that Aristotle would have been delighted with the human genome project and would have endorsed the front-page placement of the New York Times story of December 5, 2002, which described the full explication of the mouse genome. This is interesting in itself but became even more so because it appears that of the 30,000 genes possessed by the mouse, only about 300—1 percent—have no obvious counterpart in the human genome. Given that we and our apparent rodent cousins have been evolving separately for seventy-five million years, this is remarkable. It suggests in both real and metaphoric terms that our biological reach into history and prehistory can be seen as comparable to the manner in which rocks, papayas, wood, and asparagus all share the elemental units that physics has identified. Mouse nature? Human nature? So far and yet so near. And yet, I dare say that it remains overwhelmingly the case in the social sciences that almost everywhere it is possible to receive a doctoral degree without studying any other species than humans. Even then, the work is likely to involve people and their behavior in the past generation and in a highly limited geographical area. This is wholly understandable, yet intellectually, it is akin to studying the whole of geology but focusing exclusively on Minnesota or doing botany while ignoring photosynthesis.

Allergies to Reductionism, Suspicion of Genes

There are two overly concise reasons for the segregation of social science from biology. The first has to do with a broad allergy to “reductionism”—in effect, trying to explain a social phenomenon by a physical or genetic cause. Perhaps the principal statement of this was—not surprisingly—from Frenchman Emile Durkheim. Around the turn of the last century, he issued his influential book The Rules of the Sociological Method, which established reductionism as a major error and recommended that the social sciences distance themselves from the biological, even though (or perhaps because) his principal teacher Alfred Espinas was himself a biologist. This anti-reductionism ethic became widely diffused. Not only did it serve the normal purposes of relatively imperialistic academic disciplines seeking greater resources and autonomy, but it also wholly supported the long-standing divide between societies involved in either human or other animal research.

The second and perhaps more significant reason for the segregation of the two sciences has to do with the appropriation of some biological and many nonbiological materials by various fascist groups, especially the Nazis. Consequently, there was plausible and understandable suspicion of attributing to genes any major social or cultural phenomena. Of course the intellectual baby was thrown out with the acrid bathwater, and the study of links between genes and human nature became exceptionally torrid and academically dangerous to boot. It remains a highly sensitive matter and a bulwark of the politically correct priesthood’s catechism. In the United States, the intellectual mess was abetted when the original legislation dealing with affirmative action in its various modes was extended from race to include sex—evidently as a farcical suggestion—since several Southern congressmen were convinced the entire bill was foolish and unpassable. But race and sex are apples and oranges. The differences between the races first of all vary in a gradient of largely minor characterics. Secondly, they reflect relatively minor differences in the actual conduct of lives. However, there is an immense catalogue of defined gender differences from the level of the cell to an indication that among Vervet monkeys, males and females make the same gender-based choices of toys as human children do—without benefit of GI Joe, Barbie, and the dread power source: role models.

On the other side of the political spectrum—the communist left—human nature as an idea was anathema too, because the prevailing rule was that ideology conquered all. A new Soviet or Chinese man or woman would follow the correct guidance of the enlightened party in the name of the almighty founding principles. A kind of Skinnerian environmentalism united communist and social science theory even if this was hardly comprehended by our colleagues who were annoying pigeons and nocturnal mice in expensive labs off Harvard Square. The experimenters woke up the mice and then made them do what they do anyway at night amid pipes—run mazes. On the basis of such operations, huge learning theories were erected. At one point, B.F. Skinner himself asked the question—which he then ignored—“what’s in the rat?”

These learning theories animated a huge structure of belief in the decisive role of the environment in shaping behavior and the minimal role of anything approximating “human nature.” Of course with the fall of communism, the intellectual certainty of half the world dissolved overnight. The results of seventy years of role models (again, that awful phrase and even worse concept), ideal institutions, and programs for human perfection were swept away in less time than it takes for an unpopular sitcom to be canceled by the Disney Corporation. All that certainty, all that propaganda, all that effort. . . .

I was in Korea in 2002 and before the trip had read a memoir of a North Korean refugee who described standing atop the tallest building in Seoul and marveling that all the people he saw managed to make choices about what to do, where to go, what to buy, with whom to speak without anyone telling them, which had been his experience in North Korea. Naturally. People like to do things, they move around, they have projects, affinities, they blunder. So do mice and chimps. Variation is the name of the game of nature. As I tell students studying living systems, the shortest analytic distance between two points is a normal curve. Not only do people vary among themselves—and recall that Darwin’s central insight was about the role of variation—but groups also vary. This has led some social scientists to suffer from what my colleague Robin Fox calls “ethnographic dazzle” in which the fact of difference overwhelms the equal fact of consistent central patterns.

Time for a More Sophisticated Understanding

Now the overwhelming weight of new work makes it imperative that we go beyond the errors and allergies of the past and try to fashion as sophisticated knowledge of human nature as we have been able to acquire about nature itself.

In 1966 Robin Fox, then of the London School of Economics, and I published a wholly impudent paper in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute called “The Zoological Perspective in Social Science.” It was all of nine pages, but I think we largely got it right. Then in 1971, Fox and I, both at Rutgers, published The Imperial Animal in which we used the exciting linguistic work by Chomsky on the necessity for a genetic basis for language—otherwise language is too hard for little kids to learn; there had to be a hard-wired program for it. Different communities taught different languages but learning a language was the same for everyone.

We broadened the discussion to other, earlier elements of social behavior—after all, language is a relatively recent human innovation. We called the phenomenon the “behavioral biogrammar,” a device enabling us to look for human regularities in the production of behavior just as there were clearly regularities in the production of language. Fox and I and countless others have carried on this exploration with various levels of self-consciousness and intellectual aggression, and the result is a new state of play. The most recent full approach to the matter is Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate (see Pinker’s article “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature,” Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 2003). Pinker, as a former student of Chomsky’s, could have—had he attended to it—put the biogrammar concept to good, labor-saving use. But there are dozens of others, including Paul Rubin’s analysis of biological factors in economics.

What do we get out of this? Let me use physiology as my baseline. We all know that the body needs certain inputs in order to function, and the medical community has accordingly developed what we know as an ideal nutritional profile—this much vitamin A, this much C, that much protein, this much green vegetable and colorful fruit. Elements of this remain controversial, especially since the body has become the sturdiest temple for moral self-assessment. So now virtually everyone is obsessed with the food they eat. Diet books face their enemy cookbooks across bookstore aisles. Many people act as if they think that what they eat will kill them. They employ an extermination model of food. Others see their exquisite choice of tasteless rain-forest mung beans as a sure-fire evasion of the otherwise grim grip of the mortal coil. Nevertheless, there is a fairly agreed-upon general idea of what the body needs and how it should be cared for.

A Portfolio of Behavioral Vitamins (Nine of Them)

The body is the structure. Structure and function are almost invariably related. Behavior is the function. So let’s turn to behavior and develop a portfolio of behavioral vitamins that individuals and the body-social need.

Why vitamins? One alternative to that term is rights, but I gather that this word causes lawyers and judges to jump up and down with turbulent anxiety. This is always an expensive and unnerving prospect, and you do not want to irritate these people. Another alternative is needs. But that is too Dickensian for something as agreeable as what makes social life agreeable. There is also always the danger that the management of these needs will be co-opted by the always-hungry, always well-meaning corps of concernocrats ready and willing to rummage in the lives of others.

So behavioral vitamins it is.

Now for the purposes of this exercise, we suddenly become our own zookeepers. Modern zookeepers are evaluated on the consistency of the conditions they provide their guests compared to the conditions in which they evolved and whether they are able to reproduce within the confines of the zoo. So allow me to proscribe a list of behavioral vitamins that we should provide each other as we supervise our own zoo, a list based on a broad assessment of the human biogrammar rather than on any pre-existing scheme of morality, piety, and severity. It is based, that is, on what we needed to prosper as a species in our own native environment, which was of course East Africa (it appears our ancestors spread out from East Africa 100,000 years ago; our real roots are there). It’s the Old Country, back home, back East.

This is a simpleton’s list—banal but a bit cheerful, low-cost, and it doesn’t require a postgraduate degree to discuss it.

I do, however, indulge in a minor form of grandiosity, because I describe these vitamin requirements as commandments. But since there are only nine, it’s clearly an amateur’s list.

  1. The first vitamin is the opportunity for protection by rules about maturity. Three-year-olds do not and should not have the same package of rights and responsibilities as thirty-year-olds. It’s a good bet that responses to immaturity are rather deeply programmed genomically, and legal systems customarily respond to this program. The outrage over priestly abuse of youngsters is only an especially poignant and dramatic example of this.

  2. To indulge in agreeable behavior, we should enjoy the vitamin of access to fresh air and natural light. In various societies such as Sweden and Japan, and South Korea as I recently learned, access to light has a defined economic value. In some places, office buildings may not be built without office windows to the outside for all employees. Devotees of torture and solitary confinement are particularly attached to deprivation of these vitamins, because they know from first-hand experience how effective it is.

  3. Greenery is a vitamin. If I asked a class of young students, “how many of you have houseplants,” a huge majority would say they did. Humans evolved in nature, and we try to import the upper Paleolithic into our homes and high-rise apartments by buying plants in which the only serious function is aesthetic. Furthermore, people who live in houses with greenery already around them create yet more in the form of gardens, and gardening is currently the most popular American recreation. Part of the human nature project is a new bed of summer herbs, and even, heaven forbid, zucchini. (Whoever eats all that zucchini?)

  4. The opportunity for large-muscle movements is a vitamin. Even prisoners are entitled to an hour in the yard. But there is ongoing curtailment in American schools of the opportunities for play involving large-muscle movements, bodily movements over space, and the conduct of lively games, many of which by preference appear to be competitive. This is both a reflection of the fear of lawsuits against school boards, teachers, equipment makers, etc., and anti-male bias by feminizing school systems. Schools have clearly been configured more for female than male nature, and one result is that females are decisively more successful in the system academically as well as emotionally—colleges and universities are on average 57 percent female and 43 percent male.

    In a different but related realm, there is also apparently a nine to one ratio of male to female users of Ritalin and similar behavioral management drugs. Perhaps because males throughout the primate world like to move around more than females, human ones in particular are being penalized for their nature. They are required to become drug-users by those responsible for their welfare. Obviously such drugs are useful for some individuals. But it becomes highly suspicious when the sex ratio of prescriptions is so remarkably skewed. Is this about the students or about the system they’re in? These issues are more fully explored in my The Decline of Males (Tiger 1999).

  5. Social contact is a vitamin. Almost everyone several times a day checks the storage device they use for messages or email. Again, managers of solitary confinement understand how debilitating the lack of social contact is. Good zoos provide opportunities for animals to communicate with their fellows —they like it, even if they squabble. So, the ability to communicate with members of our species is a vitamin. It may also take the form of freedom of expression, one variant of it. It also applies to the issue of censorship: who, if anyone, should decide which forms of communication one member of the species should be allowed to indulge? This is finally a primitive issue as well as a politically profound one. When our ancestral hunter-gatherer bands met to decide what to do next, anyone’s opinion might have turned out to be valuable. Freedom of speech is efficient.

  6. A behavioral vitamin is the opportunity to reproduce. Obviously, some political regimes have sought to curtail this with varying degrees of success and human cost. Inasmuch as this may involve efforts to affect the sexual behavior necessary for reproduction, it is a very broad matter indeed, one very popular among people with opinions. There are also subtler or at least less draconian means of affecting reproductive freedoms—for example those anti-natal ideologies at the core of much modern feminism which, in effect, induced countless women to miscalculate the nature of human reproductive nature. Both Sylvia Hewlett and Midge Decter have recently written about what, in retrospect, will come to seem rather like the unnecessary sacrifices to the Stalinist line by those who embraced it in this country to say nothing of the USSR and elsewhere.

  7. Related to this is a vitamin young children need, which is the opportunity for a durable and predictable connection to their parents—at least their mothers. In our study of the Israeli kibbutz movement, Women in the Kibbutz, Joseph Shepher and I described how it was the mothers and their mothers in the communities who overwhelmingly voted to disband the children’s houses in which their kids were supposed to live from six weeks on. The men always supported the children’s houses, which were ideologically better and cheaper. But the children and mothers clearly made their needs and preferences known. We are entitled to ask if recent changes in the welfare system requiring women with children to earn money, very often by raising the children of other women in a similar pickle, is the desirable solution to a core mammalian issue: how to protect mothers and babies from the ruckus of the wider system? That issue is at the mammalian core of the Christmas story, which is the centerpiece of the most popular celebration in the world. And meanwhile, expensively and elegantly trained women turn over their children to unlettered nannies from countries they’ve never been to and with whom they would not abide a fifteen-minute coffee break at a diner.

  8. Let me break into a cloud of big trouble by suggesting that a vitamin essential in human arrangements is the opportunity for gender-specific behavior. This simply means that on balance, there is good reason to expect that in various venues and for various reasons, males and females will act differently and in others they will act the same. The human nature project makes clear that sex differences are not necessarily the result of conspiracy, patriarchal oppression, formal inequity, and the like. They may be—and have certainly been in countless ways—still in a widespread distribution. However, as we look ahead, we would do well to expect the emergence of sex differences in any complex, ongoing social group, be surprised if there weren’t any, and wonder why not.

  9. Finally, a vitamin that energizes a community when it exists and suppresses it when it is fragmented or volatile is the necessity of communal protection. Whatever authority exists has to provide the citizenry protection from internal criminality, and more significantly and dramatically, from the threats of warfare. Governments like that of North Korea clearly fail to generate any sense of fairness and safety among its population, and depression and widespread alcoholism appear to be one clear result.

Here the human nature project suddenly expands into a large amphitheater potentially housing a chorus of the voices traditionally heard on issues of good government, fair government, peaceful government, and the like. But if we abide by Aristotle’s “by nature” description even if the issue is huge, we are nevertheless not exempt from approaching it with the same candor and even confidence as when we consider ideal playgrounds for children.

Where does this fit in the larger currents of contemporary social policy? There are no easy answers to the myriad problems posed by the industrial system and the complex and vastly rambunctious stimuli it demands an upper Paleolithic former hunter-gatherer to attend to. But there is a model that has served quite well. During its early spurts and then during the effective triumph of the industrial way of life over all others, there was a reasonable assumption that appeared to work: that the environment was somehow self-correcting and able to absorb whatever was given to it.

Then a mild-mannered marine biologist named Rachel Carson wrote The Sea Around Us. This revealed that even the vast and ever-changing oceans were being polluted by the results of our new lives. The environmental movement began, and it became clear that the sheer size of the oceans and the expansiveness of our air could not themselves repair what we polluted. We were too clamorous and they were too fragile, too equipoised for an immensely ancient nonindustrial world.

Clearly there have been excesses—if insufficient successes too—to that environmental movement and too much baggage tied to the train. Nevertheless, the environmental movement is a necessary and conservative factor in defining our lives as well as an easy cause that attracts youngsters wearing bandanas.

My proposal here is both metaphorical and real, which is that we need now an inner environmental movement about our nature in here just as we have stretched and learned to comprehend the nature out there. Our internal nature is obviously more mysterious, more personal, more intricately connected to foggy fears and orchestral dreams. An Irish poet once announced “To the Blind, everything is sudden.” But we know now about our history—and more interestingly and complexly our prehistorical story—which is, in fact, told in our genes. Therefore, it seems plain we should not be blind to the forces that permitted us to perdure, prosper, and remain part of human Aristotelian nature.

Lionel Tiger

Lionel Tiger is the Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University. His books include The Imperial Animal (with Robin Fox), The Decline of Males, The Pursuit of Pleasure, and The Apes of New York. Since the mid-1960s he has been deeply involved in bridging the gap between the natural and social sciences. This article is based on The Bradley Lecture to the American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C.