Scientific and literary musings on who or what we are

Susan Dodds, University of Wollongong

Robin Headlam Wells and Johnjoe McFadden (eds) Human Nature: Fact and Fiction London, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006 (200 pp). ISBN 0-8264-8546-4 (paperback) RRP $26.95.

What makes human beings so special? Is the view that there is something unique about us merely speciesist assertion or a culturally inculcated error? Philosophers are occupationally drawn to debates about what human nature is, how we would know it, and whether the idea of human nature is really very helpful anyway. When ethical theorists or political philosophers debate universal claims of human rights or human dignity, they inevitably come back to the same question: can we or can’t we make such claims on the basis of some universal feature that is shared by all humans? Of course, philosophers being such as they are, the idea of ‘all humans’ is often further refined. Some refer to ‘all and only humans’, that is, members of our species; others to ‘all and only persons’, that is, those who meet some moral threshold of personhood.

During the Enlightenment, human nature (rather than God’s will) came to be viewed as the basis of morality, intellect, and conscious appreciation. A range of arguments were put forward to explain how human nature (ahistorical, pre-social, universal characteristics of all human beings) could be the source of morality. For some, moral sympathy and fear of pain is natural, and so shared by all. For others, adult, sane humans all share a capacity to reason about right and wrong or good and bad. Similarly, appeals to human nature have been used to distinguish consciousness, reasoning and agency from innate stimuli responses (the muscle spasms of frogs’ legs) or programmable processing of data (computer simulated ‘thinking’). Our morality, reasoning, consciousness, and volition (or Will) distinguish Man from Beast and Man from Machine.

In recent years, however, the idea of human nature has taken a battering, from two quite different sources. Science has established the very close similarities between human and non-human animal behaviours, capacities and emotions, making claims of distinctiveness less convincing. A range of critical social theories have also weighed into the debate about human nature. Feminists, for example, have challenged the ‘masculinist bias’ that views rationality and reasoning as privileged human traits, while post-colonial theorists have criticised the racist Euro-centrism of arguments about what is properly human.

What precisely is meant by human nature and how we could know what it is?

However, many social theorists, scientists and literary theorists continue to draw on the concept of human nature to justify critical responses to policies and practices (as in appeals to universal Human Rights), to ground biological explanations for human mental phenomena (as in the rise of neurosciences), and to explain how and why particular literary works are apparently universally appreciated, despite significant differences in social practices and mores between audiences (because the themes of the literary works tap into ‘the human condition’).

The question remains, then: what precisely is meant by human nature and how we could know what it is?

If there is such a thing as human nature, is it robust enough to justify moral claims to rights or to a certain kind of respect? Major figures in the history of Western philosophy, including Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Hume, Rousseau and Dewey have offered theories of human nature. Yet, as I’ve mentioned, in recent years there have been sustained attacks on the very idea that ‘human nature’ is something worth examining. The enlightenment’s dis-enchantment of the world—replacing the divine hand with the mechanical processes of nature—and post-modernism’s dissolution of concrete singular causes or Truth with a capital ‘t’ have forced a re-thinking of what, if anything, our universal human nature might be.

Genetics, neurobiology, and evolutionary psychology have provided more and more insights into what we are composed of, the intricate complexity of our bodies, and the ways in which we work. However, insofar as the sciences suggest that we have some features that are uniquely human, they very often reduce these features to elements of our genetic make-up, electrochemical wiring, or evolutionary development. In the empirical sciences, ‘human nature’, appears to be just one point on a very broad continuum that includes e-coli bacteria, beetles, bats, echidnas, and potoroos. What makes humans special, then, is not difference in kind, but difference in degree; and the appeal to our unique humanness as the source of our special moral, political and environmental standing (we alone are free to despoil the earth for our own ends) rings hollow.

Post-modernism rejects the possibility of meaningful claims about human nature outside of culture.

At the same time, post-modernism has challenged the empirical basis for these scientific claims, by challenging our ability to make claims about ‘the way the world really is’ outside of our experience of it through language. Post-modernism rejects the possibility of meaningful claims about human nature outside of culture, because any concepts we may use to articulate what such a nature might be are themselves cultural products. Post-modernism also rejects the idea of some universal human nature, given the specific experience of each individual within their complex cultural contexts. While the geneticist may point to our genetic heritage as our ‘human nature’ the post-modernist claims that any such appeal to universal human nature is just one way of telling a story about some overlapping cultural experiences (and it is the story, according to Michel Foucault, that suits the interests of the powerful).

Human Nature and the Two Cultures: Science and the Humanities

In Human Nature: Fact and Fiction, Robin Headlam Wells and Johnjoe McFadden have brought together five writers working in the sciences (specialists in brain function, genetics, psychopathology and psychology) and five working in literature (as novelists, literary theorists or cultural theorists) to develop ideas arising out of the three-way tension among the ideas of human nature, scientific reductionism, and post-modern deconstruction of the idea of human essence. The book is thought-provoking, cloying, rewarding, and irritating in turn, as scientists intersperse insight into, and ham-fisted respect for the significance of literature to human self-understanding, and as novelists and literary theorists exploit scientific ideas for literary adaptation. The editors juxtapose papers by scientific and literary experts so as to highlight both the contrasts and similarities in views between the two cultures.

The combination of the painstaking attempts by scientists to display their literary understanding, and vice versa leads to some very peculiar pieces. Steven Pinker’s reflections on the possible evolutionary role of fiction and film and Ian McEwan’s literary reflections on Darwin’s work on emotions are eerie: it is clear that each is writing outside of his normal terrain, and yet this (mostly) works to throw an interesting light on well-worn ideas.

The editors juxtapose papers by scientific and literary experts.

Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist whose research is on the biological bases of mind, language and cognition. He begins his essay, ‘The Biology of Fiction’, by positing a range of possible evolutionary bases for humans being drawn to fiction, telling stories, and listening to or reading them. For Pinker, the challenge is to find an evolutionary advantage that would come from the apparently functionless pleasure of watching, reading, or hearing a good story being told. He argues that literature’s value to us, as beings driven by the evolutionary forces of sex (reproduction) and death, is in its instructional possibilities. Beings drawn to the plots of Romeo and Juliet, Oedipus, The Scarlet Letter, and Jane Eyre (and the various alternative versions of these plots) are likely to learn something relevant to their own survival and chances for successful reproduction of our genes. Fictional narratives are not, then, functionless. They allow us to imaginatively project a range of alternative futures and show us the likely consequences of those choices. Pinker seems to be self-conscious in writing to a literary audience, demonstrating his cultural credentials with references to Brave New World, Woody Allen, Tom Wolfe, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Greta Garbo, and Kafka’s Metamorphosis sprinkled through the essay. It is because he chooses Great Works for discussion that he is able to make claims about the universal human appreciation of such works. At the same time, anyone whose cultural background means that the problems of the protagonists of the literary canon are wholly alien is likely to question claims that these particular artistic pleasures are universal (is Hamlet’s mental anguish universalisable?)

In ‘Literature, Science and Human Nature’, Ian McEwan (famed novelist and author of Saturday, Atonement, Enduring Love, and Black Dogs, among others), also makes a sometimes awkward, but ultimately illuminating, foray out of his familiar intellectual realm. He seems compelled to demonstrate the depth of his research (and this essay is a very beautifully crafted work that meshes literary style with insights from the sciences), yet he can’t resist treating science and scientific writing as literary expression. He questions why ‘[a]ll of us have an idea, our own or one that has been imposed on us, of what is meant by a great novelist’ (p. 40), but we are less able to grasp the greatness of scientists. ‘We can make a list of scientists we have been told are great, but few of us have had the kind of intimate contact that would illuminate the particular qualities of the achievement. Partly, it is the work itself—it does not invite us—its objectifying, therefore distancing, corrupted by difficult or seemingly irrelevant detail’ (p. 41).

McEwan has assumed that the ‘greatness’ of scientists is to be found in their writings, not in their theories or findings; ‘ideas that float free of their creators’. He is concerned that few of those who know the Laws of Motion have read Newton’s original work, that those who study genetics have not read Watson and Crick’s 1953 paper, that physicists rarely consult Einstein’s writings on the Special and General Theories of relativity. This seems to be a writer’s conundrum. For McEwan it is what is written that displays the art; however, for many scientists, writing the paper is simply a means of conveying or documenting what meticulous (experimental or theoretical) research has unearthed: the phenomenon is the thing, not the expression of its explanation.

Ian McEwan can’t resist treating science and scientific writing as literary expression.

McEwan does find some literary art in scientific writings, nonetheless. In particular he draws on Darwin’s correspondence, autobiography and his work on emotions. He seeks to show that great scientists are more than merely rational experimenters, mechanically logging their observations, but that they (or at least some of them) notice the beauty around them, that they are emotionally engaged in their work and they are aware of its social implications. Moreover, he demonstrates how scientists seek to establish the universality of phenomena (such as emotional responses of disgust or delight) in order to establish what is truly human.

Elsewhere, however, the disciplinary gaps are less charming, when, for example Joseph Carroll (a specialist in English Literature and proponent of ‘Literary Darwinism’) describes the foundations of his understanding of evolutionary epistemology in the following terms: ‘the idea that the mind has evolved in an adaptive relation to the actual world and that it can give us reasonably adequate access to the world outside ourselves’ (p. 69). Carroll’s project is to debunk fashionable post-structural critical theory (for example, the view that there are many equally valid truths, that ‘scientific facts’ are simply ways of speaking, etcetera) and to shore up a naturalist, realist approach to literary theory (based on the fact of human biology). He intends evolutionary epistemology to provide a solid basis for understanding literature and its value: literature expresses the basic motivations, or drives, of human beings as sophisticated biological organisms. On this view explanations must appeal to our biological evolutionary features. However, in the quoted passage, Carroll appeals to several potentially extra-biological concepts: What does he mean by ‘the mind’, ‘the actual world’, ‘the world outside ourselves’ here? Is the mind the brain or does Carroll mean by ‘the mind’ that notoriously slippery substance ‘human consciousness’ (and is human consciousness any easier to explain than human nature?)?

Many of the papers in this collection clearly demonstrate the need for both scientific explanation of the material basis of human behaviour and a more literary, imaginative articulation of what it is like to be a human ‘from the inside’ or the first personal perspective. For example, geneticist Gabriel Dover explores the limits of DNA in explaining particular people and their behaviours, by distinguishing between genotype and phenotype, and between the universal characteristics of the DNA and the particularity of the myriad environmental, nutritional, experiential, nurturing factors that lead to individuality of people. Similarly, three chapters about imagination play on the biological conditions that make imagination possible and the social, cultural, experiential factors that shape the possibilities of an individual’s imaginings. The last three essays explicitly challenge the idea that science can provide a complete account of human experience and so identify the limits of scientific explanation, or views of universal human nature, for addressing the issues that are important to people.

Joseph Carroll aims to debunk fashionable post-structural critical theory.

The portrait of the thorough-going scientific reductionist seeking to explain the rich tapestry of human behaviour by appeal to genes, biochemistry, or evolution is, like the image of the post modernist who refuses to accord human biology any causal role in our lives, a caricature. This portrait obscures the significance of scientific insights in the discussion of human nature and of the keen awareness of shared human experience that literature offers (even if these experiences are culturally mediated). Scientific empiricism is recognised by many (if not all) scientists as an attempt to find observable properties and patterns that confirm one or other theory. As such, it inevitably yields partial solutions to big questions like: ‘What makes human existence different, special or significant?’ The post-structural critique of universal knowledge claims on which post-modernism rests is similarly partial; it simply states that we cannot claim to be able to know in any meaningful way, what the ‘actual world’ is like beyond human experience. Further, given that all the humans we are likely to meet and discuss human nature with are themselves members of cultures and societies, we cannot speak definitively of human nature if that is to be understood as independent of any cultural influences.

Minding the Gap between Science and the Literary Arts

Much of what is written about conflicting views about human nature argues at cross-purposes, because different authors are attempting to answer or illuminate different questions. What the researcher peering into the human genome hopes to learn about us is quite distinct from the novelist seeking to give voice to the human condition. When feminists reject appeals to human nature as the ground for universal rights they can be making a range of different claims. Some take issue with the idea that ‘human nature’ identifies a set of universal and valuable human attributes, responding that this set is not, in fact, universal nor universally valuable. Some contend that prevailing ideas of human nature privilege one set of attributes—often those associated with masculinity, wealth and power—over other attributes that are equally worthy of consideration as aspects of human nature, but are more frequently associated with femininity, disadvantage and resistance. At the same time, however, a goodly number of feminists may seek to preserve some notion of our common humanity in order to provide some standard of fairness, justice, or rights that can be deployed to argue against injustice or abuse against women or those suffering disadvantage.

The idea of human nature has been used to justify and challenge racism, to support and to reject eugenic practices, to colonise and to liberate, to exonerate individuals of moral responsibility and to justify retributive punishment, and to support the welfare state and to justify neo-liberal reforms. It is hardly surprising that we seem no closer to a satisfactory resolution to the questions I began with than when Plato raised similar questions more than two millennia ago. We can only hope that by musing on the nature of human nature in new ways, as Wells and McFadden have in this book, that we continue to question the assumptions in our own views and in those who are offering us new, definitive accounts.

Susan Dodds is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wollongong. Her current research investigates the possibilities for democratic deliberation in making policy in the ethically contentious areas of health, medical research, and technology.