My philosophical investigations, research, and writing in recent years have increasingly reflected an interest in reconsidering “human nature.”
It occurred to me today that the attitude of most people to the subject reminds me of that old saying about “how sausage is made.” Bismarck supposedly compared this to politics, although it probably wasn’t really him who said that the less you know about how laws and sausages are made, the better.
Many people have a similar attitude about this infamous thing called human nature. They have very little interest in examining the considerable and fascinating anthropology and psychology available to them. The less they look into it, the better, they seem to feel. However, they do refer to it frequently, and rely on it constantly, inasmuch as we are all human.
When they refer to unexamined “human nature,” it’s almost always negative. They assume (as people once did about sausages) that what went into it was not very good. There’s a vague assumption that the naughty, nasty bits went in there, a suspicion of Original Sin.
But of course this is based on things like “anecdotal evidence” from personal experience, or picked historical events from the violent, cynical, populous and technological 20th century, which can’t be taken as representative of human nature. Aspects of human nature emerged over hundreds of thousands of years in the Paleolithic, during the evolution of species and subspecies in the genus Homo. (Not to mention millions of years of pre-Homo primates, and mammals.) They aren’t historical developments, and they aren’t something that will necessarily be obvious to someone whose mind they compose. From the inside, we’re a bit too close to this subject to trust our notions, in other words, and our perspectives are more than a bit skewed by the subjective and the recent.
And of course, it’s not true that you’re better off if you don’t know what goes on in politics, even though politicians would prefer it that way. You do want to know, because you will have to deal with it, regardless. The same is true of human nature. Even more so because whatever human nature really is, it’s actually impossible to escape, unlike the consequences of dirty, corrupt politics—which are only very difficult to escape.
We ought to want to know precisely what our nature is. We’re forced to adapt utopian visions of society to it, or fail. It both limits what we personally can do, and facilitates it. We suffer the consequences if we contradict it. We’re forced to work with it regardless of our ignorance, and it’s an impossible job if we’re plagued by misconceptions. And it’s also just possible that our true nature isn’t quite what we’ve been led to believe by so much of the culture on top of it. That would be a wonderful discovery for people to make.