What do we mean by “Nature”? And what do we mean by “Human Nature”?

Ape_skeletonsby Yohan J. John

I've always had a problem with the word 'nature'. It seems to serve as a label for multiple, mutually inconsistent notions. This in itself is not a reason to dislike a word — we seem to have little problem with most words that have multiple meanings. (Surely “right” as in “right versus wrong”, is easy to separate from “right” as in “right versus left”? Surely it isn't semantic confusion that causes left-handed people and leftists to be accused of being wrong, and even unnatural?) What seems to make the concept of “naturalness” especially problematic is the way it is used to justify particular situations or courses of action.

So what are the multiple senses of the concept of nature? I think we can discern at least three, which can be best described in terms of dichotomies. We have:

  1. Nature versus the Supernatural
  2. Nature versus Nurture
  3. Nature versus Culture

Let's examine them one by one, and then see what they imply for 'human nature'.

1. The Way It Is: Nature versus the Supernatural

One of the earliest notions of 'nature' was as 'character' or 'essence'. The nature of a thing is its way, its tao. The word itself stems ultimately from the Latin word “natus“, which means “born”. Since the late 14th century it has connoted creation — all that has been born — and is therefore synonymous with the universe and everything in it. In other words, it's Mother Nature.

So nature is what science aims to understand. Oddly, it is also a word used to label that understanding itself. To uncover the nature of a thing or a process is to situate it in the web of causality. Understanding an object's nature involves finding out where it comes from, how it is made or formed, and the various properties it exhibits in different circumstances. Understand a natural process involves systematically diminishing its potential to surprise us: even quantum mechanical 'weirdness' obeys laws, albeit probabilistic ones.

Supernatural objects and forces are the things that cannot be located on the causal maps we draw. The scientific revolution is rooted in the belief that there is nothing outside of nature, and that anything that appears baffling will, with sufficient time and effort, be incorporated into our ever-expanding, ever-changing theoretical frame. As beliefs go, it is surely one of the most powerful and useful of all time.

Perhaps because of the prestige of science, it is this conception of nature that is often deployed in inappropriate places. In order to inoculate ourselves against this, we must keep in mind one crucial feature of a scientific law: if it holds in a given context, then the object or process that 'obeys' it cannot 'do' otherwise. The laws of nature are fundamentally unlike the laws of human societies: they cannot be disobeyed. If we find that nature doesn't line up with our laws, then we say that the laws are inaccurate, and not that nature is being recalcitrant.

2. Born This Way: Nature versus Nurture

Blake_Infant_Joy_Copy_AA_25The second conception of nature overlaps to some extent with the first, and appears to be just as old. 'Nature' has connoted hereditary inheritance since the 14th century. The observation that each biological organism emerges from a seemingly discrete moment of birth allows Mother Nature's causal web to be split into two parts: the forces that act on an organism occur prior to birth, and the forces that act after birth, over the course of life. Despite the fact that heredity is (still!) quite unpredictable, the causal forces prior to birth — crystallized in the genome — came to be seen as essential and unavoidable, while the forces that occur over the much longer period that is the organism's life came to be seen as mere modulations: variations on a theme already composed prior to birth. Since the late 1800s, Father Time's jazz improvisations of Mother Nature's original score have been labeled 'nurture'.

Even though there has been plenty of push-back against genetic determinism, the gen(i)e is now out of the bottle [1]. Just as the scientific revolution was beginning to succeed in dispelling supernatural notions from causal explanations, along came a concept that could serve as a material substitute for the idea of an incorporeal spiritual essence. The connotations that have been picked up by the genome had the subtle effect of demoting the post-birth causal forces. Nurture was just a kind of veneer covering the implacable Darwinian forces born in fierce competition.

The modern understanding of the genome complicates this story: nature becomes manifest through nurture. And the effects of nurture depend on nature. What this means is that an organism's genetic inheritance is not so much a fixed set of traits as it is a possibility space. A tiny handful of genetic traits and conditions are almost unavoidable, but for the most part there are no high level traits that are 100% guaranteed to become manifest. The way a particular gene expresses itself depends on upbringing and context — the incidents and accidents of life. These causal factors are instrumental in selecting from the genome's latent possibilities. And since the expression of genes is what literally builds up and maintains the body and brain, the way an organism reacts to upbringing and context depend on the possibilities already actualized.

Nature and nurture are intertwined in a complex feedback loop: they form an exquisite causal tapestry that scientists have barely begun to unravel. What we do seem to be realizing is that a given trait — particularly a psychological or cognitive trait — can be 'arrived at' in multiple ways. This may be why identifying distinctive genetic markers of psychiatric disorders has been a largely disappointing endeavor. It may be that conditions we categorize as similar at the level of behavior are like geographical locations — there's often more than one road that will get you there. It may be time to completely dispense with the distinction between nature and nurture, and simply speak of the particular roads taken on the way from the potential to the actual. Unfortunately, even if scientists fully dispense with the false dichotomy of nature 'versus' nurture, conceptions of ethics and morality will probably continue to be framed in terms that value Mother Nature over Father Time — the 'innate' over the 'learned'. The intellectual force behind this prioritization is often borrowed from science, even though scientific causality does not gain much from drawing a sharp line at the moment of birth. We are in a sense, constantly being born.

3. A Horse With No Name: Nature versus Culture

When writers, poets and singers wax lyrical about nature, they are not typically singing the praises of quantum mechanics or the genome. What they are thinking about is the world beyond human civilization and culture. In English this connotation apparently dates from the 1660s, when the scientific revolution was beginning to gain momentum. Humans began to see many of their actions as artificial — born of artifice. But animal artifice does fall under the 'natural' category — I'm sure many nature-lovers and environmentalists would find the following sentence rather annoying: “Beavers naturally make damns; humans naturally make plastic.”

Interestingly, the word 'culture' comes from the Latin 'cultura', which means cultivation and agriculture, and stems from the word 'colere' which means to till or tend. So culture meant a furrowed rural field long before it meant a furrowed urban brow. The rural home of agriculture — perhaps the oldest social invention — is now seen as the grey border territory that separates culture from wild, untamed nature. Beyond the towns lie the fields, and beyond the fields… the forests, the deserts, the wilderness. There lie the places and things we have not yet named.

Scientists generally believe that the same laws of science that work in the lab hold everywhere else in the cosmos. This realization was the essence of Isaac Newton's revolution in physics: celestial bodies obey the same laws and terrestrial ones. Some terrestrial bodies are of course, more complicated; we seem to have less of a grip on geology, meteorology and biology than we do on billiard balls and planets.

View_of_the_Zoological_Gardens1835If nature is by definition whatever is free of human manipulation, then we can never speak of a natural human environment in the same way that we speak of a natural elephant environment. But what humans do is intricately linked with the environments of animals: we frequently destroy eco-systems, but we also modify existing ones and create new ones. Sometimes these 'artificial' ecologies are more resilient that the ones that were displaced. Environmentalists and conservationists often deploy the word nature as something that does not belong to humans, but that humans must nevertheless actively steward and protect. This places humankind outside of nature and yet somehow instrumental in maintaining it. Climate change is clearly a threat to life on the entire planet, but the planet has been through disasters in the past. The fossil record suggests that Mother Nature does not seem to be particularly concerned with protecting animals and plants from extinction. Whether we like it or not, the desire to preserve biodiversity and ecosystems is a very human desire. Many of us have what resembles an aesthetic appreciation for (non-human!) life on earth in its current form.

Change is 'in the nature' of things. Humans are not simultaneously outside nature and part of it. Nor are we the only forces capable of changing the natural world. Animals and plants are not in a state of tranquil balance: an apparent 'circle of life' is a transient interlude of harmony and rhythm in a cosmic prog rock album featuring bombastic collisions, dynamic transitions, and atonal weirdness.

The idea that humans are artificial interlopers who must be kept out of the Garden of Eden is not especially useful. From the perspective of the causal web, humans are not separate from nature at all. If fact, this is why humans are capable of changing the rest of the natural world. The fact that change is natural does not, however, mean that conservation is pointless or unnatural. Fighting against change is also in the nature of things. Animals and plants do this too: their attempts to create bubbles of stability are essential to the undulating process of life. Groups of humans are therefore perfectly 'natural' in wanting to manipulate, preserve, and destroy parts of the natural world. It is also natural for humans to differ on how to go about this, and to argue, fight and whine about all of it.

Think For Yourself: The Mystery of 'Human Nature'

This brings us to the most problematic use of the word nature. When we start to use the word to describe human traits and behaviors, 'nature' really starts to become nebulous. People seem particularly keen on knowing what is natural for human beings to do. Is violence natural? Is religion natural? Is what humans do to plants and animals natural? Which human activities are unnatural?

None of the other conceptions of nature can render these types of questions coherent. Nature-as-culture obviously renders everything humans do unnatural. Conversely, from the perspective of the nature-as-universe, everything humans do is natural. Nothing humans do violates the laws of physics. Everything that a human being does is a result of the interplay of causal forces within and outside the body. The word 'unnatural' has no meaning if nature is just the tao of the universe. Mother Nature gives birth to both sociopaths and social workers.

1024px-DeepFriedMarsBarFrom the perspective of nature-as-genetic-inheritance, all we can really say is that the dizzying, inspiring, and disturbing spectrum of human behaviors is all somehow a result of natural selection. We cannot look to our genes or our evolutionary history to tell us anything substantial about why individual people act the way they do. Of course, you can find broad trends: humans 'tend' to like sugar, salt and fat. But there are always going to be people who have no interest in a deep-fried Mars bar. Humans 'tend' to like landscape paintings. But tell that to someone who prefers abstract expressionism. Humans 'tend' to be violent. And yet there are plenty of individuals, and even groups of people, who have managed to avoid large-scale violence for very long stretches of time.

There is no point in insisting that all humans are 'equally' capable of violence, or art, or charity, or stupidity. We simply have no way of determining which aspects of human behavior are part of a generic human possibility space. The experiments that would be required to identify human universals are both unethical and wildly unfeasible. We don't need scientists to tell us what 'human nature' is. We just need to observe all the crazy and wonderful things humans do. Could one sort of person have done a wholly different sort of thing in a different context? Sure. Probably. Could we say something more specific? We can't clone people and perform controlled experiments on them. (Or at least, I hope that's not anyone's plan!)

With humans, the word 'unnatural' can only mean uncommon — and commonness depends on whom you choose to count as your index group. A small social circle? An ethnicity? A country? A group of WEIRD American undergraduates? [2] A little exposure to anthropology (or a few stray clicks on the internet) should convince most people that there are individuals and groups who are actively doing things you and I find abhorrent, or who abhor things the rest of us find essential. Being “born this way” is not really a good justification for anything: actions that we find both good and bad can just as easily be traced to genetics. And from a causal perspective being born a certain way is no more or less important or essential than being “raised this way”.

Once again, the fact that we can't say anything particularly specific about 'human nature' doesn't mean that anything goes, morally, ethically or politically. Any facts we establish about Mother Nature have no bearing on what we choose to do with her — only on whether what we choose to do is possible and feasible. There is no way to go from 'is' to 'ought'. Nature is what the universe is. Science can sometimes allow us to predict what some tiny part of the universe will be like. But it cannot tell us what the universe, or the planet, or human society, or a human individual ought to be like. Attempts to derive an 'ought' from an 'is' via evolutionary theory operate by disguising an 'ought' (“the universe ought to maximize biomass and biodiversity”, or “humans ought to survive as a species”) as an 'is' (“the striving for survival is a fact”). Science is a map, and like all maps, it cannot tell us where to go.

This Fire is Out of Control: The Nature of Culture

The is-ought distinction points to one thing we can say about humans: most of us really need an ought or two — a goal, a target, a mission, a quest, a crusade. But this is hardly distinctive to humans: animals exhibit goal-directed behavior: feeding, fleeing, fighting, and family-making, and also actions that belie a purely selfish, materialistic set of goals. Animals play. They exhibit curiosity. They even exhibit altruistic tendencies. They don't seem to set up parliaments to decide on these matters, but perhaps that is a difference of degree and not kind. [3]

If goal-oriented behavior were the only thing common to all humans, then we would have to admit that humans are not particularly special, and that human nature is really just animal nature. But I disagree. I think humans are in fact unique in some respects. People who are very fond of animals often get annoyed by assertions of this sort. They think the ever-expanding list of similarities among organisms should make us reconsider our egotistical anthropocentrism. If one mentions human technology and tool use, there are always those who will helpfully send you videos of chimps with sticks. If one mentions art, there is that elephant who paints. What really triggers irritation is the idea that only humans have language. People, including scientists, have on several occasions attempted to convince me that that humans are just too dense to translate the infinitely subtle language systems that animals use behind our backs. The fact that researchers have spend decades trying to uncover language or at least teach human language to animals is apparently of no relevance. There is no doubt that animals communicate, but there also seems to be no reason to call their forms of communication 'language'. I'd love to be proven wrong, but for the time being there is simply no evidence that animals possess the complex, symbolic, abstract and infinitely extensible representation systems that researchers are talking about when they say they're studying language.

But let's just accept, for argument's sake, that animals do have something like language. Does this mean that humans are just overly chatty apes with marginally improved stick-wielding skills? I think not. There is something that humans do that has no equivalent in the rest of the animal kingdom. And it is not some lofty and abstract thing, or a mental phenomenon that's hard to test in animals. It's fire. Humans play with fire. Humans cook their food. Specific individual humans might not deal with fire much, but wherever there are groups of humans, there is probably going to be fire in the vicinity eventually.

Agni_god_of_fireHumans are captivated by fire. Animals, on the other hand, are terrified by fire. One of our ancestors clearly broke with family tradition by deciding not to run away from the dancing red flower. Perhaps it could be tamed. The torch this progenitor lit has been passed down the generations ever since. The story of culture is the quest for fuel: for our fires, our bellies, and our imaginations. We kindle all three when we gather around a fire to eat and talk and sing. We might even say that fire symbolizes everything creative and destructive in the nature of human culture. A Hindu myth appears to recognize this symbolic meaning of fire:

“In the beginning there was a mute king, Māthava of Videha, who kept in his mouth the fire called Agni Vaiśvānara, Agni-of-all-men, that form of Agni which all living beings keep inside themselves. Next to him, a perennial shadow, a brahmin, Gotama, who provoked him, first with his questions that remained unanswered, then with his ritual invocations, to which the king, according to the liturgy, should have answered. And the king still remained silent, for fear of losing the fire he had in his mouth. But in the end the brahmin’s invocations succeeded in driving out the fire, making it erupt into the world: “He [the king] was unable to hold him back. That [Agni] erupted from his mouth and fell down to this earth.” And, from the moment Agni fell down to earth, he began to burn it. King Māthava found himself at that moment by the Sarasvatī River. Agni then began to burn the land eastward. It marked out a path—and the king and the brahmin followed it. A question remained in the mind of the brahmin, so he asked the king why Agni had fallen from his mouth when he had heard a certain invocation and not before. The king answered: “Because ghee is mentioned in that invocation—and Agni loves it.” That, for the brahmin, was the founding ruse. The first act of history is therefore not that of the ruler, of the kṣatriya, of the warrior. It is an act of the brahmin, of he who kindles every event, who compels the fire to leave its refuge. What immediately follows is a brief outline of what would always happen thereafter: man follows the path left by the fire, which goes before him, scorching the land. This is civilization, before all else: a trail marked by flames. And in the euphoria of conquest there is no need to think that desire or human greed take over. Men always follow: it is Agni who conquers.”

– From Ardor by Roberto Calasso

Lascaux2History begins when fire, trapped in the mouth of a mute king, is coaxed to leave. The fire burns a path through the world, and humans simply follow its unpredictable path. Perhaps language is a fire too. Both fire and language are features of human culture, but aren't really located in the genome in any literal sense. A child isolated from other humans will not produce language, and will probably not discover fire either. Fire and language are passed on from one generation to the next. The 'nature' of individual humans may remain obscure for the foreseeable future, but perhaps the nature of human culture is to be located in the twin impulse latent in the fire myth: to follow the path of the fire we have unwittingly unleashed, and to describe, debate, and document that path on the walls of our caves, illuminated by the fire of language.


Notes and References

[1] The evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin has been particularly eloquent in his critiques of genetic determinism. I recommend watching this lecture for simple illustrations of why genes are not destiny: Gene, Organism and Environment. A less polemical presentation of similar ideas can be found in the work of philosopher Philip Kitcher.

[2] The paper 'The Weirdest People in the World' by psychologists Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heineand Ara Norenzayan coined the acronym WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic [pdf]. Most psychology studies are conducted on undergraduate volunteers in western countries, particularly in the US. The paper shows that along various dimensions this cohort of people are very different from all other humans. You can also read about the study on Slate and the Atlantic.

[3] A reading list on animal consciousness:

Here are some links on plant intelligence too


All images from Wikipedia.

Incidentally, the Wikipedia page on human nature contains this gem of a sentence:

“Notions and concepts of human nature from China, Japan, or India are not taken up in the present discussion.”