The Human Nature Fallacy

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on my blog Life After Bartertown in late 2013 and represents some of my better work from the time period. It is reprinted here in it’s entirety by special permission of it’s author, Nina Illingworth (me)

You are not a beast. You’ll have to forgive me for being blunt folks; on this issue I feel there is no room to mince words. While we’re on the subject you are not a compilation of compounds and chemicals either. You are not an organic robot, you are not a slave. While from a purely scientific standpoint you are an animal, it would take a fantastic leap of imagination to suggest that you are a wild animal. You are not an extension of your family, your peers, your school, your job, your religion, your race or your nation. Although you have no doubt been affected by your upbringing and environment, you are by no means a product of such. You are not controlled by your urges, instinct or spiritual forces. You aren’t the sum of your choices and you don’t live in a jungle; concrete or otherwise.

I’m not saying these things to shock or confuse you. For thousands of years mankind has been sold the idea that we are all the victims of human nature in some form or another. The terminology is relevant here; as we’ve previously discussed, words have power and in this case, the term “human nature” almost always has extremely negative connotations. We are told that unspeakable violence, irrationality, gluttony, sexual tensions, callousness and greed are all simply a part of human nature; that these things have always been with us, and owing to human nature, they will remain with us as long as man walks the earth. Of course, the exact reasoning behind why human nature is so vile has changed dramatically throughout the course of history; largely depending on whether the explanation was offered by a priest, a philosopher or a scientist.

In the darkness of antiquity, religious leaders told us that it was human nature to be influenced by all manner of spirit, demon and god; mankind’s will was weak in the face of spiritual forces. As the light of reason flashed across the world, religion lost ground to philosophy and the rudimentary beginnings of science. Emotions, intellectual capacity and social class soon replaced existential beings as the recognized driver of human behavior. Unfortunately these philosophies typically contained healthy doses of racist, nationalist and religious propaganda; good examples from western history include social Darwinism and any number of racist or sexist passages attributed to the “great thinkers” of the day. As philosophy faltered, mankind turned towards studies of the mind and behavioral science to explain the subtleties of human nature. Once again however, the conclusions drawn where heavily influenced by the flaws of those who created them; Sigmund Freud’s obsession with sex and survival, led him to suggest that human behavior was driven by these same desires in others for example. Finally, the rapid development of medical technology began to push mankind away from subjective conclusions and towards empirical evidence. With the rise of genetics and improvements in the fields of sociology, biology, behavioral science and medicine; scientists began to unlock the riddle of the human mind at an ever increasing pace. To their credit, modern researchers make little if any effort to suggest this is anything but an ongoing process; while genetics and environmental conditioning may be considered significant factors, no scientist worth her degree would suggest they can explain the whole of human behavior. Unfortunately, this has not prevented a largely misinformed public from seizing on the twin fields of genetics and psychology as gospel to help rationalize human behavior in the modern era.

Although on the surface the explanations of the priest, philosopher and scientist may appear drastically different from each other, there are two important ways in which they are similar. For starters, each attempts to rationalize aberrant, antisocial or violent behavior as a submission to forces outside of the conscious mind. Whether it’s a demon possessing your soul, desire possessing your mind or the biologically legacy of your parents directing your thoughts, the ultimate result is that you somehow lack control over your behavior to one degree or another. This is then combined with a wanton failure to acknowledge, define and or properly account for the role free will plays in our lives. To the priest, man is a vessel; he is filled with the grace of god and born to be tempted by the wickedness of evil spirits. To the philosopher and psychologist, man is a social animal; he is destined to be ruled by his basest desires and the circumstances of his birth. At least the scientist seems willing to admit he hasn’t figured out free will; yet this still hasn’t stopped modern society from viewing man as a kind of biochemical android, controlled largely by hardwired genetic code. In each case the message is consistent; you aren’t (completely) responsible for your actions and you stand virtually no chance of rising above the base aspects of “human nature.”

In my opinion, this message is a best a misleading half-truth and at worst, an outright lie. Barring extreme mental illness, man’s status as a rational animal is what defines us as a species. Born with the powers of imagination, the gift of reflection and the virtue of free will; mankind can choose to rise above temptation, desire, violent impulses and base animal instincts. Perhaps more to the point; armed with a sense of ethics, justice and morality, the human race has by and large done exactly that. At some point before the dawn of recorded history we started living, working, playing, loving, thinking, sharing and learning with each other; once that happened, the primordial law of the jungle was already living on borrowed time. What’s more, along with higher thought functions and the capacity to choose, healthy human beings are also equipped with a conscience that actually encourages rational behavior. When we think carefully before we act, we are rewarded with a sense of self confidence; when we choose to submit to our own base animal desires the result is anguish and guilt. If we continually choose to ignore the guilt, we risk emotional deadening and psychological damage; we can “lose our humanity” or “die a little inside.”

This is the true danger in accepting the human nature fallacy; by accepting that we are not in complete control of our actions, we ultimately abdicate responsibility for those actions and thereby run the very real risk of diminishing ourselves as human beings. By offering at once both a rationale and an excuse for inhumanity, the human nature fallacy merely serves to perpetuate the cycle of violence and degradation. It bears asking why nobody ever mentions concepts like charity, compassion, empathy or co-operation when discussing human nature; are these qualities not present in every race, religion or society in recorded history? No successful society on earth has ever been based on the principle of “survival of the fittest” and frankly if this is really how humanity operated, most of the people reading this blog would have been killed and eaten by now. Can you truly look at a mother with her newborn child and not see a love there beyond continuing the species? What about our capacity to trust, our communication skills and our ability to directly learn from mistakes; are these qualities somehow not a part of human nature?

No sir, you are not a slave to your desires, your past or your genes. You are not a beast or a computer. What you are, is a fucking miracle. Any definition of human nature that fails to recognize that, isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

– Savannah Nix (aka Nina Illingworth)