Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Saturday 18 May 2024

A Theory of Human Nature


Over on Decoherency, I recently posted a couple of book reviews that have very different takes on what makes people tick. First, Rutger Bregman's largely idiotic Human Kind has it that people are, when you get right down to it, an absolutely lovely bunch of racists and everyone would be much happier living as a monkey in a war-ravaged jungle. The whole notion of private property has led us all down the dark and miserable path of civilisation and everything was pretty much hunky-dory until about 1800 for some reason.

Yes, really. 

Thanks to Bing Image Creator, Bregman's horrific dream can finally be realised.

Secondly, Christopher Browning's incomparably superior and more disturbing Ordinary Men postulates that people can be moulded into committing appalling acts even when they're not raving ideologues, such is the power of group conformity. He doesn't address the grandiose issues that Bregman does, and his much narrower claim ends up being far more watertight as a result.

What I want to do here is essentially expand on Browning's idea and follow it through, such as I can, to a broader conclusion. I already mentioned the basics of this in the Bregman post but I feel this needs a deeper exploration.

I claim that the old lunatic witch Maggie Thatcher was exactly wrong : that rather than there being no such thing as society, we are society

When Bregman set up a choice between humans as essentially nice or nasty, I say he missed the trick that perhaps we aren't hard-wired to be anything, that what we learn is only ever what other people and circumstances teach us, under the limitations of what our brain can handle. Our nature isn't some standard, fixed-from-birth characteristic. The choice between nature-or-nurture is a false one : our nature is our nurture, and we are shaped to an enormous degree by the culture of those around us.

So it's time to try and justify this. Throughout, I'll also be drawing on Damon Centola's Change, which examines how our beliefs shift in response to those of others, and David Eagleman's Live Wired, which looks at the tremendous (but not unlimited) flexibility of the human brain. To my shame, these are both easily among the best books I've read in the last five years but I haven't got around to blogging them. I've also suggested these ideas in passing before, not only the review of Human Kind, but also here and somewhat more tangentially here, and probably quite a lot of other places too.

Refining the Question

The old nature/nurture question is undeniably an interesting one. What are people really like ? What are our innate abilities and tendencies, and what do we have to learn ? What can we deliberately change about ourselves, and ultimately, how can we most effectively harness this to create the best possible society ?

Well, I'll leave that last one largely unanswered. But at least I can present my case that human nature is heavily dominated, in every important respect, by our changing cultural influences, and we are not fixed to behave in any particular way. Nothing that happens is inevitable and we aren't doomed to perpetual warfare because we're a "shitty species" or any of that cynical, self-defeating nonsense that's perversely popular in some quarters.

One manifestation of this I frequently see is a paranoid belief that everyone has an agenda about everything, that nobody does anything just because they believe it's a good idea. Everyone, the logic goes, is out to manipulate everyone else the whole time. And this is just not true at all, even (especially !) about people and companies who do dumb and unpleasant things.

This is not to say that our innate nature doesn't exist or is of no importance, be that our genetic makeup or other physical/biological factors influencing our development. Hardly. These things undoubtedly do have roles to play, sometimes very important ones. Nor am I saying something along the lines of the stupid wishful-thinking aspirational rhetoric that "you can do anything if you put your mind to it". This is nonsense which sets us up for disappointment when we realise that actually no, we can't all be virtuoso pianists or professional footballers, no matter how hard we try or how many hours we put in : not the proverbial ten thousand, not even a hundred thousand. 

There's no shame in this. Quite the opposite ! If you insist that people haven't succeeded because they haven't tried hard enough, chances are that it's you who's the problem.

Well, on the other hand...

What I'm saying is more that society, not individuals, can be shaped with near-infinite flexibility, and each person living in that society could have had very different roles if they'd lived elsewhere. They weren't destined to become a web designer or a lawyer any more than they were a cave painter or a pyramid-builder. This may sound trivial, and hopefully it is. Which is why we need to go a little deeper. 

Let's begin with one of the most obvious examples of continuous and uncontroversial change : technology. 

They Don't Build Them Like They Used To, Thank Goodness

Consider life in Britain today, in the early 21st century. We have entire fields of industry based around the world wide web. People create art, music, play sports, socialise, all entirely digitally. They invest money in portfolios of digital industries, argue over digital crimes, and beyond the web technology remains omnipresent. Music uses electronic instruments, we make notes on digital tablets, explore virtual worlds, use advanced drugs to treat and cure diseases, have robots perform surgery... technology is everywhere

And, crucially, it's very different from what we had even 25 years ago, never mind 50 or more. I remember digital media stored on cassette tapes and played back on analogue black-and-white televisions. Today, I get most of my exercise with immersive virtual reality apps, an experience easily closer to Star Trek's holodeck than the clunky experience of my childhood ZX Spectrum.

I've seen these in museum's for crying out loud... oh GOD I'm fucking old.

This is not a rant against people spending too much time online or some other grumpy-old-man bollocks. Not at all. I like most of these technological marvels (even if I don't care a jot about bloody TikTock) : I remember yearning for experiences which are now routine and it still feels like something wonderous. At least, some of the time. 

Anyway, my point is the change. Whole fields of endeavour are commonplace today that didn't even exist within recent living memory. The idea that someone could be a professional web designer would never have occurred to anyone when I was 10, because such things just didn't exist for normal people. You'd have had more luck betting on a career in Ceefax

The Times They Are A-Changing

It's not just technology of course. The further back you go, the more different society becomes in all ways. There are some startling similarities in even the most distant ages to be sure : the fake adverts of ancient peoples as shown in Horrible Histories in jest may well, I suspect, be more accurate than they intended. Even so, options have fundamentally changed. Once, becoming a monk or a scribe was relatively normal. Today they barely exist, alone with knocker-uppers and a host of other lost professions

Plato noted that while not everyone might be able to play the flute very well, everyone who had at least some teaching was better than anyone who had none. We learn from each other – that's one of our greatest strengths (a rare moment of insight from Bregman) : genius ideas are slow and rare to develop but propagate rapidly. Consequently, the lived experience of a Victorian, a Roman, a Celt, a hunter-gatherer would all have been radically different. Technology plays a key role here. It's a fundamental part of our existence, not something we do as a sort of glorified side-hobby.

And yet far more crucial still are INFORMATION and RESOURCES. Those, I claim, are the two pillars on which human society is built. Knowledge of how to interact with the world, how to harness what it can provide, is crucial, but it goes the other way too : with more resources at our disposal, more money to fund more powerful telescopes, our beliefs shift – perhaps only minor matters of technical detail in the short-term, but whopping great moral beliefs over longer periods.

A common objection is that despite this, societies continue to act in basically the same ways. This is ludicrous, as any former Soviet bloc nation will readily attest to. Societies have been egalitarian, hierarchical, fundamentalist, rational, despotic, democratic, all in varying degrees (and not always easily distinguished). Are there common themes, pointing to an underlying human nature ? Yes, perhaps, but there are also profound and dramatic differences across cultures throughout history. To say the Aztec were basically similar to the Athenians is profoundly stupid.

Or consider another approach. If we were to take a random person from history and raise them in our society, few would be surprised to see them become a lawyer or a fireman or a checkout assistant. Nobody would expect them to become a Viking or an alchemist because why the hell would they do that ? Society determines how people express themselves, not their genetics. There's simply no way that anything as specific as the desire to become a trireme helmsman could be genetically encoded.

Image credit : me !

What genetics and/or other innate factors might well bestow are tendencies : personality types, preferences and latent base abilities. If I myself were born in another era, perhaps I might have been a monk* or a scribe, but I think it's far less likely I'd have been a warrior or an athlete. I've never had any inclination towards those activities : reading and writing are my forte, not hacking people with axes or running around after a windsock... wait, that's greyhounds. You get the idea. I don't say those are impossible, just considerably less likely.

* I'd have been a fucking fantastic monk, locked up all day with naught but books to read.

This is why I say culture dominates. It's exemplified brilliantly, like so many things, by SMBC :

To me this alone is the perfect TLDR version of this post. How can anyone say humans are innately good or bad when comparing medieval and modern Sweden ? IT. DOESN'T. MAKE. SENSE.

The Times They Are A-Teaching – Mostly

Of course I have to acknowledge that there are some limitations to this. We are after all creatures of flesh and bone, not ethereal angels able to reconfigure themselves at will. We do have some restrictions – we can't grow antlers just because we want to – but I think it's worth being quite skeptical about any attempts to infer what those precise limits actually are.

For example, female mathematicians were common until men decided that wasn't women's work. People can generally accomplish what they want to achieve, but only if you let them and only if you teach them correctly. What they want in the first place is trickier. Learning styles may well be a myth but learning preferences certainly aren't. Conversely, teach anyone anything badly enough and I guarantee they won't like it. So to say that because we see more of demographic X in profession Y is to entirely miss the point : it doesn't indicate a natural desire or tendency any more than the pyramids suggest a natural Egyptian propensity for bricklaying.

So how far does this go – what sort of limits do we have ? To take a really extreme angle, was Hitler destined to become a leader or a tyrant ? I say no, but was he destined to become a massive cunt ? Yeah, probably, though it's not a clear, cut-and-dried case. Consider also the crazy "fake heiress" lady, whose parents seem pretty despondent and bewildered about why she turned out the way she did. Some people just do their own thing, in spite of environment, just as some historical princes have gone on to become utterly useless and despicable even though they had the finest teachers money could by. Natural tendencies do exist, and dominate nurture in some individuals, but these are the exceptions rather than the norm. 

I thought it was time for a more colourful metaphor, dammit.

Are there some innate tendencies that transcend societal boundaries ? Almost certainly yes. It would seem very strange if, given our obvious biological differences (height, weight, reproductive organs, hormones etc.) there weren't some pre-programmed differences. Sexuality may or may not be one such example, though it's worth noting just how radically different the rules of attraction can be in different cultures : some modern-day tribal people use chalk and feathers to look sexy, or even deliberately scar themselves or lengthen their necks

It's very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the contestants of Love Island would be seen as particularly attractive in all cultures around the world : this is just our Western bias in thinking that we're somehow especially normal. This isn't to say that the different conditions for attraction aren't real – not at all, but they are, in a sense, manufactured. Just like Love Island, then.

And that to me underlines the main point. I'm not seeing any indication that in anything which really matters, culture is anything less than overwhelming against these innate effects. Any genetic differences are utterly irrelevant in the face of the cultural onslaught : look, for example, at how open the ancient Greeks were about homosexuality, and how sexual and gender attitudes have varied so profoundly and radically across geography and time. It may or may not have actually altered the attraction that individuals felt towards each other (though I think it very probably did) but it has certainly altered how they were able to express themselves, which, in the end, is what really matters.

Morals vs. Mathematics

So we can alter our specific beliefs, including morality, almost infinitely. What looks pants-dropping attractive to one person can, to another with a different upbringing, look repugnant. Even so, we surely do have some hard limitations that society can't alter very much, some basic clay that it can mould and shape but never create.

Ordinary Men demonstrates that you can make seemingly normal people into murderers, in the right circumstances (see also this, but also this for how they can become heroes). But it does not follow you can make them into mathematicians. 

Of course, it's also possible to be a murderous mathematician – or indeed much weirder combinations.

My suspicion is that our base abilities are probably innate or set by very early experiences, or both. We cannot increase them, at least not all that much : culture governs how we express them, not what they are. I've speculated a little about my own intelligence limits here (and see also links therein), noting that there can be limits as to how many things we can store in our head at once and how rapidly we can process them.

Nevertheless, today we can become astronauts and airline pilots, jobs which simply didn't exist in previous cultures. Yet there were surely people who had the requisite base natures even thousands of years ago. Culture gives us the particular skills, mental tricks, and factual knowledge needed to fulfil the available options. It shapes our abilities to a huge degree : crucially, the "ordinary men" of Browning's book never did anything like their horrific acts in the German forests of the 1940s ever again.

But if the effects of culture are dominant, they aren't unlimited. Morality, specific factual beliefs, these are nearly 100% due to external knowledge, and these are extremely important. Other things, however, are natural. I just don't think I could ever have become an elite athlete or a great actor or political leader : these things are just not in my nature or temperament. Similarly, specific desires are environmental, but low-level ones perhaps not. For example the base desire to run around as opposed to the higher level enjoyment of running around while playing football. To simply want to run around is a very primal desire, to want to kick a ball with a carefully-defined set of precise rules requires something else.

All skills and preferences can be improved with, and are subject to, training and society, but I think we cannot make genius any more than we can turn a sow's ear into a silk purse. We can give genius the best chance to express itself just as we can suppress its abilities to impact anyone (e.g. locking a professor up in a dungeon versus giving them a healthy grant and a team of well-trained postdocs) but there are some things each of us can just never understand* : there's maths I just can't do, will never be able to do no matter how hard I try, even if I was motivated.

* I sometimes wonder if this works in reverse, if there are some things which only make sense if you're sufficiently stupid which clever people will just never be able to comprehend. And stupid people, I'm sad to say, seem to be more easily persuaded by stupid arguments than clever people are by clever ones. This may go a long way to explaining why people in large groups tend to be so damn thick.

Of course, this is definitely not a coded plea to the grant agency to support my application.

Trends across all cultures and history may indicate hard-wiring but even here these patterns are difficult to discern with any certainty. We may, for instance, also have innate beliefs rather than abilities, or at least broad personal preferences that shape our more precise beliefs. This can then become a self-fulfilling prophecy, for example in the case of gender : you're only good for raising children, so the thinking goes, so that's all we'll teach you => voila, there go the mathematical talents of half the species due to lack of training ! 

Here I'm especially remembering Live Wired, and even if you see a neurological difference, you can't immediately assume this is the result of nature and not nurture. The brain is far too flexible for that, capable of adapting itself to use different pathways in a matter of mere hours in some cases.

What about measured intelligence though ? For example I.Q. is inherited, but I.Q. tests are, in my view, heavily overrated. They're probably not meaningless, they do indicate something, but they're nowhere near as important as people seem to think (despite innumerable, highly patronising answers on Quora professing that the highest I.Q. people just look down in baffled pity at us dim-bulbs). For example, Richard Feynman's I.Q. was about about the same as mine, and while I can happily declare that I've never molested anyone (unlike Feynman) I also can't claim to have his genius either.

Still, I.Q. tests do raise the issue of the fundamental nature of intelligence. For example, as I mentioned, how many bits of information we can process at once, and how rapidly, are probably determined more by nature than nurture. Nurture instead dictates what sort of problems we can understand, how we express our abilities and preferences. We can learn and share our beliefs for simplifying problems but our base ability levels probably can't be shifted very much, even if they're not fixed completely. So at least from the health-of-the-species perspective there's no point in worrying about whether I.Q. levels are changing (be that upwards or downwards), simply because culture is changing and therefore so will our answers to the questions : it indicates nothing much at all about base ability.

Arguably there's no such thing as a true, singular sort of intelligence : it is fundamentally a merged construct of latent natural ability and social expression. Without latent ability, we can't understand what complicated words or equations mean. But what sort of complicated words we choose to create and use, what sort of mathematical notation we adopt, this, like morality, depends on society.


This, then, is my take on humanity. We're born with certain natural abilities, preferences and biases. I myself have quite a distinct personality to my sister, and the same seems generally true of all other families, even if they may have more than a passing similarity to each other. Nature definitely has an effect, be that genetics, development in the womb or our very early life, or other biological factors beyond our control.

But after that... our nature is to be whatever our nurture shapes us to be. As evidence for this I cite all of human history. Societies have varied massively, both in their demands of their own members and how they've treated outsiders. Sure, there are common trends here and there, but there are also massive differences that go far beyond any mere "window dressing". Viking society was by no means Egyptian society but with longhouses instead of pyramids : the differences are much more than skin deep and reflect profoundly different world views. Rather than this all being the result of the abstract notion of private property, as Bregman absurdly asserts, it seems much more likely that it's the result of geography, climate, population... a host of factors. Society shapes itself.

The really tricky question, then, is how much agency do we have over this ? Can we choose to be a society of IKEA-loving furniture junkies as opposed to Frenchmen-bashing marauders, or are we trapped by the structural confines of our societal networks ? I don't know. Society always changes, often more rapidly than we give it credit for. Like the old "frog in a jar of milk", perhaps it's only more important that we try to change rather than expecting success. Of course this is a horrible cliché, but it's certainly better than giving up in cynical, nihilistic despair. The lesson of history may not be that the moral arc always bends towards justice, but it certainly doesn't teach us that we're irredeemable either. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Due to a small but consistent influx of spam, comments will now be checked before publishing. Only egregious spam/illegal/racist crap will be disapproved, everything else will be published.