Thursday, January 11, 2007

Does Human Nature Exist?

Thinking about prediction last week reminded me of Isaac Asimov's robot novel THE NAKED SUN. In this book, human detective Elijah and his robot partner solve a murder on a world where people very seldom interact in the flesh. "Meetings" usually occur by means of holographic projections so refined they look real. Even married couples spend very little time physically together. Nothing is said about sex, but one must assume it's customarily of the virtual type. Reproduction is accomplished in vitro, and offspring are brought up in public creches rather than family homes. Babies, of course, are still born with the instinctive need for touching (so we know these are normal human beings, not a mutated subspecies). This "impolite" behavior is trained out of children at an early age. Yet, as far as we can tell, the people of this outwardly idyllic world somehow grow up more or less normal aside from their distaste for physical contact—instead of turning into the emotional cripples, perhaps even sociopaths, they assuredly would become in a real-life equivalent of this culture.

The fact that Asimov and his contemporary readers accepted this society as plausible illustrates a belief prevalent through much of the twentieth century and deconstructed by Steven Pinker in his penetrating book THE BLANK SLATE, the assumption that human nature is infinitely malleable. The same idea lay behind the devastating experience of the boy whose story is told in AS NATURE MADE HIM, whose penis was severely damaged in a botched circumcision during infancy. Doctors recommended that the child undergo sex reassignment surgery and be raised as a girl. Despite being treated as a girl throughout childhood and given female hormones, he/she never felt or behaved "feminine." Eventually learning the truth, he chose to be restored to his original male sex, since he had thought of himself as more boy than girl all along despite never having consciously known what had been done to him. Apparently, contra the behaviorists and their followers, there IS such a thing as "human nature." While we certainly aren't completely controlled by our genes, we can't ignore them, either.

The "blank slate" ideology underlies so much literature of the mid-twentieth century, even among authors whose philosophies are radically dissimilar. For a few decades it seems to have been one of those shared cultural assumptions no one even thinks to question. Despite their vast philosophic differences, WALDEN TWO (by B. F. Skinner), BRAVE NEW WORLD, 1984, and C. S. Lewis's nonfiction THE ABOLITION OF MAN all assume that “conditioning” can mold people into anything the conditioners desire. Skinner viewed this prospect positively, while the other authors mentioned deplored the idea, but none of them seemed to doubt that it could be done. On the contrary, we now know that certain human traits really do seem to be inborn. Babies enter the world with individual personalities rather than “blank slates,” and on a wider scale, a common set of basic reactions, emotions, and social institutions can be found in cultures and ethnic groups throughout the world. No matter how much technology changes, it's probable that our descendants two or three centuries from now will be, in the essentials that make them human, fairly similar to ourselves.


  1. Anonymous9:37 PM EST

    Oh, absolutely. Being a professionally trained nanny, I can tell you that the 'blank slate' crap still prevails in some college early childhood education programs. Naturally, this is one issue that seriously toasts me. Babies are born thinking, learning, feeling individuals. This has not changed in the last 10,000 years. I doubt it will ever change. I suspect the reason for the endurance of this lie is the fact that we feel no moral obligation to show respect to a blank slate. We don't have to feel guilty about not providing personal love and support. We can go on with our own selfish interests.

  2. Anonymous7:49 PM EST

    Interesting. In my fictional universe there's an alien species whose offspring are cognizant of their own existence -- though little else at that point -- from the moment of conception. Perhaps that's no more odd a proposition than the blank slate idea, just a view from the other end of the spectrum.

  3. Anonymous9:50 PM EST

    David, I have something similar in the novel I'm getting ready to query agents for in February. The dominant alien species in the story is telepathic, but only for marriage and pregnancy. The zygote must implant in the wall of her mother's womb AND establish the telepathic Prenatal Bond with her too. The unborn makes herself known in her mother's dreams. She's vulnerable to her mother's strong emotions, just as a human baby is vulnerable to her mother's alcohol consumption. These ideas we have for aliens are not all that bizarre to any human female who's ever been pregnant. I dreamed about my babies through all of my pregnancies and felt very in touch with them in a spiritual way. I think if we can take an aspect of human nature and turn it on its ear in an oblique way, we're going to strike a chord with our human readers. That's got to be a good thing.

  4. Anonymous12:35 AM EST

    Brilliant! I think there was an experement done to monkeys very similar: showed the poor little tyke monkey clinging to the wire mother wrapped in soft fabric. The other monkey had only an uncovered wire mother and developed antisocial behavior early on. I think perhaps this goes deeper than simple human nature.

  5. Anonymous9:43 AM EST

    Yes, Ursula, I think so. It seems to me that anytime a species' family structure is disrubted, there are negative consequences for the offspring. Brings to mind raging young bull elephants in Africa. The older bulls had all been shot to thin the herds. What the people who shot them didn't realize was that the older bulls kept the younger bulls in line and taught them how to be proper male elephants. Without them, the young bulls became extremely violent and distructive. This is another aspect to keep in mind when world-building and character-developing, I think.

  6. Anonymous4:16 PM EST

    Great comments! It's interesting that we readily accept the role of genetics in (for example) the temperament of purebred puppies but have in recent decades been reluctant to acknowledge that human beings have innate mental and "personality" tendencies, too.

  7. Anonymous4:41 PM EST

    Right Margaret!
    Remember the movie, the Bad Seed? Playing on the fear of what could be lurking deep within the nature of the beast, that can not be controlled or circumvented by how they're raised.
    It's the nature and nurture argument. I think that we need both, but I also think if you have a strong enough propensity for something in your genetics, it can outweigh nurture. Just as if you have a difficult or abherently powerful nurture, it can override things.
    The bull elephant thing is interesting. It's been noted in teenaged male bears that when too many of them are in a feeding area, they gang up and commit malicious acts for the purpose of committing the act and for no other reason.