The Human Nature Fallacy: Two Extremes
“What is human nature?” It’s a simple question without an easy answer. But there are two extremes to avoid when addressing the question.
Extreme 1: Blank slate theory
Extreme 2: Rigid absoluteism
Let me explain what each of these views on human nature is and why they are mistaken.
Blank Slate Theory
This is the dominant theory about human nature in the West. It’s the idea that we completely define our own existence on our own terms. It is a view that denies any basic boundaries to human nature. It says you can be anything you put your mind to. It is the view that says there’s no right or wrong way to be human. Blank Slate Theory tells us that all roads are equally good roads. And that all diets are equally good diets. And that if our corporations make it, it must be fine for us to eat.
The first and most glaring problem with Blank Slate Theory is that it is empirically false. When you quantify over large sets of human populations, very strong patterns emerge and these patterns give us clues about human nature.
The second problem with Blank slate theory is that it tells us to put our faith in humanity and humanity’s technological innovations rather than by looking to Nature. It tells us that we can just brute force our way into the future by beating the world into conformity to our ideals. It makes us addicted to convenience. So we try to solve our health problems by popping pills or waiting for some corporation to come out with the perfect exercise machine or diet.
Blank Slate Theory makes us blindly assume that all of our modern problems have always been problems, and we assume that we’re going to be the first generation to solve the problems. When the correct narrative is this: many of our health problems (physical and mental) are a product of blank slate theory and the modern society. They have not always been problems. And the solution to the problems may very well be to “know thyself” better – in other words, let’s study our human nature and the environments in which we thrive and try to recover those conditions.
The third problem with Blank Slate Theory is its creeping relativism and egalitarianism. Under blank slate, there is a tendency to believe that all options are on the table. There are no limits set. No boundaries defined. With Blank Slate Theory we get information overload and we simply don’t know who to believe because, well, there are millions of books on Amazon and every “expert” claims to have the secret. We have no criteria for choosing who to trust as an “expert” because we’re bombarded with marketing that takes advantage of the mindset of Blank Slate Theory: the solution is something new, not something old.
On the opposite extreme to Blank Slate Theory, is Rigid Absoluteism. This is the extreme that I’m prone towards and which I have to hold myself against. Rigid Absoluteism holds a narrow essentialism about human nature. It is the view that says there is only one way. Whereas BST says that there are infinite ways. Rigid Absoluteism is the type of view that would reject Veganism wholesale because human beings clearly evolved under a carnivorous diet (larger brain, etc.).
The fundamental problem with Rigid Absoluteism is that it’s not flexible enough to deal with reality. In other words, it is too rigid. We live in a world of change and adaptation and variety. If you simply open your eyes you see that human beings have different color skin, different shaped noses, different types of hair etc. Clearly there is variability within the grouping “human” and any good theory on human nature needs to be very mindful of this.
A second problem with Rigid Absoluteism is that the people who take this kind of stance tend to self project onto the rest of the population. They believe things like, since it is good for me, it must be good for everyone else. Empirically, induction is a great scientific tool when we are looking at large population sets. But the Rigid Absoluteist tends to induce from a single case study: himself.
The final problem I see with Rigid Absoluteism is that it overlooks the fact that Human Nature exists within an environment. It is built to be very flexible and adaptive to its environment. And there is a sense in which it takes on and becomes its environment. So an analysis of human nature must not look at the human being as a static, unchanging, isolated, independent thing, but as a dynamic, interactive, involved thing that can take many different shapes. Rather than a single “right way” there be multiple “right ways” – yet still plenty of wrong ways.
As with many things, the solution to these two extremes is somewhere in the middle. In identifying human nature, we must start with the principle that there are better ways “to be” human than others. There are better ways of thriving as a human being than others. But there is not just one way. A person can adapt to and be an excellent human being in an urban environment, provided he satisfies his basic human needs. And this is true despite the fact that we did not evolve for urban environments. The problem though is that urban environments are not conducive to human well being. And so a person must be intentional about shaping his urban environment to his human nature (greening up, eating local produce, balcony gardening, exposure to the sun, a core group of friends, non-anonymity, non-isolationism, etc.).
There are more wrong ways than good ways. But there are plenty of good ways. The key to a good diet is mimmicking a natural diet. Veganism can work (though it’s probably not ideal for most) because it’s based in a natural eating paradigm. Blank slate theory would have us believe that Margarine is superior to Butter. A case of brute forcing our health solutions through technological innovation… only one that has utterly failed. Margarine is terrible for you. Butter is increasingly being viewed as a Super Food.
The point is this: to thrive as human beings we need to know ourselves better. We need to discover that small range of “good” that allows us to thrive and have better filters that let us throw out all the “bad”