Printer Friendly

Human nature and the creation of new values.

The concept of human nature, having fallen on hard times during the modern period, has become a focus of contemporary interest. This renewed interest centers around the new genetics, especially the real possibility of genetically transforming our species. Asking ourselves what kind of transhumans we might become compels us to consider what traditional values we would wish or be able to preserve. What part of our human nature should remain in a posthuman future? Is it even possible to significantly change human nature without abandoning human values? If not, should we even consider tampering with our genetic legacy? Such questions recall the Copernican conflict between science and religion, with the battle now being waged not over an astronomical center of motion but over the ultimate source of values. Do values descend from spirit, reason or imagination or do they ascend from the ground of human nature?

Given their modern antagonistic history, both science and religion seem ill suited to resolve the moral controversies a posthuman future raises. Religion's commitment to preserving traditional values makes its relation to scientific advance problematic. Religion initially attempted to suppress the New Science and thereafter fought a rearguard action against a science triumphant. To be sure, a rapprochement between science and religion finds growing support today. Nevertheless, where scientific developments threaten traditional values, religion's instinctive response is to react defensively rather than proactively embrace change. Arguably, religion plays its positive cultural role vis-a-vis science precisely by acting as a brake shoe on the juggernaut of scientific advance. Science's relentless quest for knowledge and ruthless self-criticism launch it into a state of permanent revolution in regard to its own models. Given technology's power to transform society, scientific advance virtually guarantees constant moral and social upheaval. Science seems ill suited to tackle questions of value, because its practice undermines values even while being indifferent to them. In regard to the fact/value dichotomy that it helped to establish, science situates itself on the side of objective facts. Today, postmodernists, sociologists of knowledge, and philosophers of science have exposed science's claim to value-free objectivity as naive. Most scientists, however, continue to see themselves as empiricists and seem uncomfortable making moral or speculative claims that go beyond the facts. At the same time, many scientists have joined the chorus of those who recognize that, regardless of the fact/value dichotomy's ultimate validity, the scientific enterprise has major ethical, legal and social implications that must be addressed and cannot be ignored prior to conducting research. Science, then, lacks expertise in regard to the values it undermines, while religion reacts defensively to changes that threaten them.

This impasse in regard to values reflects the fact/value dichotomy, but also suggests the means of resolution. The interdisciplinary field of bioethics arose in large part to address the ethical, legal and social implications of biotechnological advances. The example of bioethics suggests a paradigm for understanding philosophy's cultural role today; namely, as a mediator between science and human values that will somehow bridge the fact/value dichotomy. Yet this mediating role is not that of a value regulator who preserves traditional values; nor would the juggernaut of science submit ultimately to such regulation. Instead, following Nietzsche on this point, I maintain that modern science necessitates the creation of new human values, and that this cultural role belongs neither to science nor to religion, (i) but to philosophy. Since I also maintain that the relation between values and human nature is an intimate one, a specifically philosophic reassessment of the concept of human nature is in order.

Let me begin this reassessment with an historical sketch of the concept of human nature. As indicated at the outset, the concept of human nature fell on hard times and suffered philosophic neglect during the modern period. This modern fall from grace contrasts with the prestige it enjoyed in the tradition stretching from classical antiquity through the Middle Ages and into the beginning of modernity. The traditional view of human nature owes most to Aristotle's psychology, the general study of the psyche or soul. This psychology in turn rested on Aristotle's hylomorphism, the view that all natural objects consist of a unity of matter and form. Form informs, that is, organizes matter and constitutes the essence of a thing that distinguishes it from other things. A formal essence, then, is simply that which makes something what it is, in other words, what we usually refer to as its nature. Living beings have a special kind of formal essence or nature called a psyche or soul that both organizes their bodies and animates them in characteristic ways we refer to as activities. Body and soul comprise an indissoluble unity for a living being; their dissolution defines death for Aristotle, the end of all activity as such. Activities are internal self-activated processes or actions of an organism which are either reversible or which the organism retains a potentiality to repeat. In other words, they are regular functions of the organism. Classes of living beings share functions, while others are specific to the organism in question. Thus, for Aristotle, nutrition and growth are functions common to all living things, sensation and motion are common to animals, and intellectual functions are specific to humans. Since a special function implies a special kind of soul, human psychology or the study of human nature entails the study of the differentiating character of the human soul, namely, intellect or mind. Thus, human nature consists of a body and a soul, which shares certain features with other organisms and contains a specifically human intellect or mind.

Aristotle sometimes equates nature with the soul or essence alone, at other times, with the combination of body and soul. These alternatives do not, however, imply Aristotelian ambivalence. Rather, they reflect for Aristotle, first, the unity of body and soul in reality, despite our ability distinguish them in abstraction, and, second, the soul's logical priority over the body in regard to the functions any species exhibits.

To appreciate Aristotle's view of human nature, these last two points need to be spelled out in more detail. Aristotle denies that any personal soul survives death, though he concedes that if anything survives, it would be the pure intellect, an impersonal mind that he likens to an activating light. Medieval thinkers, of course, parted company with Aristotle on this point, arguing that the personal soul survives death. More importantly for our discussion, Aristotle's integrated soul-body dualism sharply contrasts with the mind/body dichotomy Descartes later made famous. Descartes completely identifies his self with his mind or intellect, which happens to inhabit a body that is no part of self, a mere biological machine. Descartes' problem, famously caricatured by Gilbert Ryle as the problem of the ghost in the machine, concerns how a spiritual, immaterial mind can interact with a mechanical body. Descartes cleverly dodged this problem by positing the mysterious pineal gland as the site of the interaction, a pseudo-explanation that leaves unexplained how mind can affect matter. Scientists eventually overcame Descartes' problem by eliminating its source, namely, the mind/body dichotomy, in favor of a reductionist identification of mind with the functions of a material structure; namely, the brain.

This structure-function model returns us, but with important differences, to the functionalism involved in Aristotle's psychology. While the ancient and modern views agree that organisms develop structures to perform certain functions, they disagree on the causality of how these structures come about. For Aristotle, function is prior to structure. To see this point, it is necessary to recognize that the essence or nature activates both its functions and its development. With respect to development, Aristotle speaks of the activating essence as inner principle or entelechy, literally a final end or purpose within. It is the potentiality the acorn contains within it to realize an oak tree. At the level of ontogeny, this entelechy looks like a naive view of the genome in the sense of being a form or blueprint along with the instructions for self-organizing growth. The sticking point here for evolutionary biology is Aristotle's view that for the species as a whole structure develops for the sake of the function or purpose defined by the organism's nature. In other words, we have feet because we need to walk. For evolutionary biology, the structure is prior to the function at the level of phylogeny, having developed through the mechanism of Darwinian evolution. That is, random mutation caused a change in structure that allowed for a new or slightly different functioning that enabled the organism to better survive or adapt to its environment. To summarize, for Aristotle, we ultimately have feet because we need to walk, while for evolutionary biology, we can walk, because evolving feet enabled us to adapt and survive. (ii)

The reader may be forgiven for having failed to see the ethical significance of what is tantamount to asking in earnest whether the chicken or the egg came first. That significance only comes into view by considering the relation of Aristotle's human psychology to his ethics. As we have seen, the essence or nature of a thing determines what makes it what it is as well as its final end or purpose, but it also defines what would make something an excellent instance of its species. If I know what a hammer's nature is, I also know what its purpose is, and in what an excellent hammer consists. I would know that it should have a balanced, easily grasped handle, not have a head made of glass, but of iron, etc. Knowing what something is, also tells me something about what should be done to make it a good or excellent instance of its kind. The point to notice here is the absence of a fact/value dichotomy, ontological facts do imply moral oughts. (iii)

Let me conclude this section by emphasizing several features of the traditional theory of human nature. First, it exhibits a body/soul unity that integrates the biological and the ethical that contrasts sharply with mind/body and fact/value dichotomies. We can now understand why Nietzsche says that psychology was once "the queen of the sciences." (iv) What he means is that pre-modern psychology or the theory of human nature was the highest natural science. He may also have implied that this queen was the proper consort and complement to the human science of politics, for Aristotle, a master science that embraced the good both for the individual and the state. At any rate, the traditional theory of human nature easily integrated the biological and the practical-cultural dimensions of human life.

We have already alluded to several modern changes that resulted in the fall from grace of the pre-modern concept of human nature: Descartes' mind/body dichotomy, Hume's fact/value dichotomy, and the reductionist view of the mind as brain function. The rejection of teleology and the Darwinist denial of the fixity of species were parts of a wider repudiation of eternal, immaterial essences. The human essence vacated the realm of biology and took up residence in culture. For example, Marx maintained that human nature results from social conditioning; hence, transforming social conditions implies a transformation of human nature. If biological, instinctive conditioning is weak or absent in man, then the unlimited possibilities of social transformation imply a limitless malleability of human nature. Comparative anthropology's descriptions of the wide variety of cultures and cultural practices have reinforced this Marxian emphasis on nurture over nature. In his work, Human Natures, the biologist Paul Ehrlich has drawn out the implication of combining great cultural variability with the idea that culture determines human nature. Namely, it is more appropriate to speak of human natures in the plural rather than a single human nature rooted in biological determinism. As the cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker, sees it, modern thought displays a progressive effort to deny any influence of the biological substratum of human nature on human behavior.

It is not surprising, then, that the concept of human nature underwent devaluation during the modern period. The last people to talk unabashedly about biological determinism were eugenicists; to talk in some quarters today about biological nature decisively influencing human behavior is to invite reproach. Yet, despite the risk of reproach, the idea of human nature is returning to the table of serious intellectual discussion on at least three fronts. The first is cognitive science and neuroscience, where a rapid advance in knowledge of brain structure and function increasingly suggests that not all brain functioning results from social conditioning. The second centers around a number of allied fields associated with genetics such as evolutionary and behavioral genetics, sociobiology, genetic engineering and transhumanism, the view of those who advocate a radical transformation and overcoming of the human race through genetic engineering. These two fronts are pushing the nature/nurture away from the extreme nurture position, which had gradually developed during modernity. They are pushing toward a balanced view that sees human behavior as the result of a complex interaction of both nature and nurture, while admitting that some individual behaviors or characteristics are determined more decisively by either nature or nature. I am sympathetic to this interactive view and generally to the work being done in these fields, even where I do not agree with some of their reigning explanatory models.

Two conservatives members of the President's Bioethics Council, Leon Kass and the political scientist, Francis Fukuyama represent the third front. In the remarks that follow, I will focus on Fukuyama's views in Our Posthuman Future. Basically, Fukuyama worries that, although biotechnology holds great promise, it also threatens to destroy us. To avoid destruction, he proposes regulating biotechnology, which, to be successful, requires a standard of what is essential to human nature, and he finds that standard in Aristotle's account of human nature. He correctly points out that an Aristotelian account of human nature does not stand or fall on the ontological question of the eternity of essences but rather on the existence of something that falls within a typical statistical range. He also refutes Ehrlich's conclusion that cultural variability implies the lack of a single human nature. Variability often only illustrates the range of the typical. Languages, for example, exhibit a high degree of variability, yet every human culture has a language. What is natural or typical for human beings, then, is to have a language, not to have a language with such and such features; the latter represents the variability within human nature, not a nature that differs with respect to humanness. Fukuyama also shows that those who dismiss the idea of human nature usually introduce their version of it unannounced through the back door, and that it turns out to include background assumptions shared by other modern thinkers. Fukuyama is most illuminating when showing how human nature historically has grounded our cherished notions of political rights. If, as Fukuyama rightly argues, the struggle for political recognition is a prime impetus of social change, then the question of human nature is decisive is central for politics. Fukuyama is rightly concerned that undermining the idea of a common humanity or tampering with the genome will confuse the underlying basis on which human rights and human equality are based. Whether in the end human nature must ground ethical and political values, Fukuyama is certainly correct in maintaining that it historically has. Consequently, I think his concerns about undermining the basis of rights have to be taken seriously at a practical, political level, even if one rejects on scientific grounds the Aristotelian theory of human nature he espouses.

I do not take issue with Fukuyama's view of human nature as grounding either ethics or politics. I would suggest that what remains exemplary in the Aristotelian approach is the bridging of the gap between the biological and the ethical-political. I do, however, reject Fukuyama's view that Aristotelian theory can serve as a basis for regulating science. Fukuyama's regulatory attempt to rein in science, while well intended, is wrong-headed in strategy and may prove no more successful than religion in applying a temporary brake to scientific research. The problem with this strategy is that the vision commanding the future is the wish to impose reins moored in the past. Fukuyama's presupposition is that, since Aristotle mainly got it right about human nature, the scientific gaps in his knowledge can be filled in. In my view, the absence of an evolutionary dimension fatally flaws Aristotelianism. This evolutionary deficiency pertains not only to his thinking about living beings, but also to his concept of human nature. This concept itself is not something static, but is something like a dynamically evolving theoretical model.

This completes the historical sketch of our philosophic reassessment of the concept of human nature. The main conclusion of that sketch for what follows is that the concept of human nature enjoyed a prestige in the pre-modern period that it lost in modernity. Philosophy cannot recapture the status it enjoyed in antiquity as the principal cultural spokesperson for the true. That mantle has passed to science. Nor can the prestige of Aristotelianism be resurrected to regulate the present. Nor should philosophy serve as a handmaid of religion or science as it did in the Medieval and modern periods respectively. Rather, philosophy's proper role in a scientific age is to serve as a mediator between science and the ethical-political realm by creating new values. In what follows, I will simply lay out what I see as three distinct levels of the concept of human nature and indicate how the project of creating values arises out of the third level.

The first level involved in the concept of human nature is the biological substratum. Here would be included not only human physiology and neuroscience, but the understanding of biological life in general, since human life shares in general features of all life. That understanding necessarily entails an understanding of how life evolves. Though the evolution of species is unproblematic for all but creationists, considerable debate rages over the mechanism of evolution. Though orthodox Darwinism explains most of the facts of evolution through the gradualist mechanism of random mutation and natural selection, I have never found this mechanism entirely convincing. Lynn Margulis has shown that symbiosis is a non-Darwinian process that is crucial for understanding the origin the basic phyla of life. Geological tempo and evolutionary tempo differ; life does not appear to evolve gradually but in fits and starts as Gould's theory of punctuated equilibrium suggests. My main reservation, though, is that the Darwinian picture of evolution is too passive, making the organism active only in the sense of engendering errors. I find more convincing John Campbell's autopoetic view of life that sees the gene as the organ of evolution. That is, the gene is structure whose function is precisely to evolve new structures. Some such view seems at least necessary to explain why punctuated evolution suddenly occurs. In this autopoetic view, the organism is like a writer, natural selection like an editor. The question becomes, what and why life is writing. Let me propose a tentative answer to this question by defining life as improvised proliferation. By using the term, improvised, I mean to suggest an analogy with jazz. Life proliferates variations on themes that evolve in the sense of becoming organically becoming more complex, but they do not exhibit a pre-scribed telos; the purpose is free play for its own sake. Natural selection prunes this proliferation, but does not otherwise decisively influence it; that is, development has its own immanent, autopoetic logic.

Regardless of how evolution works, life evolves up to a certain point in the case of human beings to where the synergy of evolved features--upright posture, opposed thumb, hand-eye coordination, speech, etc.--creates a sudden explosion of adaptive power. From this point onward, the main locus of adaptation shifts from evolution to culture. Though evolutionary change may proceed at the same rate, it is eclipsed by the speed of cultural variation and adaptation. The proliferation of cultural variations constitutes the second level of the concept of human nature. The variations may be considered the working out of the inherent possibilities made possible by the synergy of those evolved features. From the standpoint of these various cultural possibilities, Ehrlich seems justified in speaking of human natures. On the other hand, the proliferation of these variations does not significantly change the biological substratum of evolved features.

The third level of the concept of human nature is what I call the consciously autopoetic to distinguish it from the unconsciously autopoetic character of all life. Pico della Mirandola expressed this autopoetic thought in writing that the nature of human nature is to make our nature. In that sense, the transhumanist project of re-engineering our genetic substratum seems like a self-conscious reenactment of what life unconsciously is. There are at least two problems with this project. First, we should be cautious about changing our substratum before we have sufficiently understood it and before we have worked out and optimized its inherent possibilities. Second, it presupposes that one has the wisdom or the expertise to successfully program what we are to become. The absence of sufficient knowledge of our current biological substratum and the realization of its inherent possibilities makes the possession of that wisdom and expertise unlikely. In the absence of such wisdom, one would have to take seriously the concerns Fukuyama raises in regard to the potential to undermine and confuse the historical basis of our political rights.

Given the autopoetic character of life and the consciously autopoetic character of humanity, our understanding of who and what we are must perforce ground our ethical and political values. Notice that in the last sentence that the ground of human values has shifted from human nature to "our understanding" of human nature. Our understanding of human nature, of ourselves, changes historically and culturally even when the substratum remains constant. Moreover, our understanding of that substratum changes as our scientific understanding of it deepens. In short, the concept of human nature is an evolving, developing concept, and we seem to be in a period when it is evolving very rapidly. This is the reason why I believe the Fukuyaman project is doomed.

What is needed is not a regulative ideal of human nature, but a scientific model of human nature, Such a model would not serve as a regulative standard but, rather, like all scientific models, as a hypothesis. The only problem with this picture is that if science is a juggernaut that disrupts values, then a juggernaut attacking the concept of human nature, the ground of values, could prove disastrous. Philosophy is needed to create new values precisely because of the disruptive potential of the new genetics and the new model of human nature. To do so, philosophy's creation of values must imaginatively transcend the factual basis of science without, however, contradicting that basis. Nietzsche liked to style himself dynamite and proclaim that all creation is destruction. I think the danger in our age is not one of smug, bourgeois complacency but of radical moral upheaval in our values. Given that fact, Nietzschean aggressive posturing in regard to the creation of new values would be counterproductive. Ironically, the strategy to be recommended would be that secretly practiced by all great religious innovators who managed to innovate while insisting that their innovations merely continued the tradition.

(i) My admittedly stereotypical characterization of religion better applies to the average religious person than it does to religious intellectuals or to scientists who are religious. Nevertheless, to the extent religion posits eternal values, science's inherently value-disrupting tendencies must continually force religion into the unpalatable alternatives of either compromising its presuppositions or resisting scientific innovation. Perennial values exist, but we are not in a position to determine rationally or scientifically whether eternal values exists.

(ii) Arnhart persuasively argues, first, that modern biology's account of ontogeny closely resembles the immanent teleology of Aristotle and second, that Aristotle's account of human nature does not depend ultimately on an eternal, essentialist account of human nature. Regarding phylogeny, Arnhart notes that Aristotle emphasizes the adaptation of species to their environments, whereas Darwinism explains how the adaptation evolves. In my view, the absence of an evolutionary understanding of how species emerges colors Aristotle's ethical naturalism in crucial ways. We know significantly more today about how life functions, how it emerges and how the brain functions. Here, the maxim applies, that sufficient quantitative increases eventually result in qualitative differences. So, even if human nature in fact has changed only negligibly in a biological sense in the course of human history, and even if various cultures are only variations on the one theme of a universal human nature, it remains true that our knowledge of human nature has changed. As I suggest, the conceptions of human nature developing on this ever-growing knowledge base have profound mythico-religious, political-ideological, and philosophic implications for the human prospect.

(iii) MacIntyre argues that the divorce of fact and value and the general disappearance of the connection between morality and human nature led to the failure of the Enlightenment project of grounding morality on a new footing. Although he utilizes Nietzsche's critique of the Enlightenment, he rejects the Nietzsche's doctrines of overman and will to power as viable alternatives to that failure (MacIntyre, 1981). However, he does not see that Nietzsche's creation of new values is less a creation ex nihilo than an experimental reinterpretation of human nature that offers a hyperbolic version of MacIntyre's own alternative, a kind of historicized Aristotelianism.

(iv) More precisely, Nietzsche holds that psychology, the science of human nature, must "be recognized again as the queen of the sciences, for whose service and preparation the other sciences exist. For psychology is now again the path to the fundamental problems." (Nietzsche, 1992, p. 222, (Section 23 of Beyond Good and Evil).


Aristotle. De Anima. In Richard McKeon, ed., Introduction to Aristotle, 153-245. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1973.

Arnhart, Larry. Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature. Albany: State University of New York Press. 1998.

Campbell, John H. "The New Gene and Its Evolution." In K.S.W. Campbell and M.F. Day, eds., Rates of Evolution, 283-309. New York: Allen and Unwin. 1987.

Descartes, Rene. Meditations on First Philosophy. Laurence J. Lafleur, transl. Indianopolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. 1960.

Ehrlich, Paul R. Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. New York: Penguin Books. 2000.

Fukuyama, Francis. Our Posthuman Future. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2002.

Gould, Stephen Jay. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2002

Margulis, Lynn. Symbiotic Planet: A New Look At Evolution. Amherst: Basic Books. 1998.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. 1981.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. In Walter Kaufmann, transl. and ed., Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 179-435. New York: The Modern Library. 1992.

Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni. On the Dignity of Man. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. 1965.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking. 2002.

Ryle, Gilbert. "Descartes' Myth." In The Philosophy of Mind: Classical Problems, Contemporary Issues, Brian Beakley and Peter Ludlow, eds, 23-31. Cambridge: The MIT Press. 1992. From The Concept of Mind. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1949.

Dr. Leonard W. Ortmann

Tuskegee University

Senior Scholar, Tuskegee National

Center for Bioethics
COPYRIGHT 2004 Alabama Academy of Science
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Ortmann, Leonard W.
Publication:Journal of the Alabama Academy of Science
Date:Jul 1, 2004
Previous Article:Dude, only grownups die: bioethical considerations of in loco parentis on college campuses.
Next Article:Potential barriers to informed consent.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters