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HUMAN NATURE: A Reevaluation / Vol. 40, No. 3 (Fall 1973)

Arien Mack, Editor

The primary intentions of this article are (1) to expose a philosophical viewpoint about human nature which is reinforced by elementary facts about the nature and place of man in the universe; (2) to discuss the idea of “natural” in the context of evolutionary adaptation; (3) to offer some impressions of the current status of experimental and human biology and of its possible relevance to contemporary social controversy; and (4) to discuss some areas of convergence of social and biological research.

The ideas a society holds about human nature are generally quiescent; an outcropping of interest in human nature signals stirrings of unrest beneath the surface. People appeal to human nature either when they feel the need to defend the status quo or when they wish to attack it. At the present time, both things are happening. In politics, it is the battle over the limits of social policy -a battle being fought both in Washington and in our social journals- that brings to the surface irreconcilable differences in viewpoints about human nature.

There are many definitions of totalitarian that display considerable diversity; they range from Hannah Arendt’s characterization of “total terror” as the essence of totalitarianism, to those which emphasize the coordination of social activities in pursuit of a single goal, or the aim of effecting a “total social revolution.” In spite of this diversity there are some common themes, and there seems to be a tendency in recent writing to delimit the concept of totalitarianism by insisting upon the fact that it was developed in relation to three specific political systems which appeared only in the 20th century.

Karl Marx was concerned with the conditions and possibilities for the transformation of capitalist society and not with anthropology or the philosophy of man. Nevertheless, both in his earlier writings and in his mature works, he time and again indicated that his was a specific concept of man, distinct from that of his teachers Hegel and Feurbach although containing elements of both.

Almost a century ago Nietzsche cried out against the danger of nihilism. Nietzsche surrounds this perception with views as to what the strongest defense against the coming nihilism would be: that is, he elaborates a nation of health, he looks to a creation of a certain human type that would save humanity by eschewing the pity and the nausea. The author argues that we are entering the next stage of nihilism that Nietzsche saw and foresaw.

In Europe “the death of man” was announced in 1996 and became a rallying cry of structuralists who were succeeding to the vogue existentialists had enjoyed since “the death of God.” But, in America, so far, only the environment seems to be dying. There is other evidence besides this issue of Social Research of the revival to references to human nature. One reason is doubtless the popularization of such work as Lorenz and Chomsky’s; but these two examples from highly specialized areas of investigation, themselves far apart, suggest another reason -the temptation to generalize survives increasingly confining specialization.

Rather than attempt here a cross-cultural survey of “human nature,” the author draws upon personal experience in many different cultures, focusing in depth on two almost polar opposites that seem to me to be of the utmost significance in revealing the vast range of human potential.

The experimental situation under which language behavior can be elicited in chimps involves, at least in its initial stages, a conditioning process--the kind of psychological training so common in the laboratory of B. F. Skinner. Chimps condition better than other animals because they have bigger and more complexly organized brains.

Economists have never developed a philosophical framework for their implicit assumptions about human nature. When economics became an autonomous disciple, it separated itself from philosophy. During the ascendancy of economics, theology and philosophy declined in importance. Assumptions about human nature in economics were and are obiter dicta, incidental by products of what was supposed to be empirical and logical truth.

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