Ehrlich on Plural Human Natures

I’ve been thinking about human behavioral complexity a bit more lately, and the persistent use of the term ‘human nature.’ That brought me to this passage from the biologist Paul R. Ehrlich in his book Human Natures (2000: 330).


“In my view, it is highly unlikely that human beings will ever create a utopia, but I think it a counsel of despair to assume that we can’t collectively do a lot better than we’re doing today. Cultural evolution led many past civilizations to extinction. Our global civilization had better move rapidly to modify its cultural evolution and deal with its deteriorating environmental circumstances before it runs out of time. Whether the natures of most of us can be changed to establish better connections among diverse groups and to take more systematic control of our cultural evolution remains to be seen. One good starting point would be to drop the term human nature in the singular form from most of our discourse and learn to think automatically of the built-in genetic and cultural plurality of human beings. Our challenge is to learn to deal sensibly with both nature and our natures — for all of us to learn to be both environmentalists and “people people.” Utopian? Perhaps. I tend to be optimistic in thinking that we can do it but pessimistic that we will do it.” 


Anthropologists might cringe at the use of ‘cultural evolution,’ which has its baggage, but Ehrlich was not promoting the idea of linear progression. As is apparent in the quote, his concern was with people taking charge of some of our larger challenges, particularly overpopulation, war, and environmental degradation. As for the matter of being optimistic or pessimistic, I suppose that’s an open question.


(Related) I’d also recommend this essay by Jason Antrosio on human nature.    


5 thoughts on “Ehrlich on Plural Human Natures

  1. I’m always hearing “human nature” thrown at me when I try to make the utopian suggestion that if we stopped punishing each other we all would less abused and damaged. “Human nature” seems to mean that “what is must be” that nothing can, or even should ever change. I usually take the tack that “human nature” is really only a collection of empirical observations; if it were completely different tomorrow, then that new configuration would be “human nature.”

  2. For those who want to build Jerusalem, or any other Paradise on Earth, you’d better know you won’t do it by changing the terminology. Calling ‘God’ ‘Allah’ (or a Negro a Black) is as relevant as adding an ‘s’ onto ‘human nature’, it doesn’t change anything other than a speech habit. ‘Human nature’, like ‘sheep’, is already a collective noun ~ there is no singular, whatever Ehrlich says. So in a way is ‘anthropology’. Anthro is based on a common sense observation that all impacts all, and if we could ever be truly holistic we would have to dismiss all ideas of objective progress as rhetoric, ideology or belief system. We don’t. We still have the idea that somehow we ‘evolved’ from Lucy or even from a germ in a sea of germs, and that with enough knowledge we will find out how we did it, and maybe even ‘why’. Looking for ‘progress’ is human (adding ‘nature’ to ‘human’ is unnecessary), so as anthropologists we can study man’s pursuit of abstract concepts like ‘progress’, but in doing so we are simply studying what is, with no presumption of progression.

    • But if people use particular terminology, like ‘human nature’, in an ideological way, to undermine arguments for change, then it is worth addressing the language they use and questioning the assumption that human nature is singular enough to support any particular world-view. (To claim that ‘human nature’ is a collective noun like ‘sheep’ seems itself to be ‘changing the terminology’, and confusing ‘abstract’ with ‘collective’.)

    • I’m not sure whether ‘human nature’ is used as a collective noun. It probably depends on who’s using the term. Certainly, it can be used in the way that Jeff (Neighsayer) says, as dismissing the idea of change, and that “what is must be.” Some people, like Churchill, might say that war was a part of human nature, and therefore inevitable. That’s not how most anthropologists perceive things, of course, and I like Robert’s reminder of seeing things holistically, that “all impacts all.”

      But the idea of a singular human nature, uncontaminated by outside influences, does exist out there, and is sometimes abused. In that way, I think Ehrlich’s suggestion of adding an ‘s’ to human nature might raise some people’s consciousness. If “all impacts all,” then language can impact thinking.

  3. Do you think what Ehrlich is selling is somewhat along the lines of Geertz’s anti anti-relativism?

    What the relativisists, so-called, want us to worry about is provincialism—the danger that our perceptions will be dulled, our intellects constricted, and our sympathies narrowed by the overlearned and overvalued acceptances of our own society. What the antirelativists, self-declared, want us to worry about, and worry about and worry about, as though our very souls depended upon it, is a kind of spiritual entropy, a heat death of the mind, in which everything is as significant, thus as insignificant, a everything else: anything goes, to each his own, you pays your money and you takes your choice […]

    As I have already suggested, I myself find provincialism altogether the more real concern so far as what actually goes on in the world. (Though even there, the thing can be overdone: “You might as well fall flat on your face,” one of Thurber’s marvelous “morals” goes, “as lean too far over backward.”) The image of vast numbers of anthropology readers running around in so cosmopolitan a frame of mind as to have no views as to what is and isn’t true, or good, or beautiful, seems to me largely a fantasy. There may be some genuine nihilists out there, along Rodeo Drive or around Times Square, but I doubt very many have become such as a result of an excessive sensitivity to the claims of other cultures; and at least most of the people I meet, read, and read about, and indeed I myself, are all-too-committed to something or other, usually parochial. “ ’Tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil”: anti-relativism has largely concocted the anxiety it lives from.

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