What traits of humanity are inescapable?

Human nature, to me, is as malleable a substance as there is. I do think there are certain historical reasons that have lead us to certain tendencies such as violence and greed, but I don’t think that it is human nature per se.

Outside of a few very simple instincts ehibited from birth (such as crying and suckling), I think it’s hard to prove that humans simply must exhibit any sort of behavior. Is there any quality or behavior outside of procreation that you can offer up as an unavoidable consequence of being human?

Now I do accept that humanity is widely variable and any given trait is hardly to be expected in everybody or no one at all. I am thinking in terms of traits that seem prevalent enough to establish a significant trend and generate a reaction in terms of societal structure. Murder for example, is currently a prevalent enough behavior to be noticeable (especially in the US). Even if that were the only crime committed, at our current rate, we would still need courts, police and prisons. OTOH something like multiple personality disorder is incredibly rare. If there were no other mental disorders we would likely not have any mental hospitals or such an advanced study of abnormal psychology.

Hopefully, I’ve stated the guidelines clear enough for a healthy debate.

Evolutionary psychology is a relatively new field, and the evidence is pointing towards a genetic basis for much of our behavior. That is not to say that it is predetermined by our genes, but that the deck is stacked to make it more likely that some behaviors rather than others will surface.

Ask yourself if there has ever been a society on record in which people did not love, fight, kill, steal, help others, believe in a spiritual world, create ceremonies to mark life stages (birth, puberty, marriage, death), create art… The list goes on.

Probably one of the best books out there on this subject is Edward O. Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, On Human Nature. Although it was first published in 1979, it is still one of the best one out there on the subject. It’s an absolute must read for anyone interested in this subject.

I would tentatively offer violence as a fairly defining feature of human beings. Sems like it comes naturally, 'cos we’ve got prety good at it.

Irrational attachment (love?)? I’m not sure how widespread the bond between parents and their adult children is in nature, but i’d be interested to see…

Firstly the historical record is not adequate to predict human behavior, although it may be use as evidence of possible ways of co-habitating. Thousands of years ago we would have thought it necessary that humans always will hunt and gather. Yet now, we can live entirely off farming. All of the cultural behavior around the hunt has largely died away.

Hundreds of years ago we may theorized that humans will always make slaves of each other, yet this seems to be on the verge of being eliminated (at least in the literal sense, many are still living in substandard conditions).

Essentially, I don’t think there is any drive that couldn’t be domesticated by society. Monks will deprive themselves of sex, many women currently deprive themselves of food, the vast majority of humans already live without fighting and killing each other.

I’ll address some of these one by one

Love: I would hate to imagine humanity without this, but it seems mechanically possible. It’s an excellent survival strategy from the genetic standpoint. If there was a trait I would champion as necessary, it would be this. But I don’t have proof, really.

fight, kill: As I said, humanity is so varied that there are some things that cannot be completely eliminated. The crux for this debate is whether it will always be prevalent enough to affect societal structure. As long as resources are sufficient and the society is cohesive, I see no reason why these tendencies couldn’t be reduced to near non-existence.

steal: I don’t believe that humanity always had the concept of property that one could steal in the first place. Perhaps it’s too late to “go back”, but perhaps not.

help others: There are strong benefits to this behavior. But I can’t help but think of that semi-famous tribe that turned their kids out by age three to fend for themselves.

believe in a spiritual world: I think we could easily see this disappear due to the explanatory power of science.

mark life stages: I would argue that we don’t explicitly mark puberty in US society as a rule (unless maybe you’re Jewish, or in some other culture that has maintained a strong identity). Marriage seems to be on it’s way out.

create art: art is a wonderful thing, but it only happens when survival goals have been achieved. We have no guarantee of that.

Thanks for the reccomendation, maybe I’ll read it sometime. If you care to summarize any arguments please do.

You’re kidding, right? If ANYTHING is completely human it is this very aspect of us all.

Even I have had impulses to hurt, I’ve hated, I’ve wanted to cause harm. Granted I’ve managed to collect myself most of the time, but the impulses are there in all of us.

And perhaps I haven’t been pushed too far (or far enough). No loved one has been killed, no complicated love triangles, no romeo and juliet type feuds, but that cannot be the case for everyone.

And essentially what you’re saying in that last sentence is “if we can FORCE every one to not act violently then perhaps killing would end”.

Sorry, but: HA! Lots of luck!.

Actually there was no use of force implied. The vast majority of humanity gets along just fine without killing anyone at all. Murderers are the exception not the rule. Now if you want to prove that this tiny slice of humanity represents something unavoidably inherent in us all regardless of our backgrounds, please do.

We are social animals, and our behavior reflects this.

Tool building
Cheating / cheating detection
Hierarchical organization
Group acceptance
Problem solving
Cause and effect reasoning

Could someone identify a period in history that wasn’t violent? I’m not talking about an isolated island culture of five people; I’m talking about the planet as a whole.

I would grant you only cause and effect reasoning and problem solving at present. Albeit these traits could be unlearned with dilligence.
The rest, while human is not inescapably so.

History is not always an accurate indicator of future human behavior. Otherwise we’d still be using stone tools.

You are using behaviour in a very restricted, convoluted sense.

A Merriam-Webster definition of behaviour is

  • The actions or reactions of a person or animal in response to external or internal stimuli.*

Progressing from stone tools to computers doesn’t, per se, indicate a change in behaviour.

History is not to be treated as sole predictor for the future, but in this case, it provides evidence about what traits of behaviour are consistently observed. Since your question deals with which traits are “inescapable”, history is fair game.

Read Nature Via Nurture by Matt Ridley.

Our Drives–

[li]Food[/li][li]Sex[/li][li]The Overwhelming Need To Meddle In Things That Cannot Possibly Concern Us.[/li][/ol]


I would not claim that any of the traits I listed are true of every single human. But they exist in every group of humans. That is a big difference.

Language? Pretty obvious but no other creature on this planet does it, whereas all human children develop it, whatever their culture.

Imagination and self-knowledge/awareness also seem to distinguish us from non-human animals.

Other typically human traits mentioned already - aggression, curiosity, sociability, territoriality, even rationality, are shared by non-human animals but differ either in quality or quantity - eg a kitten shows curiosity but nothing like a baby’s, a dog shows aggression, but only apes and humans seem to be capable of viciousness or sadism.

I think you are confusing ‘malleability’ firstly with adaptability and secondly with the effects of cultural and historical variation. I would say we have evolved to be almost endlessly adaptable, and culture produces great variation in human behaviour, but we are not infinitely malleable, and I also think you underestimate what babies are doing when you dismiss their behaviour as ‘a few very simple instincts’ (try chatting to a child psychologist about the abilities of newborns).

Every human being starts out life as an ignorant nonrational being, and exhibits all the behaviors of ignorant nonrational beings. It is only through protracted effort that some of us become less ignorant, and more rational. This state of affairs will continue into the future until such point as either a) Cecil completes his work, or b) someone figures out how to wire up the human brain like a hard drive and dump knowledge and rationality into it at 600 Mbits/sec.

I knew there’s going to be some confusion on that term, I’ve also tried to use “trait” where behavior is insufficient. I’m not really sure how your point affects the arguments I’ve been making.

History can be important, but in itself it does not indicate human nature. Rather it must be shown how history indicates human nature.

Ahh but what exactly distinguishes a group? Geography, culture?

I have to ask, if they can not be found in some, and the causes are not wholly genetic, then how can we say they are unavoidable? Now I granted from the beginning that there will always be some human variance, but given the proper conditions I don’t see why almost any behavior couldn’t become statistically negligable.

Read E. O. Wilson’s book. :slight_smile: No, really.

Probably as good a distinguishing character for “group” would be a language community. It’s a pretty safe assumption that two groups which do not interact frequently will, in a relatively short period of time, develop mutual unintelligible languages.

Language and communication do seem unavoidable. Chomsky I think even went so far as to say we were genetically hardwired for it. Good point.

This may be a function of our brains irregardless. But the cultural variations are large enough that I wonder what exactly about self knowledge and imagination would still be meaningful across all human cultures and thrughout time. Could you make such a definition?

So because humans have shown traits similar to animals they are intrinsic to humanity? I’m not sure I follow your argument. Try picking one of the above and expounding.

Humans have many capacities, but that does not mean they must be fulfilled.

Hmm… please do go on. I don’t think you quite illuminated this point

Infinite is a very broad word. I wasn’t going that far.

I wasn’t trying to be dismissive of a baby’s intelligent. Indeed I have great respect for how fast they learn. I was saying that was all that was instinctive in the same sense that other animals have instincts.

Disingenueous. Your use of ‘behavior’ vis-a-vis ‘stone tools’ is not insufficient but rather incorrect.

Clarify this? Do you mean to talk ask that how information about traits can be extracted from incidents in history? Only speculatively, against the background that the human brain hasn’t changed much in the last 3000 years and that the themes observed in history are similar in essence to contemporary life.

Once again thanks for the reading suggestion, but it would be nice if you at least summarized the arguments if you’re going to assert them. Perhaps also you could mention the amount of agreement or controversy surrounding the author’s theories.

OK, so by “group” we have a language community, yet a language community is many times not determinant of behavior. Many Canadians speak english and visit the US often yet they enjoy a vastly different murder rate.

Let’s examine murder since this has come up more than once. We see a wide variation in different groups in murder rates. For example, 1.8 per 100,000 in Canada vs about 43 per 100,000 in Washington D.C. If we break those groups down even further by sex, population density, and race we can see even larger fluctuations. If we look at the murder rate amongst rural canadian white women in Canada, I think we begin to approach what I would consider statistical negligibility.

If this group can exhibit this behavior, or lack of it, why not others? Are those reasons intrinsic to human nature?

I never said language was determinant of behavior. I said that if you wanted to somehow define what a “group” was, a good place to start would be to look at those people who speak the same language. But that’s just MHO. I don’t know how real anthropologists would answer that question, although I think it’s a very workable definition for the purpose of the debate.

Those numbers are per year. You’d want to look at numbers for a group over the typical lifespan of members of that group to get a meaningful statistic (ie, multiply those numbers by about 70). And I never said these behaviors wouldn’t varry in frequency from group to group, only that you’d be very hard pressed to find a group that doesn’t exhibit those behaviors. The group “women” doesn’t consititute a group in the sense we are discussing. But I wouldn’t be surprised if men were more bioligically programmed to exhibit murderous behavior than women are.