There is no Such Thing as the Essential Nature of Man
There is no Such Thing as the Essential Nature of Man
What is a human identity, why do we have an urge to separate ourselves from animals and seek individualism as a species? Is there such a thing as an essential nature of man? In order to determine this, we must first define what an essential nature is. The dictionary defines nature as: 1. The material world and its phenomena. 2. The forces and processes that produce and control all the phenomena of the material world: the laws of nature. 3. The world of living things and the outdoors: the beauties of nature. 4. A primitive state of existence untouched and uninfluenced by civilization or artificiality.
5. Theology. Humankind’s natural state as distinguished from the state of grace. 6. A kind or sort: confidences of a personal nature. 7. The essential characteristics and qualities of a person or thing: 8. The fundamental character or disposition of a person; temperament: 9. The natural or real aspect of a person, place, or thing. 10. The processes and functions of the body. The dictionary continues to define essential as: 1. Constituting or being part of the essence of something; inherent. 2. Basic or indispensable, necessary: essential ingredients.
When combined, they allow us to define an essential nature as the fundamental characteristics shared by all humans; they are inherent in all man, and not shared by the animal kingdom. In the past, such a question was considered heresy. There was a clear-cut difference between men and animals and everyone accepted it. The main belief at the time was imposed by one culture, that of the Western Christian culture. The views of this culture were very religious, everyone believed in God, and believed that we were put on the earth by him.
The Church enforced theses opinions strictly, and people who criticised these beliefs were considered heretics, and faced serious opposition, and risked execution. However scientific developments and new understandings of the world around us lead to the diminish of Religion as the main power, as they lost their grip on peoples beliefs, people now had a choice, not just religion, they could choose what they believed in. and with these new scientific developments came new theories and new ideas for people to believe in.
the most famous of all these theories is Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory. However, when it was first published, he faced great public out cry, although Religion had lost its dominating control over society, it was still important to the significant majority of people, and to question the creation account was still considered sacrilege. Although blasphemous, thousands of people still bought the book, showing people’s urge to learn about them, and his book, the ? The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ was sold out very quickly.
As times and social traditions changed, it became increasingly easier to exert ones own opinions, even if they differed from the ones held by the Church, and changes in attitude changed so that it became easier to criticise the held beliefs of the day, so much so that now, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. One fundamental reason why we, as contempory man, find it so easy to question religious beliefs and deny a nature of man, and our predecessors could not is because our societies and ways of thinking have changed.
Before, people accepted the bible and everything that it contained as the truth, and they had faith that it was true. They also had very theoretical beliefs, such as the belief in spirits, ghosts, good and bad luck, and some very strange superstitions. This is because they had no scientific explanations for the world, and made up their own, which to them seemed perfectly sensible, but to us, form a better-informed viewpoint, seem unreasonable. Today however, we are empiricists live in an empirical society, our beliefs are based on what our senses tell us.
A table exists because I can see it, smell it, taste it, if I hit it I can hear it. To us, a nature of man is hard to believe, there is nothing to grasp, nothing we can hold up and say that this proves a nature of man exists. For this reason it requires a leap of faith, it will be difficult to ever prove, there are no experiments or such that we can cite as evidence. So, is there anything that can set us apart from animals? The first and most obvious concern raised when questioning the separation of man from animals is our common ancestry.
In terms of evolution, all animals, and humans descended from one single ancestor. This would seem to imply that animals and we are related, at least by out ancestry, meaning that we would share many of our characteristics with them, meaning that there could not be an essential nature of man, because, we are animals. Another, very similar topic is the question of genetics. This raises several implications, it can be an argument for and against for an essential nature.
Genetics tell us that our DNA is remarkably similar to that of all animals, it is merely slightly more complex, and there are very small differences between us and certain animals, such as the primates, suggesting that our nature is also analogous to that of animals. On the other hand though, it does separate us from the animals, a clear distinction on a genetic level proving us to be different from animals, at least in terms of number of chromosomes, we have more chromosomes than any other animal, we are different in this respect, meaning, that if our nature is related to our genes, then it is indeed specific only to us.
This does however raise the question of genetic modification, if we become able to modify our genes, does make us any more or less of a human. As far as we know, animals do not have a culture. They do not practice art, music, and sport or even read or write. We, as humans, consider ourselves to be incredibly civilised, and a main defining characteristic of humanity is culture, the fact that we practice such arts and leisure activities at no gain to ourselves, except personal pleasure, they are not required for survival and yet we partake in them.
This is another way in which we attempt to separate ourselves from animals, claiming that they have little or no culture. If this were true, it would be a defining characteristic, but this is not necessarily true. Different groups of animals do appear to behave in different ways from others, and although some aspects of culture such as architecture are not mirrored in the animal world such as architecture, others such as singing are. One could argue that bird song is just to attract the attention of a mate of to warn others of danger, and the same with whale song, however, there have been recorded instances where whales and birds have ? sung’ not out of survival necessity, but seemingly for pleasure.
There are other problems with culture being an inert nature of man. The first is that culture is constantly changing, trends in art and literature change, and so do almost every other aspect of the various cultures, such as music, architecture and sports. This means that they cannot possibly be inert, if they change so readily. Still, if culture was an inert characteristic, then does that mean that a well cultured man from one era is more less of a man than another well cultured man from another, different era?
For this reason it seems illogical that culture is built into to us as an essential characteristic. This is although shown through in the various cultures of the world. If culture is built into us, why are there so many different cultures, with incredibly different beliefs? Surely if culture was inert, an uncontrollable feature of humanity, then all culture would be the same. It is my opinion that everyone is culturally conditioned; this is the debate over nurture or nature. If we are born with certain beliefs, or are they taught to us by parents, family, and society in general.
Does this mean that one culture is wrong, simply because another exists with opposing, contradictory beliefs? This leads me to the conclusion that culture is not an inert characteristic; it is a fabrication of humans. We as humans require a sense of identity, and when groups of people get together, of like opinion, these opinions are emphasised, only certain sorts of music are listen to, only certain forms of religion is practiced, until eventually everyone in the group believes them, and at least one or two idea differ from other groups, thus the group has an identity, and can be seen as being different from all the other groups.
This means that a new born baby has know preconceptions, they are not born with any knowledge of culture and that everything that baby will do in later life is determined by the way it is brought up. Humans share many common features such as hunter gather instinct. We all seem to have urges and instincts, such as the urge to procreate and to survive, and we are able to express this. Though this does not prove that there is a nature of man, jus that men are identical to each other and share similar characteristics.
In fact, it seems to show that we are more like animals than we presume, with all of humanity having these built in instincts, so very similar to the instincts of animals. But we also seek pleasure from things that are not required for survival, such as sexual gratification, and as mentioned earlier, the arts. The invention of contraceptive seems to go against natural instincts; we have the ability to ignore our animalistic tendencies, though the majority of people do give into the procreative urge and have a family.
This ability of being able to go beyond our instinctual way of thinking definitely seems to separate us from the animals, who follow their seemingly natural programming of survival, protecting himself, and his genes. That is to say, an animal, such as a lion, has the prime drive to keep itself and its offspring alive, so that its genes can be passed on. Merely being able to ignore our instincts shows that we are able to think on a different level. We can take things into perspective, and look at them from an intellectual point of view.
One example of this is self-sacrifice. Humans will often put themselves at risk for a complete stranger, for example, the fire services. For now personal gain they put their lives on the line to save people they have never even met. Furthermore, our thinking goes even further beyond ration thought and decision-making skills we have a sense of humour, something that we is believed animals are incapable of. We have diplomacy discussions, to prevent the need for warfare, which Hobbes would have us believe is an essential nature of man.
We are able to reflect on our action, we are able not only to remember, but to put it into context, and have a much faster rate of learning, though animals are obviously able to learn, such as dog can be taught tricks. Our language skill require a much higher level of intellect than is available to animals, and we have formal structured languages, which do not only perform basic communications, such as the bird call, or a dog’s bark, but is used for a plethora of reasons, from idle conversation, to complex debate.
Our intellect gives us our morals and allows us to make moral judgements, a characteristic apparently lacking in animals, partly because morals are a human construction. But more so, we are able to partake in Abstract thought, possibly the key difference between animals and man. We can perform tasks that require ? thinking outside of the box’ so to speak, such as mathematical work, the sciences, in fact any school subject, especially philosophy. The fact that we are able to question our existence is very important; it seems unlikely that an animal would be capable of such existential thought.
This is the key to our differences from animals, it is not our physical appearance that sets us apart from animals, and provides an essential nature of man, but rather our mind. Our essential nature is not in our physical make up, were we trying to merely define physical and biological differences between man and animals I would ask a biologist. Although our appearance is important, it is the most noticeable difference of humans and animals, and the question of genetics does raise important implications, it is not physical appearance that makes us what we are, it is how we think.
The problem with using our intelligence as our defining characteristic is that it is not only present in humans, all creature have some degree of intelligence, whether it being a plant turning to face the sun, or a primate using a stick to get insects out of a rotten trunk. Ergo, our intelligence is not something special; it is merely a more complicated version of something shared by animals. This raises the question is the idea of being more complicated enough to justify humans being different, distinctive from the animal world.
Is our level of intelligence so much greater that it is qualitively different? This is a problem faced with most of our defining characteristics. Our law systems are merely more complicated versions of animal hierarchy, our language is simply a more complicated version of those used by animals and our warfare, just more complicated versions of territory seizing, a lust for power. But can the debate go beyond the empirical examples given, is the evidence limited to scientific observed phenomenon, or can we make rational judgements, it is a debate between rationalism and empiricism.
In my opinion, it is too complicated to delve into the rational beliefs, it is easier to define man and whether or not he has an essential nature using empirical measures, simply because it is easier to believe given the evidence. At the start of this essay, defined an essential nature of man, as the fundamental characteristics shared by all humans; they are inherent in all man, and not shared by the animal kingdom. If too narrow a definition is made for human nature, we exclude humans, for example the elderly, the young, the handicapped.
On the other hand, if we make the definition to broad, we may include animals in our human species, or perhaps in the future, robots. There is also the problem that by giving human nature a definition, we will neglect any future humans. For example, if I sit on a bridge and watch a red car go past, and the next car that goes past is red, and the next car is too red, and every single car I see for thousands of cars is red, this does not mean that the next car I see will be red.
It only shows that the probability is remarkably high, so high that begins to be logical to state that the next car would be red, and that in fact all cars were red. However, if one day a blue car went past that was blue, it would ruin my theory. The same is true for defining human nature, we neglect that fact that a person maybe be born in the future who does not show any of the characteristics that make them human, does this therefore mean that they are not human? Everything about us seems to suggest that there are no substantial differences between animals, and us in effect we are complicated animals.
This is shown by the fact we evolved from similar ancestors, we share similar genes and we share similar characteristics. The idea that we are different is not plausible, the idea of being qualitively different is just humans trying to distance ourselves from our roots, we are animals, we are just animals that live in house, eat food from plates and wear clothes. We speak using complicate language and live in a society with complicated rules, set by a higher power, in our case, the government. Our ?
essential nature’ is just characteristics that show through in the majority of humans, unless a person has been robbed by natural deformity, human intervention or by any other phenomenon. Although not essential in the means that every one has now, and everyone in the future, it appears that there seem to be tendencies towards humans and specific behaviour, such as greed and lust. It would be impossible to say that everyone has these characteristics, and it is worthless to, for it can never be proved that everyone will have them. In this sense, there cannot ever be an essential nature to man.
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 13 November 2016
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