There’s No Such Thing as “Human Nature”

Well, of course there is, but “human nature” is not what many seem to think that it is. Human nature is not a thing (see my commentary on “things”) that exists somewhere at our “very human core” that determines, guides, or directs what we do and don’t do. Human nature is nothing more or less than two words we use to describe what can only be described as behavior resulting from a set of environmental circumstances. Sometimes, maybe even often, these circumstances are common to many people because our culture comprises an important source or context for our behavior.

Consider the following statement from an article in the August 24, 2015 of Time magazine on the Target chain about their discontinuation of labeling toys as being either boy- or girl=- appropriate: “It’s natural for kids to experiment with different toys and identities” I don’t disagree with the suggestion that kids experiment with different toys and identities, but what the writer means by “natural” escapes me. I think all she means is that kids experiment with different toys and identities, which, whether really true or not, is a verifiable statement. Whether such behavior is “natural” or not depends on what one means by that word. 

Such behavior is not somehow inborn, or at least that is my position. Such behavior is at the least born of parents and a culture that reinforces experimentation and exploration, and behavior more or less free of gender stereotypes. The author of the article, to her credit, did sort of contradict her earlier statement about naturalness by pointing out that time was when pink was the color not for fairy princesses, but for little boys with pockets filled with snails and puppy dog tails! And that during the Second World War women stepped out of their traditional (would anyone want to seriously suggest these to be their “natural” roles?) and into traditionally masculine jobs. The Target decision is part of a larger cultural trend to de-stereotype traditional sex roles, something that has been in progress in jumps and starts for some time in American society. (A recent example is the impressive completion of the Army Ranger training by two women Army officers.)

There is nothing natural or unnatural about any of this, and it has little to do with human nature, if we mean by human nature the way things “really are.” Using natural to describe behavior is confusing because it has the connotation of being unfettered, even Rousseauian – the way things would naturally fall out if only the world were not around to interfere. Fact is, there is always a world around to “interfere.” In Rousseau’s Utopian dream world, the behavior of children and adults would still be determined by the circumstances, it’s just that circumstances would be different than they were in 18th century France.  

 “Normative” seems a better word than natural to describe the behavior addressed in the article. At least normative describes an amalgamation that we call what is average, typical, or expected by society’s members, without the implication that the origin of the behavior is an expression of something lurking deep inside that come about because of our evolutionary history.  So, the next time someone starts talking about human nature, ask them to define their terms! 

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.