by Benjamin Studebaker
A new study reveals that babies can be scumbags. This may seem like an interesting bit of popular psychology, but if the study’s results are true, it contributes to one of the central debates of political theory and philosophy, one which is too often considered in isolation–nature versus nurture, the question of the malleability of man’s nature, if he has a nature at all. This nature versus nurture question is as pivotal in our political discourse as liberal versus conservative, capitalist versus socialist, any of the various supposed dichotomies in our theory. But first, let me explain this study, because it’s really cool.
So the researchers went and found these babies, between 9 and 14 months of age. They figured out whether the babies liked graham crackers or green beans. Then they showed the babies a series of puppet shows in which a puppet that liked alternately graham crackers or green beans was in turn alternatively helped or abused by another puppet. The babies were then given the option of choosing between the helping puppet and the abusive puppet. The result?
When the puppet’s taste in green beans/graham crackers matched that of the baby in question, the baby was statistically extremely likely to have a preference for the helping puppet. However, when the puppet’s taste in green beans/graham crackers contradicted that of the baby in question, the baby was statistically extremely likely to have a preference for the abusive puppet. Not only that, but the strength of the preference for the abusive puppet equaled the strength of the preference for the helping puppet. The researchers’ conclusion? On some level, people are fundamentally, by their very nature, cliquey. They sympathise for those who are similar to them but are just as prone to schadenfreude in cases in which others differ from them. The most interesting bit for me is that because the babies were so young, they did not yet have any opportunity to pick this characteristic up socially, at least not in a uniformly, predictive way. This indicates that this scumbag cliquey behaviour is inherent to their natures. It is born, not learnt.
While a study like this is intriguing but by no means definitive, it lends additional credence to one of the two positions in the very contentious malleability dispute–that of the fixed human nature. There is broad disagreement about whether there is a human nature at all, if it exists, how malleable it is, and if it is broadly fixed, is it benign or malevolent. It’s not merely a fringe debate, either. Most major theorists can be classified by their beliefs concerning the existence of a human nature:
The scumbag babies seem to suggest that Hobbes or Machiavelli may have a point. While I might not go quite that far, I’m usually one to agree that human beings have a nature and that it is not especially malleable. Here’s my thinking, for what it’s worth.
I leave aside the notion of “human nature” as a construction with no metaphysical truth value on the grounds that this claim cannot be falsified because it disputes all evidence one could submit as itself subjective or constructed.
The key for me to refuting Sartre is the brain. The brain is the seed of our thoughts and behaviour. A person without a brain is not a person who can have thoughts or behave. That person is, to use a familiar term, “brain-dead”. Fish have brains, but because the brains of fish are hopelessly underdeveloped relative to ours, fish cannot think with our level of complexity.
If Sartre’s argument were correct and there were no nature, fish would not be limited by their essence, because their existence would leave determining their essence open to them. That does not appear to be the case. If you are born a fish, there is nothing you can do. You have a poorly developed fish brain and no matter how hard you try or how hard you will, you will never be smarter than a fish brain is capable of allowing. The same argument applies to humans–the nature of our brains, (whatever that may be) must surely play a significant role in determining what we are capable of thinking. If you remove the brain, we are less capable. If you damage it, we are less capable. Theoretically, if you could improve it or expand it in some useful way, we would be more capable.
Essence must precede existence–the nature of our brains sets limits on what we can do, and we have no choice in the nature of our brains. This to me suggests at minimum that “tabula rasa” (or blank slate) is true–we are confined intellectually by the nature of our brains. A person cannot think as a fish or as an extremely intelligent alien life-form. The “tabula” is fundamentally dissimilar, though to what extent different things can be written on it remains open. There is a nature, but malleability remains questionable.
On the malleability debate, the question is to what extent the brain can be nurtured to produce different outcomes. Those who argue for high levels of malleability often point to cases in which children are raised in radically different environments–say by wolves–and develop highly abnormal behaviours and traits (like the characteristics of wolves).
The trouble with “raised by wolves” and other such cases is that they are extremely socially unlikely. In the vast majority of cases, children will be raised by the previous generation of people, either their parents or the state or some other ward or guardian. This generation was in turn influenced in its youth by the generation prior. This creates a conservative sociological force, insofar as the environment in which each generation is raised is determined by the prior generation ad infinitum. This places some serious constraints on the amount of “progressiveness” one could conceivably see in a generation. Functionally, for one seeking change within one’s lifetime, it creates conditions under which human nature is not significantly malleable and one must work with what one has.
It may still be true that over many generations, man’s nature could change, but over one generation, it is broadly fixed, or at least our reasoning to this point suggests this. I do think that even beyond that, however, there is another way in which malleability is limited.
One’s skill potential in a variety of different talents is likely to be genetically set. Some people are born with a predisposition to be good at mathematics, at art, at athletics, at writing (yours truly) and so on. I am thoroughly convinced that one cannot perform beyond one’s potential in a given subject area. While an environment may result in one potential being fulfilled while another goes ignored or vice versa, it cannot change the potentials. If I were never given the opportunity to fulfill my writing potential, it would not cause my athletic potential to become larger. Exclusively training me as an athlete would only serve to get you a mediocre athlete, while my true potential in writing would go wasted.
So if you have one person who has a potential of 8 in maths, 4 in writing, 2 in athletics, and 3 in the arts, no matter how much time you invest in writing, athletics, or arts, the person in question will never advance beyond mediocre. If however this person is given the opportunity to study mathematics, the person in question will do rather well. Often our problem is that we fail to match people up with their talents. People study what they are told to study or employ themselves where they are told they ought to employ, even when those areas are not the ones to which they are best suited by nature. Imagine if this person I suggested were never given the opportunity to do mathematics. This person would feel unskilled and useless, when in reality he was merely wrongly employed, wrongly nurtured.
The belief that nature is malleable creates a tendency to attempt to train people to do what runs against their natural potentials, to ignore their strengths, and as such it tends to waste people and to employ them inefficiently. It also leads to an overestimation of our abilities as a society to self-govern democratically. After all, if everyone is supposed to have the same capacity to understand statecraft regardless of nature, the uninformed voter is not a natural symptom of the weakness of our political structures, but something to be cured through “education”.
So while there might, over some large number of generations, be some capacity for man’s nature to change, I find many good reasons to continue to assume that, for our present purposes here today, man’s nature is broadly fixed, with nurture’s role relegated primarily to actuating or not actuating various natural potentials.