Does Human nature exist, and if so, does it matter?

The Scorpion and the Frog
An old Russian fable tells the story of a Scorpion and a Frog. The scorpion, who can’t swim, asks a frog to carry it across the river sitting on its back. The frog hesitates, knowing the danger of playing piggyback with a deadly scorpion. With a smooth voice, the scorpion declares that she wouldn’t dare sting the frog, what would be the use, she asks. “We would both drown”. The frog, a sensible amphib, considers the scorpion’s words and finally agrees to help her. Pleased with his compassion for a stranger the frog takes the scorpion on its back and pushes off the river bank. Halfway to the other side, the frog feels an icy hot sting and a wearing pain down it’s spine. With the scorpion’s neurotoxins racing through the frog’s veins he utters one final question: “Why did you do this? You killed us both!” The scorpion, now drowning, simply replies: “I’m a scorpion.”

Does human nature exist?
Just like the scorpion couldn’t help but be a scorpion, do all of us have a lumpy black core of human nature in our hearts? We are clearly more complicated than a simple arachnid. Our cultures and cities, art and science, and our creativity and uniqueness have lifted us way beyond other animals. It seems we have escaped our Darwinian shackles but is there a thread that ties us all together as humans?

The sheer difference between human cultures across the globe speaks to our adaptability. We are the only animals to live on all continents and across all climates. There even seems to be a neuroscientific reason for our flexibility as a species. The most frontal parts of our brain (the prefrontal cortex), and arguably the parts that make us uniquely human, are mostly shaped after birth and well into the teenage years. This means environmental factors such as parenting, education, and social interactions have a bigger influence on the frontal cortex than genes. If the part of the brain that is most unique to humans receives most of its inputs from societal factors, it seems only reasonable to assume we, above all animals, are uniquely shaped by culture. Does our cortex development free us from genetic determinism? Let’s try to answer this question by looking at recent evidence from different cultures, babies, our brains, and evolution.

Modern anthropology found similar habits and behaviors across all cultures. No known human society flourishes by telling its members to find a cave to isolate in and avoid other people (like scorpions might). Similarly, all human societies have some forms of abstractions and language, rituals for the dead, rules for food consumption and sexual relationships, murder, aggression, and warfare. While there is an overwhelming number of distinctive human societies, they are not infinitely different or random. And why would they be?

Even in newborn babies, we can already see certain universal biases and behaviors. Young babies have a bias for animated, moving objects, and human faces. Clever experiments reveal a rudimentary theory of mind, perceiving, and predicting other people’s intentions. This seems to be happening automatically if given the chance and becomes most obvious when this framework is not functioning fully, as in autism spectrum disorder. Humans, it seems, are innately drawn to other people and we are constantly trying to figure each other out. Something in our brains nudges us towards focusing on and perceiving other people as actors in the world with intentions of their own.

How can our brains be shaped towards a theory of mind if our prefrontal cortex is so plastic and almost exclusively influenced by environmental factors? The brain’s plasticity indeed allows for high degrees of flexibility. But to assume that the entire human brain is limitless in its adaptability to societal influences is wrong. Even within the neocortex (the thin outermost layer at the surface of the brain), certain regions are highly specialized on one particular task from birth. The fusiform face area is such a region. If a baby sustains an injury to this part of the brain it will struggle to recognize faces for the rest of its life. With other parts of the brain (i.e. brainstem, cerebellum) even less malleable than the cortex, it seems that despite an Olympian-level of plasticity, our brain is not a blank slate, awaiting sensory information, to be filled. Prior guidelines seem to exist and these systems must be guided by our genes.

The long, slow-moving arm of evolution seems to have caught up with us. Humans are not living in a kingdom of heaven, floating above the animals and their deterministic instincts. The only honest way of looking at us is to place humans firmly in the lineage of social primates with all their evolutionary baggage. Natural selection, moving at a glacial pace, has shaped our genes, which in turn guide our neurodevelopment. Our brains, extremely adaptive but constrained, govern our emotions, thoughts, and behavior. Human nature does exist.

Does it matter?
Even if human nature exists, why should we care? Modern human society is such a multifaceted, complicated tapestry of cultures and peoples that our evolutionary ancestry hardly matters anymore. We remain the most adaptive and fast-maturing species on the planet. I believe, that by not just begrudgingly accepting our nature, but embracing this new-found understanding of what it means to be human we get the opportunity to improve modern society. We’re all carrying a scorpion on our back. Most of the time we forget about its existence and swim freely in the river but there is no use in pretending it doesn’t exist. Aggression, tribalism, addiction, jealousy, fear; in whatever form it reveals itself to us, we’d be better off using our understanding of what it means to be human to our own advantage.

A recent example, might help illustrate the point. The founding engineers at Facebook, Google, and Apple unanimously thought that as long as everyone has access to information and can communicate with everyone else in the world, humanity would be better off. They built newsfeeds, like-buttons, and personalized recommendations convinced that they are improving all our lives. 15 years later the situation looks less utopian. The level of addiction to these services, especially in children and teenagers, coupled with ever evolving machine-learning algorithms feeding us whatever keeps us hooked the longest has led to increased suffering. Turns out we were not evolved to be engaged by nuanced and level-headed discussions about geopolitical issues or fringe information about the potential famine of millions of people we have never met, in a country we couldn’t point to on a map. We are hooked by airbrushed images of our friends and the hottest new celebrity, by enraging stories of people who look or think differently than us, and by products and short-term rewards we are craving. None of this should have been a surprise.

Are we all scorpions in our heart of hearts? No. As a species, we are unique in our ingenuity and potential for progress. The inventions of language, a scientific understanding of the universe, and modern technology are our superpowers. I do believe we have the potential to keep improving our existence and the lives of every single person on earth. And I believe the best way of embarking on that journey across the wide river of human possibility is by accepting that we all have scorpion elements within us.