Is Human Nature Immutable?

Human nature, as I define it, is the set of cognitive and behavioral patterns that are innate in human beings, regardless of culture and specific upbringing. These are patterns passed down to us by evolution. With humans, though, we seem to be unique in our ability for metacognition – thinking about our thinking and our behaviors. Does that give us the ability to change our innate human nature?

One of the draws of the blank slate or tabula rasa hypothesis championed by postmodernists is that it makes all cognitive and behavioral patterns mutable. If people subscribe the right ideology, they can become the right kind of people. Unfortunately, the tabula rasa hypothesis is demonstrably absurd.

But when I say that human nature is the set of cognitive and behavioral patterns innate in humans, what does that describe, actually? To me, those would be the things one could observe in a human if you went back in time to 100 years ago or 30,000 years ago. They wouldn’t be particular opinions somewhat might have, but the general template people use to generate particular opinions. Even an opinion that seems as universal as, say, finding parent-offspring incest disgusting. Even a widely held opinion like that isn’t necessarily universal. I mean something that would be reliable.

The work of psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman shows that our intuitions are reliably wrong. That’s because human intuition is a heuristic that our minds use to simplify the thinking process. This way of simplifying our thinking process, I would say, is a part of human nature. For more about Kahneman’s work, I recommend listening to his appearance on Sam Harris’s podcast:

Cognitive biases are other errors in human thinking that are due to our evolutionary past. More than that, though, I would say some – such as bias blind spot – are almost a fundamental necessity for a mind to exist. But things like confirmation bias, groupthink, anchoring, outcome bias, selection bias, anthropomorphism, zero-sum bias, backfire effect, and fundamental attribution error are just some of the more pernicious biases that we’ve all experienced – in ourselves and in others. And as much as everyone wants to think they don’t suffer from these biases (see bias blind spot), we most definitely do.

That’s why I would consider cognitive biases as a fundamental part of human nature. All other thoughts and behaviors humans engage in that we would consider part of our nature is a result of these ways of thinking. Why the focus on these ways that thinking goes wrong as being fundamental to our nature? What about when thinking is done right? That, I would say, is the essence of what philosophers since at least the time of Plato and Aristotle refer to as reason, which is also a part of human nature. Reason is the attempt to minimize all of those cognitive biases in order to try thinking correctly. But it’s during those errors in thinking that we end up with the instances in which human interactions cause friction and societal organization is tested.

Social media, I would say, is an amplification of human nature, not an addition or alteration in it. Plato’s idea of Justice is that it will only be followed if people can be caught. He used the story of the Ring of Gyges which, like the Ring in Lord of the Rings, turns a person invisible. Plato wonders if a person with this power would behave if their actions wouldn’t damage their reputation. The internet does essentially the same thing. Being anonymous, or at the very least not having to be face-to-face with someone, add in a little groupthink during a pile-on, and you have mob justice on Twitter.

This phenomenon is present outside of the internet, too. It happens when things become federal issues. Someone from New York can vote to have some faceless, abstract people in Alabama have to follow laws that the New Yorker likes (and vice versa) without having to face any damage to their reputation for forcing these things on people. The government essentially acts as a veil that makes people invisible to each other while they force laws on one another.

I think this analysis raises two basic questions. The first question is whether human nature (eg cognitive biases) can be fixed through laws and government policy. Or will that fix only human behavior and, as the drug war shows, do only a bad job of it?

The other question is whether we would actually want to try altering human nature this way. Is this what laws have been attempting to do from the start, or if we made a concerted effort to correct for our biases, would that lead to totalitarianism?

For question one, I would answer in the negative. I don’t think any top-down governmental policy is going to alter human nature. I don’t think it will even really correct for it. At least not without becoming an authoritarian police state. And even then, our human nature will only make those making and enforcing the laws corrupt the system and thereby turn everyone else’s lives into a living nightmare. Communism was the twentieth centuries experiment in trying to improve upon human nature. Even if we think their aims were wrong (their Marxist analysis of what human nature is was off the mark), the methods needed to impose such ‘corrections’ to human thought and behavior are, themselves, an outcome of our human nature.

Really, the only way to correct human nature, and bring things more in line with reason, is to build something new that doesn’t have the same evolutionary baggage that biological humans do. This is just one of the reasons I think transhumanism and artificial general intelligence are not just laudable goals, but necessary steps in the survival of civilization.