The Myth of Human Nature

Jean Piaget is famous for his childhood developmental theory. The most famous Identity Development model that goes up to adulthood is still Erik Erickson’s. Both Freud and Jung also had things to say on identity and the tasks associated with different “stages” of identity development. All of these models assume a universal set of developmental tasks that all humans go through, in some cases rather mechanistically. And while this is true, whole realms of reality are left out of these psychological theories.

Issues of “Otherness” as they pertain to socio cultural realities are rarely discussed in undergrad Developmental Psychology classes. Yet most of us are Other in some important ways.

No human has ever been studied free from their complete and total immersion in a set of particular cultural norms, values, and assumptions. When developmental theories leave out the incomprehensibly vast effects that socialization has on people, they shortchange us all.

Culture is so powerful it affects all of us at the physical level. It is physically impossible for most adults to produce certain sounds in certain languages that are not our native tongues. This is due to cultural influences. We are physically unable to do things (as sophisticated urbanites living in concrete cities) that any 12 year old East African girl can do. Just try balancing 50% of your body weight on your head while walking if you don’t believe me. These differences -all 7.7 billion of them and counting, are due to cultural influences.

Culture Determines Who We Are

ALLLLLL of our knowledge, understandings about the world, beliefs and sense of identity are culturally produced. There is no such thing as values free science. But we are so unaware of that fact that on an hourly basis people proclaim in one way after another that “human nature” dictates this or that.

When lay people think women are___ or stock brokers are____ or Democrats are_____ or Mexican men are______ we know these are stereotypes. But we also know that the line between “truths” and “stereotypes” is thick and impossibly fuzzy even in the best of times. For all of us. Not just the “them” we characterize as ignorant.

Many lay people (and certainly some scientists in fields like neuroscience) think we can detect what human nature is really like. And yes, that was meant as a pejorative statement. My frustration with how “psychology” is taught runs deep. I believe it does a vast disservice to humans attempting to solve problems in the Anthropocene.

Cultural Variations and Brain Plasticity

Psychology assumes some things are universal when they are almost always culturally produced norms that we mistake for “human nature”. I can almost hear the protests from those who are certain we will find certainty: “But studies show the brain fires synapses in this region of the brain when such and such happens….” yeah, okay, let’s talk about those synapses firing in the brain. But let’s start with the phrase “Neurons that fire together wire together” (which is used to talk about the plasticity of synaptic strength and associative firing, a.k.a. Hebbian’s Postulate). Clearly our brains differ from one person to another. And we know that depending on what we are exposed to and how we train our brains to behave, we can create differences in our brains. So where is the human nature? In a Judeo Christian immersed culture, we find it difficult to peacefully contemplate life, so we assume this is part of human nature. What if we were immersed in a very very very Buddhist infused world. Would we believe it was human nature to contemplate carefully before taking actions?

Mindfulness in the Anthropocene

While these thought experiments may sound a bit diversionary, it’s exactly these kinds of “what ifs” that will matter more and more to humans if we are to negotiate the Anthropocene mindfully and take part in actively creating life affirming cultural norms and assumptions- because right now, it’s the propagandists trying to preserve their power that are most engaged in these kinds of efforts to actively steer people towards certain opinions and beliefs.

All the sciences are guilty of mistaking culturally bound findings for “universal truths”. Cultural understandings of human nature are even more fallible. How many humans believe “war is inevitable”? I know I sure do not. But tell that to the (mostly) men making millions from keeping bloated military budgets alive.

My point is there are real incentives for those in “power” to keep alive the myths that help them to stay in power. This is not news. I’ll paraphrase Upton Sinclair who wrote back in the 1920s “it is difficult to convince a man of the truth of something when his paycheck depends on that thing not being the truth”. This is not a trivial point and it deserves more study because I do feel it is overlooked as a strategy for harm reduction by anti oppression activists.

How This Affects Oppression

Many majority groups members tend to see their own (majority) identities as “the norm”, “average”, “nothing in particular”. In other words, the particulars of their identities are truly invisible to them. Because they haven’t thought about their identities much, the significance of their identities on how they live their lives are also not readily seen or comprehended. They have never had to think deeply about their identities as white people or men or straight people or moneyed people. In another article on this web site I wrote:

As we’ve seen in many social movements, some majority group members really resist any attempts at discussions around their privilege. Some men resist or deny (sic) the existence of male privilege, many white people don’t understand and resist exploring what it means to be white, and many straight people resist exploring the social constructs around their heterosexuality.

Part of the struggle to rid our cultures of oppressive norms assumptions and behaviors is that majority group members are unaware of what they do to keep oppression alive. How to help majority members more easily explore their memberships as ____(White, male, straight, moneyed) has been a large problem. Understanding the complex dynamic of why they become so reluctant to do these explorations might help speed their exploration processes along.

I believe this is an important dynamic to study more carefully because it clearly plays a part in why oppressive beliefs and systems have been so difficult to purge from our cultural norms in general.  I’ll call it the Avoidance of Majority Identity.

The Avoidance of Majority Identity

The origins of this dynamic are complex and I am still in the beginning phases of teasing them out at this writing, but I am convinced that this dynamic in particular, deserves far more study.

Some of the dynamic appears to involve 1) the very common (and human) practice mistaking culturally produced beliefs for facts, 2) fear about deconstructing “certainty” about “how the world is” due to knowing that a loss of identity will ensue 3) a (not consciously produced) desire to maintain power and control 4) a lack of importance placed on the issue (due to a culturally induced hubris about already possessing a certainty of “an average or normal” identity, and the same hubristic self assurance about “already knowing” how the world works 5) (possibly) the dynamic is also a part of the common avoidance of dealing with anything related to trauma.