I have just finished reading On Human Nature, by E.O. Wilson. Wilson began his scientific investigations with the study of ants, and says that On Human Nature is the third book in a trilogy that began with The Insect Societies.
"Science" is generally considered to move from observation to explanation, and I think that The Insect Societies, which I have not read, proceeds in that manner. Wilson, in other words, seeks to explain the "nature" of ants, based on a close observation of the biological facts of their life. How does Wilson come out as he applies this same technique to human beings?
Well, not in quite the same position, if I'm understanding On Human Nature. Wilson was one of the creators of a scientific discipline called "sociobiology," which seems to posit the idea that the "social" life of human beings can be derived (like the lives of ants) from a study of biology. Again, if I'm understanding the proposition correctly, this should mean that "human nature" should be like the rest of nature, governed by laws that perfectly describe the realities we actually find to exist.
This is not, in fact, what Wilson concludes, since he finds that "human nature" is not determined in advance by its evolutionary and biological past. "Human nature," he says, "is not just the array of outcomes attained in existing societies. It is also the potential array that might be achieved through conscious design by future societies." We are, says Wilson, captured by a "hodgepodge of special genetic adaptations to an environment largely vanished." However, this legacy of the dead past is not an inevitability, generated by biology and evolution. While our current social reality (and our human nature itself) are the product of biologically generated processes of the past, the determinism inherent in this "is not so tight that it cannot be broken through an exercise of will."
Human "nature," in other words, is like the rest of the world we most immediately inhabit, the product of our own choices and actions. We create it ourselves, and we create it together.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
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