Universal Characteristics of ‘Human Nature’

29th April 2011

“If we will disbelieve everything, because we cannot certainly know all things, we shall do much what as wisely as he who would not use his legs, but sit still and perish, because he had no wings to fly.”

Locke, 2008, p.15

In the debate over the existence of a common universal human nature, Sociologists and anthropologists often argue that there is no such thing. Instead, they maintain that human nature is plastic and shaped by the interactions of culture. (Mead, 2002) The opposing argument is, that if human nature is a learned phenomenon then it is subject to the type of resocialization advocated by those who favor classical or operant conditioning. According to Wrangham however, “we can not afford to be distracted by that old false disjunction, Galton’s Error, with nature pitted against nurture. Clearly the human condition is a consequence of both”. (Wrangham, 2002, p.126) All living organisms are influenced by both their genetic inheritance and by the environment in which they live in.

Human nature is understood to be the fundamental characteristics, including the ways of thinking, acting, and reacting that are common to most or all human beings, and which humans naturally exhibit. Beginning with early modernists such as Hobbes and Rousseau, who argued the malleability of man in relation to social constructs, in opposition to this idea of a fixed human nature. Philosophers such as Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Sartre, as well as various structuralists and postmodernists followed their ideas from the mid-19th century onward. Chomski, argues that, “not even the most extreme postmodernist can seriously argue that there is no such thing as human nature.” He says that, “they may argue that the exact properties of human nature are difficult to substantiate … however, it is impossible to coherently argue that an intrinsic, universal human nature does not exist.” (Chomski, 1998) Locke, however, disagrees stating that there is no single truth to which all people conform. He pointed out that universally accepted truths, such as the principle of identity as offered by the rationalists, fails to hold true since at the very least children and idiots are often unaware of these propositions. (Locke, 2008, p. 18) The questions surrounding the characteristics of human nature are some of the oldest, most significant and most debated questions in western philosophy. What are they? What are their causes? How malleable are they? Questions such as these have gained an increasing amount of attention due to their relevance to contemporary connection to ethics, politics and theology. This is because human nature can be considered as both, introducing obstacles or constraints on living a good life, as well as the origin of the guidelines for self-conduct.

The problem as to why it is so difficult to reach an agreement about the universal characteristics of ‘human nature’ stems from the historical debate, continuing into modern times, regarding the existence of this invariable human nature. In attempting to determine an answer, there are several ideas, which need to be discussed in relation to this issue. Is there such a thing as an innate universal characteristic of human nature? Since all human beings regardless of race and gender share a common biological ancestry, it is conceivable to argue that certain innate characteristics are universal within human nature. However, if we accept this hypothesis as truth, another problem presents itself in the form of, what is the content of human nature? There is no agreement on this point. Some argue that the nature of human beings is naturally inclined toward the “dark side, the evil and even violent behavior part of the legacy of humans. (Wrangham, 2002) Among advocates of conservative religious groups, the argument that humans as a species are all born with the taint of original sin and therefore share an inclination toward evil, has frequently been presented. Another, more sociobiological version, such as those portrayed by Wrangham in Demonic Males, claims that we remain much closer to other animal species than we would like to believe. Aggressive defense of territory and violent means to obtain food, water, and dominance among others, are typical of many animal species. (Wrangham, 2002)

In classical Greek philosophy the general acceptance of the concept of nature provided a standard by which to contemplate judgments pertaining to various aspects of human nature. Philosophers, such as Socrates, accepted that the requirements of living a good human life, is to live life in accordance with the laws of nature or as they felt the universal standards. Socrates stated that, “it is not in human nature to pursue what one believes to be evil.” (Johnson, 2005, p.199) Socrates ideas are considered to be of a teleological approach, which, despite being unpopular during his lifetime, became dominant by late classical and medieval period. A teleological approach to human nature sees this nature as an idea, or human construct, viewed in terms of final and formal causes. As a result of this ideology, human nature is seldom the cause of humans become what they become, and as a result exists somehow independently of the individual. Additionally this has, under certain circumstances, been represented as displaying an association between the nature of humans and the Gods.

Traditionally Western views of human nature are often less favorable. Some theologians have argued using passages from the Book of Genesis that each child is born with the blessing or spark of the Lord, and that itself creates a potential for good. (Genesis 1:26-28, Genesis 4:1) Bushnell expressed his thoughts that the older ideas, of human corruption and immorality, held by Calvinists were no longer satisfactory. (Bushnell, 1871, p.265) He questioned what aspirations children could hold when “there is no real estimable growth, and good, and beauty.” (Bushnell, 1871, p.265) He felt that there existed the innate potential for good in every human being and that unfortunately that potential was often suppressed by society before it reach moral maturity. Lock denied the existence of these types inherited abilities, believing that all knowledge is sensory. He refuted the Cartesian position that holds that man innately knows basic logical propositions, such as good and evil, and rejected the Augustinian view that humanity is stained by original sin. Locke held that the mind at birth is a blank slate or “empty” mind, a tabula, which is both filled and shaped by experience and that it is these sensations and reflections which are the two sources of all our ideas. All ideas are developed from experience (Uzgalis, 2007).

Despite the minority position of the notion of a universally acquired human nature providing people with a predisposition toward doing good. Anthropologists point out that such beliefs are accepted by some cultures, arising most frequently in social structures reliant upon mutual co-operation for survival, such as hunting and gathering. Postmodernists argue that a child who grew up in Sydney, Australia, would develop a certain way of thinking, and if that same child had grown up amongst the Dani of the Baliem Valley people in New Guinea, he or she would have developed a completely different way of thinking. Despite initially thiking that this may be an unquestionable truth, in exploring characteristics of human nature, how a child develops these different consciousnesses must be examined. According to Boas “the suspicion long held by anthropologists, [is] that much of what we ascribe to human nature is no more than a reaction to the restraints put upon us by civilization” (Boas in Wrangham, p.102). This would lead to the conclusion that in whatever environment the child is raised, he or she would mentally construct a rich and complex culture based on the limited exposure within any given society. Considering these points it could be speculated that, regardless of any further knowledge, there must be both, extraordinary directives and organizational components to the mind that are internal allowing for the ability to learn. This ability regardless of methods, quantity of material and quality could then be ascribed to being an innate, universal characteristic of ‘human nature’.

Chomski feels that by drawing on the ideas presented by Enlightenment thinkers a stronger conception of human nature can be developed. He states that, “although supported by some of the sciences, [our ideas of human nature are] it is mainly founded on a philosophical investigation into our hopes, intuition and experience, and an examination of history and cultural variety”. (Chomski, 1998) Contemporary scientific perspectives claim impartiality regarding the existence of a ‘universal’ human nature. Behaviorism, determinism, and the chemical model theories all offer explanations to the origins and underlying processes of human nature, or to demonstrate its capacity to adapt and change with diversity. The latter of which would oppose the principle of a fixed or universal human nature. “There are needs for conditions, which allow the flourishing of human capacities. Insights from the Enlightenment show us that people need to exist in free association with others — not in isolation, and not in relations of domination”. (Chomski, 1998)

Regardless of personal expectations and thoughts it is apparent that almost any discussion concerning the universal characteristics of ‘human nature’ results in almost as many questions as to which it provides answers. The level of differentiation that exists between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom or the belief that humans are much closer to the animal kingdom is going to produce explanations of human behavior quite different from those asserted by groups with the belief that we are quite unique from other animals. Likewise philosophers, theologians, anthropologists and sociologists all argue different views. Do human beings respond in a similar manner to that of other animals when placed in similar situations? Or does the human brain and its use of language allow us to reason in a way that is purely rational hence fundamentally creating a division from all other animal species? Is our nature a social construct? Or is it something that we are born with as a gift from God? The answer relies upon the vantage point that is taken when viewing the question of the existence of a common universal human nature.


Brown, E 1999, ‘Human nature and history’, History and Theory, vol. 38, no. 4, pp. 138-157

Bushnell, H., 1871, Christian Nurture, Charles Scribner and Co. New York, New York.

Chomsky, N., 1988, On Human Nature, interviewed by Soper, K., August, 1998, Red Pepper, http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/199808–.htm

Irons, W 1996, ‘In our own self image : the evolution of morality deception and religion’, Skeptic, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 50-61.

Johnson, C.N., 2005, Socrates and the immoralists, Lexington Books, Lanham, Maryland.

Kohn, A 1990, The brighter side of human nature : altruism and empathy in everyday life, Basic Books, New York, pp. 35-59,283-288.

Locke, J., [1700], 2008, An essay concerning humane understanding, 4th Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Mead, M., [1938] 2002, The mountain Arapesh, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey

Small, M 1995, ‘Rethinking human nature (again)’, Natural History, vol. 104, no. 9, pp. 8-13.

Uzgalis, William. “John Locke.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [Accessed February 17th, 2011], http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke/#BooI




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