Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction (Philosophy and the Human Situation)


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The concept of human nature is a source of ongoing debate in contemporary philosophy, specifically within philosophy of biology , a subfield of the philosophy of science. Prominent critics of the concept — David L. Hull, [89] Michael Ghiselin, [90] and David Buller; [91] see also [5] [6] [7] — argue that human nature is incompatible with modern evolutionary biology. Conversely, defenders of the concept argue that when defined in certain ways, human nature is both scientifically respectable and meaningful. This section summarizes the prominent construals of human nature and outlines the key arguments from philosophers on both sides of the debate.

Philosopher of science David L. Hull has influentially argued that there is no such thing as human nature. Hull's criticism is raised against philosophers who conceive human nature as a set of intrinsic phenotypic traits or characters that are universal among humans, unique to humans, and definitive of what it is to be a member of the biological species Homo sapiens. In particular, Hull argues that such "essential sameness of human beings" is "temporary, contingent and relatively rare" in biology.

Moreover, the type of variation which characterizes a certain species in a certain historical moment is "to a large extent accidental". Periodically a biological species might be characterized by one or more characters which are both universally distributed among and limited to the organisms belonging to that species, but such states of affairs are temporary, contingent and relatively rare.

Hull reasons that properties universally shared by all members of a certain species are usually also possessed by members of other species, whereas properties exclusively possessed by the members of a certain species are rarely possessed by all members of that species.

For these reasons, Hull observes that, in contemporary evolutionary taxonomy , belonging to a particular species does not depend on the possession of any specific intrinsic properties. Rather, it depends on standing in the right kind of relations relations of genealogy or interbreeding, depending on the precise species concept being used to other members of the species.

Consequently, there can be no intrinsic properties that define what it is to be a member of the species Homo sapiens. Individual organisms, including humans, are part of a species by virtue of their relations with other members of the same species, not shared intrinsic properties.

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According to Hull, the moral significance of his argument lies in its impact on the biologically legitimate basis for the concept of "human rights". While its has long been argued that there is a sound basis for "human rights" in the idea that all human beings are essentially the same, should Hull's criticism work, such a basis — at least on a biological level — would disappear. Nevertheless, Hull does not perceive this to be a fundamental for human rights, because people can choose to continue respecting human rights even without sharing the same human nature. Several contemporary philosophers have attempted to defend the notion of human nature against charges that it is incompatible with modern evolutionary biology by proposing alternative interpretations.

They claim that the concept of human nature continues to bear relevance in the fields of neuroscience and biology. Many have proposed non-essentialist notions. Others have argued that, even if Darwinism has shown that any attempt to base species membership on " intrinsic essential properties" is untenable, essences can still be "relational" — this would be consistent with the interbreeding, ecological, and phylogenetic species concepts, which are accepted by modern evolutionary biology.

Philosopher of science Edouard Machery has proposed that the above criticisms only apply to a specific definition or "notion" of human nature, and not to "human nature in general". Machery clarifies that, to count as being "a result of evolution", a property must have an ultimate explanation in Ernst Mayr 's sense. It must be possible to explain the trait as the product of evolutionary processes. Importantly, properties can count as part of human nature in the nomological sense even if they are not universal among humans and not unique to humans.

In other words, nomological properties need not be necessary nor sufficient for being human. Instead, it is enough that these properties are shared by most humans, as a result of the evolution of their species — they "need to be typical". Examples of properties that count as parts of human nature on the nomological definition include: being bipedal , having the capacity to speak, having a tendency towards biparental investment in children, having fear reactions to unexpected noises. Machery agrees with biologists and others philosophers of biology that the essentialist notion of human nature is incompatible with modern evolutionary biology: we cannot explain membership in the human species by means of a definition or a set of properties.

However, he maintains that this does not mean humans have no nature, because we can accept the nomological notion which is not a definitional notion. Therefore, we should think of human nature as the many properties humans have in common as a result of evolution. Machery also highlights potential drawbacks of the nomological account. The properties endowed upon humans by the nomological account do not distinguish humans from other animals or define what it is to be human. Machery pre-empts this objection by claiming that the nomological concept of human nature still fulfils many roles.

He highlights the importance of a conception which picks out what humans share in common which can be used to make scientific, psychological generalizations about human-beings. Another potential drawback is that the nomological account of human nature threatens to lead to the absurd conclusion that all properties of humans are parts of human nature. According to the nomological account, a trait is only part of human nature if it is a result of evolution.

However, there is a sense in which all human traits are results of evolution. For example, the belief that water is wet is shared by all humans. However, this belief is only possible because we have, for example, evolved a sense of touch. It is difficult to separate traits which are the result of evolution and those which are not.

Theories of Human Nature: Plato - Rhizome

Machery claims the distinction between proximate and ultimate explanation can do the work here: only some human traits can be given an ultimate explanation, he argues. According to the philosopher Richard Samuels [94] the account of human nature is expected to fulfill the five following roles:. Samuels objects that Machery's nomological account fails to deliver on the causal explanatory function, because it claims that superficial and co-varying properties are the essence of human nature.

Thus, human nature cannot be the underlying cause of these properties and accordingly cannot fulfill its causal explanatory role. Philosopher Grant Ramsey also rejects Machery's nomological account. For him, defining human nature with respect to only universal traits fails to capture many important human characteristics. It is not whether phenomena are empirically common that is critical in science There are many idiosyncratic and particular traits of scientific interest.

Machery's account of human nature cannot give an account to such differences between men and women as the nomological account only picks out the common features within a species.

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In this light, the female menstrual cycle which is a biologically an essential and useful feature cannot be included in a nomological account of human nature. Ramsey [92] also objects that Machery uncritically adopts the innate-acquired dichotomy , distinguishing between human properties due to enculturation and those due to evolution.

Ramsey objects that human properties do not just fall in one of the two categories, writing that "any organismic property is going to be due to both heritable features of the organism as well as the particular environmental features the organism happens to encounter during its life. Richard Samuels in his article Science and Human Nature proposes a causal essentialist view that "human nature should be identified with a suite of mechanisms, processes, and structures that causally explain many of the more superficial properties and regularities reliably associated with humanity".

For example, it is true that the belief that water is wet is shared by all humans yet it is not in itself a significant aspect of human nature. Instead, the psychological process that lead us to assign the word "wetness" to water is a universal trait shared by all human beings.

In this respect, the superficial belief that water is wet reveals an important causal psychological process which is widely shared by most human beings. The explanation is also " essentialist " because there is a core set of empirically discoverable cognitive mechanism that count as part of the human nature. According to Samuels, his view avoids the standard biological objections to human nature essentialism. Samuels argues that the theoretical roles of human nature includes: organizing role, descriptive functions, causal explanatory functions, taxonomic functions, and invariances.

In comparison with traditional essentialist view, the "causal essentialist" view does not accomplish the taxonomic role of human nature the role of defining what it is to be human. He defines the essence of human nature as causal mechanisms and not as surface-level properties.

For instance, on this view, linguistic behaviour is not part of human nature, but the cognitive mechanisms underpinning linguistic behaviour might count as part of human nature. Grant Ramsey proposes an alternative account of human nature, which he names the "life-history trait cluster" account. Ramsey underlines the patterns behind these possible routes by delving into the causes of these life histories. Once we list all the possible life-histories of an individual, we can find these causal patterns and add them together to form the basis of individual nature.

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Ramsey's next argumentative manoeuvre is to point out that traits are not randomly scattered across potential life histories; there are patterns. Trait patterns, on Ramsey's account, can be captured in the form of conditional statements , such as "if female, you develop ovaries " or "if male, you develop testes ". These statements will not be true of all humans. Ramsey contends that these statements capture part of human nature if they have a good balance of pervasiveness many people satisfy the antecedent of the conditional statement , and robustness many people who satisfy the antecedent go on to satisfy the consequent.

Although this debate is mainly of an ethical kind, it is deeply rooted in the different interpretations of human nature, human freedom, and human dignity which, according to bioconservatives, is specific to human beings, while transhumanists think that it can be possessed also by posthumans. As explained by Allen Buchanan , [99] the literature against human enhancement is characterized by two main concerns: that "enhancement may alter or destroy human nature" and that "if enhancement alters or destroys human nature, this will undercut our ability to ascertain the good", as "the good is determined by our nature".

A genetically-programmed child may feel alienated from his identity, which is now irreversibly co-written by human agents other than himself. Habermas proposes a second threat - the undermining power of genetic programming on the viability of democracy. The basis of liberal democracy , Habermas rightfully claims, is the symmetrical and independent mutual recognition among free, equal and autonomous persons.


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Genetic programming jeopardizes this condition by irreversibly subjecting children to permanent dependence on their parents, thus depriving them of their perceived ability to be full citizens of the legal community. This fundamental modification to human relationship erodes the foundation of liberal democracy and puts its viability in danger. The most famous proponent of transhumanism, on the other hand, is Oxford Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom. According to Bostrom, "human enhancement technologies should be made widely available", [98] as they would offer enormous potential for improving the lives of human beings, without "dehumanizing" them: for instance, improving their intellectual and physical capacities, or protecting them from suffering, illnesses, aging, and physical and cognitive shortcomings.

Allen Buchanan has questioned the relevance of the concept of human nature to this debate. In "Human Nature and Enhancement", he argued that good but also bad characteristics are part of human nature, and that changing the "bad" ones does not necessarily imply that the "good" ones will be affected.

Human nature

Moreover, Buchanan argued that the way we evaluate the good is independent of human nature: in fact, we can "make coherent judgements about the defective aspects of human nature, and if those defects were readied this need not affect our ability to judge what is good". Tim Lewens presented a similar position: since the only notions of human nature which are compatible with biology offer "no ethical guidance in debates over enhancement", we should set the concept of human nature aside when debating about enhancement.

see url On the other hand, "folk", neo-Aristotelian conceptions of human nature seem to have normative implications, but they have no basis in scientific research. Appeals to nature often fall foul of the naturalistic fallacy , whereby certain capacities or traits are considered morally 'good' in virtue of their naturalness. The fallacy was initially introduced by G E Moore in , who challenged philosopher's attempts to define good reductively, in terms of natural properties such as desirable.

Reliance on 'the natural' as a justification for resisting enhancement is criticised on several grounds by transhumanists, against the bioconservative motivation to preserve or protect 'human nature'. For example, Nick Bostrom asserts "had Mother Nature been a real parent, she would have been in jail for child abuse and murder" [] thus not worthy of unqualified protection.

Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction (Philosophy and the Human Situation) Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction (Philosophy and the Human Situation)
Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction (Philosophy and the Human Situation) Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction (Philosophy and the Human Situation)
Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction (Philosophy and the Human Situation) Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction (Philosophy and the Human Situation)
Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction (Philosophy and the Human Situation) Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction (Philosophy and the Human Situation)
Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction (Philosophy and the Human Situation) Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction (Philosophy and the Human Situation)
Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction (Philosophy and the Human Situation) Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction (Philosophy and the Human Situation)
Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction (Philosophy and the Human Situation) Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction (Philosophy and the Human Situation)

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