History of Ideas,  Human Nature,  Mind

What is Human Nature?

During the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin presented a view that was to have a revolutionary effect on how we conceived of ourselves and our place in the world. Darwinism stood opposed to the two traditional views that had been assumed for centuries, the Classical view and the Judeo-Christian view. 

According to the Classical view, human nature is primarily distinguished by its rational capacities. For example, Plato considered the human soul to be composed of reason, will, and appetite. Plato thought that reason should govern the appetite and enforce its conclusions through the will. Similarly, Aristotle thought that humans are ‘rational animals’, sharing much in common with our creaturely neighbors but distinguishing ourselves by our unique rational faculties. Aristotle considered the powers of human reasoning to be their highest power, a power that should be trained to function properly in accordance with its nature.

According to the Judeo-Christian view, humans are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27). Though theologians have differing opinions over what exactly it means to be made in God’s image, it is this feature that differentiates humans from other animals. It is also what grants human beings intrinsic, inestimable value. The Judeo-Christian view of human nature adds to the Classical view by suggesting that as well as reasoning rightly, human beings are supposed to love, know, and serve God. Furthermore, according to the Judeo-Christian view, human beings are moral creatures. They are to live under the obligation to love one another and to obey the commands of God. 

Both the Classical and Judeo-Christian views have faced their most severe challenge from the Darwinian view. According to Charles Darwin (1809-1882), human beings are “co-descendent with other species of some ancient, lower, and extinct form” (Darwin 1871, 2). Whereas the Classical View says that the human ability to reason is a different kind of ability than the abilities of other animals, Darwin claimed that “there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.” (Darwin 1871, ch 3). Whereas, according to the Judeo-Christian view, human beings have a purpose and are intentionally designed, Darwin claimed that human beings as we know them now are the result of the accumulation of “countless tiny random variations and the blind process of natural selection”(Velasquez 2005, 93). On this view, design is only apparent. 

Darwin’s claim rests on his argument for common descent, the view that the human being is a “modified descendent of some pre-existing form” and “varies…in bodily structure and in mental faculties…transmitted to his offspring in accordance with the laws which prevail with the lower animals” (Darwin 1871, 3). In The Descent of Man, Darwin argued that human beings share many features with other animals, develop in similar ways, and have many useless parts that other animals have but are useful to them. Thus, it is most likely that similar organisms share a common ancestor.

Implications of the Darwinian View

So what differences does the Darwinian view make to how we conceive of human nature? Here are three:

First, if we evolved from a non-human species, then we ought to be able to move beyond our present condition. Darwinians who think human nature can move beyond what it is now are called ‘transhumanists’. For example, according to Nick Bostrom, human nature is a “work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways”(Bostrom 2005). Transhumanists contend that evolutionary processes can be enhanced by our actions. We can choose to accelerate our advancement as a species. As E. O. Wilson predicts, “genetic evolution is about to become conscious and volitional, and usher in a new epoch in the history of life…humanity will be positioned godlike to take control of its own ultimate fate” (quoted in Gray 2002, 5).

Second, if human beings are the product of a continuous process, then they do not have an essential nature, a set of features without which they would fail to be human. Instead, “man has no nature; what he has is history” (Jose Ortega y Gasset in Pinker 2002, 24). If this is right, then how we explain various human phenomena changes. If we are the product of an evolutionary history, then we can appeal to that history to explain our religious, moral, and political beliefs. If those beliefs are the product of our history, then who’s to say that they will last? And if we want to thrive as a species, we should be free to surrender such beliefs with the passing of time.

For example, Sigmund Freud attempted to explain religious beliefs in terms of our psychological history. According to Freud, religious beliefs, “are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind”(Freud 1927). Belief in God comes not from the deliverances of reason or the teachings of revelation. Instead, it comes from the need for protection that we felt as children and were given by our fathers. As we grow older, we never lose the need for a father-figure, so our minds produce the ultimate father-figure in the form of God. 

Third, animalists contend that human beings are not sufficiently different to other species to justify human rights or any other special considerations. For example, John Gray writes “we are animals like any other; our fate and that of the rest of life on earth are the same”(Gray 2002, 31). Think of what this view entails for issues such as the right to life. According to moral nihilists, the Darwinian view entials that there is no correctness: “Our core morality isn’t true, right, correct, and neither is any other. Nature just seduced us into thinking it’s right. It did that because that made core morality work better; our beleiving in its truth increases our individual genetic fitness” (Rosenberg 2011, 109).

Finally, whereas in the past, the central debate was between Classical or Judeo-Christian views and their opponents, the new debate is between Darwinians who debate just how adaptable human nature can be. According to the some Darwinists, the human mind/brain comes loaded with a great deal of complex structures and content that determines human behavior. In contrast, other Darwinists claim that the mind has few innate traits determining what we become. Instead, our nature is determined by our responses to our environment.

As Steven Pinker documents in his book,The Blank Slate, a divide opened between east and west coast American centers of learning over the degree to which human nature is malleable (Pinker 2002). On the eastern seaboard, American academics emphasize the innate capacities and determinants of human nature; on the opposite coast, human nature is cast as a much more plastic entity undergoing change depending on its environment.

The important thing to notice about this debate is that it excludes the classical and Judeo-Christian views. I have observed that what tends to happen is that Christians either join a side or their opponents treat them as if they belong to a side. However, the Christian view should be distinguished from either Darwinian view and defended on its own merits. 

Objections to the Darwinian View
To refute the Darwinian view, one must either show its falsity, its incompatibility with atheism, or the truth of either the Classical or Judeo-Christian views.

First, some critics claim that the common descent thesis has insufficient evidence. Some claim that there is plenty of evidence to refute the claim. For example, Casey Luskin argues that if organisms are related through common descent, we would expect a good explanation for their distribution over the planet. But in some cases, there is no explanation. For example, a species of monkey that has lived in South America is supposed to have come from a species of monkey in Africa about 30 million years ago. However, the two continents have been isolated from one another for over 100 million years. Apart from suggesting that the monkey’s used a raft to cross the Atlantic, it is difficult to see how this is possible. Furthermore, the fossil record shows no gradual transitions from one species to another. Instead, records show dramatic ‘explosions’ of species without showing any significant transitional stages. Finally, the failure to predict common ancestry from a phylogenic tree demonstrates the lack of evidential support for common descent. (Luskin 2017).

Second, some theists have argued that evolution does not show that the process is ‘blind.’ Instead, the process itself requires a designer. Thus, evolution is the means by which God carries out his creative work. Philosophers like Alvin Plantinga argue that if evolution and naturalism were true, then we would have good reason to doubt the deliverances of our mental faculties. If Darwinism is true, then our cognitive faculties are the result of adaptation and natural selection. But coming to true beliefs about the world is implied by neither adaptation nor natural selection. It is just as likely that coming to false beliefs aids survival as it is coming to true beliefs. Thus, since, one of those deliverances is the belief in evolution plus naturalism, we have good reason to doubt evolution plus naturalism. Plantinga advised that the best solution would be to drop naturalism and adopt theism (Plantinga 2011).

Finally, some critics suggest that some capacities of human beings are unique to human beings and thus not variations of capacities possesed by all animals. For example, Rene Descartes argued that language is unique to human beings and so incredibly different in kind than any other animal capacity that it could not be merely a variation of an ordinary animal capacity. Modern versions of this argument include arguments from consciousness, reason, and aesthetic judgment. Such critics conclude from these arguments, that a Judeo-Christian view is more plausible than its Darwinian counterpart.

Bostrom, Nick. “Transhumanist Values.” In Ethical Issues for the Twenty-First Century, 3-14. 2005.
Cowie, Fiona. What’s Within? Nativism Reconsidered.New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man.1871.
Descartes, Rene. Discourse on the Method.1637.
Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion.1927.
Gray, John. Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals.New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.
Luskin, Casey. “Universal Common Descent: A Comprehensive Critique.” In Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, by Meyer, Shaw, Gauger, Grudem Moreland, 364-401. Wheaton: Crossway, 2017.
Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.New York: Penguin, 2002.
Plantinga, Alvin. Where the Conflict Really Lies.New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Rosenberg, Alex. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions.New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.
Velasquez, Manuel. Philosophy.Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.