Mini-Feature: Changing Human Nature?

Depends on how you look at it

Can human nature be changed?

We cannot reconstitute our ailing civilization without agreeing on what human nature is—to start, that human beings have a nature—and that one can reason about the nature of that nature and therefore how we ought to live. But this is to say that until we understand nature again, or re-rediscover it, a healthy politics is likely impossible. And this is, truth be told, what really underlies the central crisis of our time.

On one extreme, there is the claim that since nature itself changes or evolves, there are no fixed “natures” of various species and thus to speak of “human nature” is arbitrary and unhelpful. Much social science since Darwin has too eagerly rushed to prove this claim by means of shoddy scholarship purporting to show that what human beings call morality or ethics (the habits of living that are good and make us happy) all derive either from the arbitrary machinations of evolutionary biology or the arbitrary and relative decisions of widely varying cultures, or some cobbled together combination of the two.

On the other extreme, there is the reactionary view—in large part arising from a defensive reaction to modern science—that human nature does not change in any way whatsoever, and that morality or ethics consists in unchangeable eternal laws. Traditionalists often act as if nature is obviously a standard in very particular ways leading to very particular conclusions, but why this is the case is not made clear as often as they seem to think. The proof of this is, perhaps, in part revealed by their failure to win the argument in the modern world. 

First, they often rely on the claims of revelation (religion) to make their case even when they claim otherwise. This isn’t necessarily a problem, nor does it refute their claims, but neither does it establish them. Second, and perhaps even more significantly, they often ignore or sidestep both the assumptions we hold today about nature and the obvious and rational questions that the modern world at its most intelligent asks about their position given that understanding.

We cannot solve this problem here, but you can read about it in more detail in our feature “Does Nature Have an Algorithm?

Let me suggest this: traditional morality actually holds that our physical make-up and biology matters, and is open to the fact that it does indeed change slowly over time, but that a certain part of human nature does not change: the powers of the soul, or non-physical aspect of human beings. Animals act according to what we call instinct, and this does change, albeit slowly, over time. But if we are part animal (which no one disputes) but part something else, what that something else is becomes the determining question. Aristotle said that what the soul is is a difficult question, but many a thoughtful and not-so-thoughtful non-Christian believed it existed, and plausibly argued so. In fact, most humans seem to have believed some part of us was not merely animal, and until recently the belief that we are just composed of little Lego like material parts slowly recombining in space was justly considered a grossly inadequate explanation of the human experience.

Let me end by complicating things further: if some non-physical part of us allows us to reason and make tools in a different manner than the rest of the animal kingdom, we can indeed change ourselves to a far greater degree than the rest of the animals. But this also gives us access to an understanding of what ought not and cannot be changed, and the limits of that change—lest we unmake ourselves.

-Matt Peterson, founding editor of The American Mind


Can human nature be changed—into something inhuman? Or unnatural? Don’t we all sense the answer is yes? The signs are everywhere as medieval gnosticism seeps back into life through our digital environment: many vociferously pro-sex people are even more vociferously anti-nature. They might say the divine spirit within our cruelly limited and flawed earthly bodies is what’s truly, purely human about us. But the truth is they crave posthumanity—evidenced by the transparent way transsexualism is deployed with increasing frankness as a fundamentally spiritual, not physical, access point to transhumanism. The era of politics concerned with tinkering around the edges of human nature is on the verge of being eclipsed. Human nature can be changed: it can be destroyed.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind

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If we get to the point where we start inserting chips in our head that changes our manner of processing the world, human nature will have been changed or, to use the perverse talking point of Silicon Valley elites, "augmented for the better". I don't want to live in that world, and I suspect other people don't either. The problem is that these new human types will, over time, outpace normal human beings. What to do then?

-David Bahr, managing editor of The American Mind


My answer to this is both: yes, bigly, and no, not at all. 

There is no way out of our sinful nature at the individual level. Each one of us is born into total depravity and must therefore live, in microcosm, the whole history of Israel: fall, exile, grace, redemption. Nor is this a uniquely Christian insight, for Thucydides might well have agreed with most of what the Westminster Catechism insists:

The punishments of sin in this world, are either inward, as blindness of mind, a reprobate sense, strong delusions, hardness of heart, horror of conscience, and vile affections: or outward, as the curse of God upon the creatures for our sake; and all other evils that befall us in our bodies, names, estates, relations, and employments; together with death itself.

On the other hand, however, the context in which our sinfulness manifests itself is a social one. Our choices are governed by moral impulses and measured against moral standards. These are conditioned by our upbringing. The conventions which guide that upbringing are in turn culturally contingent and can change over time. Read Tom Holland’s Dominion for evidence of the totalizing way in which Christian teaching shifted the goalposts of moral acceptability in the West away from things like infanticide and toward things like charity. Or read my own comments on Herodotus and necrophilia to get a sense for the fungibility of human ethics (and its limits). 

The sword cuts both ways: Aristotle argues at length in the progression from Nicomachean Ethics to the Politics (two works that absolutely must be read as a diptych, mind you), that our character (ēthos) is dictated in large part by the habits (ethos) instilled in us from birth. Therefore, we are told in the opening to Politics 8, the education of the young shapes their souls and implants in them impulses that will help or harm the functioning of a healthy society. Hence the profound concern among conservatives with the injection of venomous drivel like the 1619 Project into school curricula: you can shape a soul for evil, too, and if you do you will reap the fruits. If you alienate a soul from itself, as we are currently doing through our foolhardy experiments in gender ideology, then you will truly doom yourself and others to misery. All of this is like layering a slop of dysfunction onto the unchangeable bedrock of our nature which, again, is none too pretty to start with. 

But I take some comfort, in our advanced stage of civilizational decadence, to reflect that all these developments have not and cannot change that bedrock itself one bit: men are men, women are women, and all of us need God. These facts will reassert themselves one way or another. If they are to do so gently rather than violently, conservatives ought to think hard about how they will wrest back the levers of control over early education. For the Gods of the Copybook Headings will return, whether we invite them in or whether they have to storm the gates. 

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind