Why We Disagree about Human Nature

10 December 2015 - 11 December 2015

CRASSH (SG1&2), Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, CB3 9DT

Registration for this conference is now open. Please click here to register.
The fee for registration will be £5 (includes lunch/tea & coffee on both days)


Beth Hannon (University of Cambridge)
Tim Lewens (University of Cambridge)
Sam Murison (University of Cambridge)


Is human nature something that the natural and social sciences aim to describe, or is it a pernicious fiction? What role, if any, does ‘human nature’ play in directing and informing scientific work? Can we talk about human nature without invoking—either implicitly or explicitly—a contrast with human culture? It might be tempting to think that the respectability of ‘human nature’ is an issue that divides natural and social scientists along disciplinary boundaries, but the truth is more complex. Some evolutionary theorists have enthusiastically embraced ‘human nature’, while others have rejected it. Many social scientists have explicitly rejected it, while implicitly gesturing towards universal ‘cognitive schemas’. Philosophers, meanwhile, have recently put forward a variety of suggestions for how, if at all, we might make sense of this divisive notion.

The speakers at this conference will put forward a selection of the very different answers to these questions about human nature. Their responses are drawn from the perspectives of psychology, the philosophy of science, the philosophy of medicine, social and biological anthropology, evolutionary theory and the study of animal cognition. We will hear that human nature is a dangerous illusion; that human nature names—in a perfectly unproblematic way—the subset of traits that happen to be common to many members of our species; that human nature is a misleading abstraction from protean human developmental processes; that human nature is a target for investigation that the human sciences cannot do without; that ‘human nature’ is a concept with many faces, each of which plays a role in its own epistemic niche. We will understand why we disagree about human nature, and what, if anything, might resolve that disagreement.



Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH).

Accommodation for speakers selected through the call for papers and non-paper giving delegates

We are unable to arrange or book accommodation; however, the following websites may be of help:

Visit Cambridge
Cambridge Rooms
University of Cambridge accommodation webpage

Administrative assistance: conferences@crassh.cam.ac.uk

Day 1 — Thursday 10th December 2015


Registration and Coffee


Introduction — Tim Lewens (Cambridge)

  • Edouard Machery (Pittsburgh): A plea for human nature, redux

Chair — Tim Lewens (Cambridge)



  • Heidi Colleran (Toulouse) and Fiona Jordan (Bristol): Bridging divides in anthropology using evolutionary theory
  • Kevin Laland (St Andrews) and Gillian Brown (St Andrews): The social construction of human nature

Chair — Adrian Boutel (Cambridge)



  • Peter J Richerson (UC Davis): What work (or mischief) does "human nature" do in the work of scientists?

Chair — Andrew Buskell (Cambridge)


Wine reception and dinner, Clare College (invited guests only)

Day 2 — Friday 11th December 2015

  • John Dupré (Exeter): The nature of human processes

Chair — Beth Hannon (LSE)



  • Cecilia Heyes (Oxford): The development of human nature
  • Stephen Downes (Utah): Understanding the evolutionary challenges to human nature

Chair — Riana Betzler (Cambridge)



  • Christina Toren (St Andrews): Human ontogenies as historical processes: Lessons from ethnography
  • Maria Kronfeldner (Central European University): Divide and conquer: The authority of nature and why we disagree about human nature

Chair — Christopher Clarke (Cambridge)


Concluding remarks — Tim Lewens (Cambridge)


Wine reception (CRASSH Atrium)

  • Edouard Machery (Pittsburgh): A plea for human nature, redux

In ‘A Plea for Human Nature’ (2008, Philosophical Psychology), I argued that, while Hull’s (1986) celebrated attack undermined an influential, traditional way of thinking about human nature (the essentialist notion of human nature), it left room for alternative conceptions of human nature, which would be consistent with both evolutionary biology and genetics. Furthermore, I developed such an alternative conception, the nomological notion of human nature. This notion has been criticized on various grounds (e.g. Lewens, 2012; Samuels, 2012; Kronfeldner et al., forthcoming; Downes, ms), and alternatives have been put forward (e.g. Griffiths, 2012; Samuels, 2012; Ramsey, 2014).  In this paper, I will respond to these criticisms, and assess the alternatives to the nomological conception of human nature.

  • Fiona Jordan (Bristol) and Heidi Colleran (Toulouse): Bridging divides in anthropology using evolutionary theory

Many of the conceptual, theoretical, and practical divisions in anthropology stem from disagreement about the appropriate level at which human behaviour and culture should be analysed. Evolutionary approaches to human behaviour have enjoyed moderate success within anthropology in the last 20 years, partly because they have sought to bridge more generally across the social and biological sciences: attempts to explain “human nature” using evolutionary theories now range from culture, history, language, and society to brain, development, and multiple levels of evolution. Theories emphasising feedback, context- and path-dependence, and emergence are now center stage in evolutionary anthropology. Bio-cultural systems thinking is now the norm. Yet sociocultural anthropology has remained resolutely uninterested in what cultural evolution has to offer, despite increasing justification for communication and collaboration. In this paper we recast empirical work on language, kinship, reproduction, and fertility in frameworks more often associated with sociocultural than with evolutionary anthropology, taking Bourdieu’s work as a starting point. We draw out explicit parallels between sociocultural and evolutionary theorising to translate key ideas in cultural evolutionary anthropology. We use these to demonstrate (a) the shared aims of evolutionary and sociocultural anthropology in understanding cultural diversity at multiple levels of analysis and (b) the kinds of anthropological questions that can be answered using evolutionary thinking but that do not require a-priori commitments to biological or “ultimate” explanations.

  • Kevin Laland (St Andrews) and Gillian Brown (St Andrews): The social construction of human nature

Concepts have to earn their keep. What is the job that the term ‘human nature’ is designed to do? Three possibilities are discussed (here focusing on human behaviour and cognition): (1) To distinguish what is biological from what is cultural/environmental. Here the term fails. Organisms are reciprocally caused by endless cycles of constructive processes, which inextricably interweave internal and external factors throughout ontogeny. Human culture and environment regulate gene expression, and human ecological inheritance constitutes a constructed niche that shapes the development of descendant organisms. Niche construction constitutes an important way in which environmental factors become incorporated into normal development, as well as a means of enabling some developmental factors of environmental origin to become as dependable as genomic factors. This notion of ‘human nature’ is long discredited. (2) To characterize what is universal about humanity, because of our evolved biological heritage. Here the term is tenable but misleading and hence counterproductive. It is misleading because it is based on an outdated, overly gene-centric and unidirectional model of developmental and evolutionary causation. Phenotypes are not caused by genotypes but constructed by a reciprocally caused process that comprises feedback at multiple scales. Human evolution is equally reciprocally caused by gene-culture coevolution and niche construction. There are (‘universal’) human traits that are relatively stable across environments and cultures, but these derive their stability not solely from inherited genes but equally from extra-genetic inheritance, including constructive environmental/cultural processes. This notion of ‘human nature’ remains prevalent but is so problematic that it should be abandoned. (3) To characterize the defining features of humanity, thereby allowing us to be distinguished from other species. This stance is tenable but vacuous, as one can specify what is distinctive about humanity equally well without the concept of ‘human nature’. Moreover, this perspective is problematical too, as it is also essentialist, and does not sit well with the fission-fusion nature of biological reality (e.g. Neanderthals and humans interbreeding). Many key characteristics of humanity are shared with close relatives. Given that the term ‘human nature’ has no explanatory power but carries extensive baggage, we conclude that it should be abandoned. The term can be replaced with descriptions of human behaviour and cognition as the product of socially mediated internal and external constructive processes operating over both developmental and evolutionary timescales.

  • Peter J. Richerson (UC Davis): What work (or mischief) does ‘human nature’ do in the work of scientists?

As Tim Lewens has written, a sufficiently soft concept of human nature is unobjectionable, but it does little or no work. I myself have used it in context where it means vaguely all the genetic differences between humans and related species. Stronger concepts of human nature run into the problem of essentialism. Species are variable and are fundamentally defined by reproductive isolation, often imperfect isolation, not by essential differences. All evolutionary biologists know that Darwin made his breakthrough understanding evolution by focusing on variation within species rather than on their natures. Yet, writers like Edward O. Wilson and Stephen Pinker, evolutionists of some stature, make use of what seems to be a rather strong concept of human nature in their more popular books. This paper analyzes the concepts of human nature that several prominent authors use in such books. The main functions that such usages have in common is a desire to avoid having to discuss genetic differences in humans and to underline a commitment to a strongly gene centred account of human evolution. Discussions of genetic differences among humans are frequently disparaged as racism and authors often want to avoid this controversy. These authors adhere to the tenets of the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis formulated in the middle part of the 20th Century. ‘Human nature’ is a compact summary of their view that cultural evolution and niche construction play a fundamental role in human evolution.

  • John Dupré (Exeter): The nature of human processes

The starting point of this paper is the claim that humans (like other organisms) are better understood as processes than as things, or substances.  After briefly explaining and defending this thesis, I shall explore some of its implications for how we should think about human nature.  A familiar point, made much clearer by this process perspective, is that the typical characteristics of a human process, or life cycle, are always relative to the stage of the life cycle.  A much less obvious point is that processes, as I understand them, cannot be sharply or unequivocally separated from the environment that sustains and stabilizes them.  This point is reflected in recent biological work concerning niche construction and the universal importance of symbiosis.  For the understanding of human nature, it is central to explaining the plasticity of human nature, and clearly demonstrates the hopelessness of trying to illuminate the nature of contemporary humans by attention to the behaviour of humans in the distant past, when the social, technological, biological, and physical contexts were all radically different from those experienced by humans today.

  • Cecilia Heyes (Oxford): The development of human nature

Santa Barbara-style evolutionary psychology proposed that human nature consisted in a set of species-typical cognitive adaptations built to answer the adaptive problems of the Pleistocene. Cultural evolutionists have responded by stressing the importance of social learning in building storehouses of adaptive information that have aided humans’ survival. But cultural evolutionists also portray human minds as characterized by learning biases, themselves understood as adaptations to the problems presented by the Pleistocene. What does psychological research tell us about the existence of these ‘biases’? What is the role of learning in their development? And how might an understanding of the ontogeny of learning strategies undermine or reinforce hypotheses about their evolution?

  • Stephen Downes (Utah): Understanding the evolutionary challenges to human nature

In this paper I introduce and discuss accounts of human nature that are couched in biological terms. I introduce several accounts of human nature, including E.O.Wilson’s human sociobiological approach, evolutionary psychology and Machery and Ramsey’s “non-essentialist” accounts.  I go onto briefly review several criticisms of human nature concepts including those of Sober, Hull, Kitcher, Buller and Lewens. I go on to examine the tension between evolutionarily based accounts of human nature and evolutionarily based criticisms of human nature. Here I argue that what is at stake is different types of appeal to evolution and different conceptions of evolutionary explanation. Next, I argue that while accounts such as Machery’s may be non-essentialist on one interpretation, they still adopt typological thinking as opposed to the population thinking that characterizes work in evolutionary biology.  I argue that alternate approaches, such as Ramsey’s, may be consistent with evolutionary thinking but are not explanatorily useful accounts of human nature.  I conclude by summarizing the evolutionary case against human nature and endorsing it.

  • Christina Toren (St Andrews): Human ontogenies as historical processes: Lessons from ethnography

Anthropology, broadly conceived, is the study of how we humans become who we are, thus an understanding of ontogeny as an historical process should be at the core of anthropological comparisons across time and place. In this view, it makes no sense to distinguish between nature and nurture, between internal versus external sources of human variation. Rather, our attention is turned to comparison of the historical processes that go on and on differentiating us from one another. Each one of us lives the history of our particular, always unique, ontogeny, which ceases only with death. Our personal continuity through time is given in human autopoiesis: everything about us transforms over time but it does so as a function of an autonomous self-regulating system that has sociality at its core. From the outset, relations with others inform who we are and we inhere along with others in a historically transforming environing world of which we are at once products and producers. The project of comparison that is anthropology suggests, to this writer at least, the necessity for jettisoning ‘human nature’ as an analytical category because it carries with it the twinned assumptions that ‘nature’ makes humans similar to one another and ‘culture’ is what differentiates us. The paper draws on Melanesian and Amazonian ethnography to show the pragmatic value for biologists, as well as for psychologists and anthropologists, of conceiving of the developmental systems that describe human life cycles as micro-historical processes.

  • Maria Kronfeldner (Central European University): Divide and conquer: The authority of nature and why we disagree about human nature

The term human nature can refer to different things in the world that fulfill different epistemic roles and that do not necessarily match onto each other. ‘Human nature’ can refer to a classificatory nature (classificatory criteria that determine the boundaries of, and membership in a biological or social group called ‘human’), to a descriptive nature (a bundle of properties describing the respective group’s life form), or — finally — to an explanatory nature (a set of factors explaining that life form). This paper will first introduce these three kinds of natures together with seven reasons why we disagree about human nature. In the main part, the paper focuses on the explanatory concept of human nature, which relates to one of the five reasons for disagreement, namely the scientific authority of the term ‘nature.’ The paper analyzes why it has been attractive across a couple of historical contexts to refer to ‘nature’ as an explanatory category and why this usage makes the term contested in sciences. The claim is: even if the contents of talk about ‘nature’ in contexts of explaining human life varied historically, the pragmatic function of epistemic and social demarcation — to demarcate kinds of causes and the experts studying them — stayed the same. Human nature is a concept used to divide causes as well as experts studying these, to thereby conquer over others who threaten to invade one’s epistemic territory. The term ‘nature’ conveys scientific authority over a territory. To analyze the involved demarcation helps to understand why the explanatory role has been important and why it is unlikely that people will ever agree on either the meaning or the importance of human nature as an explanatory category.