On Human Nature

Discourse on human nature tends to focus on those natural characteristics which appear to distinguish humans from other forms of life. The general theme is usually anthropocentric and goes something like “that which makes us different is that which defines our humanity.”  While comparing differences is informative in some contexts, it is an exercise that is too often undertaken as a means to demonstrate a special, preordained standing in nature for mankind and moral supremacy.  In fact, the essence of human nature is not that which sets us apart from or above other forms of life, but those characteristics which we share in a common evolutionary history.

It is along this continuum that core human operational modules — such as survival, socialization, and the pursuit of happiness — have developed by natural selection.  Thus, it is from the broad perspective of unity and inclusion that human nature is best described and from which an understanding of morality may be gained.

The Survival Instinct
An analysis of human nature must begin with the premise that all organisms strive to remain intact.  This natural resistance to termination has long been recognized by luminaries in a variety of academic fields.  The great philosopher, Benedict Spinoza, described the conatus sese conservandi (the striving for self-preservation) as constituting the very essence of all beings.  The renowned psychologist, Sigmund Freud, famously recognized the existence of the life instinct, which he referred to as the Eros.  And, most notably, Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection presupposes the preservation of life as the ultimate basis for differential reproduction and evolutionary progress.  For the purpose of this discussion, the innate tendency to maintain one’s own physical existence shall be referred to as the survival instinct.

It should come as no surprise that the most primitive of human instincts is best demonstrated in the evolutionary history of microorganisms.  Specifically, as eukaryotic cells evolved to include a membrane-bound nucleus, among other differentiations, there arose a contemporaneous need for the regulation of the individual parts to ensure the survival of the whole.  This internal regulation was achieved by way of various biochemical feedback mechanisms designed to correct deviations from points of biochemical stasis.  Absent the communication provided by these feedback mechanisms, the independent functions of the cellular components would inevitably conflict resulting in internal chaos, the disruption of life-sustaining processes, and ultimately the destruction of the organism.

Thus, the survival instinct is first and foremost comprised of a set of internal regulatory processes that ensure the continued existence of every organism notwithstanding comparative biological complexity.  In other words, life is innately preserved with equal fervor in both the plankton and in man.  These biological processes are classically instinctive given that the operations are unyielding to the influence of learning or other environmental variables.

As more complex species emerged, the survival instinct adapted to incorporate more elaborate physiological responses and cognitive/affective feedback.  The “fight or flight” response to danger — which includes accelerated heart rate, increased respiration, decreased sensitivity to pain, and release of adrenaline — is representative of the more recent end of the continuum upon which the survival instinct has evolved to accommodate biological complexity.

Baruch Spinoza – Charles Darwin – Sigmund Freud

The Need to Socialize
The survival instinct would have little meaning and purpose if it were ultimately defeated by the barren landscape of individual mortality.  The survival instinct specifically, and evolution generally, naturally progress toward the sustaining of life and away from its extinction. Enter procreation and, as a result, the need to socialize.  Obviously, some degree of social interaction must attend sexual reproduction.  When viewed in this light, Freud’s often misrepresented concept of the psychological libido is hardly controversial for, at its core, the theory merely recognizes that the human sex drive is a natural extension of the survival instinct.

Though sex bridges the divide between individual survival and the emergence of social structure, the need to socialize extends beyond the bare necessity of procreation.  Darwin asserted, and many experts have since agreed, that certain animals possess an independent set of social instincts which may be attributed to, inter alia, a natural bond of sympathy.  This bond of sympathy finds its origin in the parent-child relationship and is ultimately extended to others within the social network.  In Darwin’s view, social instincts

may be attributed in part to habit, but chiefly to natural selection. With those animals that were benefited by living in close association, the individuals which took the greatest pleasure in society would best escape various dangers, whilst those that cared least for their comrade, and lived solitary, would perish in great numbers. (Darwin, infra)

The social instincts led to the emergence of primitive societies initially consisting of people banding together to form tribes.  The tribal structure was not determined by chance, but arose from reciprocal bonds of sympathy demonstrated through

[its] organizing principle [which] was kinship as expressed through nuclear and extended family ties, lineage segments (notably, clans) that spanned various families and villages . . . its key purpose was to render a sense of social identity and belonging, thereby strengthening a people’s ability to bond and [therefore] survive. (Ronfeldt, infra)

The theoretical consequence is that natural selection applies not only to biological characteristics which promote physical survival, but also to the why and how of our interactions with one another.  Given that humans are innately social creatures, it stands to reason that there exists hereditary characteristics which have been selected as a means to promote survival in the context of social existence.  And as animals have evolved with greater complexity so have the evolutionary adaptions which protect and promote the continued existence of society.  Indeed biological and social evolution mirror one another — these are bilateral processes of unfolding which continue.  This fact has been demonstrated throughout history for as certain social conventions have proven to be deleterious to survival, those conventions have been selected against.

At the level of the individual (though no less applicable on the above-described macro-level), the social instincts can be broadly categorized as either cooperative or competitive. The herding instinct exhibited by many different species of animals and the human tribal instinct — both representative of the natural inclination to band together in common purpose — are prime examples of social cooperation.  Ultimately, strength (and therefore, survival) exists in numbers among other obvious tangential benefits which accrue from living together.  But where environmental resources are limited — such as when food supplies are scarce and/or security resources are sparse — competition may displace cooperation at both the individual and group levels.  While it is true that large-scale cooperation in modern society has, with few exceptions, alleviated the need to compete for the bare essentials of survival, social competition continues to thrive in more subtle forms.  The social positioning forced by cultural pressures and manifest in the pursuit of prestige (fame, wealth, esteem, and other measures of social standing) is but one example of modern social competition.

The Pursuit of Happiness
It is universally accepted that humans naturally strive to maintain a positive psychological frame of reference, or what might also be described as a state of subjective well-being. Aristotle himself recognized that “[h]appiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”  The human ability to evaluate and conceptualize the meaning of happiness and to direct behavior to achieve that end distinguishes us from most other forms of life, though this module has likewise arisen from along the evolutionary continuum.  There emerged an innate psychological drive which may be broadly described as a natural desire to be happy and which includes both cognitive (thoughts) and affective (feelings) feedback.

From an affective standpoint, happiness is reflection of how we feel generally.  Positive emotional responses, and therefore subjective happiness, are often (though not exclusively) tied to the gratification of needs (where both real and imagined deficiencies exist).  So that the feeling of love as an affective response, for example, aids in promoting the satisfaction of the need to socialize; while the feeling of loneliness serves to dissuade isolation. These emotional responses most likely evolved from primitive reward and punishment pathways in the brain designed to reinforce behaviors which enhance the chance of survival.  Hence, rewarding behavior “feels good” and will likely be repeated; and punishing behavior “feels bad” and will less likely be repeated.  As an affective measurement, happiness may simply be described as the sum of pleasures and pains.

From a cognitive standpoint, happiness is derived from a comparison between life as one believes it should be versus life as it is perceived to actually exist.  The cognitive assessment involves both a comparison of our present state of being with our past state of being (i.e. am I better off now than I was?); and a comparison of our life to the lives of others (i.e. am I better off than him?).  Because the matrix of beliefs from which the cognitive standard of happiness is largely born of external stimuli, it must be acknowledged that nurture (i.e. the cultural setting and life experiences) plays a major role in the cognitive assessment of happiness.  Nevertheless, we do inherently desire to move towards a state of subjective well-being and away from a state of dysphoria.  In this respect, happiness serves not only as a means to reinforce pro-survival and pro-social behaviors, but it exists as an intrinsic end objective in its own right.

Happiness could be described as psychological survival given that it involves mental processes which are similar in purpose and effect to those which support biological homeostasis and physical survival.  This is so because the object of this natural desire is the maintenance of a subjective belief that (as Aristotle described it) a modest mean, or happiness set-point if you will, has been achieved as confirmed by cognitive/affective feedback.  Therefore, the goal of happiness is not to experience intermittent pleasures, but to achieve an enduring state of well-being.  Of course, this includes an evaluation of whether or not basic needs related to survival and social relations are being met on an ongoing basis.  So that, for example, a chronically hungry person would not be happy person, nor would a person whom society has ostracized.  However, most subjective determinations of happiness do not fall within these extremes, and therefore the assessment most often comes where fantasy and reality are difficult to distinguish.

Conclusion:  The Emerging Human Nature and Morality
Ultimately, human nature is best viewed as existing along an evolutionary continuum.  At one end is the primitive and largely automated survival instinct which we share with all forms of life.  At the other end of the spectrum, human cognition and affect have emerged.   Along the way, societies have sprung forth as the inevitable consequence of our natural instincts.  Indeed, we are living the emergence of our own nature.  In so doing, we are striving towards the perfection within us as a matter of evolutionary instinct; or, as Hegel believed, it is the process of the Absolute Spirit coming to know itself.

Some argue that evolutionary theory undermines the existence of objective morality (i.e. inherent “rights” and “wrongs”).  It must be conceded that if survival by satisfaction of selfish desires was the sole purpose of life, then our existential outlook would be rather bleak.  But any premise which begins with the assumption that objective morality and evolutionary theory can never co-exist is faulty.  While selfishness might be at the crux of the moral relativism and the radical “survival of the fittest” mantra of Social Darwinism, it is not the foundational requisite of all (or even most) theories of morality which likewise include endorsement of evolutionary principles.

Indeed, the very operation of human instinct naturally results in what many would describe as inherently moral outcomes such as longevity (good health), cooperation (love), and self-actualization (esteem) even if instrumentally motivated by selfish desires. Furthermore, absolute selfishness is antithetical to survival, has been selected against, and therefore runs contrary to human nature.

In closing, a persuasive argument which combines the theory of evolution and morality comes from perhaps an unlikely source.  Charles Darwin has been vilified for purportedly announcing scientific theories which undermine any notion of morality.  However, Darwin’s own words on the subject provide him full vindication.  He states that the

moral sense [may] arise from our enlarged capacity acting, yet being obscurely guided or strong instinctive sexual, parental & social instincts, giving rise to “do unto others as yourself”, “love they neighbor as thyself”.  Analyze this out — bearing in mind many new relations from language — the social instinct more than mere love — fear for others acting in unison. [Darwin’s notebook]


Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well-developed . . . as in man.

Charles Darwin — The Descent of Man



Darwin, Charles, The Descent of Man, (1871).

DePaolo, Robert, Motivation, the Pleasure Response and the Evolution of the Survival Instinct, (2010).

Grinde, Bjorn, Darwinian Happiness: Evolution as a Guide for Living and Understanding Human Behavior, Princeton, New Jersey: Darwin Press, (2002).

Maslow, Abraham H., A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review, 50(4), (1943).

Reiss, Steven, Multifaceted Nature of Intrinsic Motivation: The Theory of 16 Basic Desires, Review of General Psychology, Vol 8., No. 3 (2004).

Ronfeldt, David, In Search of How Societies Work: Tribes — The First and Forever Form, Rand Pardee Center, (2006).

Veenhoven, Ruut, How Do We Assess How Happy We Are?, paper presented at conference on ‘New Directions in the Study of Happiness: United States and International Perspectives‘, University of Notre Dame, (2006).

Wuketits, Franz M., Charles Darwin and Modern Moral Philosophy, Ludus Vitalis, Vol. XVII, No. 32, (2009).


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