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The generic capacities and attributes that are universal, elemental, and unique to the human species constitute human nature. From a biological perspective, humans share commonalities with vertebrates, mammals, and primates, but these are not unique to humans. On the other hand, there is a combination of biological attributes that distinguishes the human species as Homo sapiens like habitual erect posture and bipedal gait, the fully opposable thumb allowing precision grip, brain size and structure, and the anatomy of the vocal apparatus.
What makes humans different, as well as the difference this makes, are the two pivotal questions in exploring human nature. A secondary set of questions includes the relative weight and the character of the relationship between these dualistic components that are variously implicated in conceptions of human nature: determinism and free will, matter and mind, nature and nurture, biology and culture, animal and human, natural and supernatural, civilized and primitive, evil and good, selfish and altruistic, competition and cooperation, and war and peace. Such matters have been pursued for centuries by numerous and diverse theologians, philosophers, scientists, and others. Furthermore, any culture or religion, and every ideological or political persuasion, has its own relatively distinctive view on human nature. In short, human nature is a vast, complex, and difficult subject, and there is no single answer to the primary and secondary questions revolving around it.
One Anthropological Answer
While anthropologists have no monopoly on knowledge and understanding about human nature, they certainly do occupy a special scientific and academic niche, because collectively they study humanity in all aspects, places, and times ranging from the local to the global levels. From the perspectives of primates and prehistory, anthropologists can trace the origin and evolution of human nature. Most important, humans lived as hunter-gatherers from some 6 million to about 10,000 years ago, the latter roughly marking the beginning of the emergence of the domestication of plants, animals, and landscapes. Therefore, whatever is universal, elemental, and unique to the human species is most likely related to the hunter-gatherer mode of existence, although human evolution certainly didn’t stop there.
Some examples of attributes claimed by Donald E. Brown to be human universals are: fire, technology, artifacts, shelter, sexual modesty, gender, family, kinship, incest prohibitions, socialization, rites of passage, age classification, statuses, subsistence, economy, division of labor, property, reciprocity, food taboos, customs, hospitality, leaders, public affairs, politics, rules, rights, sanctions, conflict resolution, etiquette, morality, folklore, myths, worldview, rituals, magic, divination, medicines, theories of disease and death, mourning rituals, arts, aesthetic standards, body adornment, play, entertainment, stimulants, symbols, gestures, language, color terminology, binary discriminations, personhood, and group identity. Obviously, human universals are general themes, and in practice each is manifest in variations and details associated with particular cultures and their distinctive conditions, including creativity, history, and environment. Indeed, from the perspective of most anthropologists, culture as nurture dominates over biology as nature to an overwhelming degree, thereby rendering the idea of a single human nature a problematic oversimplification. In other words, the some 7,000 cultures existing today reflect as many different human natures.
Primitives and “Noble Savages”
According to proponents of primitivism, the “primitive” is not simply a more desirable condition for human society, but from an ecological perspective it is closer to nature and more in harmony with it; most primitives live in wilderness. A correlate is that such societies practice nature religion or eco-spirituality. Consequently, implicitly, if not explicitly, the societies and religions of civilization are criticized as unnatural and environmentally destructive. Thus, environmental organizations from the Sierra Club to Earth First! often consider indigenous people to be guardians of nature-so-called green primitivism. New Age religions, including neo-paganism, frequently contain elements of green primitivism.
The opposite of this so-called romantic view is often credited to English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, even though its roots extend far into classical antiquity. In this view “savage” life is poor, nasty, brutish, and short. The Hobbesian imagery of “primitives” is permeated with disharmony, conflict, and violence, both socially and ecologically. In modern literature, the “ignoble savage” is best exemplified by William Golding’s allegorical novel Lord of the Flies. Most tragically, negative descriptions have often been used by colonials along with ideas of racial superiority as part of their rationalizations to conquer and exploit-if not even exterminate-indigenous societies who become obstacles to their capture of land and resources in frontier zones.
Paradoxically, both the positive and negative extremes are found in the work of a single famous British social anthropologist, Colin Turnbull, the Mbuti pygmies of the Ituri in the Congo region as “noble savages” in his book The Forest People (Doubleday, 1961), and the Ik in Uganda as “ignoble savages” in his book The Mountain People (Simon and Schuster, 1972). Turnbull describes the Mbuti as the epitome of the “ecologically noble savage” living in harmony in the forest. In contrast, he depicted the Ik as former foragers forced by the government to relocate, settle, and farm under increasing drought conditions with subsequent starvation from crop failure. As a consequence, the Ik degenerated to the point of a bare existence without sociality, culture, morality, and humanity, according to Turnbull.
Humanity’s Place in Nature
In the matter of the relationship between society and environment, the question of the place of humans in nature is vital. In the United States, within the context of the emergence of environmentalism, this question has been discussed and debated at least since the time of George Perkins Marsh, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir. In recent decades, often this question has involved the issue of the “ecologically noble savage” and the related one of Homo devastans, labels coined, respectively, by conservation biologist Kent H. Redford and by ecological anthropologist William L. Balee; although neither agrees with the position that their particular label represents.
Redford was one of the first in recent times to challenge the idea that indigenous societies were necessarily always in harmony with nature. He asserts that indigenes are not necessarily conservationists, although they may be very knowledgeable about the ecology of their habitat. He claims that they have long had significant environmental impacts, even in pre-contact times, and that this increases with Westernization. Redford also asserts that indigenes have the same capacities, needs, and desires as Westerners; and that they have no cultural barriers or controls on their exploitation of natural resources. Any previous sustainability is coincidental because of conditions now rare, including low population density, abundant land, and little involvement if any in a market economy. Redford concludes that indigenes do not provide any viable models for the sustainable use of natural resources and environmental conservation.
Redford’s assertions have raised critiques on several grounds. For instance, it is well documented that the environmental impact of many traditional subsistence societies was comparable to natural processes and did not lead to irreversible resource depletion and environmental degradation. Often, such societies have an archaeological and/or historical record extending back centuries or even millennia indicating their sustainability. Also, Western environmental impact is so much greater that it is qualitatively different. Although Redford has tempered his position considerably over time, some of the same thinking remains in various sectors of society and government.
A more recent example of an attempt to totally invalidate the idea of the “ecologically noble savage” is Shepard Krech’s book The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (1999). He marshals striking negative examples from prehistoric and historic times, ranging from Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions to wasteful buffalo drives over cliffs by Plains Indians to the depletion of beaver populations by natives for the fur trade. In his survey, however, he fails to acknowledge the far more numerous counterexamples in which indigenous societies have achieved some degree of economic sustainability and ecological balance.
Balee adopts the term Homo devastans to refer to the extreme position that human nature itself is inherently and inevitably anti-nature, a position apparently held by many contemporary environmentalists. Advocates of this position assert that given a large enough population, advanced technology, and high levels of consumption and waste, then any society can irreversibly deplete its natural resources and degrade or even destroy its environment. Resource competition and human greed are presumed to be universals. In short, no human society is benign in its environmental impact; some are merely worse than others. Such a view can lead to extreme thinking, like the assertion that the only cure for the global environmental crisis is the extinction of the human species. This concept of Homo devastans ignores to the point of simplistic reductionism and gross distortion the tremendous variation and variability in cultures and in environments, including the varying vulnerability, resiliency, and other attributes of the latter.
In considerations of the “primitive” as the most basic expression of human nature, the general tendency remains to emphasize one extreme or the other, often to the point of distortion. Such representations need to be critically scrutinized, deconstructed, and demystified. In reality, the world is far more complex, varied, and variable than to sustain such simplistic antithetical postures. It is far more scientific and scholarly to consider the great diversity in the manifestations of human nature through examining particular cases. Human diversity is the practical reality that challenges many attempts at generalizations about human nature as well as about the place of humans in nature.
- William A. Balee, , Advances in Historical Ecology (Columbia University Press, 1998);
- Donald E. Brown, Human Universals (McGraw-Hill, , 1991);
- Mary E. Clark, In Search of Human Nature (Routledge, 2002);
- Paul R. Ehrlich, Human Natures: Genes, Cultures and the Human Prospect (Island Press, 2000);
- International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Indigenous Peoples and Sustainability: Cases and Actions (International Books, 1997);
- Kent Redford, “The Ecologically Nobel Savage,” Orion Nature Quarterly (v.9, 1990);
- Charles L. Redman, Human Impact on Ancient Environments (University of Arizona Press, 1999);
- Leslie Sponsel, “Human Impact on Biodiversity, Overview,” in Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, Simon Asher Levin, eds., (Academic Press, 2001);
- Leslie Stevenson and David Haberman, Ten Theories of Human Nature (Oxford University Press, 1998).