In this engaging and ambitious book, Maria Kronfeldner details the main challenges that undermine traditional, and more recent, accounts of human nature. She then proposes and defends her own ‘post-essentialist, pluralist and interactive’ approach. Finally, she examines some normative issues associated with deploying concepts of human nature and recommends eliminating use of the term. The book is thorough and sets a new benchmark for critical examination of human nature concepts. In what follows, I lay out the arguments of the book and then introduce a few critical concerns.
The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 consists of three chapters introducing and characterizing each of the challenges that face traditional views of human nature. In Chapter 2, Kronfeldner presents the ‘dehumanization challenge’ for the vernacular view. She argues that all dehumanization efforts presuppose a notion of human nature and most vernacular notions are employed in order to dehumanize. She introduces two examples of this: the dehumanization of women, which she traces back to Aristotle, and the dehumanization of non-Europeans by Europeans throughout history. Kronfeldner argues that while the content of human nature has changed throughout history, its role in dehumanization has remained constant. The dehumanization challenge for current accounts of human nature is to develop an objective approach without incorporating the morally objectionable components of vernacular views designed specifically to dehumanize.
The focus of Chapter 3 is the ‘Darwinian challenge’, chronicling the problems faced by essentialist notions of human nature raised by evolutionary biology, as introduced by Elliott Sober () and David Hull (), among others. These notions are challenged in at least two ways. First, evolutionary biology does not characterize species by appealing to essential characteristics of individual species members; rather, species are understood via lineage and genealogy. Different species are different lineages whose members are connected by descent. Second, evolutionary biology emphasizes population thinking over individual thinking. The variation that is key to evolutionary change is variation of traits in a population. This line of thinking downplays the role of individuals and their properties, and hence holds no place for essentialism.
In Chapter 4, Kronfeldner provides a detailed account of the ‘developmentalist challenge’, which focuses on the distinction between nature and nurture. Kronfeldner details some attempts to make such a distinction, including an account of Francis Galton’s work on distinguishing the different contributions of genes/biology and culture to development. A hard distinction between nature and nurture (biology and culture) is the critical target of interactionists, along with epigeneticists, proponents of niche construction, and developmental systems theorists. For example, interactionists argue that development only occurs via the interplay of genetic and environmental factors (which, for humans, includes culture), and so our nature cannot be accounted for by appealing to genes alone. Kronfeldner introduces an apt term for one part of the interactionist challenge: ‘genetic inertness’. Genes do nothing alone; they only have impact in the context of a host of other, necessary developmental factors. Kronfeldner concludes that if by ‘human nature’ we mean ‘the biologically inherited resources’ that causally contribute to our traits, then the prospects for human nature are dim in the face of the interactionist challenge.
In the five chapters making up Part 2, Kronfeldner introduces and defends her own account of human nature, which she says is post-essentialist, pluralist, and interactive, and, she argues, successfully surmounts the Darwinian and developmentalist challenges. Her pluralism provides structure to Part 2 in the following way: There is an agreement in recent work on human nature that traditional human nature concepts were intended to play three epistemic roles—classificatory, descriptive, and explanatory (see, for example, Samuels ). Kronfeldner says that monists assume that one thing—for example, an essence—fulfils all three epistemic roles, whereas her pluralist claim is that no one notion can satisfactorily do this. She develops three independent, although clearly related, human nature concepts: classificatory human nature, descriptive human nature, and explanatory human nature. She argues that each concept overcomes the challenges introduced in Part 1, paying closest attention to the Darwinian and developmentalist challenges (she returns to dehumanization in Part 3).
In Chapter 5, she develops and defends a genealogical classificatory nature. The idea here is that the genealogical nexus, ‘the relational property of being genealogically related to (being a descendant of) other humans’, is ‘necessary and sufficient to belong to the species H. Sapiens’ (p. 100). In this chapter, Kronfeldner also defends a distinction between biological and cultural inheritance, which she argues does not collapse into the genetic notion of inheritance criticized in Chapter 4. On her view, genealogy ties together a collection of stable (biological) developmental resources, and her descriptive and explanatory notions of human nature appeal to these resources.
In Chapters 6 and 7, Kronfeldner elaborates and defends the following view: ‘a typical trait is part of human nature if the developmental resources that make a difference for the (abstracted) trait are conserved over evolutionary time by biological rather than cultural inheritance’ (pp. 164–5). These traits taken together constitute our descriptive nature: they are ‘properties that are instantiated by a statistically significant number of humans that reoccur over a significant time span’ (p. 145). Kronfeldner distinguishes her view from those she attributes to Hull (), Grant Ramsey (), and Edouard Machery (). Her descriptive human nature includes fewer properties or traits than either Ramsey’s view or what she calls Hull’s disjunctive view. She argues that both are far too inclusive and, as a result, trivialize the descriptive notion. And contrasting her view with Machery’s, she argues that her notion of trait stability is preferable to his idea that traits in our descriptive nature must be evolved.
Kronfeldner develops her explanatory account of human nature in Chapters 8 and 9. She says that our explanatory nature is the collection of ‘causal factors (developmental resources) that are typical and are due to biological inheritance’ (p. 180). She fills out this account as follows: ‘Explanatory human nature = statistical cluster of biologically inherited developmental resources that happen to be prevalent and stable over a considerable time in the evolutionary history of the human species’ (p. 185).
In Chapter 8, she criticizes essentialist explanatory accounts of human nature, such as Michael Devitt’s () and Dennis Walsh’s (), arguing that they fail to surmount the Darwinian challenge. Kronfeldner also critically appraises and rejects the developmental systems theory and niche construction approaches developed by, for example, Paul Griffiths () and Karola Stotz ().
Chapter 9 offers a defence of Kronfeldner’s claim that biological causal factors are the central components of our explanatory nature. Here she discusses the role that our own interests play in our decisions about which factors are causally relevant, arguing that as out explanatory interests change, so too will our explanatory nature. We may, for example, discover new developmental resources that we deem to offer more explanatory potential. Going all in on genes, as many contemporary behaviour geneticists have (see, for example, Plomin ), is not an approach Kronfeldner endorses, but is an illustration of the way in which a changing social context can encourage scientists to change what they deem to be explanatorily relevant. Kronfeldner also examines the role of looping, in Ian Hacking’s () sense, in changing what we take to be explanatorily relevant.
In Part 3, Kronfeldner pursues normative issues that arose in Chapter 2, and in the discussion of looping and normativity in Chapter 9. In Chapter 10, she examines the relationship between humankind, characterized by human nature concepts such as those she defends, and humanity, a social group with shared moral standing. She argues that moral standing can come from either being part of humankind, understood as a genealogical nexus, or being part of humanity and concludes that either is sufficient for moral standing.
Chapter 11 considers the possibility of eliminating the term ‘human nature’, both from vernacular and scientific discourse, arguing that the costs of continuing to use the term—for example, perpetuating dehumanization—outweigh the epistemic benefits. Kronfeldner concludes that even her genealogical and descriptive notions of human nature, along with other post-essentialist notions, can be dehumanizing. The concluding sentence of the book is, ‘We should stop using the term human nature whenever possible’ (p. 242).
By the end, Kronfeldner admits, in effect, that her account of human nature cannot overcome the dehumanization challenge. I would argue that her view cannot overcome either of the other challenges she lays out either. As I noted above, she says at the end of Part 1 that there are only dim hopes for a ‘biologically inherited resources’-based notion of human nature. As I understand it, this is what all three of her notions of human nature amount to. Kronfeldner defends her view well against her construal of the Darwinian challenge and the developmental challenge, but this is perhaps because she does not present the strongest, or most troubling, version of either.
I take challenges from proponents of niche construction, developmental systems theory, and Kim Sterelny’s (, ) co-evolutionary approach to undermine efforts to cleanly distinguish biology from culture in the context of both evolution and development. Let’s take the case of language, which Kronfeldner regards as a clear case of a trait that is part of our nature. She takes language development to be separable into two components: biological developmental resources and culture. But the development of language only occurs in the presence of language speakers, and Sterelny’s approach implies that language development is scaffolded by language. Language evolution does not result merely because a few key genes, for example, FOXP2 (pp. 161–2) were present in humans but not in non-linguistic animals. Language evolution was likely a complex co-evolutionary process involving interactions between constantly reshaped cultural environments and populations of humans. Throughout our evolutionary history, we have interacted with these constructed environments, and passed them and their cultural products on to our descendants. Understanding the interaction of all of these factors is key, according to Sterelny and others, to understanding our evolution.
Any account of human nature that is based on a hard distinction between biology and culture (and/or the environment) is an account that has not taken the developmentalist challenge on in its strongest form. Also, the developmentalist challenge, as presented by developmental system theorists, denies causal priority to any one of the huge array of causal factors contributing to development, including our genes. It is not just that factors other than genes should be taken into consideration in accounting for development, contra genetic inertness, but that no one factor has causal priority. Kronfeldner’s distinction between biological developmental resources and others is not adequately defended against this strong version of the developmentalist challenge.
Despite these concerns, Kronfeldner’s book is sophisticated and well argued, making it a valuable resource. And yet even this pluralist account is not up to the various challenges that confront human nature. Those who might be developing accounts of human nature should give this book a careful read as it reveals the great difficulties that face such projects. I must confess, I was already partial to Kronfeldner’s eliminativist conclusion before I read her book, but her careful consideration of the problems that face accounts of human nature give additional support to this stance. As Kronfeldner admits, we are not going to get rid of vernacular notions of human nature any time soon, but social scientists could benefit from heeding her call to attempt to eradicate the term ‘human nature’ from their research. As she says, the moral, political, and social costs of using the term outweigh the epistemic benefits of doing so.
Stephen M. Downes University of Utah firstname.lastname@example.org
Devitt, M. : ‘Resurrecting Biological Essentialism’, Philosophy of Science, 75, pp. 344–82.
Griffiths, P. E. : ‘Our Plastic Nature’, in S. B. Gissis and E. Jablonka (eds), Transformations of Lamarckism: From Subtle Fluids to Molecular Biology, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 319–30.
Hacking, I. : ‘The Looping Effects of Human Kinds’, in D. Sperber, D. Premack and A. J. Premack (eds), Causal Cognition: A Multidisciplinary Debate, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hull, D. L. : ‘On Human Nature’, Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, 2, pp. 3–13.
Machery, E. : ‘Human Nature’, in D. Livingstone-Smith (ed.), How Biology Shapes Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 204–26.
Plomin, R. : ‘Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are’, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Ramsey, G. : ‘Human Nature in a Post-essentialist World’, Philosophy of Science, 80, pp. 983–93.
Samuels, R. : ‘Science and Human Nature’, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 70, pp. 1–28.
Sober, E. : ‘Evolution, Population Thinking, and Essentialism’, Philosophy of Science, 47, pp. 350–83.
Sterelny, K. : The Evolved Apprentice: How Evolution Made Humans Unique, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Sterelny, K. : ‘The Informational Commonwealth’, in S. M. Downes and E. Machery (eds), Arguing about Human Nature: Contemporary Debates, New York: Routledge, pp. 274–88.
Stotz, K. : ‘Human Nature and Cognitive-Developmental Niche Construction’, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 9, pp. 483–501.
Walsh, D. : ‘Evolutionary Essentialism’, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 57, pp. 425–48.