Does Human Nature Evolve?
What does it mean, in general terms, to be human? For thousands of years this question has been most frequently answered with reference to the concept of “human nature.” Although human nature is a premodern concept, arguably superseded by our contemporary understanding of psychology, it remains a politically important notion to this day. As I argue in this article, improving our understanding of human nature overall, by better recognizing both our limitations and our potentials, is crucial for overcoming the challenges we face in the twenty-first century.
The key question surrounding the concept of human nature is whether it is mostly fixed or broadly malleable. We know individual people can change and become better. But what about larger populations overall, such as the American electorate? Can Americans be persuaded to act according to the “better angels of our nature,” or will our innate selfishness and tribalism predominate? America’s Founders were keenly aware of the challenges of human nature. In The Federalist Papers James Madison and Alexander Hamilton observed: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”1
This conservative estimate of human nature—that it can’t be trusted and needs controls—is a cornerstone of what social theorist Thomas Sowell calls the “constrained vision.” Following Edmund Burke and other influential conservative thinkers, Sowell argues that “human nature is essentially unchanging and that man is naturally inherently self-interested, regardless of the best intentions.”2 Sowell contrasts his pessimistic estimate of human nature with what he characterizes as the utopian or “unconstrained” vision of the left, which tends to see humans as morally perfectible through the liberating influence of social institutions and collective education. As evidence of the danger of such an unconstrained approach to politics, conservatives point to “failed social experiments, repressive political regimes, and overbearing economic systems that result from utopian dreams put into practice.”3
I’m sympathetic to this conservative “precautionary principle” regarding human nature, and I agree that utopian schemes to reorder society from the top down are misguided. I likewise affirm the classical liberal principle that sovereign individuals have “a right to be who they are” and should not be subjected to coercive attempts at moral improvement by the State.
That being said, I also recognize that human culture has clearly evolved, especially over the last 300 years, as seen for example through the advent of democracy and human rights. Moreover, as a result of cultural evolution, the average person in the developed world is now less prone to violence, less bigoted, less ignorant, and generally more concerned for the welfare of society as whole than even as recently as fifty year ago. Admittedly, these trends of prosocial growth are counter balanced by ever-present forces of decay, which tend to erode positive social norms and coarsen human culture. Yet if we’re willing to acknowledge that despite ongoing social decay, human culture nevertheless continues to evolve, then we must also be willing to recognize the corresponding evolution of human consciousness. As neuropsychologist Merlin Donald explains, the evolution of human culture and consciousness are bound together:
Human beings are cognitive hybrids, tethered to both biology and cultural environment. Another way of phrasing this is that humans were the first species to evolve a truly “distributed” cognitive system, that is, a system in which thought and memory are carried out in a community of minds. In a network, individuals are joined to a larger cognitive architecture that can have powers (e.g., deep memory resources and diverse expertise) that are not available to single individuals. Networks can also serve as generators of novel and powerful cognitive tools (e.g., languages, instruments, and symbolic notations). Languages in particular are network-level phenomena.4
For those who participate in humanity’s twenty-first century global culture, easy access to this “larger cognitive architecture” results in the development of their overall cognitive capacity. And this kind of individual development counts as authentic evolution. Simply put, culture and consciousness coevolve.
Both Nature and Nurture
So if consciousness evolves, does this mean that human nature itself likewise evolves? This question is complicated by the fact that what counts as “nature” remains subject to dispute. Philosophers continue to debate whether the phenomena of human consciousness is part of nature, and thus part of the physical world, or whether our sentient subjectivity is essentially nonphysical.
According to evolutionary psychology, our minds are the products of our brains. Most proponents of evolutionary psychology accordingly understand human consciousness in exclusively biological terms, and many assume that as neuroscience advances we will eventually discover the “neural correlates of consciousness,” thereby effectively reducing mental states to brain states. This biologically-based understanding of human consciousness therefore leads to the conclusion that since our biological brains have not evolved appreciably over the past 40,000 years, then human nature itself has not appreciably evolved since our Pleistocene origins in the African Savanna.
However, the idea that human nature is largely determined by our biological brains is starkly contradicted by another branch of academic psychology known as developmental psychology, which studies the potential for ongoing human psychological development throughout adulthood. According to developmental psychology, the adult human mind can continue to grow along numerous lines that unfold through clearly identifiable, universal stages of development. Developmental psychologists have differing opinions about where these stages of adult development come from. Some assume that comprehensive psychological growth is a straightforward matter of learning, which results in more complex brain wiring, comparable to the physical changes that occur in our brains when we learn to play the violin. The majority of developmental psychologists, however, recognize that human adult development entails more than simply learning new skills or knowledge. These social scientists also recognize the impact of larger cultural influences, such as historically significant worldviews, which provide the structural source of the stages of development they observe.
Of course, humans are the product of both nature and nurture. To adequately understand the influence of the nurture side of human development, we must take the impact of culture into account.
The tension between nature-based evolutionary psychology and nurture-based developmental psychology becomes largely resolved when we define human nature broadly to include both our base level of biological consciousness, and the kind of collectively-derived forms of consciousness we receive from our social environment. This distinction does not necessarily require metaphysical dualism, it merely acknowledges that it is “in our nature” to expand our minds through the evolution of our culture. The highly simplified graphic below suggests how we might think about these two primary influences on our mental make-up—the largely fixed animal consciousness that is grounded in our bodies, and the more malleable kind of consciousness that comes from our culture. Yet even as it shows the twin influences of biological consciousness from below and collective cultural consciousness from above, this graphic leaves room for a modicum of free will in between. As briefly discussed at the end of this article, the massive creativity demonstrated by humanity’s ongoing cultural evolution points to the evident fact of relative human freedom.
As this graphic illustrates, evolutionary psychology and developmental psychology are each touching on “different parts of the elephant.” If we understand this “elephant” as human nature overall, then we can reasonably conclude that human nature, broadly conceived, can indeed evolve. And once we face the fact that human nature can and does evolve, this points to the exciting prospect of actively working to improve the human condition by encouraging and persuading humans to evolve their consciousness.
Closely related to the concept of human nature is the similarly ancient idea of character growth. For thousands of years human societies have attempted to foster good character in their citizens through the promotion of virtues such as justice and courage. Where these virtues have been nurtured by strong social norms, it seems to have made a difference in the quality of life enjoyed by these “virtue cultures.”5 As Plato saw early on: “The States are as the men are, they grow out of human characters.”6
Still, recognizing how character growth is an important factor in the overall evolution of consciousness does not necessarily entail the “moral perfectibility of man.” I think we can work for the ongoing evolution of human consciousness while continuing to honor the wisdom of conservatism’s constrained vision. According to this vision, our more animalistic tendencies will always remain below the surface and can never be completely suppressed. Which means that we will always need to design our laws and institutions to guard against the potential for human error and malfeasance. Yet at the same time, recognizing consciousness’ potential to evolve can help us work for a better world without embracing utopian fallacies. In other words, we can continue to expect that most people will act primarily in their own self-interests, and that a few will act immorally. But even as we retain this precautionary principle, we must not lose sight of the fact that the most effective way to improve the human condition is to improve humans themselves.
The Project of Evolving Consciousness
According to the developmental political philosophy7 that animates my think tank—the Institute for Cultural Evolution—most humans can indeed be encouraged to evolve their consciousness by expanding the scope of what they are able to value.8 Our concept of human development therefore includes not only character growth, but also the individual growth that results from participating in more evolved forms of culture. While human cultural growth is not simply linear or straightforwardly hierarchical, the historical development of human culture does evince growth in values. For example, cultures “grow in goodness” when they expand the scope of those worthy of moral consideration—from ethnocentric forms of morality, to more world-centric conceptions of those who “count.” Cultures likewise “grow in truth” when they expand their understanding of the natural world through science and know-how. Again, consciousness and culture coevolve. Which means that by fostering the further evolution of our cultural values, we can simultaneously advance the average level of psychological development among the members of our society. In short, we can and should work to evolve human nature by working to evolve human culture.
In fact, the idea that culture and consciousness coevolve represents the Institute for Cultural Evolution’s guiding principle. Working for the evolution of culture and consciousness summarizes the higher purpose that inspires us, and the vision that drives the strategy of our organization. Part of what makes fostering the evolution of culture and consciousness such an exciting idea is the related insight that almost every human problem is, at least partially, a problem of consciousness. And this insight reveals how a solution to almost every problem in the world can be achieved by raising or evolving consciousness by evolving culture.
For example, notwithstanding recent legislative progress, the issue of climate change remains inadequately addressed by America’s government. Despite a sense of acute urgency on the part of progressives, global warming is not a high priority for most American voters, and many on the right actively oppose measures to reduce carbon pollution. These voters on the right see climate change as a progressive issue, and so their opposition is more to progressivism in general than to the climate change issue in particular. The issue of climate change has thus become a casualty of America’s culture war, and the culture war is primarily a conflict at the level of values. Ameliorating the culture war accordingly entails reconciling and integrating conflicting cultural values by expanding the scope of what Americans are actually able to value.
The work of integrating conflicting values requires us to recognize how values cohere in sets. Within contemporary American society we can observe three major sets of cultural values, which are most often identified as worldviews. These three large-scale worldviews are known as the traditional religious worldview, the liberal worldview of modernity (or modernism), and the critical worldview of contemporary progressivism. Since its emergence in the 1960s, this progressive worldview has come to dominate academia, as well as many other prominent American institutions.
Although each of these three major worldviews has downsides and pathologies, each of them also includes positive and enduring values that our society continues to need. As argued extensively elsewhere in my work,9 despite their ongoing conflicts, America’s three main worldviews constitute an interdependent cultural ecosystem. Improving the health and functionality of this cultural ecosystem can therefore help us make further progress on climate change. From a cultural ecosystem perspective, strengthening our national political will to combat global warming begins by encouraging progressives to better appreciate modernist values such as economic freedom, and traditional values such as patriotism. Through this process, modernists and traditionalists will come to feel less threatened by progressivism, and thus more open to meaningful action on climate change.
As another example of how the evolution of culture and consciousness can produce positive change, consider the problem of poverty. Like climate change, poverty is a complex problem caused by a variety of factors. But within the developed world, where opportunities for upward economic mobility exist, poverty can usually be reduced through education. Education raises consciousness, and this provides a straightforward illustration of how the problem of poverty in America is, for the most part, a problem of consciousness. However, although the worldwide development of modernist culture is gradually reducing the problem of poverty, it is only exacerbating the problem of climate change.
These examples illustrate how the existential problems of each stage of cultural evolution call for evolution into the next emergent stage for their solution. Just as the impoverished conditions of premodern traditional culture call for evolution toward prosperous modernist culture, the polluted conditions of modernity in turn call for evolution toward constructive forms of progressive culture, where the political will to combat the problem can be found. And in the same way that contemporary progressivism has arisen to address the negative externalities of modernity, the emerging pathologies of progressive culture—such as anti-modernism and reverse patriotism—will likewise require further evolution for their amelioration.
This idea that new levels of cultural consciousness are required to solve existential challenges is well expressed in a popular idea from Albert Einstein: Problems cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created them.10 This insight stresses the need for new methodologies that can ameliorate humanity’s most pressing problems by working to evolve consciousness and culture to “higher levels of thinking.”
A Synthetic Vision of Evolving Human Nature
Does recognizing how culture and consciousness coevolve require us to upgrade our definition of human nature itself? Perhaps we should narrow the concept of human nature to include only our slowly evolving brain-based biological consciousness, leaving our rapidly evolving cultural consciousness to be described in other terms. While this might help resolve the dispute around whether human nature is fixed or malleable, such a contraction of meaning would deprive us of a valuable concept. As its ongoing colloquial usage demonstrates, we need to retain the idea of human nature as a comprehensive description of what it means to be both a human animal and a morally responsible person. Because the overarching concept of human nature has endured for thousands of years, and because it evidently remains politically relevant in our time, I would rather expand the concept than narrow it.
Adopting such a comprehensive understanding of human nature—that it can be improved overall through both individual character growth and the collective evolution of culture—brings us back to the exciting vision being pursued by the Institute for Cultural Evolution. This vision is both “constrained and unconstrained.” It rejects the idea that humans can be perfected through the creation of utopian social structures. Yet it affirms that we can improve the world, even if only incrementally, by improving the character and consciousness of humans themselves.
In pursuit of this vision, our think tank is working to evolve consciousness and culture on every front of its development. We’re working to “increase the scope of what people can value” regardless of the culture with which they identify. Yet although culture evolves in myriad ways, the most exciting part of our work involves building the next emergent level of cultural consciousness—a new synthetic worldview that carries forward the best while pruning away the worst aspects of each major segment of contemporary American culture. The logic is simple: In the same way that progressive culture has arisen over the last sixty years to challenge modernity, another new stage of culture is now arising beyond progressivism. This emerging new form of culture is currently known by a variety of names, including the developmental worldview, the post-progressive worldview, and the integral worldview. But regardless of what it eventually comes to be called, this new form of culture promises to provide a synthesis of values that will effectively integrate the positive and enduring values of all three major segments of American culture—progressive, modernist, and traditional.
Expanding and refining our concept of human nature, as I propose in this article, is necessary and important not only because of its relevance to our strategies for social improvement. This vital concept is also worthy of our close attention because of its impact on related ideas that are similarly politically relevant. These related concepts include questions of personhood and free will—whether or not humans are ultimately responsible for their actions. Notions of human responsibility provide the moral foundations of our legal system. And the expectation that we can continue to improve the human condition through effort and innovation—that our fate is not determined—is a presupposition that undergirds almost all forms of political action. If we discard the idea that human nature possesses at least a modicum of free choice and creativity, such crucial human endeavors may come to be seen as futile.
The concept of human nature is also highly germane to the challenge of artificial intelligence. As the recent popularization of the artificial intelligence program known as “ChatGPT” demonstrates, as robots learn to perform more and more human tasks, such as essay writing, this presses us to better understand that which only humans can do. Discovering the limits of artificial intelligence will thus help further illuminate the meaning and value of human nature itself.
Similarly, the meaning and value of human nature will likewise become a central question in the coming challenge of “transhumanism”—the manipulation of the human genome to select for desirable traits. Beyond merely curing diseases, if genetic engineering is employed to “improve” our human nature by changing our biology, this would split our species into enhanced and unenhanced categories, which could have dire consequences for human equality and democracy.
What it means to be human will undoubtedly continue to be pondered and explored for the foreseeable future. But even now, we can make meaningful progress in our knowledge of human nature by using the kind of developmental philosophy I’ve outlined herein to integrate the insights of evolutionary psychology, developmental psychology, and moral psychology into a more comprehensive understanding of human nature overall.
1. See Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, “Federalist 51,” in The Federalist Papers (The New York Packet, 1788).
2. A Conflict of Visions
3. Michael Shermer, “Utopia is a dangerous ideal. We should aim for ‘protopia’” Quartz Magazine (April 4, 2018)
4. Merlin Donald, “The Virtues of Rigorous Interdisciplinarity,” in Joan M. Lucariello et al, eds. The Development of the Mediated Mind (London: Psychology Press, 2004), p. 254.
5. See e.g., Matthew A. McIntosh, “A History of Virtue as a Philosophy since the Ancient World,” in Brewminate (May 3, 2019)
6. Plato, The Republic (New York: Penguin Classics, 2007), p. 468.
7. For more on the Institute for Cultural Evolution’s developmental political philosophy see Steve McIntosh, Developmental Politics—How America Can Grow Into a Better Version of Itself (Paragon House 2020). See also the numerous articles and explainers on the Institute for Cultural Evolution’s website: https://www.culturalevolution.org
8. The Institute for Cultural Evolution’s developmental political approach does not seek to change the values people hold dear. Rather than trying to convert or replace existing values, we work to widen the range of what people are able to value. Simply put, we don’t want to subtract or erase peoples’ values, we just want to add to them.
9. See Developmental Politics, ibid.
10. This quote appears in many places and in a variety of versions. It is adapted from an interview of Einstein by Michael Amrine, “The Real Problem is in the Hearts of Men” (New York Times Magazine, June 23, 1946).