Human Nature

Human nature is the term used to refer to that conventionally accepted as what is uniquely and distinctly human. While few deny that such a quality exists, the origins and extent of this quality have yet to be conclusively defined. The following essay will explain the relationship between two opposing arguments delving into this subject, examining both: J.S. Mill’s notion regarding the necessity of individuality, as presented in On Liberty, and; E.O. Wilson’s theory that genes are the foundational basis of all human actions, culminating in his notion of evolutionary ethics, as seen in Consilience. Ultimately, this essay will argue the thesis that the notions of Mill and Wilson contradict each other, by: examining the ideas of both authors; illustrating the dichotomy their comparison creates, and; providing a comment as to the potential applicability of each.

Mill believes individuality to be the basis of human nature, thus implying that without individuality the distinctive characteristics of humans will be lost. His argument rests on the foundational premise that each person has the ability to develop into a unique individual: “Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.” (Mill, 56-57) He claims that custom frequently oppresses this individuality and that it can be restrictive to the development of any society, stating that: “The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement.” (Mill, 67) Mill’s postulations lead him to ultimately assert that: the cultivation of individuality is the best means to produce well developed human beings (Mill, 61); genius -and geniuses- are the products of fostering and developing individuality (Mill, 62), and; individualism is a prerequisite for the improvement of societies and the general human existence (Mill, 67). Conclusively Mill states that “it is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way.” (Mill, 55) meaning that: unless the individuality of each human -particularly in respect to thought and opinion- is embraced and developed human nature will not be allowed to flourish.

Contrastingly, Wilson believes that human nature is a genetically determined phenomenon in which individuality plays no role. He introduces this theory by asserting his alignment with the empiricist view (Wilson, 263), that being: “[moral guidelines are] contrivances of the mind.” (Wilson, 260). Wilson explains the relevance of this opinion using the following premise: human nature is an essential quality of all humans expressed through the behavior and attitudes of societies, manifesting in morally reasoned ethics (Wilson, 263). This premise, viewed in the context of empiricism, lends itself to the assertion that ethics -the expression of human nature in moral behaviors and standards- are determined by the genetic codes underlying the mind. Wilson develops this idea by claiming that the ethics of any society are dynamic and may change over time (Wilson, 274), this is the essence of his theory of evolutionary ethics. The logic of the theory may be understood such as: (A) each moral attitude is dependent on a genetic predisposition; (B) certain attitudes are more favored and those possessing them are more desirable in reproduction; (C) the genes corresponding to the tendencies of these individuals become more prevalent in the gene pool of the population, and; (D) subsequently the ethics of the population change (Wilson, 274-280). Thus, Wilson theorizes that the expression of human nature is limited by the gene pool of a population at any given time.

The contrast between the two ideas is stark; while Mill seemingly assumes infinite possibilities for human nature, should it be allowed to develop and flourish through individuality, Wilson clearly believes that this phenomenon is limited and may change only gradually, in populations as a whole and never solely in individuals. However, some may suggest that the two ideas share the same origin; Mill and Wilson both operate on the premise that human nature is a phenomenon of the human mind. Hence it may be implied that their theories are fundamentally similar and reinforce, rather than contradict, each other. The appropriate response to such an argument is simply to consider the operative definition each author uses when considering ‘the human mind’. Mill considers the mind to be a tool utilized for the act of understanding circumstances and developing opinions, while he accepts that this ‘tool’ is the product of genetic codes –an emergent property- he maintains that the unique influences and experiences that each person faces results in them each possessing a different mind. Wilson however suggests that the mind is a result of the direct translation of any individual’s genetic code thus implying that it will remain unchanging throughout one’s lifetime, any apparent discrepancies simply due to varying circumstances. This, in the context of Wilson’s proposed “group mind” (Wilson, 268), implies that the human mind is not a unique product and that rather is it a predetermined and predictable result of extremely specific components. Ultimately Mill and Wilson have fundamentally different opinions regarding the quality, expression and potential of human nature. The consequent relationship between their ideas is one of direct contradiction.

Having established that the relationship between these two ideas is contradictory, one must seek to examine which -if either- of the two is the most correct in providing insight into the elusive qualities of human nature. This can be done by examining the implications of each idea. Mill’s notion alludes to infinite possibility, opportunities for perpetual growth and the existence of unique opinions. Yet, Wilson’s theory implies few predetermined options for expression, gradual growth or change only over long periods of time and the prevalence of shared opinions. The applicability of these proposed models is admittedly contestable. However, I assert that, in reality, Mill’s notion is of much greater accuracy and relevance. Consider the contrasts between mannerisms and behavior within any social group, for example: those fidgety juxtaposed with those still, those clean with those messy, those introverted with those extroverted. With such diversity in behavior, such opportunity for expression and difference, it cannot be feasibly stated that the inheritance of genes dooms a population to tend towards homogeneity. Moreover, Wilson’s perspective that changes in the moral beliefs of a population -its ethical code- occur only gradually “across generations” (Wilson, 280) is asserted without consideration of a wide array of examples. One said example being through the technological revolution of the 21st century: in less than a decade a large portion of the ethical codes of most Western countries shifted dramatically and, perhaps, irreversibly; the standards of social conduct are now fundamentally changed, the nature of education and the workplace is transformed in essence as well as in reality and even the concepts of the self and the society are regarded differently. These changes occurred with exponential rapidity and, despite any epigenetic predispositions that individuals have, it is the human mind which has allowed such progression in human nature. In a final rebuttal of Wilson’s theory; the claim that a genetic basis for human nature creates a convergence in societal ethics and a subsequent prevalence of a shared opinion is disproven by even the contrasting responses to this theory itself. The fact that certain individuals agree with Wilson whilst others do not -something he himself acknowledges- is evidence of the existence of plurality of opinion and leads one to suppose either: that Wilson’s theory is entirely false, or; that the theory requires adjustment. Hence, with consideration of the above information it can be concluded that, of the two notions presented, Mill’s assertions are most correct.

In conclusion: through On Liberty and Consilience, Mill and Wilson, respectively, present notions exploring the qualities and extent of human nature, that which is uniquely and distinctly human. Mill advocates for the nourishment of individuality in order to develop and grow the infinite potential of human nature. While, in contrast, Wilson theorizes about the limits of human nature implied by evolutionary ethics and the genetic basis of humans. This essay highlighted the contradictions between these two arguments by articulating the fundamental difference between these two authors’ understanding of the human mind and further examined the applicability of each notion. The paramount conclusion of this exploration was such that Mill’s notion is, of the two, the most correct as it lends itself to relevant, realistic and favorable application within the reality of the human world.

Works CitedMill, John Stuart. On Liberty. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc, 1859.

Wilson, Edward O. Consilience. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.