When we discuss human nature, we are not talking about personality or temperament, which are about individual differences, but more a kind of species-wide temperament and a collective personality. The notion of human nature suggests that each species has its own nature and this nature influences how that species will play its part in evolution.
Because humans among all species have developed such enormous influence upon the ecosystem of the planet, human nature becomes important not just for the future of human beings but for the very life on our planet. Humans have already made changes in the environment that have led to the extinction of almost half of all living species and continue to have the power to destroy our entire planet and take all life with it.
So the ability to change human nature in some way, as to point us in the direction of peace within our own species and also in the direction of increased respect of the planet’s ecosystem, has been a notion that many idealistic individuals have found attractive
In modern psychology, questions about human personality have been looked at in relationship to the degree to which in-born temperament “hard-wired” genetic tendencies influence how we behave in relationship to the influence of our individual development and social learning. This is often called “the nature vs. nurture” debate.
Psychology has vacillated in a style, which makes it seem quite “trendy” for a discipline that calls itself a science. In the early days of psychology in the last part of the nineteenth century, psychology sided with ethnology, the belief that most behavior is based on in-born instinct. In the 1920’s John Watson championed the opposite belief which he called “behaviorism” and which contradicted the earlier view. It went so far as to suggest that humans might be like “Tabla Rasa” or blank slates upon which society and conditioning write the entire script of life.
Behaviorism ruled psychology for many years to the point where psychology was defined as the “science of behavior.” But in recent years, with many psychological studies demonstrating the importance of genetic factors in personality and behavior, the “nature vs. nurture” debate has swung for many psychologists back the other way toward the importance of in-born personality traits.
This new conventional wisdom in psychology is influenced greatly by the return of ethnology with a new name — sociobiology. Works such as those by Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) and Edward O. Wilson (Sociobiology xxx) suggest that much of what we thought was social learning is actually “hard-wired” into our nervous systems and that much less is the product of social learning.
The importance of the relative weight of nature vs. nurture to the equation of who we are is immediately relevant to any program or technique which aims to make changes in our long-term personality, thinking and behavior. Although earlier studies of psychotherapy put the effectiveness into question, more recent studies employing more efficient forms of therapy have shown that people can change through learning with the aid of an individual or therapy group. As well as on psychedelic explorations, by learning on mind-changing compounds.
The Chinese philosophers were the earliest of human thinkers to discuss the issues of human nature. While the great Chinese philosopher Confucius preferred to not discuss such issues, two of his 4th and 3rd century BC disciples, Mencius and Hsün-tzu, did much to clarify these issues. Mencius asserted that the “original face of man” — which was their sexist lingo for “human nature” — was basically good and that it could be developed not only by study, as Confucius had taught, but also by a process of inner self-cultivation. Hsün-tzu, took the opposite stance, asserting that the original nature of man was evil. Still another group of Chinese philosophers, in the tradition of Chinese Taoism, asserted that human nature was neither good nor bad but was “like uncarved wood” – ready to be shaped by life’s experiences.
Moving forward five thousand years, Arthur Koestler, the noted German philosopher and psychological theorist speculated that human’s might have a built-in “paranoid streak” because of the way that our nervous systems evolved. At the core of our brain is the “fight or flight” mechanism of the limbic system, which was sometimes called the “reptile brain” because our reptilian ancestors contributed it. On top of that, we have a mammalian or “monkey” brain, which has such typical mammalian concerns as territoriality and dominance hierarchies.
Koestler noted that on the frontiers of mental development, the frontal lobes, we find something which is unique to our species and which encompasses typically human notions such as compassion, empathy and consciousness. But he saw a dilemma to all of this. With so many steersman taking turns, there is always confusion about: ‘who is running the ship? Sometimes the reptile is in control, other times a monkey and still others the human at the helm. What Koestler noted was that in many cases, basic fear mechanisms, which comprise the vestigial evolutionary circuitry, cause humans to act “paranoid” rather than with those more lofty traits we like to think of as being human.