The Magazine

Does Human Nature Have a Future?

The end of history, Bobos, and biotechnology.

Feb 4, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 20 • By PETER AUGUSTINE LAWLER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

HUMAN NATURE--the very idea of a human nature--has been under assault for centuries. That philosophical, historical, and anthropological attack is now fading, and end-of-history theorists, followed by sociobiologists, have come riding to human nature's defense. But they are curious defenders. Neither the alleged end of history, nor the supposed truths of sociobiology, seem to provide any real grounding for what is distinctively human in nature. Indeed, talk about the end of history seems merely a prologue to biotechnological developments that threaten to transform--or even eradicate--human nature as we have known it. Can--and should--that transformation be resisted? Does human nature have a future?

I) First of all, does human nature even exist? That it does was the thought of philosophers from Plato to John Locke. Nature, they claimed, provides a standard by which distinctively human behavior can be judged. But philosophers at least from the time of Rousseau have denied the reality of this standard. They have distinguished between subhuman nature and human freedom. What is natural is not human. And what is human is not natural.

According to this view, there is no such thing as a distinctively human nature. So while it is true, for example, that we human beings have bodies and to some extent are governed by instinct, even our basic instincts are affected by our freedom. Birds do it, bees do it, and we do it. But we do it differently. Human sex is different from winged sex because it is mixed up with human freedom. Human sex is far less connected to the necessity of reproduction than is that of other animals. Human beings pervert nature even when they are doing what seems to come naturally. We are, from nature's view, often kinky. By practicing safe sex, for example, we show our distinctively human freedom. No other animal uses condoms. In our freedom, we can think up all kinds of ways to satisfy our strange desire to rut without reproducing. Surely the separation of the bare act from begetting is not natural.

So our anthropologists and sociologists and postmodernists and deconstructionists--the critics of "human nature"--say that there is no such thing as human sex. That's why they speak not of sex, but of gender. Distinctions between the sexes are, humanly speaking, insignificant. What's human is our free, social construction of gender. Once we realize that gender is within our control and is barely limited by nature, then we can change it however we please. Classes in gender studies are all about freeing women and homosexuals not from nature but from the willful oppression of heterosexual men. All that we have wrongly called "natural," so we are taught, has really been socially constructed by men or heterosexuals. Because no human sexual activity is really natural, everything we do should be regarded as an equally free assertion of human freedom. Most education in the social sciences and humanities today is dedicated to the proposition that human beings are free to create themselves--to "liberate" themselves--however they please. All that we have ascribed to "human nature" is in fact "history," what we have made for ourselves. And our future can be anything we liberated human beings choose to make for ourselves.

II) Or can it be? If human freedom is historical, if men have made their history, can they really keep on freely doing so? If history had a beginning, mustn't it have an end? Perhaps we are not at the dawn of an era of radical freedom, but rather at the end of history. History ends because human beings finally have satisfied their distinctively human desires through their distinctively human work.

The end of history would seem to have arrived, in particular, because the principle of liberal democracy has triumphed: All human beings are now recognized as free and equal beings by those in the know everywhere in the world. In addition, more and more human beings now live contentedly in freedom while doing very little work. There appears to be nothing really new for human beings to do. We have achieved a sort of paradise of laziness and luxury. Even our Islamic enemies--who can and will use our technological success against us to cause much death and destruction--have no real chance of derailing our fundamental accomplishments. They act, the end-of-history theorists say, fundamentally out of envy, and they present no credible alternative to our liberal democracy.

If human beings are historical beings, and history has ended, it makes sense to say we have become just like all the other animals again. Indeed, both the wise and the foolish--the right and the left, Allan Bloom and Woody Allen--observe or claim that the most sophisticated Americans are no longer moved by love and death. And many others have noticed that Americans now prefer comfort to truth. Feel-good therapy has replaced the genuine desire to know oneself. According to sociologist James Davison Hunter, the view that it is more important to feel good than to be good has even infused itself in most of our religious musings.

And the new model Americans--the bourgeois bohemians, or Bobos, as David Brooks describes them--even claim to have reconciled the modern conflict between bohemian self-expression and bourgeois productivity. They manage to work hard and to have countercultural tastes without being in any way alienated from their social or political world, without yearning for a life better than the one they now have. There is nothing in Bobos' souls that keeps them from being comfortable and productive. They seem not at all disordered by the human passions connected with love and death. They seem to be clever and tasteful animals and little more. Bobos surely have retained some human distinctiveness--no other animal goes to Starbucks--but perhaps far less than meets the eye.

Still, if history is ending, if all is not flux or meaningless freedom, then human beings do have a nature of a sort. But of a human sort? The apparent end of history has led to a comeback for the idea of nature--but perhaps not human nature. The most sophisticated and avant-garde talk today is about nature. It's the hard-headed scientific discourse of evolutionary biology or sociobiology, which scorns the woolly-headed postmodernist chatter about human liberation. The sociobiologists believe they know that the idea of human freedom from nature is an illusion. Our hopes and happiness are, we are told, largely determined by our genes. We turn out to be the most clever of animals, with bigger brains, but ones that are used for nothing more than calculation and manipulation. We are really qualitatively no different from other animals.

The sociobiological return to nature consists in the recognition of what is required for us to live comfortably and productively as a certain kind of social animal. The family can in this way be rescued from the assault of the liberationists. Families, the evidence tells us, do a better job of raising kids than the alternatives, and it's good for the species for children to be raised well. Religion is also back; it's a great source of comfort and socialization for social beings. According to the sociobiologists, though, love and faith are just illusions--useful ones, to be sure, helpful in dealing with the experiences of anxiety and homelessness that come with self-consciousness or individuality. But obsessing like an existentialist about one's own existence is not a useful human activity; we see the truth by focusing on what's best for the species. And of course there's no evidence either that God exists or that the human desire to know Him is natural.

The truncated view of human nature presented by the champions of "the end of history" and sociobiology leaves no room for genuine human distinctiveness. The end-of-history argument and sociobiology are in this decisive respect two sides of the same coin. The aim of both views is to allow human beings to experience themselves as fully at home in this natural world. A world in which evolutionary biology or sociobiology expresses the whole truth about our existence would mean the end of history. It would be a world without the greatness and the misery of distinctively human existence.

III) Have such seemingly permanent and fundamental experiences as love and death all but faded away? At first glance we might plausibly say that philosophic yearning and religious dread have disappeared among sophisticated Americans. But death has not really faded away. Sure, our bourgeois bohemians claim not to be obsessed with it. Their form of spiritual solace seems not to include any thought about what happens with or after death. They seem, at first, to be following our pragmatic professor of philosophy Richard Rorty's advice, putting death to death simply by not talking about it. But they've also discovered that Rorty's merely imaginative solution doesn't really work. A real pragmatist works in the most disciplined and scientific way against death while refusing to talk about it. He mouths Rorty's therapeutic platitudes from his treadmill, while faithfully following a low-carbohydrate, high-fiber diet.

Bobos claim to be laid-back bohemian nonjudgmentalists on everything. Or almost everything: When it comes to the soul, they reject as repressive the morality of traditional religion, but when it comes to the body, they are far from being laissez faire. They are pro-choice on abortion. But when it comes to seatbelts and smoking, there ought to be a law. Being chaste, they say, is unrealistically hard for our young people. But they can and should just say no to drunkenness and obesity. Sex of all kinds can be safe, but being fat is genuinely risky business. In their puritanical disdain for cigarettes, drunkenness, and rich food, the Bobos show themselves to be far more bourgeois than bohemian. Comparatively speaking, their predecessors--the martini-drinking, chain-smoking, dessert-eating, and war-fighting WASP establishment--laughed in the face of death.

But if Bobos, as I believe, are really the most bourgeois or Hobbesian Americans to date, then they must still be distinctively human. They are defined, above all, by their rebellion against death, against the necessity that constrains us all. Life is far harder for them than it is for any other animal. Their distinctive qualities seem to be evidence of their human nature. The Bobos' behavior is far more predictable and unbohemian than they would like to believe, but no other animal behaves as they do. We are tempted to conclude that at least for now their lives are still defined by their natures in a distinctively human way.

That conclusion stands even without the introduction of more subtle and controversial evidence for Bobos' human nature. Their inability to speak of their love for other human beings and God doesn't really show that they don't have such longings, or that those longings are not natural. Their ridiculous spirituality and pseudo-bohemian pretensions are not really satisfying. They are diversions. Bobos restlessly over-organize their own and their children's lives to keep themselves from having time to think about how empty their lives are. They constantly plan for their children's future because they can't figure out how to be in love with them in the present. Bobos are perhaps equally afraid of death and of the truth that whatever they do they cannot fend off death. They seem unable to come to terms with the ineradicable vulnerability and mortality of those they really do love. Bobos can't help but be troubled, because they seem to have been deprived of the words with which to describe truthfully their experiences as beings with speech by nature. They can't say what they really know about love and death.

It's not altogether bad news that Bobos, despite what they say even to themselves, are really screwed up. For they are screwed up in a distinctively human way. They do not really experience themselves as being fully at home in this world. And so they suggest, in a way despite themselves, that human nature does have a future.

To be sure, we don't know yet whether Bobos have what it takes to cope with the present terrorist threat. Bobos don't have the virtues associated with war, and they can't imagine their own lives without easily acquired wealth and liberty. But maybe the challenge of war will cause them to confront the truth about their natures more clearly. Harsh necessity may make them more courageous. The renewed need to be responsible citizens may well make them both less bohemian and less bourgeois. The president has said we are all soldiers now. Even the security-obsessed Bobos may become lovers of liberty. It seems that man as a political animal is back. So even Bobos, perhaps, will now acknowledge that war allows certain virtues to flourish in human nature, or at least that wherever we find human beings, war will always be a possibility.

But in truth, we don't know to what extent we are really at war yet. So far the main sacrifice the president has asked of American citizens is to be inconvenienced at airports. The stock market has returned to the September 10 level, and very few Bobos work in the troubled airline industry. It could be that the problem of global terrorism will be contained quite well by a relatively small and expertly trained elite military force abroad and an equally expert "homeland" intelligence service. Bobos' children may well not be drafted, and few of them will volunteer. American opinion was affected significantly by September 11, but American behavior has changed hardly at all so far. For a while, maybe for a long while, the new Hot War will affect daily life here in America even less than the old Cold War did.

IV) Still, history seems far less certainly at an end than it did in the Clinton era, and so human nature would seem to have a future--unless, of course, human nature itself actually can be changed by biotechnological progress. Many experts say that advances in biotechnology could soon add at least a couple of decades to the average human life, with the not-so-remote possibility of doubling the average human lifespan. We could design our babies and improve our descendants and the species. Is it conceivable that Bobos will resist such "progress"?

Perhaps it's unlikely. After all, why wouldn't Bobos welcome such remarkable advances, which would seem to be an extension of the progress they have already made through their rigorous regimes of diet and exercise? For Bobos, opposing the latest biotechnological breakthroughs would seem almost as unthinkable as choosing against bodily health today. Who wouldn't choose the best available body and brain for his or her child? The brain, our biologists tell us, like the rest of the body is merely a mechanism for comfortable self-preservation. Who would make perverse choices against what is best for any of our children? Should the law even allow it?

Bobos are nonjudgmental on every issue but health and fashion, and so they cannot oppose the claims of self-preservation with some higher principle. They seem to lack a point of view that would allow them to see there are good human reasons to choose against indefinite longevity. For one thing, with the near disappearance of death would also come the near banning of birth. Sex finally really would have nothing to do with reproduction. Would human life be worth living if it were completely freed from the hard and joyous responsibilities of birth, parenting, and aging? Choosing against indefinite longevity would be choosing against mere self-preservation, and for virtue, for love, birth, and death. Could Bobos summon the courage to make such a choice? Are they too obsessed with the fear of death to realize that an indefinitely long life, without virtue, might immeasurably heighten the fear of sickness and of death? The more death seems accidental rather than necessary, the more we will go to extraordinary lengths--living in lead houses and never going outside--to avoid what no longer seems so inevitable. Biotechnological progress might make life progressively more hellish. But rejecting or even directing biotechnology would seem to require a political will that Bobos have not yet shown they possess.

Yet the argument that biotechnological progress will necessarily make us more miserably death-obsessed is itself questionable. We have already had great successes with neuro-pharmacology or drug therapy. Ritalin and Prozac are powerful, widely used drugs that change human experience and behavior. Who can deny that they help those who are severely disruptive or depressed? But everyone also knows that Ritalin is now given to boys who used to be regarded merely as spirited or aggressive. And Prozac calms women who used to be regarded merely as nervous or anxious. Drugs are taking the edge off being either a man or a woman, and they perhaps are leading us to the sort of androgyny that Marx, for example, thought we would have at the end of history.

And we have no reason not to expect that in the future drugs will do a progressively better job of taking the edge off the psychological effects of just being human. We will conquer our troubling propensities to be moved by love and death by chemically managing our moods. As Walker Percy predicted in The Thanatos Syndrome, we may be able to free ourselves from all the stress of self-consciousness, becoming happy and productive animals who in the right environment are never in a bad mood. We could, in other words, make sociobiology's view of man true by eliminating all those perverse features of human nature that have made this view untrue so far.

Unbridled biotechnology could destroy human nature. The result would not really be a return to nature, but rather the human construction of an unalienated human environment. Biotechnological success would then be, from one view, the decisive evidence for and the final act of human freedom: We will make ourselves into what we imagined natural perfection to be. We will make ourselves fully at home in the world.

The political objection to depriving human beings of the pains, problems, and perversities that naturally arise from self-consciousness is that we will have succumbed to a form of tyranny. And yet we may well not be able to recognize that we are enslaved. In the Brave New World the tyrants will be the experts who exempt themselves from the consciousness-negating treatment. We have a hard time seeing experts as tyrants, because they don't claim to rule through personal authority but on the basis of the impersonal results of scientific studies. After all, as more than one observer has noted, most Americans have no idea of the extent to which they have already surrendered their sovereignty--their personal judgments concerning their personal experiences--to such experts.

But we, thank God, still seem able to see our new Islamic enemies as tyrants. Our enemies believe they can defeat us because we are in the decadent thrall of the illusion that we can dispense with some of the human virtues, especially the manly ones. September 11 had the virtue of reminding Americans that it is good that human beings are, at their best, naturally spirited defenders of truth and liberty. It reminded us that the virtue of courage is indispensable not only for living well but for living at all. It also reminded us that, despite our best efforts, religious and political distinctions have not withered away. Perhaps it would be better if they did not. Surely the Brave New World can and should be resisted. Perhaps even our Bobos and our experts can come to understand that a distinctively human life, with all its suffering and limitations, is good, precisely because the longing to love others and God is not an illusion, nor does it finally go unsatisfied.

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College, and author of the forthcoming "Aliens in America: The Strange Truth About Our Souls" (ISI Books).