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
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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.