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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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.