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Human Nature

Debates over the nature of human nature have characterized social theory since it emerged in the Renaissance. As Thomas Sowell has argued, these debates generally take two forms: the optimistic and the pessimistic (Sowell 1987). The former position, associated with Rousseau and anarchists such as William Goodwin, holds that humans are essentially good but are turned bad by the institutions of their society. The latter position is rooted in the assumption that humans are fundamentally egoistic and selfish, thereby requiring either a strong state to regulate them or, in a less pessimistic account, an institution like the market to guide their affairs toward an optimal result.

For sociologists, neither position became the dominant way of thinking about human nature; instead, the plasticity of human experience was emphasized. Durkheim (1973) wrote the most important defense of a pluralistic approach to the subject, one that remains unsurpassed to this day in its clarity of presentation. Human nature is dualistic, he argued, speaking to the needs of both body and soul, the sacred and the profane, the emotional and the cognitive, and other such dualities. We are, in short, what we make ourselves. This version of a flexible approach to human nature would come to characterize contemporary theorists such as Parsons, who spoke of ‘‘much discussed ‘plasticity’ of the human organism, its capacity to learn any one of a large number of alternative patterns of behavior instead of being bound by its generic constitution to a very limited range of alternatives’’ (1951, p. 32).

In current sociological debates, the plasticity of human nature is emphasized by the general term social construction. If one argues that we ought to speak of gender roles rather than sex roles—the former is recognized to be the product of how people arrange their cultural rules, whereas the latter is understood to be fixed biologically—one is making a case for plasticity (Epstein 1988). Indeed, given the importance of feminism in contemporary theory, which tends to argue that ‘‘nothing about the body, including women’s reproductive organs, determines univocally how social divisions will be shaped’’ (Scott 1988, p. 2), the strength of a plasticity approach to human nature is probably stronger than ever before.

Current research in many areas of sociology is premised on a social construction approach. Work stimulated by ethnomethodology is one clear case. In contrast to a Chomskian understanding of language as originating in rules hard-wired in the brain, the tradition of conversation analysis examines how human beings in real conversation twist and shape their utterances to account for context and nuance (Schegloff and Sacks 1979; Scheff1986). Moreover, since the language we use is a reflection of the way we think, it is possible to argue that the mind itself is socially constructed, that the a priori nature of the way we think is relatively minimal (Coulter 1979). Accounts of sociological practice based on the assumption of plasticity do not end there. It has been argued that homosexuality is not driven by biological destiny but is a socially constructed phenomenon (Greenberg 1988). Morality, as well, can be understood as socially constructed (Wolfe 1989). Underlying a wide variety of approaches to sociology—from symbolic interactionism to social problems—is an underlying premise that human nature is not driven by any one thing.

The only dissent from a general consensus about human nature’s plasticity is rational choice theory. At least among economists who believe that economic methodologies can be used to study social institutions such as the family, there is a belief that ‘‘human behavior is not compartmentalized, sometimes based on maximizing, sometimes not, sometimes motivated by stable preferences, sometimes by volatile ones, sometimes resulting in an optimal accumulation, sometimes not’’ (Becker 1976, p. 14). Yet there are many versions of rational choice theory; at least one of them, that associated with Jon Elster, is committed to methodological individualism but is also willing to concede the existence of a ‘‘multiple self’’ (Elster 1986). It is far more common in contemporary sociology to speak of egoism and altruism as existing in some kind of unstable combination rather than giving the priority totally to one or the other (Etzioni 1988).

Arguments about human nature, in turn, are related to the philosophical anthropology that shaped so much social theory. It has been a consistent theme of the sociological enterprise to argue that humans are different from other species. From the emphasis on homo faber in Marx and Engels, through Weber’s notions about the advantages of culture, to Mead’s account of why dogs and other animals are incapable of exchanging significant symbols, humans have been understood to possess unique characteristics that determine the organization of their society. Twentieth-century theorists such as Arnold Gehlen or Helmuth Plessner carried forward this tradition and are increasingly translated and read (for an overview, see Honneth and Joas 1988). Even Niklas Luhmann, whose work is heavily influenced by biology and cybernetics, can still claim that ‘‘the decisive advantage of human interaction over animal interaction stems from this elemental achievement of language’’ (1982, p. 72).

The most important shift in philosophical anthropology in recent years is a shift from an essentially materialist understanding of human capacities to an essentially mental one. Powers of interpretation and narrative, it has been argued, constitute the essential features of the human self (Taylor 1989). Just as an argument about the plasticity of human nature enables sociology to avoid reduction into psychological categories, an emphasis on the interpretive powers of humans prevents a reduction of sociology to sociobiology and other basically algorithmic ways of thinking about evolution.

As with the issue of plasticity, not all sociologists agree either that there are specific human characteristics or that, if there are, they ought to be understood as primarily mental and interpretive. Sociobiologists argue not only that humans are driven by their genetic structure more than they would like to believe but also that other animals also possess cultural skills. There is therefore no fundamental difference between human and nonhuman species, they are merely points along a continuum (Lumsden and Wilson 1981). Both sociologists and anthropologists, consequently, have argued for the use of sociobiological approaches in the social sciences (Lopreato 1984; Rindos 1986; Wozniak 1984), although there are also critics who question such an enterprise (Blute 1987).

In the 1990s, sociobiology, now often called evolutionary psychology, was something of a growth industry. Edward O. Wilson, who did so much to originate the field, sees the possibility of a unified approach to knowledge, one in which the laws of human interaction could eventually be deduced from the physical and the biological sciences (Wilson 1998). In the meantime, others influenced by evolutionary psychology have argued that cultural products such as language and mind can be understood through the laws of evolution (Blackmore 1999; Lynch 1996). Even such specific cultural products as novels and works of art are formed by processes of cultural selection, it has been argued (Taylor 1996). While still something of a minority point of view, trends such as these are premised on the idea that the natural sciences, especially biology, offer a better model for understanding human societies than the sociological tradition as dervived from Durkheim, Weber, and Mead.

Another challenge to the anthropocentric view that social scientists have taken toward humans has arisen with cognitive science and artificial intelligence. Whereas classical sociological theory compared humans to other animal species, we can now compare them to machines. Computers, after all, process information just as human brains do, use language to communicate, and reason, and can, especially in new approaches to artificial intelligence called connectionist, learn from their mistakes. There are, consequently, some efforts to apply artificial intelligence to sociology just as there are efforts to use the insights of sociobiology (Gilbert and Heath 1986), although here, again, there are strong critical voices (Wolfe 1991; Woolger 1985). In the more recent work of Niklas Luhmann, as well as in the writings of some other theorists, emphasis is placed on information science, systems theory, even thermodynamics—all of which are approaches based on a denial that human systems require special ways of understanding that are different from other systems (Bailey 1990; Beniger 1986; Luhmann 1989).

In spite of efforts to develop sociological theory on the basis of algorithmic self-reproducing systems, it is unlikely that assumptions about the unique, interpretative, meaning-producing capacities of humans will be seriously challenged. It is the capacity to recognize the contexts in which messages are transmitted and thereby to interpret those messages that make human mental capacities distinct from any organism, whether natural or artificial, that is preprogrammed to follow explicit instructions. One reason humans are able to recognize contexts is precisely the plasticity of their mental capacities. The plastic theory of human nature, in short, overlaps with an emphasis on philosophical anthropology to produce an understanding of human behavior that does not so much follow already-existing rules so much as it alters and bends rules as it goes along.

Both understandings of human nature and accounts of specifically human capacities will be relevant to future efforts in sociological theory to reconcile micro and macro approaches. Although there has been a good deal of effort to establish a micro–macro link (Alexander et al. 1987), the more interesting question may turn out not to be not whether it can be done but whether (and how) it ought to be done. Systems theory and the information sciences provide a relatively easy way to make a link between parts and wholes: Each part is understood to have as little autonomy as possible, so that the system as a whole can function autonomously with respect to other systems. The micro, like a bit of information in a computer program, would be structured to be as dumb as possible so that the macro system itself can be intelligent. Nonhuman enterprises—computers on the one hand and the structure of DNA in other animal species on the other—show that there is a major bridge between the macro and the micro. But the cost of constructing that bridge is the denial of the autonomy of the parts, a high cost for humans to pay.

But the conception of human beings as preprogrammed rule followers is not the only way to conceptualize micro sociological processes. The traditions of ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism, which are more compatible with notions emphasizing the plasticity of human nature, imagine the human parts of any social system as engaged in a constant process of renegotiating the rules that govern the system. When the micro is understood as plastic, the macro can be understood as capable of existing even in imperfect, entropy-producing states of disorder. Indeed, for human systems, as opposed to those of machines and other species, disorder is the norm, integration the exception. If there is going to be a micro–macro link in sociology, it may well come about not by denying human plasticity and uniqueness, but rather by accounting for the particular and special property humans possess of having no fixed nature but rather a repertoire of social practices that in turn make human society different form any other kind of system.

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