I’m of the opinion human nature is a bit like the human nose.
It seems to me there is no ideal human nose that is better than all other human noses. At the moment, it appears there are somewhat over six billion of our glorious noses on the planet and comparatively very few of those noses are identical in shape and size to any other nose.
In much the same way, there are six billion human natures on the planet, yet very few of us — indeed, perhaps none of us — have exactly the same nature as someone else. We are not a species centered on an ideal anything, whether an ideal nose or an ideal nature. Instead, we are a diverse species. And since there is no ideal human nature, there is no ideal human that is better than all other humans.
With over six billion diverse human noses on the planet, you might think it would be difficult to tell a human nose from a non-human nose, but it is almost never difficult to do it. Line up a thousand photos of human noses from around the world. Exclude identical twins and include as much diversity as you can. Then insert just one photo of a gorilla’s nose. Proudly show your impressive portfolio to all your friends and challenge them to tell you which noses belong to humans. If any of your friends cannot accurately tell almost all the noses are human and only one belongs to a gorilla, check to see if that friend has a lot of body fur and knows how to eat African thistles.
Despite our species remarkable nasal diversity, it is fairly easy to tell what’s a human nose and what isn’t. Human nature is at least as diverse as human noses, but again — provided only that we are well educated in human nature — it’s fairly easy to tell what’s human nature and what is not.
Unfortunately, that qualification, “provided only that we are well educated in human nature”, is quite necessary here. Humans, for some reason, don’t always want to recognize everything that is human nature as within the sphere of human nature. For instance: I have some great difficulty thinking of rape or murder as human behaviors. Yet, even though relatively few humans rape or murder, those behaviors are indeed human. When I think of the entire sphere of human nature and do not take into proper account rape and murder I am only fooling myself. To understand human nature, you must not only be well-educated in the subject, but willing to take into account some wholly ugly behaviors.
Where does that leave us? Well, I think it leaves us with the statement that human nature, like the size and shape of the human nose, is both remarkably diverse and recognizably human. If we think about it, that is a radically different view of human nature than the notion there is such a thing as a human ideal.
When I was a small child, I thought it would be a wonderful world if everyone were alike. I had somehow got the silly notion in my head there could be such a thing as a perfect human — an ideal human — and we should all strive to be like that ideal human. Strange as it may sound, I actually yearned for such a world.
On the floor of my bedroom, I created perfect little cities populated by identical robots made out of children’s clay. Inevitably, most of the robots were soldiers, and I spent considerable time arranging them in tidy parade formations. Robots were good because they were easily imagined both identical and perfect. As you might suspect, my yearning for an ideal world didn’t stop with clay robots.
I was awfully fond of ants because ants colonies were in some ways the insect equivalent of my cities. I liked the orderly rows of corn and soybeans the farmers grew in the countryside surrounding my small town. There was something aesthetically appealing — and very satisfying — in seeing row after row of plants all the same height and color. I thought box architecture was wonderful and I didn’t much care for the older structures with their non-functional ornaments, and aparent lack of uniformity from one building to the next. Someone once told me the Mona Lisa was the greatest and most perfect painting in the world and I was so young and naive I actually believed there could be one single greatest and most perfect painting in the world.
In short, I was a thoroughly idealistic kid. It’s true that in some ways I was adamantly non-conformist and marched to the beat of my own drummer, but that wasn’t because I believed in diversity. It was because I believed I was on the one true path and most everyone else was not.
Looking back, I can almost see how I could tell the story of my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood as a tale of my early idealism progressively destroyed by the very real challenges of living in this world. Yet, even more clearly, I can see how the notion of a human ideal can be part of a much broader and deeper preference for ideals in everything. In sports, in literature, in painting, in theatre, in war, in love, in politics, in education, in ethics and morals — we can be idealists in all of these and in far more than these.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression I am entirely against ideals or idealism. Whether for good or evil, not much gets done in this world without someone saying, “I think this situation could be made better.” Without ideals, humans would become as passive as sea anemones. But our ideals and our idealism should never blind us to the wonderful interlocking complexity of this world. Any person living in the 21st Century who is even moderately concerned with the human prospect and changing the world for the better cannot afford to ignore that blind idealism has gotten us into one mess after the other. And perhaps — perhaps — the single most dangerous kind of blind idealism alive in the world today is the childish notion of an ideal human.
As you know, one of humanity’s ugliest fools, Adolf Hitler, believed in an ideal human, which he called the “Aryan”. According to him, the Aryans were the original humans — the Adams of our species — and all of humanity was descended from them. So how did the fool explain the diversity of human nature? Hitler believed human diversity was created by degeneration. Ultimately, everyone was descended from the original Aryans, but some lineages had degenerated into other “races” — inferior, non-Aryan races. Perhaps I myself would have believed such a stupidity at eight or nine years of age.
In the history of Adolf Hitler, we have a textbook example of how pernicious can be the notion of an ideal human. Not only is the notion ridiculous — as ridiculous as stating there is one perfect size and shape for the human nose – it is also dangerous.
One of the things this world needs — needs just as much, or even more, than it needs a fuel efficient automobile or a new medicine — is a new vision of what it means to be human. A vision that is not based in some disproved mythology of an ideal human, but one grounded in the reality of human diversity. In other words, we need to move from a fantasy-based notion of human nature to a reality-based notion of human nature. It’s time to update the clocks.
Let’s be clear about what such a vision entails. Any notion of what it means to be human implies — among many other things — both notions of human potential and notions of ethics. You cannot state, “This is the sphere of human nature”, without implicitly saying, “This is the range of possible human potentials, and these are the limits of any realistic ethics.” A vision of what it means to be human is a package deal.
Will we ever get such a deal? I am sure we will — provided we survive long enough as a species to create it. Humanity tends to work such things out less by planning than by trial and error, so such a thing will take time. Yet, we are no longer living back in the days when it took genius to see a new vision of humanity coming down the road. Anyone who looks today can see it coming.
As with most things, the prospect excites some of us, dismays others, and is ignored by most.