Category Archives: Philosophy

The continuing relevance of David Hull’s “On Human Nature”

I am honored and pleased to have been asked to select the reading for this week’s meeting of the Lewis and Clark philosophy reading group, and I wanted to make sure to select a paper that’s relevant, a good read, and that fits with the group’s interests. I have been wanting to re-read David Hull’s “On Human Nature” [PDF] for some months now. I think most people would agree that it’s well-written: although there’s some science, and although it’s pretty tightly argued, a start-to-finish first read is profitable and enjoyable. The group’s interests are broad; moreover, “On Human Nature” dovetails with last week’s reading, Bloomfield’s “Tracking Eudaimonia,” for some of the same reasons the Hull paper remains relevant, or is perhaps even more so, since its initial publication in 1986.

To elaborate concerning the paper’s continued relevance: Hull considers the concept of human nature from the point of view of biological taxonomy and the nature of biological species, foregrounding diversity and variation in his account. This stands in contrast to those who foreground adaptation and natural selection. Bloomfield, for instance, emphasizes adaptation and proper function in a biological reconstruction of the classical notion of eudaimonia. Steven Pinker is another prominent advocate of the view that adaptation, also seen as establishing some traits as innate or instinctive, is the biological basis for human nature. I get the sense that both Bloomfield and Pinker see grounding human nature in evolution by natural selection as a way of resisting what they might see as a pernicious kind of social constructionism or relativism, or, worse yet (from their point of view) nihilism about human nature. I would think that sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, considered broadly, also represent points of view according to which what human beings are adapted for is the basis for our nature, rather than their membership in the species simpliciter.

Our cultural and political moment requires that we tease apart the roles of evolution, variation, and natural selection in our conception of human nature. Earlier this Spring, I attended a training seminar on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, with a special focus on intersectionality, sexual orientation, gender identity, and transgender issues. This is the occasion on which it occurred to me that it would be worth looking at “On Human Nature” once more. At the training seminar, at a major cultural institution and visitor attraction in Portland, the presenter boldly declared that the existence of variation in gender identification was to be promoted because variation as such is always good for the species. The presenter seemed to have the view that any variants of a trait present in the human population must have some history of natural selection, and the view that traits with a history of natural selection should be preserved; and, I got the sense that the presenter also thought that natural selection, in general, works to preserve the species. Together, these claims seemed intended to inform the following line of thought: variation is worth preserving, if all variation is due to natural selection, because natural selection works to preserve the species; and, preserving the species is intrinsically worthwhile. Clearly, these premises cannot stand in justification of promoting or protecting variation among people. At least, I hope this much is clear to those who consider themselves well-informed about evolutionary biology: not all variation is adaptive; not all variation results from natural selection; and natural selection does not, in general, work to preserve a species. We will need to do better, if we are going to look to evolutionary biology in our argument that diversity in the human population is worth preserving. Indeed, perhaps there is no such argument to be made.

All this just points to the continued relevance of Hull’s paper. I’m excited about the discussion at this week’s meeting.

Updated CV

For my upcoming evaluation, I put together an updated CV. On the off chance that it might interest someone, here it is.

Well, it’s not just an exersize in narcissism. I really struggled to figure out how to divide up the various kinds of projects I have been working on, in the “Scholarship” section. I settled on the following.

  • Book chapter (peer reviewed)
  • Conferences
  • Edited works. Includes my digital republication of the Origin of Species.
  • Invited lecture.
  • Ontology.
  • Bibliography.
  • “Evolution Resources” column in Evolution: Education and Outreach.
  • Book reviews.
  • Web presence. Blogs, twitter.
  • Development. I am the BibDesk release engineer. Lapsed, apparently. Seriously, though, I will get to the next release soon.
  • Computing. Applications, including svn, Emacs, other development tools.

I have no idea what this will mean to the Dean, the Provost, or the evaluation committee. Nor will I find out, either, except by way of a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.”

It’s important to differentiate these different kinds of works according to their nature and purpose, rather than lumping them together as “web publications” or “software.” Look, we don’t put journal articles, posters, and books in the same category because they are all printed materials (or at least, used to be). In fact, some of the digital works do more or less the same thing as their print analogs, for instance, bibliographies. Whether in print or in the form of a BibTeX database, a collection of bibliographic records serve the same essential functions.

One thing that is clear, whatever other confusions there may be, is that I need to publish papers in the usual places, peer-reviewed periodicals, whether online or in any other form.

I’d be interested to hear about how other people in the Humanities working on digital projects have represented them to their administrators.

What are the right proportions for Plato’s line?

In my Introduction to Philosophy class, students looked online for representations of Plato’s line, a model of his metaphysical and epistemological system. In the Wikipedia article on the line, for instance,the line is represented in this way:


Screen shot of the line representation at

This surprised me because I had always pictured the part of the line that corresponds to the visible world to be longer than the part of the line that represents the intelligible world. This is how C. D. C. Reeve sees it. In a footnote on page 205 of his student translation of Plato’s Republic, he draws the line as follows: a total of 6 units of length are apportioned to the visible world, with 3 units apportioned to the intelligible; In the visible world, 4 units are apportioned to images of things, and 2 to perceptions of the things themselves. The 2:1 ratio is preserved in the part of the line representing the intelligible world. Two units are apportioned to geometry and other sciences, and 1 unit to knowledge of Forms. So the entire line reflects this 2:1 ratio: the visible world is given twice as much length as the intelligible, and in each major division of the line, the subdivisions have a 2:1 to one another.

There is clear textual support for this arrangement in the Reeve text (p. 206). Socrates says the following.

Would you also be willing to say, then, that, as regards truth and untruth, the division is in this ratio: what is believed is to what is known, so the likeness is to the thing it is like.

There are presumably more untruths than truths, and more belief than knowledge, and more ways in which a thing appears to be than it really is. This suggests that the part of the line representing the visible world should be longer than the part of the line representing the intelligible world.