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.

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