human questions

The science of human nature is often a contentious topic because of the negative, and occasionally vitriolic, reactions it elicits in people.  This is due to the fact that the scientists of human nature are not just dispassionately studying the mating habits of African bonobos, or the altruistic behavior in honeybees of the southeastern United States, or the territorial aggression of the spotted hyena — but, rather, because the researcher is becoming the researched, the inevitable conflicts of interest are bound to occur (for the same general reasons that medical doctors don’t treat their children).

I distinguish between the science of human nature, or an attempt to otherwise understand the biological (or evolutionary) basis for human behavior, and the study of human biology or physiology for, say, medicinal purposes, which is often far less controversial (except when it ties back into the study of human nature).  After all, nobody wants to halt the progress in the search for a cure to cancer, right?

Of course, the same theoretical foundations for understanding why, say, you need to get a flue shot every year as opposed to just once a lifetime (because bacteria and viruses rapidly evolve according to evolutionary principles, leading to antibody resistance), or how mutations in the genome can lead to genetic diseases such as Huntington’s Disease, or why we can test new drugs for humans so effectively in animals, also helps us to understand the behavioral patterns of many non-human animals — like intergroup conflict in chimpanzees.  

And of course those same principles are also why breeders have a job, because they are able to “breed true” the traits they want in dogs, cats, horses and plants using the breeders equation (R [Response to selection] = h^2 [Narrow-sense heritability] * S [Selection differential]).

And since, after all, human minds are but biological components of the human body, for which we have no trouble studying, and because medical doctors are but veterinarians who specialize in people, it logically follows that if it works for the human body (apart from the mind) and for chimps, dogs, cats, horses and plants–it probably also works for the human mind, and human behavior, just the same.

But when it comes to the science of human nature (why we are the way we are), people suddenly become far more timid and less amenable to the findings.  Basic facts and observations about the world that would otherwise be banal in every other context become a threat to our sacred sense of self (where the mind and body are dual systems existing apart from one another).

Never mind the fact that the implications for a more comprehensive understanding of the origins of human behavior are every bit as pressing as curing cancer.  Never mind that by allowing scientists to ask difficult questions we allow ourselves to make breakthroughs that may not have otherwise been thought possible (such as our ability to greatly reduce violence, crime, and other forms of anti-social behavior).  

But even as our difficulty with uncovering the basic truths for the fundamental drivers of human behavior may sometimes bump up against the realities of our self imposed limitations, biases, politics, and pride, it is still worth trying.  Because there are also costs to not trying, and many times, those who believe by limiting our ability to study human nature, they are advancing a more ethical framework for a more ethical world, in fact end up unknowingly causing far more harm than good. 

It is for this reason that I advance the position that our study of human nature should be allowed to progress forward with as few limitations as possible (within an appropriate ethical framework built around it and supported by ethicists and philosophers).  And that scientists should be able to ask difficult questions about that nature, with as little protest as possible.  And that anyone who should protest the study of certain sensitive topics, like the heritability of IQ, would also first consider the ethical implications for not allowing such studies to progress, since there are consequences for not studying as much as there are for studying.

But regardless of what you think, this conversation needs to take place, because we are on the precipice of great advancements in our knowledge and understanding about the biological basis for human behavior (even if we refuse to apply it outside of the laboratory).  Advancements in genetics, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, biology, and other fields, and the resulting scientific consilience that is inevitable will require that we be prepared to face these difficult ethical dilemmas.  And it is my hope that we will chose the path of knowledge over the path of self imposed ignorance, but only time will tell.