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Interview with Stephen Downes and Edouard Machery

Arguing About Human Nature, published in the Arguing About Philosophy series, covers recent debates – arising from biology, philosophy, psychology, and physical anthropology – that together systematically examine what it means to be human. Click here to read the full Q&A with Stephen Downes and Edouard Machery, the editors of this exciting new volume.

Stephen Downes is Professor and Chair of Philosophy in Department of Philosophy at the University of Utah. His areas of expertise include science policy, science in society, education policy, social justice issues, evolutionary psychology and heritability. Edouard Machery is Associate Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh. His areas of specialization include philosophy of psychology, philosophy of mind, and experimental philosophy. Routledge recently published a volume edited by Professors Downes and Machery entitled Arguing About Human Nature, in which they compiled and wrote introductions to the increasingly contentious and lively philosophical debates currently surrounding contemporary conceptualizations of “human nature.”

The fundamental debate over “human nature” that is brought out in this volume is not new: its history goes back in philosophy at least as far as Plato. And although philosophers who seek to explain human nature today are perhaps motivated by the same essential questions as thinkers such as Plato, Hobbes, Hume, and Kant, their task now can incorporate more recent conceptual tools and empirical discoveries. These are discoveries and tools which weren’t available before evolutionary theory was systematically introduced into the debate. This introduction excited systematic observations about human nature in service of the empirical sciences (sciences such as comparative psychology and evolutionary anthropology) and these are not—according to Machery and Downes—observations philosophers hoping to understand human nature can afford to ignore from their armchairs. As they say in their introduction to the volume, “Philosophers and other theorists. . . must get acquainted with, understand, and integrate the empirical findings that accumulate in psychology, ethology, sociology, anthropology, genetics, biology, etc.”

In Arguing About Human Nature, Downes and Machery set out to compile into one volume a representative sampling of the work that has emerged in various, dynamic academic disciplines all of which informs and frames recent attempts to describe what we mean when we say “human nature.” The result is an exciting volume that can be used by philosophers, anthropologists, cognitive scientists, social psychologists, etc., to better understand, teach, and participate in the arguments now raging about human nature.

– John Downes-Angus, Editorial Assistant, Routledge Philosophy

Routledge: Arguments about human nature, broadly construed, seem to make up a hefty portion of Western thought. Religion, literature, art, science, philosophy—each of these have historically been involved in their own ways in arguments about what it means, essentially, to be human. But your volume, Arguing About Human Nature, takes an approach to this breed of argument which provides insights of a kind not offered by, say, a Dostoevsky novel or Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo: the mix of empirical research and philosophical grasping appears to approach this old argument in a way that may seem new to readers. So to begin this interview, could you please explain, as briefly as possible, the nature of the “arguments” presented here, and could you also point to any common threads binding together the arguers which might help delineate what’s meant by the phrase “arguing about human nature” as it’s used in the book’s title?

Downes and Machery: Without any doubt, one could find some valuable insights about what it means to be human in Nietzsche or, perhaps even, in Dostoevsky, but there are also some stringent limitations to how much one would learn by reading them and to how serious their speculations should be taken. To say nothing of Confucius, the Bible, Freud, and those other sources that are usually discussed in books and courses about human nature. To the extent that they were relying on science at all, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and others often embraced scientific views that we now know are deeply misguided. In fact, the two of us agree that ideas about human nature coming from the tradition should only be taken seriously if they mesh with our current scientific image, and very early on, when we started working on this volume, we decided to focus on the debates about human nature that take place in light of the sciences. So, one of the common threads that run throughout this volume is the conviction that the best strategy to understand what human nature is, in fact whether there is such a thing as a human nature, is to take the relevant sciences—biology, genetics, anthropology, psychology, sociology, etc.—seriously.

Some may feel that this conviction is horrendously scientistic, and that one learns more about humans by reading a novel or a poem, or by getting acquainted with literature. We beg to disagree, however, and we think that the volume Arguing About Human Nature shows how rich, intricate, and interesting the scientific image of human nature is. In a way, we want to establish the value of this science-based approach by example.

In our view, this approach—theorizing about human nature in light of the sciences—is part of the renewal of scientific philosophy, with its close attention to the sciences and its adoption of formal and empirical methods to answer philosophical questions.

Another thread that unifies the whole volume is a commitment to presenting live scientific and philosophical debates. Science consumers—from senior philosophers to undergraduates—often treat science as a source of consensual knowledge, while the forefront of science is in fact a place where sometimes intense controversies and disagreements reign. We wanted our readers to get a feel for these disagreements in the sciences and in the philosophy of science. A nice example is the controversy about race in our race section or the controversy about the heritability of psychological traits in the section about genetic determinism.

Most authors in this volume answer the question “What is human nature?” from within a biological or evolutionary perspective. This shared perspective allows for a lot of disagreement. Debates rage about the proper interpretation and application of evolutionary theory throughout the biological sciences and having ourselves as the explanatory target increases the intensity of these debates. David Hull used evolutionary theory to support his view that there is no proper application of the term “human nature’ within biology. In contrast, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides appeal to evolutionary theory to support their account of human nature. So another common thread binding (most of) these authors is a commitment to study humans in light of evolutionary theory. Yet, another thread that binds many approaches in this volume is a rejection of essentialism about human nature. Examining essentialist claims from the perspective of the biologically informed human sciences helps reveal potential problems with essentialist thinking.

Routledge: What do you think Dostoevsky, Freud, the authors of the Bible, Shakespeare etc. could learn from your book? In what ways do you think Nietzsche would change his mind if he had the scientific knowledge we have today?

Downes and Machery: There is good indication that both Nietzsche and Freud were interested in the science of their day and they both understood that some of this science could result in better understanding of humanity. Indeed Freud took himself to be a scientist and sought scientific vindication for his view of humanity. Freud would probably be led to re-assess his whole theoretical apparatus. There is little room in contemporary psychology for the type of unconscious desires he hypothesized, and, given the fitness cost of incest, the view that evolution shaped the structure and content of the mind fits poorly with the hypothesis that women desire to have sex with their father—the basis of the Oedipus complex.

We can’t speak for the authors of the Bible or Shakespeare.

Routledge: Given your answer to the first question, how did the kind of work put into this book develop in philosophy? Why isn’t a biologist or a geneticist better situated to compile and edit such a book? Are there any key philosophical precursors to the kind of work you collected in this volume?

Downes and Machery: We are both naturalistic philosophers and as a result we look to the sciences for solutions to many problems that others may consider exclusively in the purview of philosophers. Steve Stich nicely captures this naturalistic approach: “there are lots of deeply important (and fascinating and frustrating) questions about minds, morals, language, culture and more. To make progress on them we need to use anything that science can tell us, and any method that works." In addition, philosophers of science are very well suited to bringing together work from different sciences that is relevant to a problem such as human nature. This is the case of the philosophy pieces in our volume. In fact, most of the articles in this volume are written by philosophers, including three of the four new pieces published here for the first time.

Routledge: Of all possible choices of writers to put first in this volume, why begin with the excerpt from E. O. Wilson’s On Human Nature? Is there something about his work that is particularly significant to this volume?

Downes and Machery: E.O.Wilson was not the first person to say that evolutionary biology was key to understanding our nature, Charles Darwin was. Wilson was the first to present a systematic evolutionary approach to understanding our nature. His work has been influential in many ways. Many in evolutionary anthropology and sociobiology develop and extend his work, retaining most of his central theoretical tenets. In contrast, many hold up Wilson’s work as showing just what not to do in the study of human nature. His work was, and remains, a lightening rod for discussions of human nature.

Routledge: Is today’s moment a particularly fruitful time for what you refer to above as the “renewal of scientific philosophy”? Further to this point, does today’s “scientific image of human nature” seem somehow to call for a philosophical examination? Alternatively, does today’s philosophical image of human nature—if there is in fact one—seem also to call for scientific examination?

Downes and Machery: Several developments in philosophy have given new energy to scientific philosophy. For a decade, some philosophers, known as “experimental philosophers,” have embraced experimental methods to bring data relevant to philosophical issues. There is also a growing interest in the development of formal methods such as probability theory and graph theory to bring clarity to various philosophical issues. Finally, philosophers of science have developed a high level of expertise with particular sciences such as biology or psychology.

One of the things philosophers of science can contribute to the sciences is their skill for clarifying scientific notions and for making explicit what remains implicit in scientific paradigms. The scientific image of human nature is a case in point. More than 30 years after E.O. Wilson’s On Human Nature, different images of human nature are implicit in competing scientific paradigms, and philosophers of science can articulate and assess these images.

Routledge: Does arguing about “human nature” at the borderlines of philosophy and the more traditionally “empirical sciences” excite interest in departments outside philosophy? What other academic departments might find Arguing About Human Nature to be a valuable resource?

Downes and Machery: Anthropologists and psychologists of various persuasions will find lots of value in Arguing About Human Nature. Many who work in the cognitive sciences as well as human biologists and human geneticists will also find much value in the volume. Evolutionary anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists may seem like the obvious target audience, but we think that cultural anthropologists, cross cultural psychologists, social psychologists, cognitive psychologists as well as others in the social sciences will enjoy reading our volume. Many of the arguments presented here capture arguments within and between these disciplines.

Routledge: Do either of you think there is a “human nature argument” that is currently the most urgent one for philosophers to address?

Downes and Machery: We both think that whether and how human nature can be reconceptualised against the background of current work in human behavioral science is the most pressing philosophical issue. We have different views about this project and hence are involved in an argument over this issue ourselves. Machery has presented a reconceptualisation of human nature and Downes holds that human behavioral science may do better without being guided by a concept of human nature, even reconceptualisations such as Machery’s. A further pressing issue for philosophers is taking stock of the normative implications of various concepts of human nature. Some philosophers argue that we need a concept of human nature to ground our normative conception of ourselves but other philosophers, including some (but not all) feminist philosophers, have argued that appeals to human nature often result in the oppression of minorities. These debates are represented in our volume.

Routledge: Similarly, do you think there is a single “human nature argument” that is currently the most urgent one for scientists to address?

Downes and Machery: How scientists cope with and understand human variation or human diversity is a problem that scientists address, and arguments rage about how best to go about this project. Often different notions of human nature are what separates scientists who have different views about how to go about this project.

  • Arguing About Human Nature

    Contemporary Debates, 1st Edition

    Edited by Stephen M. Downes, Edouard Machery

    Arguing About Human Nature covers recent debates--arising from biology, philosophy, psychology, and physical anthropology--that together systematically examine what it means to be human.  Thirty-five essays--several of them appearing here for the first time in print--were carefully selected to…

    Paperback – 2013-03-19
    Arguing About Philosophy