quinta-feira, 17 de maio de 2007

Kenan Malik: «Human nature, human differences and the human subject»

«In and of itself, the concept of 'difference' possesses no significance. Its meaning emerges only in the context of a common standard against which the relationships, and hence the differences, between a set of objects, phenomena or events can be judged. Any discussion of differences, then, only makes sense in relation to a discussion about commonalities. In humans, the discussion about 'commonalities' usually turns on a discussion about 'human nature' - that is, the common nature that all humans are perceived to possess.
The concept of human nature is, of course, a highly contested one, and many deny the very existence of a universal essence to human life. In part, this denial has been shaped by the history of anthropology. Nineteenth racial science had viewed humans as entirely moulded by the laws of nature, and the differences between human groups as the consequence of distinct evolutionary paths. In response, twentieth century anthropology rejected not simply racial essentialism, but increasingly any form of essentialism. Human nature, and indeed the very idea of the human itself, has come to be see by many anthropologists as suspect.
On the other side of the debate, sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists view an understanding of human nature as a fixed quality that constrains the human condition, and fundamental to any understanding of what it is to be human. The denial of human nature, Steven Pinker suggests, 'distorts our science and scholarship, our public discourse and our day-to-day lives'.

Whatever their other differences, in other words - and I would not wish to diminish those differences - both sides in this debate accept that human unity is manifested solely at a biological level, while culture expresses its differences. What separates the two sides is largely a debate about the relative weights that should be attached to one's biological nature and one's cultural upbringing in shaping beliefs and behaviours. For sociobiologists humans are defined primarily by their nature. Given the pliability of human nature, relativists retort, the universal aspects of the psyche are largely unimportant.
There are certainly species-typical human behaviours and social forms that are likely to be the products of evolved adaptations. But humans, unlike non-human animals, also forge universal values and behaviours through social interaction and historical progress. In this sense the human essence - what we consider to be the common properties of our humanity - is as much a product of our historical and cultural development as it is of our biological heritage.
I have no doubt that our capacity for moral thought is likely to be an evolved trait. But this is not the same as saying that values are natural. Take the question of slavery and the idea of equal human worth. For most of human history, slavery was regarded as natural as individual freedom is today. Only in the past two hundred years have we begun to view the practice with revulsion. Why? Partly because of the political ideas generated by the Enlightenment, partly because of the changing economic needs of capitalism, and partly because of the social struggles of the enslaved and the oppressed. Certainly, today we view opposition to slavery as an essential aspect of our humanity, and see those who advocate slavery as in some way inhuman - but it's a belief that we have arrived at historically, not naturally.
Discussions about the relationship between human nature and human differences, however, whether rooted in natural or cultural views of human behaviour, have paid insufficient attention to the transformative character of human life. The conflation of the debate about universals and differences with the nature-nurture debate has established a dichotomy between biological universals and cultural differences, a dichotomy within which the sense of human agency has been lost.
To restore balance to the discussion of human commonalities and human differences, we need to do three things: first, to distinguish the debate about universalism and relativism from nature-nurture debate; second, to understand human nature not simply in naturalistic terms but also as historical created; and thirdly to restore the concept of human agency into the discussions of both human nature and human differences.»

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