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A Science of Human Nature? Philosophical Disputes at the Interface of Natural and Social Science

Final Report Summary - SCINAT (A Science of Human Nature? Philosophical Disputes at the Interface of Natural and Social Science.)

There are many domains of research in which approaches from the natural and social sciences come into conflict with each other. For example, have social scientific approaches to culture failed because of their refusal to take an evolutionary, or Darwinian, approach to cultural change? And might an evolutionary synthesis in the social sciences lead to renewed progress in our understanding of culture? In what way can explanations of social phenomena ultimately be reduced to, or at least positively informed by, a detailed understanding of psychological and neurological states of individual humans? How are we to explain the wildly diverse approaches to the nature of human empathy and the potential for harnessing our empathic tendencies? Some commentators have gone so far as to say that proponents of natural and social scientific approaches to these questions have come to ‘hate’ each other.

Our approach has involved a patient effort to understand the detailed conceptual disputes that underlie and explain these hostilities, and ultimately we point the way to greater understanding and collaboration between these different approaches. In the case of evolutionary approaches to the social sciences, for example, we argue that these approaches, when properly understood, have much to offer traditional students of social change and stasis. In particular, cultural evolutionary approaches have produced valuable modelling tools that enable the population-level effects of aggregated individual interactions, and they have also produced valuable inferential tools that allow historical patterns of cultural borrowing to be reconstructed. But none of this means that the social sciences are likely to undergo—or to benefit from—a wholesale reconfiguration along Darwinian lines; indeed, there are numerous reasons to think that many cultural evolutionists have significantly exaggerated the promise of their approach. To give another example, from a rather different domain, our research demonstrates the bewildering variety of different understandings of what empathy is, and how it is produced and elicited, that issue from different scientific research traditions. But we go beyond this mere documentation of difference to argue that there are significant perils that can issue from assuming too quickly that the most ‘basic’ accounts of empathy developed in neuroscience or cognitive science give us the most suitable tools when it comes to efforts to understand why, for example, trainee doctors seem to decline in empathic awareness over time, and how we should go about restoring empathy.

The basic insights that inform our analyses of these disputes draw on an underlying account of ‘human nature’. We argue that important work in the natural sciences increasingly suggests that many widely distributed features of human psychology develop across multiple societies not because they are innate, but rather because they are the repeated, robust effects of learning from others. There is also evidence that these forms of learning themselves have histories, and that those very histories themselves have been influenced by social innovations. What all this means is that it is a mistake to think of ‘human nature’ in a manner that opposes it to ‘human culture’: instead, many ubiquitous cognitive mechanisms that have been important in explaining our species distinctive evolutionary history—and which, for those reasons, are often thought of as good candidates for elements of ‘human nature’—are also products of human culture. This lesson from the natural sciences converges with a long-standing scepticism among many social scientists of any effort to distinguish what is natural from what is cultural. This insight reminds us that many of the standard terms of dispute between natural and social scientists—especially the question of how we might divide explanatory labour among the sciences between that which we owe to nature and that which we owe to culture—are based on a fundamentally confused account of the relationship between nature and culture. Our research places a series of phenomena—including art, empathy, emotions more generally, and learning—in an evolutionary framework that avoids simple-minded distinctions between nature and culture, and which, in so doing, shows how to knit the natural and social sciences back together.