Humanity invented in 1800 by the French

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMay 14, 2011 9:56 AM


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A comment from earlier this week struck a nerve with me. I'll repost it in totality first:

I find it interesting that Fox Keller seems to be assuming that human interest in “nature” began only in the 19th century. Rather, the concept of mankind’s nature has been a topic of much interest since at least the induction of philosophical inquiry by the Greeks, and remains a topic of interest in philosophical circles in the philosophy of man. While the ancient Greeks certainly had no idea about DNA or genes, they were able to examine man’s behavior and physical characteristics and to try to determine whether or not men were born a certain way (nature) or could learn to alter some traits by choice (a great example of such an inquiry is in the Nicomachaen Ethics by Aristotle, regarding the definition and inculcation of virtue). The current debate about nature vs. nurture in a specifically genetic mode is merely a more specialized version of the exact same concept…how to differentiate what parts of “man” are immutable and what parts seem to respond to differing environments (whether internally or externally imposed). That might explain why Fox Keller is so confused about why this concept seems to be so rooted in Western thought…it’s been around for about as long as “Western thought” has! I find it interesting how so often, people in intellectual circles today fail to consider any thought development that occurred prior to the French Revolution. After all, empiricism (scientific thought) is simply one form of philosophy, not the ONLY form of philosophy.

This general problem has been frustrating me a great deal recently. There are two dimensions. There is the temporal one, and there is the spatial one. The temporal one is implicitly addressed in the above comment. It is that a particular idea had a single genesis, and that once we can locate that genesis relatively recently in the past we can then assert that "the idea of X was conceived in the year xxxx!" Quite often the year "xxxx" is not too far off from 1800. I believe this has to do with the fact that modern Western civilization entered into a major transition and period of cultural creativity between 1750 and 1850. The Enlightenment was a "hinge of history," the transition between the early modern Ancien Régime with its neo-feudal pretensions straight-jacketing the industry and innovation of the bourgeoisie, to our present era, riddled with Whiggish presumptions. The man of 1850 is nearer to us, 150 years in the future, than he is to that of 1750, in a deep moral-political sense. By Whiggish, I mean the cool confidence that what we hold to be true, right, and proper, has been the direction which history inevitably takes. That progress marches on, onward and upward. Ideas which change, revolutionize, and edify, humanity were "invented," matured, and washed over the world in our age, and will continue waxing into the future. There are clearly cases where this model holds true in the broad sense. Consider slavery, which for most of human history was a necessary evil, and sometimes even a positive good! Today we consider it evil, and only a tiny minority would admit to its utility and proprietary. But is this even a good example? I would suggest that in some hunter-gatherer societies of the deep past slavery would have been a strange idea as well. Because of the nature of their ecology these human populations would simply not have seen the need or utility in holding another human being in bondage. I do suspect we perceive hunter-gatherer populations to be somewhat more egalitarian than they were because the ones which have persisted down to the present are the most marginalized. The Pacific Northwest Native Americans were hunter-gatherers, or more accurately fisher-gatherers, and they practiced slavery, likely because their societies had reached a level of density and complexity due to the enormous primary productivity of their home region. But I would hazard to say that the apogee of slavery as a pervasive institution lay between the age of hunter-gatherers and the modern period. In this way history is not monotonic. From a Whiggish and broadly liberal perspective the agricultural societies were a major regression. A conception of personal autonomy unfettered by cloying institutions was not invented, it was rediscovered in the modern age. Evoked by radically different conditions, but evoked to the same ends nonetheless. The second dimension is that of space. I am currently re-reading The Anti-Christ by Friedrich Nietzsche. Its Eurocentrism is pretty stark to me at this point (be careful, I am Europhilic, so Eurocentrism is not a term of opprobrium by me). The references to Indian religious concepts are strongly shaped through the lens fashioned by Arthur Schopenhauer (in fact, many have argued that Eastern mysticism in the West today still remains constrained by the parameters outlined by Schopenhauer's interpretation and emphases!). As a classically educated philologist Nietzsche had an enormous broad corpus of Western history to draw upon in making his observations and inferences.

But he fundamentally missed something because of his understandable ignorance of other cultures, in particular other civilizations.

The societies of India and China both developed relatively distinct and independent "full service" Weltanschauung (on this huge coarse scale I am bracketing the world of Islam and Christendom into one class as "the West"). Those who rave against St. Paul's purported heresy of elevating the slave morality generally lack an awareness of radical altruism of Mozi. Even the more conservative and pragmatic teachings of Confucius and his heirs which are rooted in the traditions of the Chinese gentry ultimately aim toward the flourishing of the many under the beneficence of Heaven. Confucianism in its classic form operationally enslaves the energies of the natural oligarchs to the peasants below and the emperor above. Today we have at our fingertips a wealth of knowledge which was not available even to an academic like Nietzsche. And yet in the age of specialization we tunnel and burrow evermore deep into that precious earth which we have lain claim to as our domain of expertise. Many of my friends and acquaintances who espouse fashionable multiculturalism seem absolutely ignorant of the cultures which they claim to be equally are valid ways of being and knowing, except as negations of Western culture. My post Taking the end of the age seriously was a cri du cœur, attempting to make a case for genuine awareness of non-Western and non-white cultures and peoples as something more than just props for a fashionable anti-Western "social justice" political plank. In The Blank Slate Steven Pinker bemoaned the fact that works of Hobbes and Locke loom so large in the modern curriculum. Their prominence is a testament to the fact that a science of human nature, human understanding, has not progressed much in all those centuries. Or perhaps more accurately Pinker's view is that modern humanistic intellectuals for whatever reason choose not to acknowledge any progress beyond Locke, that expositor of the 'blank slate.' One of the major tasks of the modern science of humanity has been to catalog the range of human universals which seem to reemerge time and again through the interface of our preloaded software with conventional environmental inputs. A possible inference from this model is that humans should "invent" particular cultural forms and ideas repeatedly assuming a range of social environments are replicated (e.g., the city-states of the ancient Near East and pre-Columbian Meso-America are eerily similar, down to the monumental architecture). Therefore, "love," "nationalism," and "feminism," may all be evoked by a given range of social complexities because of the constrained set of biobehavioral parameters which we can term "human nature" several times in history. Going full circle, in an inchoate form the "nature vs. nurture" debate probably dates back at least to the "Great Leap Forward" ~40,000 years ago. For the purposes of scholarship narrowing the range of time and space and focusing upon one evolutionary arc of the budding, maturation, and flowering, of an idea or set of ideas seems acceptable. The problem is when one confuses one instantiation for the only instance!Addendum: I think science is the great example of a human invention which does fit into a classic Whiggish model. I think the institution of science has been invented only one, in the 17th century in Western Europe. But most intellectual domains are not like science at all. Aristotle's ideas on ethics are still worth reading for their primary content. His ideas about physics and biology tend to be of more historical interest.

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