|| Date: 18-12-25 || Back to index ||
|| Tag: book-summary ||
|| Author: Roger Scruton ||

On Human Nature

Book cover


Natura non facit saltus. Translation: “Nature does not make jumps”. Charles Darwin’s theory is that there is no trait of human development that cannot be explained with stepwise development. Many evolutionary theorists, backed up by The Selfish Gene, have pushed the theory of evolution outside the realms of biology and into sociology to explain personal and social norms and behaviors. Our author, Roger Scruton, an English philosopher and writer for The Guardian, is trying to make a distinction between what biology and evolution can explain and the foggy grounds it can get into, lest it be used by all scientists as their wipping boy.


Genetics and Games

Personal affection and social behavior have been brought into the fold of biology. John Bowlby’s attachment theory, Freud’s libido theory, and Atelier’s power theories have explained, in their own divisions and accords, personal affection and social behavior as sexual tendencies or an attempt to establish a Secure Base. The Terror Management theorists have also ran with a similar train of thought.

More on John Bowlby’s attachment theory: There is an idea here proposed by John Bowlby that explains love, hatred and other emotions as ‘a secure base’. Humans want to keep a secure base and have an emotional groundwork laid out that should not be treaded. Author agrees with this theory, but he says it does not explain high and wide culture (arts & religion)

Such theories are not without their critics. Noam Chomsky posited that language is an all-or-nothing affair which involves acquiring a rule-guided and creative capacity that cannot be built up from a singular connection between words and things. A Chomskian would be dismissive of those attempts to teach a dolphin or a chimpanzee language, for example.

Moreover, the discovery of the hormone Oxytocin and its effect in predisposing animals of many different species toward affectionate relations with their own kind has further encouraged this worldview and cut-down the stories and myths and phenomenology behind the myths. A few disciplines of biology and psychology have “explained-away” the stories that humans embellish, rendering myths and stories behind them as “memes”.

Genes and Memes

19th century thought that there are more between heaven and earth that what can be explained by the faculties of science.’Memetics’ refer to the idea of explaining cultural phenomena as ‘self-replicating genes’. Memes to culture are what genes to humans: they spread like viruses and infect brains and the minds of humans. Dawkins in The Selfish Gene explained this in clear detail.

Ever since Dawkin’s argument, the consensus has shifted towards identifying practically everything as a “Meme”, labeling whatever social behavior to be equivalent as the next one.

Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation – Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

The theory definitely has it’s followers, for better or worse, but what does it amount to? There can be good memes that are not toxic. Can brilliant ideas have the same origin and structure as absurd ideas, however? There exist some profound ideas that more than one person can point to and say that they are ‘profound’ because they speak something “true” about the human condition. The concept of memetics does not take such ideas into account.

It is one of the distinguishing characteristics of human beings, however, that they can distinguish an idea from the reality represented in it, can entertain propositions from which they withhold their assent, and can move judge-like in the realm of ideas, calling each before the bar of rational argument, accepting them and rejecting them regardless of the reproductive cost

Our Author attempts to mention that there is more to knowledge than rational knowledge. It is practical (street), metaphorical (art & music), and transcendental (religions and myth) that is more useful to know that rational knowledge and cannot be explained away with rationality.

The Selfish Gene book cover

On Laughter

To laugh is to judge and make a comparison between an ideal state of what ‘could have been’ to what actually occurs or occurred.

A child’s plain of comparison is much different than that of an adult. It is much easier for them to see how we can foley our plans by our own misgivings and they judge the state of what “could have been” to what is. In time, they will accept the reality of what could be and match it with reality.

One can explain laughter with an evolutionary psychological explanation: we laugh since that promotes cooperation, and societies that learned to laugh and accept laughter as a way of dealing with each other can survive for long. Such an explanation falls into the first trap of its own making: assuming what it is explaining, namely cooperation.

Let’s take the case of a species of chimpanzees that emit a laughter-like sound. After heavy research, the zoologists conclude that this could be laughter. How would they explain their behavior? They would first have to know whether they are observing real laughter. In other words, they would have to know if the creature is laughing at something for doing something. In turn, we also have to find out if those creatures are laughing and engaging at something as we do or do they maybe have another reason to laugh.

This turns us to another question: as we do. We’re implying here that amusement is one of the characteristics that sets us apart as humans from other creatures. Kant tells us that animals like us belong to the category of Persons. The Selfish Gene tells us that we belong to the category of the Human Animal, complicated by DNA and has not risen above our other animals with the advent or rationality and consciousness.

On Accountability and Blame

Thinking of the world in this way, we respond to it with a repertoire that lies beyond the capabilities of other creatures: indignation, retribution, punishment, resentment and envy; admiration, commitment and praise– all of which involve the thought of others as accountable subjects, with rights and duties and a self-conscious vision of their future and their past.

“Human Beings” belong to the category of animals that experience emotions based on actions taken by other members of the same species, emotions other than those of desires and needs. “Creatures like us” exert judgments and take actions if those judgments were not met in place and time as expected. “Creatures like us” understand and suffer from the concept of time and when other members do not fulfill their expected “duties”, we suffer “betrayal” and think that punishment of similar caliber or worse should be inflicted as “retribution”.

So, what is the difference between the human animal and the person? This problem is, I believe, philosophical and biology has no place in answering it. We are accountable subjects that are individuated in our bodies, what is individuated thereby is not the body but the person. A painter throws colored pigments on a canvas, but it is up to conceptualize, understand, and “see” the emergent face behind the portrait. One can relate to a figurative picture in ways that one cannot relate to the distribution of pigments.


We come here to the idea of intention. A Human being is an intentional system since he represents the world through his biological makeup and psyche and tries to change it to fit his or someone else’s needs. A dog can make eye contact with his owner. He can obviously see him but there is no evidence that he can also perceive him as an agent of consciousness. But what does it mean to be an agent of consciousness? I think it means that one has the ability to make rational decisions and play out different possibilities to a given situation.

The kind of which we belong to is one that is, unlike a dog’s, capable of understanding and running through a similar repertoire of emotions as we do and responding to it accordingly. Hence the kind to which we belong is defined through a concept that does not feature in the science of human biology, but one that is best represented by “humanities”– in other words, exercises in understanding concepts such as laughter and blame.

This brings us to a serious question: is our category defined not by its biological constituents but by its psychological one? If that is the case, then we are bound to members of our own species in reaction to forces that exist in the world.

The First-Person Case

Our moral truths are derived from the I-You relations and they are based on a metaphysical truth.

What does that mean? Let’s take a step back and understand where did this relation come from. In the state of nature, I am motivated only by my own desires and instinctual needs. I am conscious of what needs to be done, but I am not self-conscious. The encounter with the ‘Other’ is a strange thing. First, it is an encounter with the unknown; with chaos. Only when one accepts to put down their fear and decide to move on and accept this stranger can the ‘Self’ be recognized. The author’s argument is that a person becomes ‘self-conscious’ with the encounter with the “Other”, since he recognizes something in them that can also be applied to oneself, and by addressing a person as ‘You’, can an ‘I’ relation emerge. In having an encounter with the “Other”, “I” am forced to recognize that “I” too am “Other” to the one who is other to me.

In the state of nature, motivated only by my desires and needs, I am conscious, but without the sense of self. Through the encounter with the other, I am forced to recognize that I too am other to the one who is other to me.

That idea that one can recognize free self-consciousness by actually seeing it is a metaphysical truth. It also brings forth the idea of ‘I’ and the First-Person. By speaking in the First-Person, one can make appropriate declarations and statements about personal observations that the “Other” has to take with trust, without evidence. Unfortunately, however, it is sometimes not so clear if the First-Person statements one makes are the plays of a wordsmith, lies, or simple delusions. One can make a good argument that Cynicism existed only after and in a response to the recognition of the First-Person standpoint and how one can manipulate it.

On the Intentionality of Pleasure

Take the case of a villain. Would it be wise to say that he is acting the way he is because he is an automaton obedient to impulses in the central nervous system? Would it seem as fair to describe the object of erotic love as reproductive and only so?

It seems that our use of the I-You relation has evolved to a point where we must include ‘Intention’ in our actions for the other person to believe what we say. We can easily recognize free from unfree actions, reasonable from unreasonable behavior, smiles from frowns, promises from predictions, contrition from regret, and so on.

Let’s take the case of pleasure, An evolutionary theory of pleasure would show why certain things cause pleasure by explaining the reproductive advantage conferred on the genes of those who enjoy them. It would point that certain groups are “fitter” than others because they partake in such an activity. It would also point that there are negative and positive pleasures and that the negative ones would make their hosts not live for long so that the sweet tooth that ensured our ancestors’ survival would condemn us to obesity and that the procrastination we feel would cause us to become lame.

The story goes very deep but it starts to enter foggy grounds the more complex the pleasure becomes. Take for example the pleasures that have no evolutionary nature whatsoever, like dancing, playing, singing, admiring aesthetic arts, bungee jumping, etc. Now, one can explain away all those things as a ‘game’, thrill rides or adrenaline rushes. It could be true too, but there is a whole other class of “Intentional Pleasures” that keep bringing the theory of evolutionary psychology towards foggy grounds. Appreciation of a good book after understanding the history behind it, for example. Taking pleasure in a piece of music when seeing it performed live is another.

To end, there’s also the whole class of ‘Religious Experiences’ that one cannot disregard. As Jung said, the conversation regarding religious experiences is usually disregarded by most academics since the entire idea of it can be understood only when one has experienced it out of their own volition. If you listen to the words of Erich Fromm, he’d mention that it is an experience of “Oneness with the universe”.

So how can one explain all of that then? We had an evolutionary theory to explain what we needed and now it’s becoming too complex again. Well, science is set out to explain the world, which is why it was put on a higher pedestal than the other forms of knowledge, I believe. It is fatal, however, to set aside all forms of knowledge. What happened to moral knowledge which gives us a practical reason? What about emotional knowledge, which is the province of the arts, music, and literature? There’s also transcendental knowledge, which is the province of religion. Why privilege science, just because it sets out to explain the world? Why not give weight to the disciplines that interpret the world and help us be at home in it?

Sacred and Profane

Societies have always had a way to “escape velocity” and enter a timeless space where Gods and Men are joined together, under the heavens. Those experiences go under the name of “Sacred”.

Some Remarks on Evil

I want to say that concepts such piety and the sacred are necessary to us and that their meaning and basic can be derived from the philosophy of the freely choosing person. There’re a bunch of concepts that shape the moral character of a person which are derived from religion, literature, and arts. Its necessary to focus on a powerful one that shapes much of our daily lives, but is little spoken of outside the circles of theologians and historians: Evil.

Goethe summarizes the character of evil when describing Mephistopheles: Ich bin der Geist, der stets verneint, “I am the spirit that forever negates”. Taken under a lens, the reader would discover that the character of Mephistopheles was very selfless, actually. His aim was not to benefit himself but to destroy his targets, namely Faust and Gretchen, and to rob them of themselves, rendering both their souls destroyed.

The evil person is like a fracture in our human world, through which we catch glimpses of the void. And here, it seems to me, is one explanation of the phenomenon summed up by Hannah Arendt in the phrase “Banality of Evil”, which she used to describe the bureaucratic mindset of Adolf Eichmann. The terrible destruction that has been wrought, and deliberately wrought, on human beings in very recent times, in the name of this or that political ideology, has not typically been wrought by evil people. As a matter of fact, as Bettina Stangneth has shown, Eichmann was a pathological hater of Jews and by no means the bureaucrat that Arendt made him out to be. Regardless, we can very much see that this description can fit many accused in the famous Nuremberg judgments. The torture, degradation, and death that it was their role to oversee might not have been, in their own eyes, their doing but, rather, inevitable effects of a Machine that had been set in motion without their help. Evil occurred around them, but it was not something that they did.

The Case of Comrade Tulayev book cover

In The Case of Comrade Tulayev, a novel by Victor Serge on the Stalinist regime, there was a scene were the High Commissar, now under arrest himself, is brought face to face with an old comrade, Ricciotti, who tries to persuade him to sign the confession which has been prepared for him. Better men than you and I have done it before us. Others will do it after us. No one can resist the machine. No one has the right, no one can resist the Party without going over to the enemy. As Erchov resists and protests his innocence, Ricciotti reminds him of all those Erchov himself has signed off for execution, of the terrible things the Bolsheviks did in the name of Revolution. Erchov’s riposte is: “I was a soldier, I obeyed orders- that’s all”, the eternal refrain of the loyal functionary who has forgotten his humanity.

The “Obey Orders” excuse is a powerful one but it must be understood that there is much more beyond that. Carl Jung says that people do not have ideas, ideas have people. The idea of evil is something bigger than one person following orders.

Of course, we repudiate the excuses of such people and hold them answerable for the suffering that they caused. We recognize that the death camp was not just a bad thing that happened but an evil that was done. And all the officials were implicated in this evil. As Arendt, Stangneth, and Serge point out, the camps were designed not merely to destroy human beings but also to deprive them of their humanity. The inmates were to be treated as things, humiliated, degraded, reduced to a condition of bare, unsupported, and all-consuming need, which would cancel in them the last vestiges of freedom. In other words, the goal included that pursued in one way by Mephistopheles, which was to rob the inmates of their soul.

How did this come about? Certainly, the idea of the death camps and the horrors behind them did not come in a day. It would be an interesting exercise to imagine how can one, given all the money in the world, reach the heights of evil that were manifested in the death camps. We don’t actually need to look much further than the person standing in the mirror.

I believe this question parallels human freedom. It was a great insight of Kant to have recognized that we are compelled by the very effort of communication to treat each other not as mere organisms or things but as persons who act freely, who are rationally accountable and who must be treated as ends in themselves. This brings us back to the phenomenon of evil. I believe that the phenomenon is itself a metaphysical– not of the world, but homebrewed in it– and this compels us to describe it as we do. I think that each person must critically examine their own ideas. Only then can we be aware of the narcissistic corners of our judgments. Each one of us carries within themselves all of humanity. Each one of us is a sinner, a murderer, and a thief. Although we don’t act that way, each one of us is also a saint, a hero, and a good man, and as Terence, a Roman playwright, once said: “I am human, and nothing human is alien to me” 1.

  1. Taken from a lecture by Dr. Erich Fromm, Psychology of Nationalism: YouTube