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What these characteristics are, what causes them and how fixed human nature is, are good questions. They among the oldest and most important questions in western philosophy. These questions affect ethics, politics and theology. Human nature is a source of advice on how to live well, but it also puts limits and obstacles on living a good life.
Theories of human nature
Many great thinkers have had definite ideas on human nature, but some ideas have lasted better than others. An example of this is the best-selling college textbook which first appeared in 1974 as Seven theories of human nature. The seven theories were those of:
Thirty years later the selection was of ten theories:
- The Bible
- Sartre and
- Darwinian theories of human nature.
In his works some clear statements about human nature are made:
- Man is a conjugal animal. 'Conjugal' means living together, building a household (oikos). A clan or small village could still be run by the head of the family.
- Man is a political animal. By this he meant an animal with able to develop complex communities the size of a city or town, with a division of labour and law-making. This type of community is different from a large family, and requires the use of human reason.
- Man loves to use his imagination (and not just to make laws and run town councils). We love to look at things, learn their names, and think about them.
For Aristotle, reason is what is most special about humanity compared to other animals, and is what we achieve at our best.
Much of Aristotle's description of human nature is still influential today, but the particular teleological idea that humans are "meant" or intended to be something, has become much less popular in modern times.
Humans are mammals, and have developed by a process of evolution. It follows that what is called human nature is inherited, and had been the product of natural selection. We are not blank slates; our mental life and behaviour has ancient roots. This is the question of nature vs nurture, and the subject-matter of evolutionary psychology. Ethology and sociobiology has also looked at these issues from the perspective of human evolution and heredity.
- Stevenson, Leslie and Haberman, David L. 2009. Ten theories of human nature. 5th ed, Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-536825-3
- Stevenson, Leslie 1974. Seven theories of human nature. Oxford University Press.
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics VIII 1162a; Politics 1252a.
- Aristotle, Politics 1252b.
- Aristotle, Poetics 1148b.
- Aristotle. The Politics of Aristotle: with an introduction, two prefactory essays and notes critical and explanatory. Clarendon Press, 1887, 189–190
- Edmund O. Wilson 2004. On human nature. Harvard University Press.
- Pinker, Steven 2002. The blank slate: the modern denial of human nature. New York, N.Y: Viking. ISBN 0-670-03151-8
- Confer et al. 2010. Evolutionary Psychology American Psychologist.
- Nobel Prize page for 1973 Medicine Award to Tinbergen, Lorenz, and von Frisch for contributions in ethology.
- Alcock, John 2003. The triumph of sociobiology. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195143836