Does Human Nature Change?

THIS question is doubtless a very old one, but it is being asked oftener to-day than ever before, because men’s minds are now more intently fixed upon the betterment of human conditions. To many it seems a necessary condition of such betterment that man himself in his fundamental nature should be growing better, and the typical reformer is pretty sure to assume that such is the case. Take, for example, the question of war and peace. The commonest defense of the militarist against the attacks of the peace party is the assumed immutability of human nature. ‘Civilization,’ he asserts, ‘has not changed human nature. The nature of man makes war inevitable.’1 It seems not to occur to the pacificist to question the validity of this alleged relation of cause and effect, and he feels himself forced to meet the argument by the assumption that human nature does change, and, necessarily from his point of view, for the better. Expressions of the same idea are common in all lines of philanthropic endeavor. Naturally the conflict between these two opposing views is a source of immense confusion — a confusion that is ‘worse confounded’ by the abstruse character of the relations involved. The present paper is an effort to clear away something of this confusion, and if its arguments tend to show, on the one hand, that human nature does not change, they show, on the other, that, this fact is not incompatible with a progressive improvement of social conditions.

Much of the confusion of thought on this subject arises from a lack of precise definition, and this is particularly true in regard to the word change. Perhaps the best way to reach a clearer understanding of the term will be by eliminating some things which it does not properly include. In the first place, if we are seeking a practical working definition, we must reject those considerations which have no living force in human affairs, particularly those evolutionary processes which are assumed to have brought man up to his present high estate from the lowest forms of life. Whatever interest such processes may have as a philosophic speculation, and however fully we may accept them, they are of little value in the ordinary affairs of life. Those who wish to see war, for example, done away with, cannot afford to wait upon a process in which each infinitesimal advance has consumed a longer period than that which they believe to be necessary for the full accomplishment of their hopes. We must confine the question to relatively limited spaces of time, certainly not exceeding the period of recorded history.

Again we should exclude those changes which arise from the blending of different types and races, and the fusing of their peculiar characteristics. These are not what are ordinarily meant in speaking of changes in human nature.

So also anatomical changes, as in the cephalic index, which have been observed to result from a change of habitat, do not involve any change in those spiritual and intellectual qualities to which the term human nature commonly refers.

In like manner we must exclude those infinite variations which mark off individuals from one another. The children of the same parents may, and generally do, differ greatly in their intellectual and moral traits — not only from their parents, but from one another. These differences may be compared to the waves of the sea, some above and some below, no two of the same form, but all, nevertheless, close to the unchanging level in which their own identity is quickly lost.

Finally, — and this is the real difficulty, — we must reject everything which is embraced in that comprehensive word, education (e-ducere) — the leading or drawing out of the faculties of the mind, whet her by parental training, the teaching of the schools, selfculture, spiritual transformation, the universal and never-ceasing influence of environment, or whatever else goes to the development of individual character from the very moment of birth. These influences develop faculties, but they do not create them, or alter their character.

The confusion of definition on this point is well illustrated by the following quotation from a recent issue of The Outlook: ‘Mr. George takes a tough out of the streets of New York City; he is trained in the George Junior Republic, is fitted for college, graduates with honor, and becomes a selfrespecting and valued citizen. This has been done again and again. Does it involve no change in the tough’s nature?’ This is not what is properly understood by the word ‘change,’ as applied in a broad sense, when we speak of human nature as changing. It is education pure and simple. In like manner, religious transformation (‘conversion’) is simply the drawing out of spiritual faculties which exist in the individual, rather than the working of any fundamental change in those faculties. In all these cases the modifications wrought, or the development produced, require the constant backing of effort to maintain them. Without such effort they quickly relapse or ‘backslide’ more or less nearly to their untutored condition. If the real faculty itself had been changed, this reversion would hardly be expected.

Changes wrought through education cannot be considered changes in human nature unless they are capable of being transmitted by inheritance. It is again the old question of the transmission of acquired characteristics, with the weight of authority altogether in the negative. In a striking passage in The Century of the Child, Ellen Key thus refers to this matter: ‘With this list (with the possible exceptions of cannibalism, incest, murder, and theft) I have exhausted everything which mankind, since its conscious history began, has really so intimately acquired that the achievement is passed on in its flesh and blood.' The exceptions cited are really not exceptions at all, but the passage itself is an admirable definition of what a change in human nature, were such a thing possible, must be. It must be such a modification as can be passed on in the flesh and blood of the race, becoming thus a permanent acquisition.

We sometimes run across the expression ‘contemporary qualities of human nature,’ indicating a belief that these qualities change from age to age. Yet, if we stop to think, we find it impossible to conceive of such a thing as a change in the motives and qualities of the human mind. Are the intellectual faculties different now from what they ever were? Is mathematical ability, for example, a different thing to-day from what it was in the days of Euclid or of Archimedes? And are the passions of envy, jealousy, anger, hatred, pugnacity, falsehood, on one side, and love, kindness, compassion, generosity, charity, on the other, different things from what they were when the Decalogue was written, or when St. Paul dissected so keenly the workings of the human heart?

Evidently this is not what is meant by those who say that human nature changes. They apparently mean, not that these traits themselves change, but that the evil traits are gradually eliminated, so that man is inherently better than he used to be. In this they unwittingly imperil their own argument, for they assume that the influences affecting man’s nature work only in the direction of making it better. But if these assumed changes result from changed environment, which itself results from the incessant play of human activities, surely there is liability to downward as well as upward tendency. History is full of examples where the civilization of peoples has shown no upward tendency, but quite the reverse. If such unfavorable externals were to react on man’s fundamental nature, dwarfing his intellectual powers, debasing his spiritual and moral capacity, so as to make him an inferior being who would no longer respond to education in the same degree as before, then, indeed, humanity would he in a bad case.

Enforcing this consideration, Alfred Russel Wallace says: ‘Now it is surely a great blessing if we can believe that this widespread system of fraud and falsehood [referring to certain evils characteristic of modern society] does not produce any inherited deterioration in the next generation.’ Those who are reluctant to recognize the immutability of human nature, fearing (most mistakenly) that to do so would be tantamount to saying that continued progress in civilization is impossible, should consider the vastly important fact that it protects humanity from irrevocable loss as a result of adverse external conditions.

It is generally recognized that the forces of natural selection, as they are believed to have operated in developing animal life on this planet, are practically inoperative when applied to human nature, if not to the animal man himself. Human volition utterly confounds the normal process, and it is a question if the tendency is not to preserve the unfit rather than the fit. It is held with much reason that the effect of long-continued wars in the past, of monasticism in the Middle Ages, and the scrupulous preservation of the weak and infirm in modern times, may have operated, and may still operate, to diminish in some degree the pristine vigor of the race. It may be, as many believe, that future development will change all this, and that the advance of civilization will produce favorable conditions in selective breeding, as, for example, the emancipation of woman, by which she will be less under the necessity of forming unwise marriages, and, by her greater means of self-support, can choose more wisely with whom she will mate. But in the existing state of society any belief that man is evolving into a higher nature, so that, apart from the influence of education, he is a better man than of old, stands wholly without foundation.

In attempting to get a clear perspective of the subject, our inquiry should, it would seem, take some such form as this: —

If a child of to-day could be subjected from the moment of its birth to the environment of its remote ancestors, say two, five, or ten thousand years ago, is there any reason to believe that he would exhibit any marked difference in his ‘human nature’ from that of his surroundings? Is there the slightest possibility that he would develop anything of the very different civilization or culture in which his parents lived? Would he feel any unusual aversion to slavery, for instance, or to gladiatorial games, or ancient cruelties of any sort, from the fact that his immediate ancestors lived in an environment where moral culture did not permit such practices? And, conversely, if a new-born Roman or Grecian babe could have been transferred, from the moment of its birth, to an environment like that of the United States in the twentieth century, is there any reason to believe that he would have exhibited qualities which would mark him off from his contemporaries, and suggest a relationship to those far-off times?

It would seem that any candid valuation of the evidence before us must answer these questions in the negative. There may be differences due to the intermingling of races, but, except for these, there is no evidence to show that the intellectual, moral, or spiritual nature of man is different to-day from what it has always been. The course of thought is, indeed, very different in one age from that in another. Religions or systems of philosophy give way to others entirely different, but this does not prove that man’s nature has changed in the interim, or that a child of one period, if it could be reared in the environment of the other, would not conform as perfectly to such environment as it does to that in which its lot is actually cast.

Examples commonly cited in support of the argument that human nature changes, aptly illustrate the confusion of definition which it is here sought to point out. For instance, the writer in The Outlook already quoted says: ‘Imagine modern ladies turning down their thumbs to indicate that the unsuccessful player [in the gladiatorial combat] is to be killed!' If it were possible to take any given number of modern female babes and rear them from birth in an environment like that of Trajan’s reign, there is no doubt, whatever, that as large a proportion as was true of Roman women would do that very thing. The avidity with which some American women frequent the bull-fights of Mexico, and other similar evidence which will readily occur to anyone, show very convincingly that they would go to the limit of those excesses just as certain Roman women did. For it was not all of them, by any means, who did those things. There was an undercurrent of opposition to them, and there were earnest attempts at reform. There is no reason to suppose that the population of Rome, if reared in an environment like that of our own country, would not have felt to the full extent that we do a repugnance to practices which their civilization sanctioned.

In similar vein to that of the above quotation, Frances Power Cobbe exclaims, as if the mere statement carried its own refutation, ‘Let us imagine the repetition of a Roman triumph after the Franco-German War, and the German Emperor Wilhelm entering Berlin with the Empress Eugénie in chains, like another Zenobia, forming part of the procession.’ No candid student of history, it may be confidently asserted, can have any doubt that, if the Franco-German War had been fought under the customs prevailing in Aurelian’s time, the triumphal procession in Berlin would have been marked by those very practices which to us seem so barbarous. And it is equally certain that if Aurelian had waged his successful campaign against Palmyra under modern customs of war, and in the atmosphere of modern public opinion, he would have treated his illustrious captive with at least as chivalrous consideration as the Germans did theirs in 1870.

History abounds in evidence of the correctness of these conclusions. In times when custom sanctioned, if it did not enjoin, these barbarities, there were examples of virtue of as high an order as any of which the present can boast; and, in these later times, when custom probihits such practices, there are examples of as gross barbarity as any which marked the history of the past. What was the rule then is the exception now, and the exception then has become the rule now. But it is not a change in human nature which has caused this interchange between rule and exception. What it is, we shall attempt to show a little further on; but we may remark, in passing, that it is this fact of the immutability of human nature which gives history its real value. The doings and sayings of the ancients have a vital force for us, and are not mere lifeless records, simply because of the identity of their motives with our own. The story of Joseph and his brethren, the fables of Æsop, the proverbs of Solomon, the philosophy of Socrates, the sayings of Marcus Aurelius, the poetry of Shakespeare, are as true for us to-day as they were for the world to which they were given. Perhaps the highest value of the Bible is the fact that its portrayals of human nature, though among a distinct and peculiar race, and in an environment utterly foreign to that of to-day, are absolutely faithful to our own times. And this is true as far back as we can catch the faintest glimpse of man’s activities on this planet. We study the ancient philosophers and find them likewise discoursing of their ‘ancients’ very much as we discourse of them. ‘Knowest thou not this of old since men were placed upon the earth?’

To many it will seem that this conclusion presents a hopeless view of human destiny. If the individual man is not becoming better, can the grand aggregate of men —the world at large — civilization — become better? Yes, and for the reason that the relation of cause and effect implied in this question does not, in fact, exist. Progress or retrogression in civilization is not contingent upon changes in human nature. The process from the beginning has been one of accumulation or of loss. It has resulted in profound changes of environment, and these, reacting upon individual education or development, produce correspondingly different results; but the varying results are due to a changed environment, and not to a changed nature.

What does change—and this is the foundation of our faith in better things to come — is that fund of human experience which we call civilization. Year by year, century by century, this fund grows and changes, and, at any epoch, it constitutes the chief factor in the environment of life. Men learn from research and experience, and what they find of real vitality they build into their institutions, and the child that comes into the world to-day grows up under very different, influences from those which surrounded the children of one, five, or ten centuries ago. His nature is trained along different lines and subjected to different restraints, and the same raw material yields correspondingly different results. That the outward expression of his nature has changed is no evidence that his nature itself has changed. It proves simply that, while human nature is ever the same, the growth and influence of civilization produce from this same nature ever-changing results.

It is difficult—even quite impossible except with the strictest guard over one’s thoughts — to give due weight to the profound influence of that portion of the environment of life which is a direct product of the human mind. But, if we succeed in the attempt, we shall see clearly that what marks us off from our ancestors is a changed environment, and not a changed human nature. Take England, for example. The same sun, the same fogs, the same hills, the same shore line, the same Atlantic with its calms and storms washing the same coasts — all are there quite as they were when Julius Cæsar carried his legions across the channel two thousand years ago. Hut how changed in all else! The face of the landscape has been profoundly modified, but this change, great as it is, is small indeed compared with that of the invisible environment of life — the fund of accumulated knowledge transmitted in books or the customs of the people or handed down from mind to mind. In almost everything which determines the bending of a twig and the inclination of the tree, the two periods are totally different; and, although germs of growth with all their latent powers may be exactly the same in the two cases, the grown-up trees may be as unlike as it would be possible to be and still belong to a common species.

This distinction between the immutability of human nature, on the one hand, and the mutability of environment, on the other, is well illustrated by two common sayings which have found a permanent place in the language of civilized peoples. The first is, ‘Human nature does not change,’ or ‘ Human nature is now the same that it ever was.’ It is the natural conclusion which the study of the past forces on the mind. The other saying is, ‘Times have changed.’ These two spontaneous expressions of human experience contain our whole thesis in a nutshell. Times change, but human nature does not change. By ‘times’ we mean what Cicero meant when he exclaimed, ‘O tempora! O mores!’ — the intellectual and moral, and, to some extent, the material, environment of a particular epoch. This, indeed, changes. Even standards of right and wrong — the conscience of a people — may be very different at different periods, but the difference lies wholly in externals, not at all in man’s nature.

‘Environment, is the father of us all — environment and heredity,’ says a distinguished writer; and, with fine discrimination, a great philosopher has defined environment as ‘social heredity.’ It is heredity, in this second sense, — the power of preserving and passing on to one generation the achievements of another, — that makes progress in civilization possible. Immutability in human nature does not mean a limitation upon progress, but it shows where the responsibility for progress lies. Humanity is seen to be the architect of its own fortune, the conserver of its own destiny. It cannot shirk this responsibility, nor lay upon Providence its own shortcomings. It has received its talent, and while Nature will preserve it from deterioration, she has shown no intention to add to its intrinsic worth. Even if it were true, as some believe, that man’s nature has retrograded under the adverse influences referred to earlier in this paper, civilization might nevertheless move on, for the vast accumulation of the past makes it possible to accomplish far more with inferior means to-day than was possible with superior means in former times.

  1. General J. R. Storey, U. S. Army.