Appendix B
Human Nature,
Evolution, and Ethics
More than two millennia ago, Aristotle suggested that
human beings shared a common nature—an idea that is
now the focus of intense study and controversy. Aristotle is
known, of course, as a pioneering philosopher, ethicist, and
political thinker, but he was also the first important biolo-
gist and zoologist in the West, and his famous definition of
human beings draws on his scientic background. What he
said, with the power of simplicity, is that human beings are
political or social animals.
The usual practice for philosophers, sociologists, and
other thinkers is to focus on the political and social aspects
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of human nature, but Aristotle also emphasized that human
beings are animals. In other words, we are creatures and, like
other creatures, we have certain built-in traits and tendencies.
These arent like software code—they dont program us and
determine what we think and do. Instead they incline us or
spring-load us to think, feel, and act in certain ways. To a
significant degree, they make us what we are.
This way of thinking makes some people uncomfortable,
because it seems to reduce human beings to mere animals and
ignores our intellectual, artistic, social, technological, and spir-
itual achievements. But that is hardly the case. The argument
is not that evolution and genetics shape all or most of what we
do or that our instincts and drives are fundamentally animal-
istic. Thomas Aquinas, the great Catholic theologian, wrote,
“We do not merely have, but are our bodies.” Aquinas also
wrote, “Since the soul is part of the body of a human being,
the soul is not the whole human being and my soul is not I.
If some version of Aristotles view is correct, it may help
explain why certain ways of thinking about hard problems
have engaged the best minds and hearts, in so many different
cultures and eras, and why our everyday thinking about hard
decisions also reflects these perspectives. The reason is that
certain ways of grappling with hard problems strengthen the
cooperative tendencies that helped the human species survive
and help overcome other innate tendencies that reduce the
chance of survival.
Should we accept Aristotles view? His stature, as one of
the most important thinkers in the Western tradition, means
we should take his ideas seriously, but we shouldnt accept an
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idea simply because Aristotle—or, for that matter, any import-
ant thinker—happens to assert it. And, if we look beyond
Aristotles thinking, we find strong support for the idea of a
common human nature in contemporary evolutionary theory.
Evolutionary theory asks what capabilities, traits, and
tendencies would have helped human creatures or our pre-
human ancestors survive the rigors of natural selection.
Creatures that shared these traits would have been more
likely to survive, reproduce, and evolve into us. Evolutionary
science today draws on psychology, biology, genetics, anthro-
pology, and other disciplines to sketch plausible pictures of
social practices and ways of thinking and acting that might
have enabled our distant ancestors to survive and evolve in
our direction.
The broad argument is that the early humans and prehu-
mans who survived and evolved into us did so because they
had inclinations to cooperate with each other. The groups
with more “cooperators” were more likely to survive—
because their members could work together to solve the basic
problems of survival—protecting their young, finding and
storing food, fending off predators, winning battles against
other human groups. Our common human nature—as social
animals—reflects the traits or premoral instincts that help
our distant ancestors meet and surmount common human
The view that human beings may have some innate coop-
erative instincts runs counter to the classic, reductionist views
of evolution. It describes natural selection as, in essence,
an endless process of remorseless struggle that pits every
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