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Innate Traits of Man

November 19, 1996

The assignment today is to fill out questionnaire about the "nature of man" and create a website based on the findings.

I have some reservations about the questionnaire. The language is unclear and the questions create false dichotomies. I think the true answer to many of these questions is somewhere between yes and no. Reality is often not so easily caged in such neat boxes.

I don't think we can say with any certainty if man is or is not any of these things. Our knowledge, especially in this culture, is limited to a small number of quite similar cultures. So what we may think of as culturally invariable may in fact only be represented in the small number of cultures we are aware of. The cultures in the world that have the largest numbers of people in them have many similar traits. To grow to their large size and influence they have out competed many other cultures (largely through aggression and procreation). Although the traits of the dominant cultures may not be represented as strongly in the majority of the world's cultures, we may take these traits to be innate because of our lack of knowledge about the many other cultures of the world. Even if a trait is exhibited in all the world's cultures it may not represent the innate state of humans.

Despite my misgiving I think the survey yields some interesting results. The vast majority of students think that humans are innately territorial and competitive, while about half think we are selfish and prejudiced, slightly less feel we are greedy and few believe we are inherently arrogant, moral, ethical, or benevolent. When I filled out the survey my answers were mostly along these lines. I have gotten similar results using a related survey from Dr. Darkmatter to the results in today's class.

I believe much of our behavior is genetically determined. So we can talk about traits being innate. However, innate traits are carried by the gene not the individual. Because our genes only function is to reproduce themselves they are innately selfish. Our genes are not alone in this world, however. Other copies of our genes live in those related to us. Hence we are innately competitive, territorial and selfish primarily with regard to those who are not related to us. We are benevolent and "moral" to those who are related to us. Not necessarily because we're altruistic, but because they share our genes. A gene that makes us moral toward those carrying similar genes will reproduce its self more often and will hence be more represented in our population.

Related Resources

Selfishness and Altruism

Science, Biology, and Conflict


Human Mental Characteristics Here are some human mental characteristics that affect what abilities might be innate.

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