Why Nature vs. Nurture is a False Dichotomy: Mary Midgley

Why Nature vs. Nurture is a False Dichotomy: Mary Midgley

Both sides of the nature vs. nurture debate get it wrong, claims the philosopher Mary Midgley. To move the discussion forward, Midgley offers some much-needed nuance…

Jack Maden
By Jack Maden  |  March 2024


Is there such a thing as human nature? Is our behavior, deep down, basically dictated by our genetics? Are we all ‘naturally’ selfish and aggressive / naturally social and compassionate?

Or: is our behavior the result of environmental factors and social conditioning? Is it our upbringing, cultural norms, and social conventions that create who we are?

Such questions are representative of the classic nature vs. nurture debate — and in her 1973 paper The Concept of Beastliness, the philosopher Mary Midgley expresses her deep impatience with them.

Surveying the literature of science, psychology, and philosophy, Midgley notes the formation of two major camps.

First, the Nature camp:

On the one hand, there has been an explosion of animal behavior studies, and comparisons between animals and men have become immensely popular. People use evidence from animals to decide whether man is naturally aggressive, or naturally territorial; even whether he has an Aggressive or Territorial Instinct.

Second, the Nurture camp:

On the other hand, many sociologists and psychologists still seem to hold the Behaviorist view that man is a creature entirely without instincts, and so do existentialist philosophers… On [this] view, man is entirely the product of his culture. He starts off infinitely plastic, and is formed completely by the society in which he grows up.

Midgley suggests the approach of both camps is wrongheaded, and causes mass confusion in our theories about humanity.

Against the ‘Nurture’ camp

To set the scene against the Nurture camp — i.e. the Behaviorists, Existentialists (“existence precedes essence”), and anyone else who claims there is no such thing as human nature — Midgley poses the following questions:

Why do people form families? Why do they mind about their homes and quarrel over boundaries? Why do they own property? Why do they gamble, boast, show off, dress up and fear the unknown? Why do they talk so much, and dance, and sing? Why do children play, and for that matter adults too? Why is nobody living in the Republic of Plato?

To all of these questions, Midgley notes, the behaviorist must answer: because of cultural conditioning.

Society has conditioned us all to behave and respond in certain ways, and that’s that.

But to this Midgley asks two further questions. Firstly: who started the cultural conditioning?

Secondly: why do people ever resist their families? Midgley wonders:

Why do they do what everybody is culturally conditioning them not to do?

To answer such questions, the behaviorist would presumably invoke various sub-cultures, cultural ambivalences, or of society’s need for a scapegoat, and so on. Midgley muses:

It is a pleasing picture; how do all the children of 18 months pass the news along the grapevine that now is the time to join the sub-culture, to start climbing furniture, toddling out of the house, playing with fire, breaking windows, taking things to pieces, messing with mud and chasing the ducks? For these are perfectly specific things which all healthy children can be depended on to do, not only unconditioned but in the face of all deterrents...

Behaviorists, straddled with their a priori assumption that ‘there is no such thing as human nature’, struggle to address such challenges, Midgley observes.

The Nature camp at this stage might be excitedly cheering Midgley on.

Such jubilation would be premature, however, as Midgley thinks ‘human nature’ is a term riddled with problems of its own…

Against the ‘Nature’ camp

The trouble with the Nature camp, Midgley suggests, is the sustained misuse of (and confusion around) terms like ‘human nature’ and ‘instinct’, which are wielded reductively as ‘cure-all’, staggeringly simplistic explanations for why humans behave the way we do — inspiring, Midgley writes,

sweeping theories that man is Basically Sexual, Basically Selfish or Acquisitive, Basically Evil or Basically Good.

Such theories, she continues,

approach human conduct much as a simple-minded person might approach rising damp. They look for a single place where the water is coming in, a single source of motivation.

But this is of course myopic. Humans behave in all sorts of contradictory and complicated ways.

How, then, should we proceed?

Midgley’s solution: approach the discussion as a careful ethologist…

The problem with both the Nature and Nurture camps, Midgley thinks, is they come to the table with blunt a priori assumptions: either there is no such thing as human nature, or human nature is Basically This.

The solution, of course, lies in finding a middle way.

Rather than entirely deny human nature as a reductive, useless concept, Midgley thinks we should instead evolve how we use it: philosophers should expand and add a bit of nuance to what ‘human nature’ actually refers to.

To do so, Midgley thinks we could learn something from the careful approach of ethology, the study of animal behavior.

For, while our original Nature / Nurture camps are busy making assumptions about humanity,

The ethologist… proceeds empirically, which is why I think we ought to like him.

The good ethologist “doesn’t want to say that human nature is basically anything; he wants to see what it consists of”:

he proceeds more like a surveyor mapping a valley. He notes a spring here, a spring there; he finds that some of them do tend to run together…

Good ethologists don’t make assumptions or declarations about what animals definitively are, Midgley says; rather, they patiently observe their behavior and seek to identify patterns that make sense in the context of the evolutionary pressures and history of the species.

One distinction that will be useful here is that between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ instincts:

  • Closed instincts are behavior patterns fixed genetically in every detail (like, Midgley suggests, “the bees’ honey-dance, some birdsong, and the nest building pattern of weaver-birds”).
  • Open instincts, meanwhile, are “general tendencies to certain kinds of behavior.” (Cats, for instance, tend to hunt, even when they’ve had no example of it; but their hunting is not a single stereotyped pattern, it covers a wide repertoire of movements, which it can improve at as it invents new ones and gets tips from other cats).

Of course, open and closed instincts are not distinct mechanisms, but rather opposite ends of a continuous scale, with many grades in-between.

When behaviorists and existentialists deny human nature, they are generally denying that humans possess ‘closed’ instincts.

But Midgley’s point is that ‘human nature’ need not be a synonym for a few Dominant Good / Evil Instincts. This of course would be reductive and unhelpful.

Instead, Midgley suggests, we’d be much better off viewing the nature of humanity as a neutral interplay of ‘open’ instincts:

[as] a certain range of powers and tendencies, a repertoire, inherited and forming a fairly firm characteristic pattern, though conditions after birth will vary the details quite a lot.

Reclaiming human nature

When we reflect on whether humans are ‘naturally’ aggressive, then, we should not take ‘naturally’ to mean ‘basically’; instead, like good ethologists, we should ask ourselves whether aggression is observable among our natural repertoire of capabilities.

Aggression is observable — so, yes, human beings are naturally aggressive. But that doesn’t mean aggression is an Evil Instinct and that humans are thus Inherently Evil.

The good ethologist views aggression neutrally, Midgley notes:

Confronted with the habit of slaughter, he is not going to throw up his hands in condemnation… He will study all the related patterns of conduct in order to understand the context.

While in some cases slaughter might appear mindless, in others it can be linked to precious elements in human life, like loyalty and friendship — people killing to defend their own (and stopping once they come to see the enemy as ‘their own’, too).

Besides, as much as we are capable of aggression, we are also naturally capable of its opposite, Midgley continues:

There are, in man’s nature and not only in society, various trends contrary to slaughter. The wish for order is also natural, so is the horror of bloodshed. We are in conflict on that matter within ourselves, not waiting for the bidding of society. Were that not so, no society could exist.

Human nature, Midgley thus writes, is

a complex, balanced affair… subject to a lot of laws, and rather more, not less, adaptable than [other animals], because where they grew horns and prickles, we grew an intelligence, which is quite an effective adaptive mechanism.

Indeed, our intelligence makes us relatively adaptable and flexible creatures, and this fools the Nurture camp into thinking that we have outgrown or transcended our animal natures — when really intelligence is itself an evolved product of animal nature, one trait among many in our diverse natural toolkit.

So, we are not just one thing, but — importantly — we are not anything, either.

Humanity is endowed with a diverse yet limited range of concerns and capabilities, and social conditioning will interact with our predispositions to bring out different emphases in different cultures.

Culture itself is a natural phenomenon

Reflecting on humanity through the lens of ethology thus undermines the view that we are Rational Beings somehow above or separate from nature, Midgley writes:

We are not disembodied intelligences, tentatively considering possible incarnations. We have highly particular, sharply limited needs and possibilities already.

When philosophizing about ourselves and the world, we should not lose sight of the fact that we are primates with a long and storied evolutionary history on Planet Earth — and that civilization itself is rooted in this history.

Opposing nature and nurture, Midgley thus suggests, makes no sense; it is far more productive to recognize that culture itself is a natural phenomenon:

Every existing animal species has its own nature, its own hierarchy of instincts, in a sense, its own virtues. In social animals, like ourselves and the wolves, there must be natural affection and communicativeness, and, in spite of our evolutionary gaffe in inventing weapons, it is plain that we are much better fitted to live socially than to live alone or in anarchy. Nearly all our most interesting occupations are social ones. Rousseau’s or Hobbes’s state of nature would be fine for intelligent crocodiles, if there were any; for people it is a baseless fantasy.

Civilization is not some ‘add-on’ to our animal natures, Midgley tells us: it’s an expression of it. Just as spiders naturally spin webs, humans naturally produce cultures.

The nature vs nurture debate — i.e. whether it’s genetics or society that makes us who we are — is thus fundamentally misguided.

Enclosed in a human world

Midgley concludes her reflections by pointing out that every species — including humanity — is enclosed in a world that its own nature makes available to it.

Just as Kant recognized that the world we experience is contingent on the apparatus we have for experiencing it, so we should recognize that the general scope of our concerns, interests, and behavior as beings is set by what we are.

The spaces we can navigate — including the spaces we call ‘reason’ and ‘morality’ — are contingent on the spaces made available to us through our nature as primates that have evolved on Planet Earth.

To us, operating from inside the space, it appears exceedingly open and flexible — host to many different ways of life, diverse cultures, great triumphs, and monstrous atrocities.

To ethologists from another star system, however, perhaps humans are as neutral, predictable, and documentable as migrating birds.

What do you make of Midgley’s analysis?

  • Do you share Midgley’s impatience with the nature vs. nurture debate?
  • Do you find Midgley’s expanded, more nuanced view of ‘human nature’ helpful? Or do you disagree that human nature is more flexible and neutral than commonly suggested?
  • Do you think Midgley provides a better way to think about nature and nurture? Does she succeed in exposing and dissolving the false dichotomy?
  • Are human society and culture best thought of as natural phenomena?
  • Are ‘rationality’ and ‘morality’ limited by (or contingent on) the creatures doing the rationalizing and moralizing?

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Jack Maden

Jack MadenFounder
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