We live in a world governed by nature, but many of us attribute our actions to nurture, even as we have diverse ideas about what constitutes nature. Indeed, very influential and highly educated people take their bearings from mankind in his most primitive form, while others regard the social order as opposed to our nature, which they regard as infinitely malleable.
Periodically, some publication will cite the latest findings about primitive human beings from an anthropological study, and proclaim that human beings are nurturing, acquisitive, aggressive or erotic — or their opposites. Looking beyond the mere shade of humanity in modern society, these students of our race, whether they intend it or not, provide a standard for how we ought to live our lives, or provide a rationalization for some powerful passion.
The most famous of these findings, and particularly tantalizing, were those of young Margaret Mead among Samoans in the 1920s. In this pre modern society, she observed, attitudes regarding sexuality were considerably less rigid than amongst peoples heavily influenced by Victorian morals. "Samoan young people pass through adolescence," summed up the Encyclopedia Americana rather antiseptically in 1961, "without the emotional crises regarded as characteristic of these years in Western society,"
A young journalist of the day was delighted to find "scientific" evidence for what he and many others wanted to engage in without restraint anyway, bedding women with a clear conscience. Combined with the fashionable teaching of Sigmund Freud that sexual passion is the dominant human force, Meade's "findings" inspired Bertrand Russell in 1936 to recommend "free love" as superior to restrictions on premarital sex.
Overlooked was the Samoans' rebuttal to Meade's interpretation of their morals. When finally asked, natives of the South Pacific island insisted that Meade saw what she expected, or wanted, to see.
If modern social controls, or nurturing, truly pulled mankind away from his natural longings and made him miserable in the bargain, then it seemed to follow that there was no good reason to adhere to "repressive" sexual standards. And if society was so wrong about something as fundamental as mankind's dominant passion, why regard any restriction as binding, at least not without reexamination?
By implication, this deference to mankind's pre modern behavior also seemed to demonstrate how powerful nurturing is. For if human nature was so massively altered from the first inclinations of the species, then nurturing would appear to be capable of accomplishing anything. The wide variety, not to mention the fundamental differences, among the peoples of the world, suggests further that human nature, rather than being fixed, can be easily molded (by whom? it may be asked).
Thus we move from the idea that "true" nature exists in the origins of the human race to the idea that nature is, for all practical purposes, nonexistent or plastic almost beyond belief.
But what if human nature is best understood not by reference to what is supposedly original, not to mention untutored by experience, learning or divine inspiration, but by reference to what is most excellent in us? As I remarked in a column last month, human beings search for truth and long for love. They aren't governed merely by urges, nor simply by a rational faculty that, as Benjamin Franklin once acidly remarked, finds reasons for doing whatever we have a mind to do.
The case for philosophic contemplation and divine revelation stands as a powerful counterpoint to the scientific claim that the key to understanding human nature is to examine the lowest things in our souls rather than the highest. The highest reaches of man have been provided by those who proclaimed that "The unexamined life is not worth living" (Socrates) and "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Jesus Christ).
Yes, there is much resistance in human nature to seeking, or accepting, unwelcome truths, or to sublimating our passions in order to please God or benefit others. But it is also true that there are peaks in human society, as well as valleys. There are such things as human wisdom and moral excellence, and not less genuine piety and selfless love.
It is still widely appreciated among us, despite the influence of the idea that nature is low rather than high, that we need to look up for inspiration in the examples of philosophers and saints, of statesmen and moral reformers, not down in the gutter of human savagery. Human nature is redeemed by glimmers of the divine.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of " Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at email@example.com.