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John Dupré, Gifford Lecture 5: Human Nature and Human Kinds

Dupré’s penultimate lecture of this Gifford series concerned human nature. Chaired by Professor of Natural Theology Mark Harris. After the summary we have two excellent students providing responses, Jenny Zhang, PhD Cand. in Philosophy and Samuel Horsley, a PhD Student in Religious Studies.

A necessary part of belonging to the human species is to fit into the historic lineage. Some philosophers have extended this and talk of a ‘historical essence’, which descends from a particular ancestral population. ‘Essence’ is the sticking word for Dupré, apart from distinguishing what does and what does not belong (which is useful), essences also try to tell us something particular about a kind—something that historical essences cannot display.

If, through some bizarre series of mutations, a woman gave birth to a rabbit or an armadillo, that would, in the light of a historical essence, count as human.

A historical essence does not tell us much about human nature.

Biological (especially genetic methods) and evolutionary psychology have invested in the quest to find out what causes certain human behaviours, but social scientists and philosophers have generally responded negatively to their findings, believing that ‘humans are far more subtly and complexly responsive to their environments than such explanations can allow.’ The famous biologist Steven Pinker has responded that they are treating the human mind as a ‘blank slate, on which society can write anything.’

The most prominent biological theory at present in evolutionary psychology, especially the Santa Barbara School, who (among more complex ideas) pose that the last 2.5million years have been ‘relatively stable’ for humans, allowing for sustained selection of optimal traits that stem from our more developing Stone Age stage, and that now our environment conditions do not lead us to significant evolutionary change. Objections include denying that evolution is wholly genetic. It includes other forms—cultural, epigenetic, and moves much faster than developing genes over thousands of years.

Is considering environmental conditions following a blank slate perception? Dupré argues not. We collectively resist, for instance, enslavement, and collectively embrace things like ‘status, food and sex.’ But generally, ‘a distinctive feature of humans is the flexibility and adaptability of their behaviour.’

Dupré also wants to argue that the last 2.5million years probably were not all that stable (it includes the Ice Age). What made the human species successful was not the miracle of the environment adapting to their needs, but the ability of the species to adapt to their changing environment. Plasticity is a common feature in the great majority of multicellular organisms. Quoting Adam Smith in a surprising context, “The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education”, it’s important to balance that ‘both the human lineage and human individuals are highly plastic, adaptable processes.’

For the next part of the lecture, Dupré explored the tendency of humans to divide ourselves into different kinds. Using Ian Hacking’s idea of ‘looping kinds’, he explores how characteristic behaviour is largely a ‘consequence’ of the distinguishing of a kind. We see this being illustrated by Foucault’s analysis of homosexuals moving from a type of behaviour to a kind of person—where a suite of uniting behaviour followed a classification.

Moving to sex and gender, and XY/XX/XO/XXY/XYY chromosomes, where not even those with XX/XY chromosomes follow the sex-typical developmental path, Dupré reminds the audience that ‘nothing in biology is simple.’ Yet, many aspects of our developmental infrastructure ‘genes, hormones, brains, parenting, schools, social networks, etc.—contribute to stabilising this process’ lead us to connect our sex assignment at birth to our gender as adults. The variation and diversity of these results is explained in the acronym LGBTQ+, which has given a positive marker to a difference that has been seen as pathological, or even a moral failure. The diversity shows us that sex/gender is a development process.

Dupré uses the images taken by JeongMee Yoon too illustrate how the environment conditions our gender alignment. Instead of seeing that pink aligns in some ways to a girl’s brain, Dupré showed how until recently pink was associated with masculinity.

Coming onto brains, Ragini Verma’s research, from the University of Pennsylvania was covered in The Guardian with a title ‘Male and Female Brains Wired Differently, Scans Reveal,’ with the researcher commenting, ‘said the greatest surprise was how much the findings supported old stereotypes.’ Dupré asked,

Why assume the wiring of the brain is a cause rather than an effect of gender difference? Avoidance of the confusion of causation and correlation is of course the first methodological rule taught to every neophyte scientist.

This example shows ‘how powerful an unquestioned framework can be in shaping a research project and its results.’ Doesn’t it make sense, instead, to think how a brain manifests structures that fit cultural conformity?

Returning to sex/gender, Dupré describes it as a ‘homeorhetic process’, a process stabilized by a wide range of factors, to follow a particular path. Using the Waddington diagram, Dupré explains how being transgender is a result of some changes in the stabilizing condition of Waddington’s diagram—which could be environmental or biological. This thinking also challenges research, usually undertaken on American college students, about what kind of bodies people find attractive, or why for instance women get so many more swipes on Tinder than men. Where ‘sexual violence is an everyday fact of life’ the result that women are ‘unwilling to have a potentially intimate relation with an unknown man is hardly surprising.’ Comparing the sexual violence statistics for the US/Japan also debunk the idea that sexual violence is an inevitable part of life. This led him briefly to comment on women’s shelters and hope that a spectrum of being a women is invoked to enter into a serious discussion about where boundaries, on this spectrum, should be placed.

The final point of this section, was language. Dupré asked why woke-bating politicians are obsessed with how to define a woman—being a member of the sex that produces larger gametes.

Why this should be the only acceptable usage in a population in which most people have never heard of a gamete and still less of the significance of relative gamete size, is another matter […] Not all women, even defined in terms of gamete size or chromosome type, menstruate or have uteruses.  One obvious thing to say is that there are many kinds of women, of which transwomen are one.

He then moved onto race. The 19th century debate about whether races were different species was successful debunked, but debate about how races should be understood is still alive and well. Denying that our different races could be subspecies (it’s too young, and too mobile for this kind of isolation), Dupré also comments that our skin colour is rapidly evolving in reaction to the sun. Richard Lewontin’s research has shown that, biologically, race is unimportant—typically there were more differences between people of the same race than when compared between people of different races—race has come from racism. It is a social construct.

More recent genomic science has led some to rethink this. Controversial but well-known science journalist Nicholas Wade commented in 2014, ‘with mixed race populations, such as African Americans, geneticists can now track along an individual’s genome, and assign each segment to an African or European ancestor, an exercise that would be impossible if race did not have some basis in biological reality.’ This stems from a 2002 paper entitled’ Genetic Structure of Human Populations.’ The research aligned with Lewontin’s claim, there was only 5% of the overall variance was between racial groups, but they also used the genetic data to sort individuals in with a high degree of accuracy with geographical regions and racial categories.

What this data shows is the dynamic process of human migration. ‘If we think of the migration pattern as a tree, then very roughly, bearing in mind cases such as the Kalash [a unique and persecuted group with a religion related to Hinduism, and a population of about 4,000], the further from a common ancestor in the tree the greater the genetic diversity through drift.’ Another issue is how this overlooks economic background, opportunity and experience.

We should not think of biological races as defining different kinds of people; rather they are the genetic and phenotypic souvenirs that individual humans or groups of humans have acquired on their particular path through the complex process that is the recent human lineage.

Following from this, Dupré argues that we should ‘hope for the end of race as anything more than the historical curiosity’, notwithstanding the pressing questions of justice to be addressed. This would not entail a loss of cultural diversity, he reassures, but that cultural lineages are processes that are sustained by their practices of their members/adherents. Whether that be jazz, religion, or cricket. ‘The richness of the human process at its best is its ability to differentiate into communities that generate new possibilities for human life and practice and, often, to disperse these around the human species.’ Sometimes boundaries might need to be maintained to sustain smaller practices, such as indigenous traditions that might get swallowed up, but this should be seen as ‘is the preserving of diversity as a resource rather than its exclusion as a threat.’

Dupré ended his lecture with a plea for us to see ourselves as part of the process which is the human species. Ending with a quote from by Rick Hill Sr. a citizen of the Beaver Clan of the Tuscarora Nation of the Haudenosaunee at Grand River, painter, carver, photographer, basket weaver and consultant to National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution: “If you ask me what is the most important thing that I have learned about being a Haudenosaunee, it’s the idea that we are connected to a community, but a community that transcends time”, Dupré celebrates this thinking that alludes to a sustained process, rather than unethical selfish consumption that we are currently destroying the planet, and our own processual linage with.


Response: Jenny Zhang

There are two questions that Professor John Dupré addresses in Lecture 5. First, is there such a thing as human nature, and if so, what is it? Second, how should we understand controversial and divisive categories, such as sex and gender, race, and culture?

John Tooby’s and Leda Cosmides’s theory of evolutionary psychology has become an influential biological account of human nature. The overall idea is that certain mental modules and psychological mechanisms have evolved for us to adapt to life in the Stone Age, and our behaviour to this day is shaped by these evolutionary developments. The underlying assumption is that evolution is driven solely by genes: as it takes thousands of generations for genetic changes to accumulate and influence behaviour, our behaviour at present is shaped by genetic changes from a long time ago.

However, there are reasons to think that evolution involves more than changes and inheritance on the genetic level. This lies at the heart of historians’, social scientists’ and philosophers’ resistance to evolutionary and genetic explanations of human nature. To reject an evolutionary and genetic account of human nature does not necessarily imply the acceptance that human beings start from a “blank slate”. In fact, both evolutionary psychologists and their opponents endorse some form of interactionism – the view that human behaviour is shaped by a combination of biological and environmental factors, or that “nature” and “nurture” interact to determine human behaviour. Their disagreement is about how to understand and articulate this interaction.

Professor Dupré highlights, one distinctive characteristic of human beings, which evolutionary psychologists tend to downplay, is human beings’ flexibility and adaptability. Since it is unlikely that the Stone Age presented our ancestors with a stable, constant environment, human beings’ adaptability to various conditions serves as a plausible explanation for our evolutionary success. Emphasising human developmental plasticity, Professor Dupré summarises his answer to the question on human nature: as it turns out, “human nature” is not a very helpful concept. Human beings are highly plastic, and human lineage is an adaptive process. There could be empirical discoveries about what individuals are like at a particular time and space, but these discoveries do not reliably tell us what human beings are like across populations, or will be like in future.

To address the second question, Professor Dupré starts by noting the diversity and variability among human beings. What he cautions against is drawing certain inferences from the systematic classifications of human kinds, e.g. sex and gender, race and class. A closer examination of the basis of such classifications reveals that it is not clear what exactly makes one a member of a particular kind. Here, Professor Dupré draws on Ian Hacking’s concept of “looping kinds”, which elucidates that some characteristic behaviour of a distinguished kind is not a cause, but a consequence, of being classified into the kind. In other words, individuals respond to being categorised into a kind and exhibit certain behaviour taken to be characteristic of the kind.

It seems to me that there are two distinct arguments here. One is about the arbitrariness of the attribution of causes and effects on some occasions. Another is about how we become the images, and fit into the categories, which we create for ourselves. This is reminiscent of social and political critiques of existing structures, and points to some background debates in the philosophy of science – what are scientists doing, when they hypothesise, test, gather data, and interpret results? Do scientific products elucidate what human behaviour is like, or do they offer a blueprint for how to behave?

Professor Dupré moves onto the topic of sex and gender. What defines one’s sex or gender? Biological sex is fundamentally defined with reference to gamete size, but this is far from the full story of how sex and gender are determined for human beings. Various factors, some biological (e.g. genes, hormones, brains, etc.) and others environmental (e.g. developmental infrastructure such as parenting, schools, social networks, etc.), come together to influence the gendering process, which yields diverse outcomes. Professor Dupré stresses that sex and gender is a developmental process. In his words, “[s]ex/gender, then, is properly seen as what I have called a homeorhetic process, a process stabilised, often by a wide range of factors, to follow a particular path”.

How about racial categories? Population geneticist Richard Lewontin has shown that genetic differences that are attributable to racial differences are extremely small, as compared to differences between individuals considered to be of the same race.[1] That is, there is hardly any correlation between having certain genetic makeup and belonging to a certain race. Race is a social construct, and a consequence of racism and colonialism, rather than a stable biological feature to be picked out. The genetic structure of human populations, which is used to justify the biological basis of racial categories, could be explained by appeal to the historical patterns of migration. Having migrated to different parts of the world from East Africa, our ancestors both developed phenotypic differences (e.g. difference in skin colour) and experienced genetic drifts. The genetic differences that one notices are not selected for any biological or phenotypic significance; neither are they indicative of racial differences.

Professor Dupré’s lecture offers fertile grounds for thinking about, among many other things, how implicit ideology and theoretical frameworks influence empirical research on human nature and human kinds. What researchers take to be the causes of certain phenomena is influenced by what they assume to possess explanatory power. If a scientist designs an experiment with the underlying assumption that behaviour is fundamentally determined by neurocognitive mechanisms, any observed correlations between the behaviour and neurocognitive mechanisms in question would be interpreted as causal relations.

During Q&A, in response to a question about why we should care about the continuation of human species, Professor Dupré points to the wonderful human achievements worth sustaining, and that there is something both aesthetic and morally satisfying about sustaining them. I am immediately reminded of what Iris Murdoch (1971) says about aesthetics and morality – how there is a relation between art and goodness. Murdoch also says, “[t]he image whereby to understand morality… is not the image of vision but the image of movement”. Professor Dupré’s lecture is not about human morality per se, but considerations about morality are inevitably encoded in what he says about human nature, sex and gender, race, and culture. The process perspective that Professor Dupré proposes beautifully captures the multifaceted and provisional nature of human existence and identity. It is a resistance of homogeneous categorisation and a celebration of diversity, complexity and fluidity. Perhaps, this is exactly what we need, in order to connect our past and future, and to finally see the image of movement

[1] Lewontin, R. C. (1972). The apportionment of human diversity. Evolutionary biology: volume 6, 381-398.


Response: Samuel Horsley

In his fifth lecture, Professor Dupré tackled the questions of human nature and the categorisation of human beings. Applying a process lens to these topical questions, Dupré’s overall argument in this lecture was to deconstruct the (largely imagined) basis upon which rests both the reification of an essentialised understanding of human nature, and the systematic categorisation of human beings, and thus to critique the reification of those categories at the level of society. This deconstruction was illustrated with reference to what are probably the most enduring and pervasive categories into which human beings place themselves and others, both historically and contemporaneously – sex/gender and race. The conclusions offered by Professor Dupré in this lecture were compelling, and also deeply resonant with onto-epistemologies arising from the insights of Buddhist Mādhyamka and Yogācāra philosophers of the early centuries CE.

Dupré began his lecture with a compelling account of the human being as a process, charting a middle way between two extremes. Resisting both tabula rasa thinking, which makes the individual out to be a blank slate upon which society and culture writes, and the essentialism of evolutionary psychology, which imagines that it can capture human nature in terms of behaviours that evolved in a supposedly stable prehistory, Dupré presented something of a “goldilocks” understanding. Humans are neither too plastic, nor too fixed: they are, instead, a process shaped by limiting factors. Dupré’s understanding of human nature thus articulated resonates strongly with the philosophy of the person articulated by Siddhārtha Gautama, the historical Buddha (6th-5th century BCE). The doctrine of anātman (no-soul) neither denies nor reifies the existence of a self; rather, it resists the two extremes of ucchedavāda (annihilationism), which denies any self, and śāśvatavāda (eternalism), which proposes an eternal, unchanging self. Against these two, anātman holds that the person is instead an aggregative process.

Dupré’s understanding of the nature of the human person, and of the extent and limits of an individual’s plasticity, has social implications. If humans are processes, then they are open-ended. Dupré noted the human tendency to reify perceived difference, to imagine that a difference in development bespeaks something essential. Against this, he suggested that we ought instead to consider the factors shaping and stabilising the process that is the individual. Difference, rather than being a cause of differential treatment, might instead therefore be its consequence. This insight informed Dupré’s subsequent discussion of the ubiquitous categories of sex/gender and race. As with human nature itself, Dupré resisted the reification of either category as having any sort of essence or substance, whilst at the same time acknowledging that neither simply did not exist. Process is again, therefore, a middle way between too solid and not solid enough.

In rejecting the reification of categories in this way, Dupré’s thinking rhymes a second time with Buddhist philosophy. Nāgārjuna (2nd-3rd century CE), arch-metaphysician of Mahāyāna philosophy and founder of the Mādhyamaka school, proposed that reality should be understood from two perspectives or through two levels. The level of saṃvṛti satya (conventional truth) is the way we understand reality on a day-to-day basis, as being constituted of discrete objects that fit into categories. The level of paramārtha satya (ultimate truth), by contrast, identifies those objects and categories that are reified conventionally as being ultimately empty (śūnya) of any essence or substance. In the same way, Dupré’s positioning of the conventionally reified categories of sex/gender and race as, in the final analysis, existing only in our identification of them as such, concurrently makes process a sort of paramārtha satya, slipping beneath and through the attempt to categorise it. To take the exploration of this lecture’s resonance with Buddhist philosophy still further, we might suggest that, in fact, there is another Buddhist onto-epistemological tool that even more closely aligns with Dupré’s thinking. Less well-known to those casually interested in Buddhist thought than Nāgārjuna’s Mādhyamaka, the philosophers of the school of thought known as Yogācāra proposed a three-level delineation of reality, in contrast to Nāgārjuna’s two. Their parikalpita svabhāva (conceptualised reality) aligns with Nāgārjuna’s conventional truth, and with the ordinarily accepted categories of sex/gender and race that Dupré discussed. At the other end of the spectrum is pariniṣpanna svabhāva (consummated reality), which corresponds to Nāgārjuna’s ultimate truth, and in the Yogācāra analysis it is made clear that this is an ineffable understanding of reality-in-itself, a meditative non-duality of subject and object that necessarily goes beyond Professor Dupré’s aims in this lecture. More relevant is the middle level proposed by the Yogācāra philosophers: paratantra svabhāva (other-dependent reality). This level is explicitly processual, being the flow of interdependent phenomena that human beings attempt to capture and solidify into categories but which ultimately cannot be pinned down. Dupré’s understanding of categories such as sex/gender as “homeorhetic processes” rather than static categories seems to align neatly with this level. In both schemata, the understanding of reality as consisting of static categories relies on our tendency to perceive in snapshots, taking our momentary apprehension of an extended and continuous process as representative of reality, such that the world appears to be made up of discrete entities and ideas.

Dupré’s treatment of these processes and categories drew heavily on population genetics and other contemporary biological theorising, which of course the philosophers of the Mādhyamaka and Yogacāra schools, writing almost two thousand years ago, did not have access to. The possibilities for conversation between these different and yet strikingly aligned schools of thought are thus rendered all the more fruitful, in that similar conclusions have been arrived at through entirely different means and methods. Whereas Nāgārjuna and his contemporaries were contemplative ascetics who grounded their philosophy in insights into the nature of their own minds apprehended through meditative practice, Dupré’s conclusions draw on empirical scientific research. It will be interesting to see if these prima facie observations of alignment will be borne out in continued discussion

1 reply to “John Dupré, Gifford Lecture 5: Human Nature and Human Kinds”

  1. John Dupré says:

    Thanks, Victoria for another very lucid and succinct summary, and to Jenny and Samuel for great comments. A couple of very quick thoughts.

    Jenny’s comments raise a couple of times the vital question of the relations of science to values, which I did not explicitly discuss at all in my lectures. I do in fact believe that despite the still widely held view that science should always be value-free, the closer scientific questions and conclusions come too topics that matter to us, the more unrealistic and even impossible this ideal becomes. On a topic such as human nature, the language we use to describe the central contested categories is so loaded with normative assumptions that the most we can hope to do is to try to be aware of these and be prepared to debate their legitimacy. We can resort to a technical language, but this simply fails to address the questions we care about in a way we can understand. The attempt to expose the assumptions underlying scientific programmes, which has been a theme of these lectures is inevitably, whether or not explicitly, in part an attempt to expose the values assumed by the research.

    On the parallels so well described by Samuel with themes in Buddhist philosophy, I am tempted just to say that if had available a few extra decades or centuries of the life extension that I fear won’t happen, I would certainly try to better understand this, and other philosophical traditions. I have had a number of conversations over the years with people expert in Buddhist, Chinese and other non-Western traditions, and I have the impression that the Western tradition in which I have been trained and worked is quite unusual in its lack of attention to the processual nature of being. The conversations you advocate between experts in these traditions are very much to be hoped for, though whether I shall be the person to take them forward is, I fear, less certain.

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