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Why We Disagree about Human Nature

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Is human nature something that the natural and social sciences aim to describe, or is it a pernicious fiction? What role, if any, does ‘human nature’ play in directing and informing scientific work? Can we talk about human nature without invoking—either implicitly or explicitly—a contrast with human culture? It might be tempting to think that the respectability of ‘human nature’ is an issue that divides natural and social scientists along disciplinary boundaries, but the truth is more complex. Some evolutionary theorists have enthusiastically embraced ‘human nature’, while others have rejected it. Many social scientists have explicitly rejected it, while implicitly gesturing towards universal ‘cognitive schemas’. Philosophers, meanwhile, have recently put forward a variety of suggestions for how, if at all, we might make sense of this divisive notion.

The speakers at this conference will put forward a selection of the very different answers to these questions about human nature. Their responses are drawn from the perspectives of psychology, the philosophy of science, the philosophy of medicine, social and biological anthropology, evolutionary theory and the study of animal cognition. We will hear that human nature is a dangerous illusion; that human nature names—in a perfectly unproblematic way—the subset of traits that happen to be common to many members of our species; that human nature is a misleading abstraction from protean human developmental processes; that human nature is a target for investigation that the human sciences cannot do without; that ‘human nature’ is a concept with many faces, each of which plays a role in its own epistemic niche. We will understand why we disagree about human nature, and what, if anything, might resolve that disagreement.

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