Human Nature and the Limits of Possibility

One of the most irritating types of arguments about the problems facing human beings runs along these lines:

Ah yes, we all want to solve Problem X. But Problem X has been with us since time immemorial. You won’t get rid of Problem X without getting rid of human beings. It’s simple human nature.

The reasoning seldom gets any more complex than that; whatever else is added usually consists of a set of historical anecdotes designed to prove that Problem X has indeed been around for a very long time. The slight irony is that this type of bullshit argument has been around for just as long as any of the phenomena under discussion.

The argument is usually applied by some tough-minded cynic against an earnest reformer. I recently had it with a bunch of gun-coddling libertarians, over my position that we should probably try to get rid of unnecessary violent accidental deaths. But I’ve also had it over capitalism, war, poverty, crime, etc. And it never changes. Every single person who has ever tried to get a problem solved has faced a slew of people slinging this same fallacious set of incantations.

Just as the argument is always the same, the fallacy is always the same. The problem with the argument is (has been, will always be) that plenty of things have happened that have never happened before, many of them extremely unexpected. Somehow, the fact that something has not occurred is taken as evidence that it cannot possibly occur. But people make this at every point in history up until the thing occurs. “Oh, women will never have the vote. Women have never had the vote. Like it or not, man’s domination over women is simple human nature, they’ll never get the vote.” “You’ll never have black president. America’s a racist country, we’ve never had a black president.” Of course it happens outside of politics, too. There were no airplanes, and then there were. Anytime anyone has envisioned a possibility that is slightly different from the sum total of all things that people accept as natural, a bunch of dopes start chanting this mantra.

I wouldn’t get so uptight about it if it was just pessimism. But what it really is is arrogance. There is an extremely high level of confidence embedded in these arguments. The speaker asserts that they understand the very fabric of human nature. That means they feel confident making accurate statements not only about human beings as they are, but about every human being that can ever possibly exist. If you make a statement about human nature, you are making a statement about the bounds of all potential human behavior. After all, if you’re not making a statement about all potential humans infinitely into the future, then you’re not really saying Problem X cannot be solved. But if you’re saying there is no way to solve Problem X, you’re saying you know every single thing that human beings could ever come up with or be like, forever. What unbelievable hubris!

I myself try never to make predictions, because I know how little I know about what is “essential” to human beings.  I know how they are today, but I have no way of knowing what we’ll be like in 1000 years. Or 10,000. I don’t make statements about “human nature,” because usually those are just some observed recurring tendencies. The worst part of it is that those tendencies are usually in only a minority of human beings! I’m told human beings are “by nature” violent even though no human being I’ve ever met has ever been violent to me. I’m told they’re inherently selfish, even though I know full well that they need not be, because I’ve met plenty of them who aren’t. So what’s this nonsense about human nature?

There is only way to know that Problem X will never be solved, and it is by embracing the position that Problem X is insoluble. And even though nobody ever has any grounds for concluding this, and even though the people who parrot that argument get proved wrong over and over again as new history happens, this broken record just keeps playing.