Saturday, May 16, 2009

Human Nature Commonalities

Rather than a hot news, this is more of a reflective thought...
We are all familiar with Paul Ekman's study of going around the world to primitive human communities and asking them to identify facial expressions of emotion. Although he sought to prove Darwin wrong that "the chief [emotional] expressions exhibited by man are the same throughout the world", he actually came back acceding that Darwin had a point. Other similarities across human civilizations include the cross-cultural tendencies to form communities, pay attention to kinship relationships, use language to communicate, socialize, and even adorn their bodies! Even more peculiar is that many languages use a word similar in meaning to "small person" to describe the iris (as English does too). Perhaps this relates to the shared belief that the pupil offers a small portal to the viewer of his/her reflection, hence "small person."

I am rather a appreciator of evolutionary psychology and following from my weekly observations and book review trying to instill hope in the field, I've found a niche for evolutionary psychology here in universal human traits!

So yes there are numerous traits that appear to be universal in humans as identified by researchers such as Paul Ekman, Donald Brown (who wrote "Human Universals"). However, anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists are now looking into the oddities and differences in human nature rather than the universals to shed light on the universals! Specifically, researchers have looked at cultural malleability in addition to genetic, biological predispositions. For instance, although even chimps have been shown to respond to the ultimatum game similarly as humans; i.e. they will perform 'altruistic punishment' and punish free-riders who parasitize the efforts of others, not all human societies in fact behave like this to the same degree. Many of our current misconceptions and overestimations of universality come from WEIRD subjects (I like this acronym!): westernized, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.

So, I think the efforts of these evolutionary psychologists can be directed towards answering some of the questions we discussed in class on Wed, about whether science and religion can address similar issues such as morality. Jonathan Haidt, of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and Craig Joseph, of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois argue that evolution has favored human consideration of five social/moral issues: "fairness and justice; avoiding harm to and caring for others; in-group loyalty; social hierarchy and respect for authority; and the domain of divinity and purity, both bodily and spiritual." As the scientific underpinnings of these weighted values become clearer, I suppose science will be able to justify moral fortitude in humans without recourse to religion propounding God's grace in instilling this capacity based on his own image in human beings. Perhaps science will be able to explain the mechanism of our ability to absorb and enact ever-changing cultural norms and reconcile with religion that purports an external authority (god) serving as our moral compass. Well, maybe our cultural environment is that moral compass.

-Bonnie Chien

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