How Charles Darwin and Frans de Waal Explained Human Nature

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Conceptualizations of human nature are important as how we think about what it means to be human and how we understand that influences in-depth humanity. Human nature refers to a set of inherent characteristics which all humans share. Since ancient times, scholars attempted to find the characteristics of human nature and understand what human nature means. There is always a debate whether human nature is biologically inherent in us or depends on outside influences, such as the environment we grow up in, education we received and the social circles we’re part of. One of the prime reasons to grasp human nature is to understand people’s individuality. There were many scholars who tried to explain human nature and two distinct ones among them are Charles Darwin and Frans de Waal.

Charles Darwin had an enormous influence on western society and fully changed the way we perceive human nature through his works on evolution. Darwin was the first to introduce the concept of evolution and describe every living creature as the end product of natural selection. According to his theory of evolution, explained in “Descent of Man,” people share common ancestor with chimpanzees and all of physical traits of modern human evolved in the process of natural selection.

For Darwin, the main purpose of humans is surviving and passing their biological heritage to the next generation. He described his theory is plain language, accessible to the less privileged and educated, ensuring the quick spread of his ideology, regardless of how controversial it was. Evolution, according to Darwin, results from a competition to survive whether it is between same species or different species. The process of natural selection he described implies the “survival of the fittest,” which means that species that can better adapt to different circumstances and environment will tend to have a higher chance of surviving.

The idea of evolution can be understood in by grasping four components:

  1. Variation of traits exists among individuals in a given species
  2. Traits owned by parents are inherited by their offspring
  3. The population of species can increase quickly, and
  4. An environment’s resources typically cannot support such increases.

The first two components can be easily seen in daily humanly life — we look like our parents, we have similar attitudes and similar behavioral aspects. The same applies to other species as well — dogs pass their traits and appearance to their offspring and so on. The third component is observable through the history — with time population has been growing exponentially. The same goes to other species; however, people interfere in their reproduction process by hunting and thus destroying the way how naturally things should go on.

The last component implies that only a small portion of offspring survives and is able to pass their heritage to the next generation, which creates a competition to survive and pass on your genes. Taking into account first component (only those variation of traits passes on, which can survive in specific environment), we can come to the conclusion that the characteristic of populations gradually changes and can possibly lead to the formation of the new species. Thus, scarcity and variation are two important elements of Darwin’s argument.

The basic condition of organism in the nature depends on the local scarcity; thus, even small changes in an organism affecting his ability to survive or reproduce can impact the variation immensely. Here we should understand that individual’s likelihood of living and reproducing is based on the biological variation and behavioral variation. His own summary of the main argument of “The Origin of Species” is on the changes in frequencies of specific variations in a population resulting from surviving for living over time:

“This preservation of favorable individual differences and variations, and the destruction of those which are injurious, I have called Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest” (“The Origin of Species”, 19).

It is clear that a 21st-century person looks at the world quite differently than a citizen from the Victorian era did. This shift had multiple sources but shift in thinking indeed resulted from Darwin’s ideas. For Darwin, our intelligence, language, emotions, morality, and even religion had also evolved from lower forms. He also realized that culture, as well as biology, influenced ethical values and religious beliefs. Back in 19th century all leading scientists and philosophers were Christians in the western world.

The world in which they lived was created by God and God was the one who put all the rules of live and environment. There is no longer an educated person who would question the exitance of the evolution, which we are taught from early childhood. Darwin influenced immensely how the modern person thinks in several ways. Firstly, because of his theory of evolution, the world around us now can be explained without any supernaturalism or superpowers above us. Secondly, he proposed that typology is incorrect; thus, all individuals are unique, which is pivotal part of education in current world as well as elimination of any kind of discrimination – racism, gender discrimination and ableism to name few.

Thirdly, Darwin developed a new view of humanity. In modern world, people accept the fact that we have evolved from a lower species which puts us on the same level as any other species and takes away humanity’s “unique purpose”. In my opinion, this resulted in the fact that currently people care not only about humans but also about other species on the same level. This results in emergence of vegetarianism/veganism and creation of animal rights. Nowadays, animals are protected more than ever before and have a set of rights for which people fight. Darwin forever changed our world by his prominent work and made it way clearer than it was before.

Another person who is involved in changing our view of human nature is Frans de Waal.

He is supporting Darwin in terms of the fact that any specie with well-marked social instincts and intellectual power on the level of humans would inevitably have a moral sense or conscience. De Waal declines the Veneer Theory as according to him this theory faces a number of problems. According to Veneer Theory, we are self-interested creatures, who conform to moral norms only to avoid punishment or disapproval. Mainly he declines this theory because the theory denies that morality is natural, which results in the fact that Veneer theory can’t explain how and why we have certain traits and tendencies.

Also, Veneer Theory’s assumption that we are fundamentally asocial and selfish is controversial to the empathy which can be find in primate. According to De Waal, that was not point at which we became social- we have always been social, as our ancestors were. In “Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved”, De Waal expresses his belief that our genes and biological traits define our morality. However, he also says that all of these (empathy, reciprocity, reconciliation and consolation) can also be seen in many animals, mostly in primates.

He explains the origins of empathy (care for others) as a care mostly likely coming from parents. But at the same time, empathy extends far beyond child-parents relationship. He wrote that empathy is an automatic response seen in human infants, dogs and apes. De Waal also gives an example of another type of empathy found in apes – targeted helping, which is based on ape’s reactions on insight and perspective of another’s situation.

Being among others shows an understanding of the need for cooperation and reciprocity, which is a surviving mechanism according to Darwin. De Waal explained also how chimpanzees and capuchins are primates who are able to share food, another instinct belonging to human beings. He wrote that both of these species will work collaboratively to reach their goal, which is putting them in a better fit to survive.

Also important for all species survival are reconciliation and consolation activities. De Waal’s observations of chimpanzees showed that these animals reunite after the conflict they encountered between each other. This is also can be seen in humans- people reunited after conflicts. Consolation – a friendly contact by an uninvolved third party after a conflict- is a behavior seen only in apes and humans.

Frans de Waal with his work on primate behavior caused substantial shift in scientific and popular thinking about animal’s social behavior. Before him it was a popular belief that primates are aggressive, selfish and individualistic. However, his work and observations showed that it is not true and that those animals possess similar to us social behaviors. He also notes that those behaviors are deeply instinctive in primates as well as in humans. Because of De Waal, now we can conclude that morality is anywhere where there is a social nature we share with other species, and therefore morality itself is deeply rooted in our nature.


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How Charles Darwin and Frans de Waal Explained Human Nature. (2021, May 23). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/how-charles-darwin-and-frans-de-waal-explained-human-nature/

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