Don’t blame me — it’s human nature

Tackling the current obsession with “fake news,” a recent Science magazine study (Science 09 Mar 2018) concluded that false stories indeed spread more rapidly on the Internet than true ones, but not because the algorithms are rigged against us. “Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”

This conclusion may be comforting in that it keeps the HAL 9000 at bay for a time, but may be unnerving for what it says about human nature. Let me seize this unnerving moment as the occasion to review of Enlightenment theories of human nature. After all, the Enlightenment, with its investment in the scientific method and evidence-based epistemology, with its tenet of universal rational principles as a foundation for universal rights, represents the beginning of our age, an age now under attack, some would say, by a postmodern epistemology.

Enlightenment thinkers looked for the roots of human nature at its origin. What was the human condition in a state of nature? Start there and maybe we can unravel the rest.

For the late 17th-century Hobbes, left on our own in a state of nature, we would find life “nasty, brutish, and short.” In a word, we’re a bad lot, which is why we’ve had to build up all this civilizing infrastructure over the millennia.

Some decades later, Rousseau, perhaps a more Romantic spirit, held that human beings in a state of nature were “noble savages,” intrinsically good until so-called civilization corrupted their natural goodness.

From Voltaire’s point of view – and I’m thinking mainly of Candide (from memory) – both Hobbes and Rousseau seem a little silly, dogmatic. Everywhere Candide goes, he finds a mix of generous people and self-interested people. Neither nature nor nurture matters very much. Wherever you go, cross-culturally, you will be mistaken (comically so if you are in a Voltaire narrative) if you expect to find a collective human nature that is idealized and you will be mistaken if you expect to find seamless corruption. We’re a mixed bag wherever you find us.

So take your pick: a darkly driven human nature that needs external structures and traditions, an idealized human nature that needs to throw off the shackles of civilized society, or an irreducibly mixed nature.

Ah, but the article in Science. We may be neither programmed for generous behavior nor for selfish behavior, but it’s hard to read the article and think that we are not programmed for stupid behavior. Maybe we need to call in the HAL 9000 after all.

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Colliding values in Frankenstein

That the monster represents some projected aspect of the good Dr. Frankenstein is clear enough. (And Victor is indeed a good and noble man at bottom, his fall that of a tragic hero.) But what projected aspect? What exactly is it that the doctor sublimates into monstrosity? I’m sure many illuminating answers are possible, but I have one that relates to three value systems operable in the culture and literature of Shelley’s day.

I am grateful to Shelley for giving Victor a pathological work ethic, evidenced by the time he spends in his lab, because I call on the doctor here to perform a double duty. Among the value systems of the day, Victor represents both the Enlightenment faith in science and the Romantic passion to strive beyond all accepted limits. A third value system – let’s call it the Sentimental — was anchored in the kinder, simpler domestic bonding of friendship and companionate marriage as the locus of value, and it would reach from the 18th century Cult of Sensibility (Laurence Sterne, Henry Mackenzie, et al) toward the novels Dickens would write in the decades after Frankenstein. Even as a teenager, Mary Shelley would be quite aware of these cultural formations, since her parents were famous Enlightenment radicals, her young husband already a famous Romantic poet, and the sentimental novel had been all the craze for some decades.

While Victor epitomizes both the Enlightenment faith in science and the Romantic excess of passion in his pursuits, Elizabeth (and to a lesser extent, Henry) represents the Sentimental, pulling Victor away from strife and excess toward the more domesticated bliss, the sweet contentment of conjugal love and home life. Elizabeth fails, of course, and Victor hurtles to the outer reaches of the earth, following his extravagant aspirations to his own self-destruction. Elizabeth fails to turn the plot, that is. In terms of the moral of the tale, she wins hands down. What did Victor’s relentless Romantic passion to do great things beyond measure, what did his faith in human science get him? How much more fulfilled might he have been if he had settled down with Elizabeth in domestic bliss and spent out his years peacefully “tending his own garden,” as Voltaire had recommended we do? Despite the wild and stormy romanticism of the novel’s setting and plot, despite the fact that Shelley was at the time of writing traveling with two of the greatest Romantic poets of the day – it seems that the novel’s resolution, after all the crash-and-burn of colliding value systems, favors the Sentimental anchor of fulfillment – at least for us mere mortals.