Making sense of human nature 2

I have spent a great deal of my life studying psychology in various ways. Most of the time I have been looking for clues as to what it is that differentiates intelligent life from its non-intelligent cousins and precursors. I have written quite a lot about this (e.g., my History of Human Reason and yet-to-be-published Birth of Reason), but I often feel that I have missed the point.

Quite a lot of human existence is readily captured by the conventional notion of intelligence. We are almost uniquely conscious and historical beings. The only other species that exhibit consciousness are our primate cousins and a few very smart birds and dolphins, and none at all has a history. So far as we tell at the moment (animals are difficult to study in direct proportion to their evolutionary distance from Homo sapiens), these species are all characterised by essentially the same kinds of intelligence as ourselves. Or at least, they can be tested for the same aptitudes and abilities.

Yet I don’t spend my personal life dwelling on the sorts of things that are normally associated with testing intelligence. I don’t sit about doing mathematical puzzles or organising objects into classes and sequences. Right now, I am writing this blog, listening to Muddy Waters and feeling pretty pleased that I have finally coaxed my cat to want to sit on my lap after literally years of trying. Last night I watched Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona and thought about my life. What all that has to do with intelligence as conceived of by science I have no idea. Nor, I think, has science.

Yet I am quite sure that that is where the explanation lies. The problem is that, like everything else about the science of human nature, the study of intelligence seems to take in everything about human beings apart from what makes them so peculiarly human. As so often, science studies what it can readily comprehend and already knows how to research, and everything that does not fit that model is left by the wayside. Later, once it has established a massive body of empirical findings, it announces that this is what humanity is, and all the rest is illusion, epiphenomenal, trivia.

But then, isn’t that where we are now? With all those modules and genes-for and all that – where is anyone asking, ‘So what has all this got to do with human beings?’ The truth is, you can’t get there from here.

So let me suggest a list of things any would-be science of human nature should take as its central problems:

  • Love
  • Music
  • Laughter
  • Beauty

I know that there are some studies of some of these things, but precious little. Even when they are studied, there is something strangely mechanical about the way we go about it. How can a checklist or an ECG reading capture anything of significance? No, they aren’t a ‘starting point’ or ‘building blocks’ for a full theory, or anything else of any value, any more than a scientific study of the properties of bricks tells us anything about Westminster Cathedral – or, indeed, a multi-storey car park.

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2 thoughts on “Making sense of human nature

  1. Reply Harish Govindarajan Sep 2,2008 10:01 am

    Sir, Glad i came across your blog. Interesting Posts.
    Regarding the problems you mentioned that the science of human nature should take up,
    Do each of those fields reduce to how patterns formed from a person’s experiences are interpreted and accepted by him?

  2. Reply RJ Robinson Sep 4,2008 8:05 pm

    Glad you like the blog. In answer tou your question, I would say that things are undersstood to teh extent that they can be successfully constucted rather than perceived.It is an active relationship to the work, not just passive reception. To the extent that they do not contradict what was originally intended, an experience can be accepted, as you say. But the ‘patterns that are ‘formed from a person’s experience’ are actively created by that person trhough their actions – practical and intellectual – in the world.

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