Human Nature in Its Psychological Dimensions

* MELFORD E. SPIRO University of Connecticut INTRODUCTION F BY “nature” is meant the “essential character . . . of a particular thing” I (“Nature,” in Webster International Dictionary) then a concept of human nature must satisfy two criteria: It must designate a class, human, on the basis of those “essential character(s)” common to the members of the class; and it must distinguish this class from the class, infrahuman, whose members do not share these “essential character(s) .” Psychology and anthropology have arrived at peculiarly different conclusions with respect to the possibility of such a classification. While asserting the existence of a nature common to all humans, psychology has questioned the existence of “essential” differences between humans and infrahumans. Anthropology, on the contrary, has distinguished humans from infrahumans, but has entertained serious doubts concerning “essential character(s)” universal among humans. In short, both disciplines have tended to deny the existence of a generic human nature. An examination of the psychological dimensions of human nature must come to terms with these two positions. THE IMAGE OF MAN IN TRADITIONAL PSYCHOLOGY AND ANTHROPOLOGY Infrahuman animals have constituted the favorite subjects for research in experimental psychology. The use of these animals is dictated, of course, by many reasons of expediency and ease of experimentation. But the application of principles derived from infrahuman behavior to human behavior is based on a fundamental methodological postulate of experimental psychology, namely: the behavior of all mammals, if not of all animals, is governed by identical laws. This is what Murray has designated as “the audacious assumption of species equivalence” (p. 435). Psychologists as different as Tolman and Lashley are united on this point. Tolman, who has been one of the most effective critics of a simplistic StimulusResponse psychology and a brilliant contributor to “field theory,” nevertheless writes : I believe that everything important in psychology (except perhaps such matters as the building up of the superego, that is, everything save such matters as involve society and words) can be investigated in essence through the continued experimental and theoretical analysis of the determiners of rat behavior at a choice point in a maze Ip. 341. But the immediate anthropological retort would be: is there anything in human psychology, or behavior, that does not “involve society and words”? Lashley adopts a more extreme position. In an intriguing paper on the ex- * This paper, with some minor changes, was read before the 1952 meetings of the American Anthropological Association, as part of the Symposium on Human Nature. 19 20 American Anthropologist [56, 1954 perimental analysis of instinctive behavior he proposes the postulate of interphylum equivalence. Describing the microstoma, Lashley reports that this tiny marine worm has no stinging cells of its own, but ingests hydras, which do have such cells, until sated; thus, it acquires all the nettles it needs for its protection. Involved in this process, he writes, is a: specific drive or appetite, satisfied only by a very indirect series of activities, with the satisfaction of the appetite dependent upon concentration of nettles in the skin. [Hence], here in the length of half a millimeter, are encompassed all of the major problems of dynamic psychology [p. 4461. This postulate of psychological equivalence is itself based on a prior assumption: that the behavim of organisms, human and infrahuman alike, is automatic or machine-like. “We must regard the process of learning,” writes Hull, “as wholly automatic. . . . Recourse cannot be had to any monitor, entelechy, mind or spirit” (p. 69). This notion of behvior is spelled out by Boring in a delightful passage. I believe that robotic thinking helps precision of psychological thought, and will continue to help it until psychophysiology is so far advanced that an image is nothing other than a neural event, and object constancy is obviously something that happens in the brain. That time is still a long way off, and in the interval I choose to sit cozily with my robot, squeezing his hand and feeling a thrill-a scientist’s thrill-when he squeezes mine back again [p. 1921. Hence, since neither humans nor infrahuman animals have minds, and since interspecific differences in neurology and physiology are negligible, there is no basis for assuming a human, as distinct from an infrahuman nature. There are, of course, many social and clinical psychologists who take serious issue with this point of view (cf. Allport 1940; Murray 1951). Some currents within social psychology, as well, see a basic identity between humans and infrahumans. Attempting to discover the uniquely human in the motivational aspects of behavior, social psychology-taking its cue from learning theory-distinguishes “primary,” or biological, drives from “secondary” or acquired drives. Human behavior is then distinguished from infrahuman behavior in the complex repertory of “secondary” drives to be found in the former. Nevertheless, these acquired drives are not “basic”; they are “elaborations” of the biological drives, serving “as a facade behind which the functioning of the underlying (biological) drives are hidden” (Dollard and Miller 33). Since the acquired drives constitute the “superstructure of human motivation,” human nature consists of “the biological endowment of the species” (Sherif : 18, 38). This view, of course, is not restricted to psychology. In one of his most influential works, Malinowski writes: By human nature we mean the biological determinism which imposes on every civilization and on all individuals in it the carrying out of such bodily functions as breathing, sleep, rest, nutrition, excretion, and reproduction

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