Friday, 17 June 2011

Coming out as Humans: Radical Acceptance of Human Nature

“I am human, nothing that is human is alien to me.” - Terence (c. 185-159 BC)

Our evolved human nature is what it is. Just as a mountain climber has to be realistic about the mountain they are tackling, and an artist has to be realistic about the materials they are using, as therapists we need to have as realistic a picture as possible of human nature, because this is the basic material we work with. This doesn’t mean that we yet fully know what that nature is, though we are gaining a clearer and clearer picture.

Ironically, human nature does not equip us well for the task of realistically understanding human nature. It would not make sense for evolution, via natural and sexual selection, to have designed us for that task. Instead, like any organism, we are designed to be good at much more immediate, survival-and-reproduction oriented tasks; as Patricia Churchland puts it, “The main business of our brain is to help us adapt to changing circumstances, to predict food sources and dangers, to recognise mates and shelter, in general, to allow us to survive and reproduce” (Brain-Wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy). We therefore tend to develop a rather practical, partial, parochial, biased, subjective, unscientific view of human nature. In other words, we can’t trust our ‘common sense’ on this matter.

Our individual upbringings rarely prepare us well for the task either; a fully realistic view of human nature is not a comfortable thing, and is therefore not generally encouraged or promoted. Our individual philosophies of human nature are based partly on explicit teaching we received (often including very unrealistic religious views of what it is to be human), and partly on our life experience (which for many of us will have been quite limited, even protected). A remark attributed to bishop’s wife in Darwin’s time seems apt here: “My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.”

I also wonder whether our training as counsellors/psychotherapists prepares us well for this task. None of the main psychotherapeutic theories of human nature is adequate; if nothing else, many of them suffer from the limitation of being based on a single proposed drive/motivator. It is simply not accurate or helpful to think that all of our behaviour can be explained by a sublimated sex-drive (Psychoanalysis), by a drive towards self-actualisation (Humanistic approaches), or by the desire to achieve rational goals (REBT, and indeed much of modern economic theory). Evolutionary psychology, on the other hand, sees human life, like that of any organism, as consisting of strategic attempts to maximise our success along various key axes, such as mating, care-giving, satisfying appetites, staying safe etc. We expect human motivations to be multiple and modular, not unitary.

One of the things that suggests to me that even qualified therapists do not always have a realistic view of human nature is that they are often surprised by what seem to me to be fairly obvious manifestations of how Homo Sapiens is built. One of the examples I am familiar with, having given a lot of training in the area of Sexual Addictions, is the way in which pornography use is often seen as something pathological, and in need of some special explanation, rather than as the behaviour of an animal (particularly the male of the species) who really likes visual sexual stimuli, especially highly enhanced ones.

We shouldn’t be comfortable with a view of human beings as organisms who are always happy about having had children, who always enjoy their free time, and who should be at ease when flying 10,000 feet in the air – though this is the default view presented in much of mainstream TV and film. Instead, we should deeply internalise the truth that a normal human life contains disappointment as well as enjoyment, anger as well as love, fear as well as ease. We are status-driven, comfort-seeking mammals, inherently suspicious of those outside our in-group, obsessed with fairness, and never really satisfied for long.

I believe that therapists especially need to work hard to develop a more radical acceptance of real human nature. By radical I mean a number of things:

  • Acceptance that there is a human nature. Our mind is not the proverbial “Blank Slate” that has sometimes been thought (for a discussion of this issue see Steven Pinker’s book “The Blank Slate”).
  • Going back to our evolutionary roots (“radix” means “root” in Latin) in our efforts to understand our nature. By this we mean our roots as hunter-gatherers, as primates, as mammals etc.
  • Basing our views of human nature on scientific evidence as well as on personal and clinical experience. The findings of science in this regard are not always what we want to hear, but once they are well established, we must take them on board. A well-known example is Milgram’s classic and shocking series of experiments on obedience to authority figures (
  • Taking the compassionate view that our struggles with a variety of life challenges are normal, not exceptional; relationships often don’t work, drugs are often tempting, etc…
  • Being politically radical if necessary. A realistic view of human nature will not necessarily be in line with the current consensus view, and as therapists we may need to take on some role in raising awareness and changing opinions. One example of this kind of shift in thinking is the move that has taken place from seeing children as gender-neutral until they are socialised, to seeing boys and girls as having innate differences in interests, behaviour etc.

I do not mean by radical acceptance of human nature that we should see all human behaviour as morally acceptable, or that there should be any general absolving of responsibility for our actions. We can accept that human nature is what it is and still be morally judgmental with regard to specific behaviours when necessary.

So what does developing such a radical yet real view of human nature require of us?

For a start, it demands a high level of critical thinking in relation to the ideas we already have - again, this is something that does not come naturally to Homo Sapiens, but we can do it with effort!

It also requires a broad and deep study of the sciences and humanities which have something relevant to say (both Freud and Jung, for example, were polymathic in this way). Along with keeping up-to-date with relevant psychological findings (developmental, comparative, experimental, neuropsychological etc), studying some anthropology can be useful, as it helps give us a broader view of both the variety and the consistency of human nature. The same applies to reading good literature, watching good history documentaries, and travelling (at least outside of areas familiar to us). We are talking here about a process of personal development as well as professional development, and if it doesn’t challenge us at some level then it probably isn’t working!

Reading, References:

Patricia Churchland, (2002) Brain-Wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy. MIT Press.

Pinker, S. (2003) The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. London: Penguin.