Is genuinely open-ended dialogue actually part of human nature?

On the politically-fraught question of nature and nurture there are two opposed answers, the extreme statements of which are both obviously wrong.

On the one (left?) hand, the human mind is a universal Turing machine which can run any type of cultural software. This software should be universally interchangeable, and any incompatibility issues between older and newer versions are therefore attributable to the stubborn intransigence of the user: “What do you mean you can’t open the document I sent you? You what?! You’re still running Office ‘97?!” (Morality ‘45?) Opponents of this position sometimes unwittingly buy into its presuppositions and say things like “if only those heathen would turn from their ways and just believe!” No. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

The opposite position – a bastardised version of which is often co-opted by hard-hearted ne’er-do-wells – runs like this: culture is just a flimsy fig leaf which does a flimsy job of obscuring our primate carnality. On this view of human nature, just as we cannot expect writers in the aggregate to resist the pull of powerful semantic attractors – all instances of ‘fig leaf’ (and ‘bikini’) must be preceded by ‘flimsy’ – so we cannot expect humans in the aggregate to resist the pull of powerful biological attractors, not least our evolved primate psychology. Opponents of this position, too, sometimes unwittingly buy into its presuppositions, and say things like “religion’s just modern-day tribalism run amok, hey?” No. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple either.

“How exactly is it not that simple?” It’s at this point at which I as reader would think “alright then, wise-gal/guy, that’s all well and good, and you’re not wrong, but do you actually have anything to say?” and, depending on my level of acquaintance with and/or appreciation for the writer, either actively resist or happily succumb to the urge to start skimming through the rest of the article for signs of a conclusion, or else go straight to the literally concluding paragraph and, if failing to discover something resembling a conclusion, ask myself whether it seems worthwhile to go back and look for one. Sneak preview: I won’t be commencing my positive answer to the question “is genuinely open-ended dialogue actually part of human nature?” in the very next paragraph, so how you want to play this one is up to you.

You’re still with me. Thanks! Before getting to my positive answer to the original question, I want to reflect briefly on why the pseudo-position “it’s not nature or nurture, it’s both” seems so dissatisfying. Firstly, I call it a pseudo-position because, as should be pretty obvious, there’s a whole spectrum of different possibilities between the strawman positions sitting respectively at the two poles, not just the four logical possibilities which naturally present themselves to our pre-mathematical minds: nature alone (“the Arctic scarecrow”), nurture alone (“the Antarctic scarecrow”), both and neither.

The main reason why any of the possible permutations of “both” seem so intuitively dissatisfying, I posit, is that they don’t present themselves immediately as clear mandates for action. Whereas the reason why the two scarecrow positions are so alluring* is that they provide easily graspable decision procedures:

“Human nature is just culture, human beings are infinitely malleable, it’s all up for grabs. Permanent change to whatever needs changing in yourself – or others! – is possible, you just have to really want it (or cause the others to).”

“You can’t hope to eradicate your biological propensities just by reason and willpower, that’s a mug’s game and a recipe for disaster. Be content just to be fully aware of them and channel them as best you can, and if you need supernatural help with that, then so be it.”

In contrast with the clarity of the directives issued by the polar scarecrows, the “both” position seems likely to set us adrift on an uncertain sea of possible life courses, making occasional ad hoc use of our little outboard motors, only to give up and save our fuel as we are periodically battered hither and thither by the capricious winds of the memestorms.

So, what’s the answer? (Welcome back.) There are two which I find convincing. Firstly, there is the (jargon warning!) “emergent modularity” of Clark and Wheeler which suggests that our hunter-gatherer psychological dispositions – the very same dispositions which don’t see dialogue as part of human nature, which motivate us not to care about reality, but only to care about whether our version of reality is accepted by the tribe – are themselves emergent from actual life processes, and therefore susceptible to being shaped. Childhood seems to be a critical period for this shaping, and communication drives it. Secondly, Jonathan Haidt has suggested that various conservative groups – whatever other foibles they may have – are adept at utilising our group-oriented social psychology in positive ways from which his fellow liberals could learn, if lines of dialogue were kept open. The thread of commonality in these two answers, as in so many aspects of life, is precisely our current topic: sincere communication characterised by respect and clarity. So is open-ended dialogue part of human nature? A succinct answer is: perhaps it hasn’t always been, but it must be.

Jordan Martin, a Tasmanian abroad, is (full disclosure) Rosalie’s son, and is himself a young father. He is a doctoral student in philosophy at the millennium-old Yuelu Academy in China’s Hunan Province, and is afflicted by all the typical worries about spreading himself too thinly. Here Jordan writes for the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy initiative – find more at chattermatters.com.au.

* I am aware that ‘allure’ generally makes for a pretty ineffective scarecrow.