Human Nature

There’s a part in Debbie Sterling’s fantastic talk “Think Audacious” about girls, boys, and engineering. She was told:

So I started becoming obsessed with why there are so few girls and women in engineering and what I could do to change that. I started talking about it with everyone I could, and asking them, how did you get into engineering, and why are there so few women and girls? And I started to hear the same response over and over again: you can’t fight nature.

Seriously, smart, educated people would tell me, you know, there are just biological differences between men and women.

And they told me, you know, men just are naturally inclined toward building and engineering, they’re just good at it, you know? They’ve got spatial skills, they’re born to be engineers. Well, this really pissed me off. It did, I mean I got into engineering, does that make me a freak of nature or something?

Debbie did her research and discovered, of course, this is total bullshit. This is not human nature, but instead human culture. (Debbie, by the way, has since created an launched a successful engineering toy company for girls called GoldieBlox)

I hear the term “human nature” thrown around a lot as a defence, usually for something unjust. Racism, sexism, homophobia, they’re all “human nature” according to some people. And sometimes, it’s actually true that humans have innate, inborn tendencies right in our DNA which are unsavoury at best.

But none of those should really matter. Even if it’s in our DNA to be racist, or to fear others unlike us, or to think girls can’t be engineers, even if all of those things were true, none of that should matter, because culture helps us break through the limits of our DNA. We do have a human nature, but more often than not that term is used out of fear of change.

It’s culture, not our DNA, which acts as the driving force for what makes us truly “human” today. Anatomically modern humans have been around for 200 000 years but yet we’re vastly different from these ancestors because of our culture. We’ve transformed from hunter-gathers to city builders, to flying and space-exploring technological, relatively peaceful beings.

There’s both good and bad in human nature, but relying on either in the face of change is a losing strategy. It’s culture, not just our DNA, that’s going to make us better people and give us a better world.

Speed of Light