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Human Nature and Variation Workshop

April 22 2008


University of Exeter
Byrne House
St Germans Road
Exeter, EX4 4PJ

Venue: GF7, Byrne House

Organised by: Egenis


This workshop will address the claims that human nature cannot be understood in isolation but must be approached through comparisons with other organisms or by mapping variation within humans, and that associated scientific and philosophical developments enable dynamic alternatives to traditionally essentialist conceptions of human nature.

Some of these new comparative insights are genomic, derived in particular from the human genome sequencing projects that produced sequence data and enabled human DNA to be compared to the DNA of other organisms. More focused analyses of human genome sequence, particularly in medical genetics, have allowed comparative studies of different groups of humans, or have focused on the differences between individual humans.

Medical genetics has a long, little researched history of studying genetic variation, and throws up difficult questions regarding the distinction between the normal and the pathological. Other bodies of knowledge have been produced by scientific programmes that have compared human and animal capabilities and behaviour. Some of these findings have been interpreted within perspectives that propose alternative ‘post-genomic’ visions of life and development, in which genes play more decentralized roles. All of these approaches have the potential to inform the way in which human nature is conceptualized, and in particular, they can be used to challenge essentialist concepts of what humans are. Presenters and respondents in this workshop will examine a wide body of scientific research on humans and other organisms, and outline the various concepts of human nature that underlie or are generated by genetic, comparative genomic and post-genomic research. Speakers will evaluate a range of conceptual frameworks and suggest that new ways of thinking about human nature are indeed available.

Morning programme

10.00-10.30   Coffee and informal introductions in the lobby

10.30-12.30   Lenny Moss (chair): introduction (5 minutes)
                      Ed Ramsden (20 minutes)                    
                      John Dupré : respondent (10 mins)
                      Tom Dickens: respondent TBC (10 mins) 
                      Adam Bostanci (20 minutes)                    
                      Christine Hauskeller: respondent (10 mins)
                      Hannah Farrimond: respondent (10 mins)

12.45-2.00     Lunch (in Byrne House)

Afternoon programme

2.00-3.30      John Dupré (chair)
                      Paul Griffiths (20 minutes)                     
                      Staffan Müller-Wille: respondent (10 mins)
                      Karola Stotz (20 minutes)                     
                      Giovanna Colombetti: respondent (10 mins)

3.30-4.00       Break/teatime

4.00-5.00       Staffan Müller-Wille (chair)
                      Michael Hauskeller (20 minutes)                      
                      Lenny Moss: respondent (10 minutes)
                      Chair’s summary and further discussion

5.00-late         Barbeque at Byrne House (weather permitting; if not, then another form of socializing over a meal)

Remodelling the boundaries of normality: Lionel Penrose and the genetic demography of mental ability

Edmund Ramsden, Research Fellow, Centre for Medical History, University of Exeter; Visiting Fellow, Department of Economic History, London School of Economics

Among students of mental ability in the early twentieth century, two facts seemed certain: that there was a negative correlation between intelligence and reproduction, and that, as a consequence, the intellectual capacity of modern populations was in decline. For supporters of eugenics, various forms of intervention were needed to correct this process. For its critics, this process of differential fertility provided a useful means of questioning assumptions of eugenic fitness. Ed will examine the critical contribution of the geneticist Lionel Penrose to this debate. In the 1930s, Penrose predicted that further improvements in the social environment would increase the mean of intelligence in society. His optimism was rewarded with growing evidence of such increases from the late 1940s. However, at this very moment, Penrose began to promote an alternative biologically deterministic model of ‘genetic equilibrium’ to explain these results. Drawing from theories of heterosis, this model simultaneously privileged the genetic over the social, while celebrating the importance to survival of genes for mental deficiency and disease. Ed will argue that the power and influence of this model, even in the social sciences, resulted from its ability to remove the stigma of eugenics from populations and the population sciences, while allying the study of human genetics to the struggle for social justice and social efficiency.


John Dupré, Egenis, University of Exeter
Tom Dickins, University of East London

Biology, medicine, and human natureAdam Bostanci, Hughes Hall Centre for Genomics and Society, University of Cambridge

Adam will discuss how human variation is interpreted in a variety of contexts ranging from human genomics to medical examinations. In such contexts, practitioners routinely refer to entities like 'the human genome' or 'normal development'. His presentation will explore what one should make of this talk and explore some of the connections between these theoretical entities and ideas of human nature.


Christine Hauskeller, Egenis, University of Exeter                                                                                                
Hannah Farrimond, Egenis, University of Exeter

Human nature without tears

Paul Griffiths, Philosophy, University of Sydney & Egenis
The idea of human nature is the locus of longstanding disputes about the relevance of biology to the humanities and social sciences. Concepts of human nature and innate human traits do not originate within science, but are derived from 'folkbiology'. Folkbiology treats all animals as if they have 'natures' – an underlying property that makes them the kind of animal they are and which is transmitted from parent to offspring. Paul will argue that contemporary bioscience demolishes this folkbiological model of human nature. This raises the pressing issue of what a biologically credible account of human nature would look like, and Paul will attempt to sketch such an account.

RespondentStaffan Müller-Wille, Egenis, University of Exeter

From ape to human: the nurturing of human nature

Karola Stotz, Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, University of Sydney
One of the most pertinent features of humans that evolutionary scenarios attempt to explain is the species’ high cognitive capacity. Many hypotheses put forward by comparative psychologists focus on evolved specialized skills of social cognition in humans and their closest relatives. Recent hypotheses about human evolution (specifically the cultural intelligence and enculturation hypotheses, which are defended by diverse comparative psychologists such as Michael Tomasello and Merlin Donald) focus on processes of cultural scaffolding during ontogeny. This perspective complements new, non-essentialist process views of human nature, which are independently advocated by the 'developmental systems’ perspective in philosophy of biology and 'dynamical systems theory' in cognitive science. Both attempt to ground the notion of 'nature' in development, and the process of development in processes of perception, memory, and action. They aim to make explicit the way personal experience shapes the developmental system of body, brain, mind and its environment. Karola will argue that in order to understand how one crucial human characteristic – the extreme plasticity of the human brain in epigenesis – impinges on 'human nature', proper acknowledgement must be given to developmental niche construction and the external scaffolding through which cultural constructions reliably nurture our nature.


Giovanna Colombetti, Sociology & Philosophy, University of Exeter

Making sense of what we are: a mythological approach to human nature

Michael Hauskeller, Sociology and Philosophy, University of Exeter

Michael will address issues of a general nature, such as the purposes served by claims about human nature, how normativity is hidden in the seemingly descriptive, and the ways in which essentialism underlies all definitions of what it means to be human. He will conclude with an overview of the many possible (equally valid and equally contestable) ways to conceptualize human existence.


Lenny Moss, Sociology and Philosophy, University of Exeter,2261,en.t4.html