Humanity invented in 1800 by the French

By Razib Khan | May 14, 2011 12:56 am

A comment from earlier this week struck a nerve with me. I’ll repost it in totality first:

I find it interesting that Fox Keller seems to be assuming that human interest in “nature” began only in the 19th century. Rather, the concept of mankind’s nature has been a topic of much interest since at least the induction of philosophical inquiry by the Greeks, and remains a topic of interest in philosophical circles in the philosophy of man. While the ancient Greeks certainly had no idea about DNA or genes, they were able to examine man’s behavior and physical characteristics and to try to determine whether or not men were born a certain way (nature) or could learn to alter some traits by choice (a great example of such an inquiry is in the Nicomachaen Ethics by Aristotle, regarding the definition and inculcation of virtue). The current debate about nature vs. nurture in a specifically genetic mode is merely a more specialized version of the exact same concept…how to differentiate what parts of “man” are immutable and what parts seem to respond to differing environments (whether internally or externally imposed). That might explain why Fox Keller is so confused about why this concept seems to be so rooted in Western thought…it’s been around for about as long as “Western thought” has!

I find it interesting how so often, people in intellectual circles today fail to consider any thought development that occurred prior to the French Revolution. After all, empiricism (scientific thought) is simply one form of philosophy, not the ONLY form of philosophy.

This general problem has been frustrating me a great deal recently. There are two dimensions. There is the temporal one, and there is the spatial one. The temporal one is implicitly addressed in the above comment. It is that a particular idea had a single genesis, and that once we can locate that genesis relatively recently in the past we can then assert that “the idea of X was conceived in the year xxxx!” Quite often the year “xxxx” is not too far off from 1800. I believe this has to do with the fact that modern Western civilization entered into a major transition and period of cultural creativity between 1750 and 1850. The Enlightenment was a “hinge of history,” the transition between the early modern Ancien Régime with its neo-feudal pretensions straight-jacketing the industry and innovation of the bourgeoisie, to our present era, riddled with Whiggish presumptions. The man of 1850 is nearer to us, 150 years in the future, than he is to that of 1750, in a deep moral-political sense.


By Whiggish, I mean the cool confidence that what we hold to be true, right, and proper, has been the direction which history inevitably takes. That progress marches on, onward and upward. Ideas which change, revolutionize, and edify, humanity were “invented,” matured, and washed over the world in our age, and will continue waxing into the future. There are clearly cases where this model holds true in the broad sense. Consider slavery, which for most of human history was a necessary evil, and sometimes even a positive good! Today we consider it evil, and only a tiny minority would admit to its utility and proprietary.

But is this even a good example? I would suggest that in some hunter-gatherer societies of the deep past slavery would have been a strange idea as well. Because of the nature of their ecology these human populations would simply not have seen the need or utility in holding another human being in bondage. I do suspect we perceive hunter-gatherer populations to be somewhat more egalitarian than they were because the ones which have persisted down to the present are the most marginalized. The Pacific Northwest Native Americans were hunter-gatherers, or more accurately fisher-gatherers, and they practiced slavery, likely because their societies had reached a level of density and complexity due to the enormous primary productivity of their home region. But I would hazard to say that the apogee of slavery as a pervasive institution lay between the age of hunter-gatherers and the modern period.

In this way history is not monotonic. From a Whiggish and broadly liberal perspective the agricultural societies were a major regression. A conception of personal autonomy unfettered by cloying institutions was not invented, it was rediscovered in the modern age. Evoked by radically different conditions, but evoked to the same ends nonetheless.

The second dimension is that of space. I am currently re-reading The Anti-Christ by Friedrich Nietzsche. Its Eurocentrism is pretty stark to me at this point (be careful, I am Europhilic, so Eurocentrism is not a term of opprobrium by me). The references to Indian religious concepts are strongly shaped through the lens fashioned by Arthur Schopenhauer (in fact, many have argued that Eastern mysticism in the West today still remains constrained by the parameters outlined by Schopenhauer’s interpretation and emphases!). As a classically educated philologist Nietzsche had an enormous broad corpus of Western history to draw upon in making his observations and inferences. But he fundamentally missed something because of his understandable ignorance of other cultures, in particular other civilizations. The societies of India and China both developed relatively distinct and independent “full service” Weltanschauung (on this huge coarse scale I am bracketing the world of Islam and Christendom into one class as “the West”). Those who rave against St. Paul’s purported heresy of elevating the slave morality generally lack an awareness of radical altruism of Mozi. Even the more conservative and pragmatic teachings of Confucius and his heirs which are rooted in the traditions of the Chinese gentry ultimately aim toward the flourishing of the many under the beneficence of Heaven. Confucianism in its classic form operationally enslaves the energies of the natural oligarchs to the peasants below and the emperor above.

Today we have at our fingertips a wealth of knowledge which was not available even to an academic like Nietzsche. And yet in the age of specialization we tunnel and burrow evermore deep into that precious earth which we have lain claim to as our domain of expertise. Many of my friends and acquaintances who espouse fashionable multiculturalism seem absolutely ignorant of the cultures which they claim to be equally are valid ways of being and knowing, except as negations of Western culture. My post Taking the end of the age seriously was a cri du cœur, attempting to make a case for genuine awareness of non-Western and non-white cultures and peoples as something more than just props for a fashionable anti-Western “social justice” political plank.

In The Blank Slate Steven Pinker bemoaned the fact that works of Hobbes and Locke loom so large in the modern curriculum. Their prominence is a testament to the fact that a science of human nature, human understanding, has not progressed much in all those centuries. Or perhaps more accurately Pinker’s view is that modern humanistic intellectuals for whatever reason choose not to acknowledge any progress beyond Locke, that expositor of the ‘blank slate.’ One of the major tasks of the modern science of humanity has been to catalog the range of human universals which seem to reemerge time and again through the interface of our preloaded software with conventional environmental inputs. A possible inference from this model is that humans should “invent” particular cultural forms and ideas repeatedly assuming a range of social environments are replicated (e.g., the city-states of the ancient Near East and pre-Columbian Meso-America are eerily similar, down to the monumental architecture). Therefore, “love,” “nationalism,” and “feminism,” may all be evoked by a given range of social complexities because of the constrained set of biobehavioral parameters which we can term “human nature” several times in history.

Going full circle, in an inchoate form the “nature vs. nurture” debate probably dates back at least to the “Great Leap Forward” ~40,000 years ago. For the purposes of scholarship narrowing the range of time and space and focusing upon one evolutionary arc of the budding, maturation, and flowering, of an idea or set of ideas seems acceptable. The problem is when one confuses one instantiation for the only instance!

Addendum: I think science is the great example of a human invention which does fit into a classic Whiggish model. I think the institution of science has been invented only one, in the 17th century in Western Europe. But most intellectual domains are not like science at all. Aristotle’s ideas on ethics are still worth reading for their primary content. His ideas about physics and biology tend to be of more historical interest.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, History, philosophy
MORE ABOUT: Ideas, Philosophy
  • Anthony

    The conceit that the world began in the late 1700s isn’t limited to historians of science. Harold Bloom contends “Personality, in our sense, is a Shakespearean invention”.

  • Robert

    Good points and I really don’t mean to quibble but I would put the Enlightenment back to the century between 1650 and 1750. Leviathan was published in 1651 and Principia Mathematica started to be distributed in 1687. One could easily argue that Robespierre brought down the curtain on it both literally and figuratively.

  • Meryt

    Robert, you are correct: Descartes thrived before 1650, even. I would move the trend toward scientific study as far back as the Kabalists, the alchemists, back to Paracelsus, (Philospher’s Stone, Universal Solvent) back farther to Leonardo Davinci (ca.1470), who benefited from the support of research under the Moors in Spain. The massive influence of the Moors on intellectual and cultural development in Europe is often overlooked and vastly underestimated by those who focus on the big 4 of Europe. Eurocentrism blocks out awareness of contributions and sources elsewhere.

    But does Khan’s writing have to be so convoluted, to turgid? I’m delighted at his command of the knowledge and of the language, but his writing could do with some streamlining, as his point often gets buried under his tendency to ecyclopedism (if that’s a word, good; if not, you’ll get it anyway).

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    But does Khan’s writing have to be so convoluted, to turgid? I’m delighted at his command of the knowledge and of the language, but his writing could do with some streamlining, as his point often gets buried under his tendency to ecyclopedism (if that’s a word, good; if not, you’ll get it anyway).

    if you are willing to offer 10 hours of free editorial services a week, let’s talk. if not, don’t ever comment here again.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    p.s. also, if you’re willing to start a paypal recurring payment of $1000 a month i would definitely tighten the prose even if it takes some more time!

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    After all, empiricism (scientific thought) is simply one form of philosophy, not the ONLY form of philosophy.

    1) Scientific thinking isn’t any form of philosophy in the modern sense.
    2) It’s the only form of human inquiry that has ever produced anything of value. Everything that’s worthwhile is founded in it – nothing not founded in it is worth a damn.
    3) The reason people don’t pay so much attention to pre-modern thinkers and their output is that the vast majority of pre-modern thinking is garbage, and the signal-to-noise ratio is prohibitively low.

  • Spike Gomes

    Quite right, Caledonian, it’s time we consign the works of Mozart, Shakespeare and Picasso and all the rest of them to the dustbin of history; it’s not worth a tinker’s damn to humanity anyways being founded on pure subjective experience, moreover, so much of it is premodern and thus is even more useless!

    Gotta love Radical Reductionism.

    Razib, if you find this reply a bit too contentious, feel free to delete it, Statements like the above get my ire up.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    it’s time we consign the works of Mozart, Shakespeare and Picasso and all the rest of them to the dustbin of history

    Not produced by forms of inquiry. Not relevant to the statement in question.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    spike, caledonian isn’t really funny human in the same what you are! though i was probably like him when i was 17ish, i’ve ripened a bit :-)

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    But as always the point is that science works, philosophy not so much (read “not at all”).

    I’m sure you can make some analogy between resolution of phylogeny and of history, but this only becomes a problem if you try to elucidate exact history from today’s data: it won’t happen. (A different problem is if you try to extend the definition of history from observation of social events to modeling the development of ideas. But that is another can of worms.)

  • Zora

    I think that there’s a long history of empiricism in practical matters. The Sassanids supported the Academy of Gundishapur (6th and 7th centuries CE), which is said to be the source of much modern medical practice. The academicians taught a lot of bogus theory, but also took note of what worked, and codified it. The Arab conquest of the Sassanids doomed that academy, but the institution was replicated soon afterwards in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, under the Abbasids. Both academies were notable for welcoming knowledge from the Graeco-Roman and South Asian traditions.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    “if you are willing to offer 10 hours of free editorial services a week, let’s talk. if not, don’t ever comment here again.”

    That is one way to scare off objective criticism, sure. It isn’t as if he told you how to run your blog by pointing that out. (Nor am I doing it by pointing this out, I haste to add.)

    We vote with our feet, ultimately. I hope we all can see and use that as needed. (Another needed disclaimer: This isn’t meant as threat, but as the obvious context of criticism. If anyone *really* dislikes a blog, she/he will probably disappear. But I realize there is a problematic boundary in between.)

  • Meryt

    Razib – Wow, arrogant, too. Now that takes a little more than just editing. How disappointing. Still, you’re young – there’s hope.
    Not to worry – your articles will be of no further interest to me.
    No more clicks from me.

  • Spike Gomes

    Caledonian:

    Introspection isn’t inquiry into the self? Making a painting isn’t an inquiry into form and shape? Writing a novel isn’t an inquiry into human experience and emotion?

    Razib: There was a time when I was 17 that I would have swapped the ability to be funny and improvisational for 200 extra points on my SAT. Now, I realize I should have dreamed of swapping my humor and improvisational ability for Ebay stock options. They would have have paid off better than 200 SAT points.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Razib – Wow, arrogant, too. Now that takes a little more than just editing. How disappointing. Still, you’re young – there’s hope.

    arrogant? you don’t think it’s fucking arrogant to make patronizing suggestions of the nature of content production from people who provide content freely to you? yes, discover pays me, but on a per hour basis it isn’t that much.

  • Julian O’Dea

    Experimental science was being done by monks in Europe in the 12th Century, for example at Oxford. See the works of A C Crombie, the scientist and historian of science.

    The Whig view of science is founded in progressive propaganda, a lot of it fundamentally anti-religious. The fact is that priests were doing real science centuries before the “Enlightenment”.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    guys, was careful to say the institution of science. i grant science was done before and that scientific think isn’t rocket science. but the institution of science which began in western europe in the 17th century was exceptional. obvious by its fruits. not interested in having a major debate about that, if you disagree that it isn’t distinctive in its fruits you live on a different planet mentally from me :-)

  • Brian Too

    One of the things I find really interesting about history and the tracing of the historical roots of modernistic ideas. You can, almost invariably, find antecedent ideas long prior to the full emergence of any concept, invention or development. Finding prior art or conception is relatively easy.

    However when you look beyond the narrow search for those historical roots, you quickly enter a very tangled picture. The people who said things that turned out to be true often held a wild grab-bag of notions in addition. Some of those things turned out to be true at least in some measure. Other things turned out to be way off base. Often you’ll find beliefs that even their contemporaries held to be odd and are in modern terms outright bizarre.

    Our ancestors weren’t stupid. They suffered from a lack of knowledge. Many were also held back by social, political and economic systems that imposed constraints on them. Many times this was not recognized at the time.

    I had a friend quite some years ago. He wondered aloud what Leonardo Da Vinci could have accomplished, had he had access to a computer. My response was that he was held back by the technology of his time, as we are held back by what we have. What matters is not so much what constrains you, but what you accomplish in spite of that.

    Perhaps even this is too dark an interpretation. It can equally be restated as, we achieve what we do, in part because of the hard work of our predecessors and those who surround us. Then add in our energy and creativity.

  • Andrew Lancaster

    A very interesting subject.

    I certainly agree that the concept of “nature” versus other causes of patterns goes back to the Greeks at least, for whom it was a central and controversial theme in philosophy and science. And of course it is almost a cliché to say that early Greek philosophy may have been influenced by Middle Eastern and Egyptian precedents we know little about. (The Greeks themselves thought so.)

    As to whether we can take it MUCH further I am myself certain but I would raise cautions about assuming this is just a matter of ignorance about other cultures. The caution I would raise is that the idea that studying natural causes is really different in kind from, for example, being wise about folk ideas, interpretation of laws and traditions, and myths was quite hard to handle even for the Greeks. It seems so obvious to most of us today, but apparently it is not.

    This distinction means science and philosophy are different in kind from religion and legal wisdom for example, and I do not know of any strong argument that this distinction is found outside the Western tradition, but I would be interested to know of any. I do note that Asian traditions such as Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism etc are sometimes described as philosophies, but also sometimes as religions.

  • Anthony

    Caledonian – empiricism is considered a philosophy by modern philosophers. The logic which empirical inquiry rests on was first largely set forth by Aristotle. That disposes of your points 1 and 2. Your third point is a partial application of Sturgeon’s Law, which could be equally well applied to modern thought.

  • John Emerson

    No matter how garbage-like philosophy and history are, when scientists do philosophy and history it’s often worse. There was a lot of hot air on this thread.

  • JMW

    Mr. Khan, I’d like to write about your response to Meryt. I will grant you that I understand your position in that you dislike having your writing called “turgid” or “convoluted”.

    However, I have to take issue with the tone of your response, for the following reasons:
    1) in citing Meryt’s comments and then replying in what I saw as a sarcastic tone that he should either help out, “if not, don’t ever comment here again,” you are effectively setting a rule that people are only allowed to comment if they aren’t critical of you.
    2) When Meryt responded to your two posts and accused you of arrogance, you counter-accused him of arrogance, writing, “you don’t think it’s fucking arrogant to make patronizing suggestions of the nature of content production from people who provide content freely to you?” If you are given the opportunity to have a platform to express yourself, and you expect to receive comments that are only adulatory, then I think you are fooling yourself. In one of your other comments in response to another person, you write, “though i was probably like him [i.e. Caledonian] when i was 17ish, i’ve ripened a bit”. I would argue that you need to ripen a bit more, and develop a thicker skin.
    3) I intend to screen snapshots of this exchange, and email them to Discover magazine and ask them if this is the behaviour they wish to endorse of a blogger who publishes under their imprimateur.

    Bottom line, Meryt was not polite in calling your writing turgid or convoluted. He certainly didn’t provide any examples to substantiate his opinion. However, if you cannot withstand unsubstantiated criticisms such as this, you are certainly going to alienate readers. You’ve certainly alienated me.

    You’ve had some fascinating posts, and it’s a pity, but I don’t think you need to reply to my post. I won’t be back to read it.

    Good day, sir.

  • John Emerson

    I have found that Razib’s comment threads profit greatly from his impatience with low-value-added commenters.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #23, #22 made me laugh. what a pompous fool. i know about caledonian in real life, and if people could know what i know they wouldn’t find his behavior so weird. that’s all. feel free to leave huffy comments people. all the better to ban you with my dears :-)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    hey, i checked. i’ve only banned 40 people!

  • bucephalus

    I’m also not entirely clear about the overall point of this piece, but instead of complaining about the prose (lest I incur the Wrath of Khan), I will attempt a summary.

    Too many people think ideas or institutions were invented once, usually ex nihilo, mostly in current form if not fully evolved, at a discrete and identifiable time and place, by discrete and identifiable persons. [ Let’s call this error “Athenaian genesis” after the goddess Athena, born fully formed. ] There are 2 versions of AG : historical-Whiggish and geographical-occidentalist.

    The historical-Whiggish version : many ideas/institutions had their AG in 1750-1850, and this is because the past was progressing inevitably toward that point. For instance, the abolition of slavery despite thousands of years of it as an institution. RK, however, argues that slavery was an institution adapted to particular environmental and economic circumstances, and if the last 7000 years had offered different environmental and economic circumstances, slavery need not or might have have existed at all.

    The geographical-occidentalist version of the error is to believe, many inventions of the West and are uniquely and intrinsically Western. To call this an error is not to say that the credit might also go to the non-West ( e.g., RK is not saying the Iroquois invented the separation of powers or that the Chinese invented the scientific method.) Rather, given different environmental circumstances, the non-West might have invented it also.

    The modern science of human nature has shown that the same human nature can produce different cultural outcomes across space and time, depending on the environments ; and conversely, for the same reasons, similar cultural forms are “invented” over and over again in different times and places.

    Except for the scientific method. That was indeed invented just once in the West in the 17th century.

    1/ If the summary is accurate, can we not call it, in essence, Jared-Diamondian ? If you don’t like that phrase, what’s not Jared-Diamondian about it ?

    2/ I think modern assumptions about the “Athenaian” genesis of ideas are just as likely Romantic as Whiggish. In many domains, whether it be arts criticism, history, history of science, etc., there is always a romantic school which emphasises the role of great leaders/artists/scientists/cultures who are more reponsible than anyone else for accomplishing truly revolutionary leaps. So a Romantic historian of science might emphasise the individual genius of Newton as the crucial link in accounting for the birth of physics but a less idealist one might take Newton’s modesty about standing on the shoulders of giants seriously and point to the felicitous confluence of social, economic and historical conditions that also produced a galaxy of important contributors in the 17th century. While scholarship is generally non-Romantic, the popular imagination runs toward a Romantic pop-historiography.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    1/ If the summary is accurate, can we not call it, in essence, Jared-Diamondian ? If you don’t like that phrase, what’s not Jared-Diamondian about it ?

    diamond’s vision is a touch thin and not contingent enough for my taste. partial vision.

    to use an evolutionary analogy some people have an almost ‘flat’ cultural adaptive topography. everything happens almost randomly and singularly as societies random-walk uniquely through culture space. in contrast, some people perceive a topography characterized by sharp and stark ‘peaks’ which all societies converge toward. a vulgar marxism with its conception of inevitability toward some socialist utopia is one vision.

    i think the reality is that the topography is not quite flat, there are multiple peaks, and channels. but it isn’t quite so stark and reliefed so as to eliminate some historical contingency and stochasticity.

    but that’s the big picture. the other point is that many scholars operate across narrow culture and temporal time frames, accurately characterized a specific progression, and then jump to a general universal conclusion. a lot of this is clearly false with even a marginal amount of cross cultural or historical knowledge.

  • Chris T

    Caledonian –
    3) The reason people don’t pay so much attention to pre-modern thinkers and their output is that the vast majority of pre-modern thinking is garbage, and the signal-to-noise ratio is prohibitively low.

    Which is why they should be paid attention to. Forgetting what was developed before and why it didn’t work will simply lead to their ideas being reinvented and the lessons of why it doesn’t work learned all over again.

    One reason why the whole ‘different ways of knowing’ is so irritating is that many of them have already been tried and found to be useless.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    i know about caledonian in real life

    Doubtful. Perhaps you’re operating under the belief that I’m someone you’ve met or spoken to.

    Which is why they should be paid attention to. Forgetting what was developed before and why it didn’t work will simply lead to their ideas being reinvented and the lessons of why it doesn’t work learned all over again.

    I really don’t think so. Rather than thinking about every possible arrangement of ideas that doesn’t work, it’s faster to learn what does – and so discard entire categories of error immediately.

    There are very few times when it’s better to study error as a system instead of simply discarding it.

    empiricism is considered a philosophy by modern philosophers

    And homeopathy is considered a medical discipline by modern homeopaths.

    So?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    caledonian, you’re kind of a dick to other commenters. screw you.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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