On Human Nature and Its Future

Here are some thoughtful quotes on the topic of human nature.

[Humans] will become better when you show [them] what [they are] like. ~ Anton Chekhov

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. ~ Oscar Wilde

This may be the curse of the human race. Not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike. ~ Salman Rushdie

Anton Chekhov                                 Oscar Wilde                        Salman Rushdie

The above quotes hint at the depravity of human nature, or at least that something is not quite right about human nature. We could be so much more than we are now. But this is not a matter of simply ascribing to a new religion or philosophy:

The man’s (a heathen south sea islander) a human being, just as I am; he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian. ~ Herman Melville (Moby Dick)

There is something deep in human nature that isn’t ameliorated by religious practice or erased by our fantasies of being angelic. Why? Because we are not what we think we are. As Darwin wrote in his Notebooks:

[Humans in their] arrogance think [themselves] a great work worthy the interposition of a deity. More humble and I think truer to consider [them] created from animals. 

Today we would go even further than biology to explain human nature—we employ chemistry and physics too:

The astonishing hypothesis is that “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. … This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people today that it can truly be called astonishing. ~ Francis Crick

Herman Melville                   Charles Darwin                                 Francis Crick

Yet reductionism need not leave us hopeless. Darwin himself told us as much in some of the most beautiful and profound lines ever penned in the English language:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

But even Darwin didn’t know that cultural evolution would evolve exponentially, outpacing biological evolution by many orders of magnitude. Cultural evolution, especially technological evolution, changes the world with rapidity. There is now a realistic possibility of transforming this human nature, so that our descendants may come to resemble us about as much as we do the amino acids from which we sprang. Many thinkers from the Shakespeare onward have glimpsed new worlds.

We know what we are, but we know not what we may become. ~ Shakespeare

Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman — a rope over an abyss. A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal.
Frederick Nietzsche

All the past is but the beginning of a beginning; all that the human mind has accomplished is but the dream before the awakening.~ H.G. Wells

Mankind is still embryonic … man is the bud from which something more complicated and more centered than man himself should emerge. ~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Frederick Nietzsche                                    H.G. Wells                                 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Even from the cold and darkness of Russia a glorious future was envisaged:

But at the same time, in reality, what a difference there is between the world today, and what it used to be! And with the passage of more time, some two or three hundred years, say, people will look back at our own times with horror, or with sneering laughter, because all of our present day life will appear so clumsy, and burdensome, extraordinarily inept and strange. Yes, certainly, what a life it will be then, what a life! ~ Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov

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