An evolutionary argument against non-essentialism

“Physical reality does not exist only in local points or constructs; the parts are consummated in the whole, while the whole is not simply the sum of the parts. The parts behave as they do because of the whole, and not the reverse. Even with humanity, there is a single nature of all mankind; however each person is gifted with an individual personhood, a “hypostasis.” The single human nature consists in what all have in common and which is subject to the so-called “laws of nature.” The hypostasis, or individual personhood is added to man be grace…Without our distinct hypostasis, we might be only a member of a herd or tribe of animal. It is this hypostasis that we develop individually, yet within the framework of the human nature.” — Archbishop Lazar of Ottawa, Our changing paradigms, Science and faith: a dialogue*


“If [human nature] evolves, it would not be much faster than the geological profile of the earth.” — Alexander Solzhenitsyn

I find it difficult to believe that a person who believes that we have descended from apes, who – like all animals, extinct or living – had a fixed nature, would believe that human beings don’t have one.

I am not opposed to the idea that we should accept a common existential condition which binds all human beings but which is lived (and suffered) by each of us individually.
I will also not argue here that human beings are unlikely to be capable of reasoning in a valid way if evolution has happened and materialism was true. Indeed, this article will not talk at all about metaphysical materialism.

Here is my argument, briefly expressed:

  • Major premise: All species have a fixed special nature/essence.
  • Minor premise: Humans are a species.
  • Conclusion: Humans have a fixed special nature/essence.

My argument presupposes that a theory of evolutionary common descent is true, otherwise there need be no necessary common property between the human species and the other species. I do, however, think that humans have an individual personhood, as the above quote by archbishop Lazar of Ottawa suggests.

Thus I think that the whole idea of “existence precedes essence” to be, chronologically speaking, untrue. Indeed, if we human beings are whatever we desire to be and are bound  (in an essence of sorts) only by the fact that we have free will, we would deny that we are one species since biology presupposes many determined and physical properties in common between the members of a species.

So, just as there is a place for individual privacy, freedom, consciousness, there is also a place for the tribe, nay, for tribalism and communitariansm. Indeed, if there is a “state of nature” that binds all human beings, then this state of nature would be composed of that which all human beings have in common, in the past, the present and the future (the last not being empirically observable). Thus, man today is just as much a man “in the state of nature” as he was during tribal times. And “herd instincts” are what we have inherited from our ancestors, human and pre-human, as explained by the concept of biological altruism. In this state, animals have all in common with us humans except the individual personhood. If we have the capacity not to behave altruistically, then we are an exception, but because we also have the capacity to behave altruistically, we are still a species.

In the “state of nature” of all other species, there is no personhood, there is no private property, there is no pure and uncorrupted “good savage”; there are only the genes, “telling” the animal to spread them; hence the impossibility for the claim “human nature is a social construct” to be true. Just because you think that a fixed (albeit evolving slowly and organically) essence can be disobeyed and/or transcended doesn’t mean that it does not suggest itself as a norm.

Even if we have free will (I believe we do), there is still a lot of determinacy in the cosmos – including much of the biological functioning of our own bodies. Determinism denies free will. Libertarianism does not deny all determinacy – it accepts free will as an exception, in fact. The non-organic matter from which we evolved certainly doesn’t have free will. Free will is necessary for man to be existentially conscious, but it does not necessarily trump down all causality and its influence and/or its prescriptive nature.

Just because if essentialism was true you would be less free than if it wasn’t doesn’t mean one bit that essentialism is false, or that you don’t have free will.

If we are to preserve any sort of community, we have no viable and historically-tested choices except to look at how other animals preserve their communities – through the “herd mentality”. Because only in a community can we be altruistic, and only in a community can we recognize each other as human persons – something much more than simply individuals (that is, individual manifestations of the same species).


* The reader is warned that this post does not guarantee to represent the view that Archbishop Lazar of Ottawa has on these issues.


Further reading:


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