the rise and fall of unesco man

sympoiusm on 'history and human hature', institute of historical research, london, november


The question of what constitutes human nature is usually understood in terms of the nature-nurture debate. Through the nature-nurture prism, we can survey the past century and see dramatic shifts in the dominant ways we have conceived of humanness - crudely from a prewar racialised concept of human nature, to a postwar largely cultural view of humanness, to the contemporary rehabilitation of Darwinian Man. These swings of the nature-nurture pendulum we often think of almost as paradigm shifts in the Kuhnian sense.

There is, however, another way of understanding this historical evolution. Underlying all debates about humanness is the attempt to understand the relationship between humans as physically determined beings and humans as social beings and moral agents. Or, to put it another way, between humans as objects who, like any other natural beings, operate under the purview of biological and physical laws; and humans as subjects who, uniquely among natural organisms, possess consciousness and agency. To understand how we are human is, therefore, to understand not so much whether we are creatures of nature or nurture, but how we are simultaneously object and subject, simultaneously a physically determined being and a conscious agent.

Bedazzled as we often are by the nature-nurture debate, we tend to overlook this issue. Yet it is a crucial issue because it is this that makes human nature distinct from that of any other creature. Moreover, if we understand the debate about human nature as an attempt to make sense of humans as both objects and subjects, then we can see that there are common threads to what otherwise might appear very distinct visions of humanness, and that both sides in the nature-nurture debate are dogged by similar kinds of conceptual problems.

A useful way of approaching the question of both the similarities and differences between the various historical concepts of human nature is through the rise and fall of Unesco Man. Unesco Man is the embodiment of the postwar cultural vision of humanness, a vision which emerged directly in response to prewar racialised ideas, and in response to which contemporary naturalistic theories have emerged. What I want to do is see if we can understand the relationship between prewar, postwar and contemporary theories through more than simply the nature-nurture prism.

For more than a century, from the middle of the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth, race was central to any conception of human nature. 'All is race. There is no other truth', as Disraeli put it. The experience of Nazism and the Holocaust changed all that. In the words of the founding conference of the UN, 'the barbarism was made possible by the propagation of ideas of the inequality of men and races'.

To combat such ideas, Unesco convened a panel of social and natural scientists, and charged them with producing a definitive statement on racial difference. The two statements produced by the panel, in 1950 and 1951, declared race to be not so much 'a biological phenomenon as a social myth'.

The Unesco statements, however, were not simply about race. They also pulled together a number of themes about human nature that had become highly influential in social and cultural anthropology - particularly through the work of figures such as Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict - and in behaviourist psychology; themes which laid the basis for postwar antiracism and the liberal consensus. One such theme was the belief that humans are post-evolutionary. Whereas the Übermesch of racial science was entirely moulded by the laws of nature, Unesco Man was a cultural being: biology played little role in his make-up. Linked to this was Unesco Man's second characteristic – his plasticity of mind. He possessed a pliable psyche, which could take many forms, and produce many behaviours and attitudes, depending on his particular social and cultural environment. As the anthropologist Ruth Benedict put it, 'The vast proportion of all individuals who are born into any society always assume the behaviour dictated by that society.'

The third key characteristic of Unesco Man was that he was biologically singular but culturally plural. In a famous paper on 'The Scope of Anthropology', Claude Levi-Strauss argued that 'universal forms of thought and morality' pertain to 'biology and psychology'. Human unity was manifested purely at a biological level, while culture expressed purely its differences. Given the pliability of human nature, Levi-Strauss believed, the universal aspects of the psyche were relatively unimportant. Some have taken the argument further still, denying any underlying essence, and hence any common nature, to humankind.

So sudden and dramatic was this shift in perceptions about human nature and human difference that we tend to understand Unesco Man simply in terms of the transformation from nature to nurture, from race to culture. Certainly, Unesco Man helped seal the destruction of prewar racial anthropology, presenting an image of humanness that made it possible to believe in equality, diversity and social planning. But the drama of this transformation should not blind us to the continuities that still existed between prewar and postwar concepts of humanness.

One such continuity lay in the very notion of human difference. Racial science denied the existence of a common human nature, believing that every race had a specifically constituted essence. Postwar anthropologists accepted that all humans possess a common biological constitution. But because they regarded universal aspects of humanity at best unimportant, at worst illusory, so they, too, understood humanness in terms of its differences, even though these differences were constituted in nurture rather than in nature.

Linked to this common denial of human universals was the common inability of racial science and postwar anthropology to deal with the question of human subjectivity. Postwar anthropologists tried to demonstrate the uniqueness of humanity by separating culture and nature. But Unesco Man was as much a passive victim of external forces as was racial Man. As anthropologist Leslie White argued in his influential Science of Culture individual consciousness has little impact on social behaviour because 'it is the individual who is explained in terms of his culture, not the other way round'.

Humans do not make culture; culture makes humans. An individual cannot escape the force of destiny imposed by his culture and history. Culture, like race, appears as a transcendent category outside of our immediate consciousness but which is transmitted from generation to generation. Racial science expressed a mechanistic view of humanness, one in which human history flowed inevitably according to the laws of nature. Unesco Man embodied an idealist view, in humans were not rooted in their nature, and in which human history and culture are reified. What united the two was a common view of human beings, not as subjects, but simply as objects, in the one case of nature, in the other of culture.

The political needs of the postwar world meant that Unesco Man was constituted in terms of nurture rather than nature. But if we take our eyes away from the nature-nurture question, and explore instead the issue of human subjectivity, we can see that Unesco Man and Übermensch inhabited the same conceptual universe.

Let's wind the clock forward now to contemporary explanations of humanness. For a whole raft of reasons, both social and scientific, the nature-nurture pendulum has swung back. Unesco Man was an embodiment of the postwar consensus; as that consensus weakened so did the purchase of the cultural vision of humanness. Political changes, in particular the demise of Marxism, have helped undermine social explanations of human behaviour, given that most such explanations were rooted in, or derived from, Marxist theories of history. And advances in evolutionary biology and genetics, and the recognition by anthropologists that cultural mores were not as relative as many had assumed, have helped strengthened naturalistic explanations.

It is not that the ideas about humanness embodied in Unesco Man have disappeared. They continue to be influential, both in anthropology and in wider poststructuralist and postmodern currents. What has changed, however, is that such visions are being increasingly, and effectively, challenged by naturalistic views of human nature. There is increasing acceptance of the idea that human psychology must be understood in its evolutionary context. And there is increasing skepticism about the degree to which the human psyche is pliable: human nature, many now contend, is not only fixed but fixed in the Stone Age.

At one level the two sides separated by a huge conceptual gulf, not to mention a gulf of invective. But once again, if we take our eyes away from the nature-nurture debate, we can see common threads arising from common conceptual problems.

One arises from the way in which contemporary naturalistic theories maintain the belief that universals manifest themselves biologically, differences culturally. Of course, the balance between the two has shifted, so that there is today, unlike previously, considerable stress on the importance of biological universals, or species-typical behaviour. But what both Unesco Man and contemporary theories deny, though for very different reasons, is the idea of human universals emerging out of a social process, of the possibility of the human essence being constituted in social and historical, as well as natural, terms.

Second, and linked to this, is a failure to address the question of human subjectivity. Naturalistic theories take it as axiomatic that human nature should be understood in the same terms as rest of nature. But such an approach inevitably precludes the understanding of subjectivity. Natural organisms are objects. Humans uniquely are object and subject. Understanding humans in the same way as the rest of nature inevitably means understanding humans as if we were simply objects.

Another way of putting this is that humans are ontologically distinct from the rest of nature. A purely naturalistic account of human nature, therefore, cannot capture what it is to be human.

What is striking, and paradoxical, about contemporary naturalistic theories is how similar they are to the kinds of arguments put forward by Boas and Mead. Humans are, as many have observed in recent years, shaped both by nature and by nurture. The interactionist argument runs something like this. Humans have a common nature. Put a group of humans in environment A, they are therefore likely to exhibit behaviour X. In environment B, behaviour Y; in environment C, behaviour Z. And so on. A particular environment elicits a particular behaviour. That of course is the pure milk of Boasian functionalism, and indeed of Lockean ideas.

What neither side of the nature-nurture debate have come to terms with is this. We are clearly defined by both nature and nurture. But we are also defined by our ability to transcend both. Unlike any other creature, humans have developed the capacity to overcome the constraints imposed both by our genetic and our cultural heritage. It is not that human beings have floated free of the laws of causation. It is, rather, that as subjects we have the ability to transform our selves, our natures, our world, an ability denied to any other physical being. Moreover, the kinds of causes relevant to the human world are distinct from that of the non-human world. All events have causes, but only humans act by reason. A reason is a special kind of cause, one that is only applicable to subjects; an act determined by reason we generally treat as an act of free will.

To understand human nature is to understand the relationship between humans as physically determined beings and humans as moral agents. Unesco Man and Darwinian Man both embody one aspect of our humanity, but deny the other. Unesco Man was an attempt to understand humanness entirely in cultural terms. Because he was not rooted in the physical world, the consequence was an idealist view of humanness. Contemporary naturalistic theories have restored humanity back to nature. But it has also denied itself the resources for understanding human transcendence. The result is a mechanistic view of human nature. From very different starting points, mechanistic and idealist views of human nature converge on a common vision of human beings as objects and exhibit a common inability to understand humans as subjects.

Looking at the historical development of the idea of human nature reveals the inadequacy of the nature-nurture paradigm. It reveals too, the common conceptual framework, and the common conceptual problems, that underlie what are often seen as incommensurate views of humanness.

The challenge is to go beyond both Unesco Man and Darwinian Man, beyond nature-nurture, beyond idealism and mechanism, to create a conceptual framework that can allow us to understand human nature as the generator of human subjectivity.