Mapping universal human nature: A mission for a unified 21st century anthropology


John Tooby - University of California, Santa Barbara  


Abstract: In the early to mid-twentieth century, anthropology made a foundational error that severely crippled its development as a science ever since:  Anthropologists embraced a blank slate model of the human mind as the moralized centerpiece of their consensus social theory.  Our disciplinary ancestors used this model as the rationale for institutionally separating sociocultural anthropology from biological anthropology and for treating biology as a sinister contaminant whose taint needed to be definitionally excluded from the study of human mental content and social phenomena.  Sociocultural anthropology came to see its vindication in unlimited particularism—an outcome that inherently limits its generalizability and usefulness to the rest of the social and behavioral sciences, and that has led to a sharp erosion of interest in the field.  The bad news is that large bodies of data from neuroscience, psychology, genetics, evolutionary biology and the developmental sciences have decisively falsified the blank slate viewpoint, and the theoretical superstructure anthropologists built on it.  A complex, evolved, universal human nature—a species-typical psychological architecture—is immanent in all human social and cultural phenomena, shaping them in textured and detailed ways.  Consequently, one can no longer be expert in social and cultural phenomena without simultaneously being an expert in human evolutionary biology and psychology.  The good news is that if sociocultural anthropologists are willing to catch up with the state of play in the rest of the natural and behavioral sciences, and repeal the nonintercourse act so deeply internalized in their process of professionalization, anthropology can recover the role it once had as the core of the human sciences.  The evolved cognitive, emotional, and motivational mechanisms that together constitute human nature are expected to be species-typical, and hence to reliably develop in all human societies.  In consequence, anthropology is uniquely poised to play a central theoretical and empirical role in mapping their information-processing logic.  Using examples, I will discuss how the study of cultural variation can be turned from the cataloging of differences into a powerful tool for testing and falsifying alternative theories about the design of our psychological mechanisms, and for triangulating their underlying structures.  The mapping of human nature should be legitimized as one central mission of anthropology—a mission with moral as well as scientific significance.  The failure to do so will needlessly extend our discipline’s century-long abdication of our duty to discover our species-typical architecture.