AID Forum: "Human nature concepts and explaining human behavior"; 13 April, Helsinki

"Human nature concepts and explaining human behavior"



Alexander Bird (University of Bristol)

Stephen Downes (University of Utah)

Moderated by Academy professor Uskali Mäki



Monday 13 April, 16:15-18:00

Metsätalo / Forestry Building, Unioninkatu 40, room 6, 3rd floor


AID is the forum for interdisciplinary conversation coordinated by the Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences, University of Helsinki. For the very idea and the programme, see [1]. For further information, please contact Pekka Mäkelä, pekka.a.makela at


The event on the University of Helsinki's intranet Flamma: [2]



Philosophers of biology and evolutionary biologists have expressed skepticism about human nature concepts. David Hull summarized some of these concerns and elaborated on them in his 1986 paper “On Human Nature”. Hull argues here that human nature is an essentialist notion and has no explanatory use. Human nature is still appealed to by anthropologists and psychologists and several philosophers have recently re-examined the notions of human nature appealed to in these fields. Philosophers such as Edouard Machery and Richard Samuels defend the notions of human nature that they find appealed to by social scientists. Both philosophers maintain that the notions of human nature that they delineate avoid the charge of essentialism presented by Hull and others. Some, such as Timothy Lewens and Grant Ramsey, still maintain that these recently delineated notions of human nature are flawed. They point out that these new human nature concepts do not do well in the face of human variation. Ramsey, along with Paul Griffiths and Elizabeth Cashdan, proposes a concept of human nature that is supposed to encompass human variation. Ramsey proposes and defends a highly encompassing notion of human nature, which is that human nature consists of all the possible life histories of all humans. There is still room for much discussion on the viability of human nature concepts. In this session we will introduce some of the challenges the various human nature concepts confront and guide discussion on these topics.




1. Are there defensible human nature concepts? / Is there a defensible human nature concept?

2. Are human nature concepts explanatorily useful?

3. Do human nature concepts adequately confront human variation?

4. Can any human nature concepts help explain human variation?




Bird, A. and E. Tobin "Natural Kinds" Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy


Bird, A. "Human Kinds, Interactive Kinds, and Realism about Kinds."



Cashdan, E. (2013). "What is a human universal?" Human behavioral ecology and human nature. Arguing About Human Nature. S. M. Downes and E. Machery. New York, Routledge: 71-80.

Griffiths, P. E. (2011). "Our Plastic Nature." Transformations of Lamarckism: From subtle fluids to Molecular Biology. S. B. Gissis and E. Jablonka. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press: 319-330.

Henrich, J., S. Heine, et al. (2010). "The weirdest people in the world."

Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33: 61-83.

Hull, D. L. (1986). "On Human Nature." PSA:Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 2: 3-13.

Kronfeldner, M., N. Roughley and G. Toepfer (2014). "Recent work on human nature: Beyond traditional essences." Philosophy Compass 9: 642-652.

Machery, E. (2008). "A Plea for Human Nature." Philosophical Psychology 21: 321-329.

Ramsey, G. (2013). "Human nature in a post-essentialist world." Philosophy of Science 80: 983-993.

Samuels, R. (2012). "Science and Human Nature." Royal Institute of

Philosophy Supplement 70: 1-28.