Laurence Tribe on Human Nature

Larry Tribe talks about the continuity between human nature and that of other living creatures.
  • Transcript


Question: What is human nature?

Laurence Tribe: Well I think we’re learning more about the continuity between human nature and the nature of other living creatures. I mean we’re learning more about . . . about the intelligence of birds, not to say of the intelligence of primates, that I think should make us feel humble about the way we treat others than ourselves.  I mean the way we’ve exploited animals.  The way we have assumed egomaniacally that only we think, that only we have the capacity to suffer or to dream.  I mean that’s . . . that’s unfortunate.  I think when we place ourselves more squarely in the stream of life and realize that things that are true of artificial intelligence might also be true of us; things that are true of us might also be true of chimpanzees, and of parrots, and of other creatures, than we are likelier to get a handle on the way neurobiology intersects with consciousness.  But we’re just beginning to make enormous strides in that area.  I do think that there are certain innate characteristics of human beings which ought not to be lost.  I mean that we have some rather evil tendencies undoubtedly.  And I think we have to realize that we all have them.  It’s not just the monsters who are capable of evil.  We also have some angelic tendencies.  I mean when Lincoln spoke of the better angels of our nature, I think he was really on to a deep truth.  Harnessing those more angelic tendencies that most little kids seem to have to a greater degree than the adults into which they . . . into which they mature is the great challenge.  And learning more about how to educate people to bring out the best of what they can contribute and what they can be I think is an important part of what we need to do.  But the idea that there is some fixed human nature that could generate an understanding of what some people call “natural law”, and that we are in touch with it I think shows enormous, enormous ego and chutzpa.  I don’t think we know enough about what is innately human.  And I think trying to define the innately human in a way that distinguishes us . . . makes us seem more unique rather than exploits the continuities between us and the rest of the natural world is the source of a great deal of our . . . of our abuse of the natural environment.  We are undoubtedly the only creature capable of completely destroying the planet on which it grew up.  And I think the likelihood that we will do that is greater if we become too obsessed with what’s so special about us as people.