On Teaching Human Nature

Scott Kimbrough, Associate Professor of Philosophy
Jacksonville University

It is human nature to view any topic through the lens of your own presuppositions and interests. That’s especially true when the topic is human nature itself. Disciplines across the university study this common subject matter, each with its own methods and agendas. Students, likewise, arrive to class with their own perspectives, shaped by their chosen course of study and their religious or cultural values. I endeavored to keep these points in mind as I planned my own course in human nature. Although I naturally steered the course toward my own disciplinary interests, I drew on colleagues and encouraged students to develop and pursue their own projects.

The initial idea for the course hatched at the 2007 summer seminar on human nature sponsored by the National Humanities Center and the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund. The seminar drew together faculty from southeastern universities, including Jacksonville University where I am an associate professor of philosophy. Like the summer seminar, my course focused on recent scientific accounts of human nature, including especially evolutionary theory. We covered the evolutionary basis of morality, evolutionary psychology, and ethical questions that arise as science confers the power to alter human nature.

Delivering this exciting contemporary material to undergraduates presents a number of challenges and opportunities. For example, managing student expectations poses a significant challenge right out of the gate. Inevitably, the professor’s choice of topics will not always match the students’ areas of interest. In keeping with my own research interests, my class focused heavily on evolutionary explanations of the origin of morality and the implications of those theories for moral psychology. Some students were more interested in questions within morality than questions about morality. Other students became less engaged later in the semester when the class turned to more explicitly ethical questions, such as genetic screening of embryos.

To handle this challenge, I gave students two main outlets to pursue their own interests. First, each student presented two “reviews of studies” to the class. I gave the students plenty of latitude in choosing their topics. I demanded only that their sources be “academically reputable:” an academic journal article, book chapter, etc. These presentations served two purposes; they exposed the class to a wider variety of material from a number of different disciplines, and they encouraged the students to begin the search for research paper topics.

The research paper was the second main outlet for students to develop their own interests. I directed students to write research proposals, and then worked with them to focus their topics and find materials. I found it very helpful to draw on my colleagues in other disciplines, encouraging students to check in with other professors for ideas about sources. For example, after our unit on efforts by evolutionary psychologists to explain mate selection, one student decided to write his research paper on sociological explanations of mate choice. I did not hesitate to send him to my colleagues in sociology. Similarly, when a psychology major in my class elected to write about anti-social personality disorder, she rightly turned to psychology faculty for additional direction. Even as I encouraged inter-disciplinary research, I reminded students that their research should be appropriate for a philosophy class. To me, this means that students must critically evaluate the material they cover, offering criticisms and defending conclusions rather than merely surveying the landscape.

Evolutionary theory, it goes without saying, has its detractors. Particularly in the South, many students have quite conservative religious views, often including a suspicion or outright rejection of evolution. I faced this challenge by clearly communicating the goals of the course at the outset and by giving students plenty of latitude to pursue their own research interests. I began the class by acknowledging that there is a rich and voluminous intellectual tradition of religiously based theories of human nature. However, I explained that our goal was to focus on new theories that the students had not learned about before. I emphasized up front that these new theories are controversial, and that the students would be welcome to raise criticisms and questions about them. One student took up the challenge in his research paper, criticizing the prospects for extracting a viable ethical ideal from humanistic or scientific sources. Leaving open such possibilities helped the religious students feel respected and included, despite the fact that the course itself did not cover religious themes.

While it is important to enable students to pursue their own interests, I also wanted them all to come away with a core of common information and background. In particular, undergraduate students cannot be expected to arrive in class with an adequate understanding of evolution. Accordingly, I dedicated several classes early in the semester to a primer on evolutionary theory. Although I felt quite capable of reviewing the theory myself, I used the occasion as an opportunity to reach out to a colleague in the biology department. Let’s face it: even if her presentation covered the exact same information as mine, students are going to give more credibility to a presentation by a biologist than to one by a philosophy professor. My colleague brought a fresh perspective on the material, including a different set of examples and different metaphors to aid student comprehension. The first class visit went so well that I brought in another visitor to discuss evolutionary psychology. Again, the fresh face in the classroom proved very productive, drawing the students out and giving them a different angle on the readings. Plus, having visitors from other disciplines reinforces the inter-disciplinary theme of the course, sending the message that members of different disciplines can learn from each other as they seek to understand common subject matter.

As I review what worked best in my class, I have to say students responded most strongly to the unit on evolutionary psychologists’ efforts to explain mate selection. I suppose no one should be surprised that sex sells, even in the academy. The next time I teach the class, I plan to expand the range of gender-related issues covered. For example, as former Harvard President Lawrence Summers knows well, passions fly over the question whether boys and girls have different cognitive abilities. The unit on the evolution of morality and moral psychology also went well – particularly the discussion of primatologist Frans de Waal’s book Primates and Philosophers. However, at least at my university, undergraduate students lose some interest when the debates become too technical. For example, while student interest remained high as we discussed whether moral judgment is rooted in reason or emotion, attention lagged when we pondered whether those judgments issue from an innate, dedicated moral module, or a learned emotional response. Consequently, I plan to condense the number of readings in the evolution of morality unit. Students also thoroughly enjoyed the unit on ethical issues. Several told me that our main text for these issues, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga’s The Ethical Brain, was their favorite of the semester. For that reason, I recommend including such a unit. In the best of all possible worlds, however, I would prefer a two-semester sequence of courses, the first covering theories of human nature and the second focused on ethical issues.

In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed teaching a course on human nature. I learned a lot myself, both from my colleagues and my students’ research efforts. To sum up my advice for faculty interested in developing their own course, here are the two take-home lessons from my experience: involve your colleagues from other disciplines, and give your students the opportunity to pursue their own interests. I look forward to offering the class again in the future.