Theories on Human Nature

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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Dr. Oz once said, “Your genetics load the gun. Your lifestyle pulls the trigger.” In the twentieth century, the discovery of epigenetics opened up a door to possibly altering our predetermined DNA. With later studies from scientists like Robert Sapolsky, the idea of epigenetics, which means “on top” of genetics, was refined and is now being used to explain human nature. Contrarily, another famous concept of human nature developed by Sigmund Freud can be argued against Robert Sapolsky’s idea. His concept consists of the unconscious and conscious mind, and when humans are stripped away from civilization, our unconscious mind would take over and we would turn into savages; all humans are naturally selfish, and this cannot be changed.

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Agreeing with Robert Sapolsky, I claim that even though humans have a genetic baseline, our and our parents’ lifestyle can alter our epigenetics, changing our nature to whatever we cause it to be.

Sigmund Freud was an Australian neurologist that developed a foundation for our psychological world. Freud believes that human nature is always in conflict, and his theory mirrors that. According to Freud’s theory, most of our conscious mind consists of ego, where we decide what actions to take based on what we think is right; it’s our rational thinking. On the other side, our unconscious mind consists of the superego and id. Our superego is our guilt and morals, while our id seeks pleasure and tells us to go for it. And when we are stripped away from civilization, our id takes over and savagery is displayed. The book Lord of the Flies by William Golding clearly demonstrates the Freudian theory. When a group of choirboys from England is stripped from civilization, they act inhumanely and like savages. They were “liberated from shame and self-consciousness” (p.64). And in the end, all aspects of their ego and superego fall, and the is id is fully unmasked. But more realistically, Freud’s concept of the mind can be applied to a common situation where one sees a five dollar bill on the floor at school. It is our primitive instinct to pick it up and keep it; extra cash is great! This is the id, for we unconsciously want to seek pleasure and luxury. But right before we pick it up, we remember what our teachers and parents taught us, which is we should either leave the bill on the ground, give it to a teacher, or return it to the person who dropped it; this could be someone’s lunch money. This is our ego speaking in our conscious mind. Nevertheless, you still pick it up because no one is looking, and this is where the superego surfaces. You unconsciously feel guilty for the evil you did, for you know what you did was wrong. So, these examples clearly show Freud’s theory of mind. When civilized people are stripped away from civilization, they focus on survival and turn into savages; the id takes over the superego and ego when in survival mode. And when one encounters a five dollar bill on the ground, the id, ego, and superego communicate in one’s mind to determine what’s right and what’s wrong, and what to do and what not to do.

Robert Sapolsky, an American neuroendocrinologist, is known for the application of epigenetics on to explaining the nature of humans. In a Ted Talk, he said “While we are a miserably violent species, we’re also extraordinarily compassionate and altruistic. So how do you make sense of the biology of our best moments, our worst, and all of the ambiguous ones in between?” Refuting the point that our DNA is our destiny, he applied the concept of epigenetics into the concept of human nature. Epigenetics are switches that can turn a certain genetic coding on and off, and the switch is switched accordingly to the person or the person’s parent’s lifestyle. For instance, a study showed that mice who genetically didn’t have learning genes still learned when they are placed in a nurturing environment. The nurturing environment turned on a few learning switches even though the DNA didn’t have learning genes. Moreover, in order for a person to have a certain behavior, he or she would have to have the specific gene for that behavior and be in the environment that either turns on or off the switch. Many who have mental disorders like clinical depression have parents who have been diagnosed as well; it’s a genetic disorder. But, their Depression switches usually don’t turn on if they do not encounter stressful situations. Lastly, a child has a greater chance of mental disorders if their mothers experienced an excessive amount of stress during pregnancy. The mother’s brain would release specific hormones when encountered with stress, and these hormones will reach the child. Even though the genomes of the child are predetermined, the epigenomes are switched to protect the child from the stress hormones it is receiving. These three cases on human nature are easily explained with epigenetics because epigenetics incorporates both the concept of a predetermined DNA and Sapolsky’s concept of how environment and culture affect our behavior.

After analyzing the two contrasting theories on human nature, I reclaim that Robert Sapolsky’s epigenetic theory is closer to the facts and can be easily be supported by scientific experiments. While Sigmund Freud’s concept of the id, ego, and superego can be applied to many situations, it is hard to test and analyze the unconscious mind. Additionally, Freud’s theory implies that the nature of humans are savages, and civilization just masks the evil. However, we know that not all humans are purely evil; a good mother would do anything for her child, even if they are stripped away from civilization. In contrast, epigenetics clearly explains how and why one can be evil or good, and that is why, and it can be tested and explained with biology.

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Theories on Human Nature. (2019, Apr 28). Retrieved from