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Marilynne Robinson and A Common Faith1.jpg

Robinson reflects on our flawed notions of human nature @ Guernica.

All thinking about the good society, what is to be wished for in the way of life in community, necessarily depends on assumptions about human nature. All sorts of things have been assumed about human nature, and have been found persuasive or at least have been accepted as true over the course of history. We have had a long conversation in this country about class, race, ethnicity, and gender, how the moral, intellectual, and emotional qualities attributed to those in favored or disfavored categories create the circumstances of their lives, and, as they do so, reinforce an acceptance of the belief that these qualities are real, these characterizations are true.

When there were no women in medical school or law school, or in higher education, it was easy to believe that they would not be able to endure their rigors. We in this country are fortunate to have a moderately constant loyalty to the idea of equality that has moved us to test the limits imposed by these cultural patterns, some of them very ancient, some of them once virtually universal and now still deeply entrenched in many parts of the world.
Of course we have not realized anything approaching this ideal. The meaning of it is much disputed—does it mean equality of opportunity or equality of outcome? Frankly, if we were to achieve either we might find that it resembled the other nearly enough to make the question moot. In any case, our failures, real and perceived, sometimes manifest as an anger with the project itself, and this distracts attention from the fact that we have made a very interesting experiment, full of implication, in putting aside traditional definitions and expectations and finding that when they are not supported culturally, which is to say artificially, they tend to fade away. We can learn from our own history that the nature of our species, and our nature as individuals, is an open question.
I do not draw any conclusions from the fact of our apparent malleability. Certainly it cannot imply perfectibility. Since we don’t know what we are, and since we have a painful and ongoing history of undervaluing ourselves and exploiting one another, we are hardly in a position to attempt our own optimization. Still, how can we find our way toward a fuller knowledge of ourselves? I have a favorite scientific fact that I always share with my students: The human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe. By my lights, this makes the human mind and the human person the most interesting entity known to exist in the universe. I say this to my students because I feel their most common problem is also their deepest problem—a tendency to undervalue their own gifts and to find too little value in the human beings their fiction seeks to create and the reality it seeks to represent. By means direct and indirect this problem has been educated into them.
I have a habit of browsing relatively respectable journalism to get a sense of the climate of opinion on this great subject, human nature. On CNN.com I came across an article which affirmed that liberals and atheists have higher IQs than conservatives and the religious. It explained the difference in terms of the tendency of intelligent people to act in ways that are not conventional, in the article a near synonym for “natural.” Liberal is defined for these purposes “in terms of concern for nonrelated people and support for private resources that help those people.” According to the evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa, author of the study, which was done at the London School of Economics but with American data, “It’s unnatural for humans to be concerned about total strangers.
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