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Lecture 11

PHIL 180 Lecture 11: Neitzche on Human nature and their life

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PHIL 180

Neitzche on Human nature and their life. Nietzsche believed human nature is just a euphemism for inertia, cultural conditioning, and what we are before we make something of ourselves. A few exceptional humans are the creators, who, having subjected themselves to prevailing norms, then break with them and explore new territory, thus raising themselves above the alltoohuman mass. Humans are like other animals in just about every significant physical attribute. What distinguishes us is not the structure of our cells, not the way our metabolism works, and certainly not the way we are born, live, and die. What distinguishes us is the fact that we are programmed even before we are born to learn the language and culture of our family and peers. Other animals have traces of these capacities but we are the only species to have taken language and culture and create out of them a new form of evolution, social as opposed to biological. We are the only animals to create a new form of life, namely ideas, the creatures of the mind, mental things that spawn and proliferate according to much the same evolutionary principles as biological organisms do except that ideas evolve on a very much accelerated time scale. We are, as far as we know, the only animals to establish selfconscious volition as a driving force behind evolution. And that makes us special. Progress was painfully slow until quite recently. The hominid forebears of homo sapiens developed skills at toolmaking, and related methods of hunting and gathering, but probably did not have our capacity for speech and the capacity for abstract thought that came with it. CroMagnon man, probably the first genuinely sapient hominid to appear, was as far as we know the first truly talking, thinking, wondering animal. True to the tribal nature of his forebears, he turned on his cousins, the various subsets of homo erectus that still survived, and wiped them out. ( His descendants may or may not have assimiliated a little genetic material from the losers females; we dont know). Then he proceeded to turn on other tribes of his own species and wipe them out too, or try to. The principle of survival of the fittest biological organism was transformed into the principle of survival of the fittest social organization, and off we went on an evolutionary track that rapidly brought us to where we are today. Everything changed when we started growing food instead of gathering it, and raising domestic animals instead of hunting wild ones. Population started to increase, and has continued an irregular pattern of growth until the present. Technology drove social change; life became more complex and social organizations grew larger. As the size of the largest social units increased, the instinctive sense of altruism which we brought with us from our bandsized ancestors expanded too. First the tribe, then the community, and then the nationstate commanded our loyalties. (See my essay, The Evolution of Altruism.) At first it was proper to kill someone from the tribe across the river; then it wasnt any more, but it was all right to kill someone from another ethnic or linguistic or confessional group. Then that was no longer acceptable but it was just fine to kill soldiers of a country with which your country was at war. The more evolved nations are just now beginning to emerge from that penultimate state into one where it is no longer acceptable to kill anyone, anyone at all. But still, we all retain a stronger sense of altruism toward our own family than towards mere neighbors; and toward our neighbors than toward people farther away; and toward everyone who shares our nationality than towards foreigners. Nietzsche is not all wrong, however, when he says that progress is achieved mostly by a few exceptional humans who, having subjected themselves to prevailing norms, then break with them and explore new territory.
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