Human Nature and Human Rights

Human Nature and Human Rights

Mini Teaser: "Human rights" as understood today bear little relation to what it means to be human; but that does not faze their advocates.

by Author(s): Robin Fox

The individual "rights" that a primitive, self-conscious, but of
necessity group-living primate would claim would of course be based
on its individual needs to feed and procreate successfully. But it is
important to note that at this level the need to claim rights over
the demands of the group would not arise, since the group would be
the individual's inclusive kinship network. All individuals feed,
struggle for dominance, mate and raise young. In this process, the
existence of the group is a necessity like the existence of natural
resources. Individuals will make altruistic sacrifices for the group
since it is essentially a group of kin, and thus represents the
repository of their inclusive fitness. There is no way in which the
small group of relatives could be seen as somehow having different
interests from those of the individuals composing it. In Bradleyan
terms, there could be no distinction between the society and the

A Profoundly Unfair Process

As levels of social complexity increased after the Neolithic
revolution, some 10,000 years ago, organisms would increasingly be
dealing with (relative) genetic strangers who made demands on them in
the name of social units whose genes were not identical by descent
with theirs. It is at this stage that true conflict would have
occurred, as organisms started to feel the need to assert their
"rights"; that is, the things they needed to do in order to ensure
their fitness: the means of reproduction.

In a strict sense, this is the upper limit of the natural or human
claims that an organism (read: individual) can have against any
collectivity of genetic strangers. It is the area Clinton seems to
have in mind when using "human." It is a claim based on the
functional necessities of reproductive competition. It cannot be a
claim to reproduce successfully, only a claim to be allowed to
compete for reproductive success. It is not a claim for fairness:
something that Rawlsians would like to write into the "original
position." Natural selection is a profoundly unfair process; indeed,
that is the point of it. Some start with a genetic advantage over
others; all menare not created equal. But all have a right to play
their hands to the best of their ability. The group has no obligation
to level the playing field unnaturally, but it has an obligation to
let the players play.

So we might say that the only basic human rights are those that allow
individuals to compete in the reproductive struggle. These would be
rights of access to potential mates, and to the resources needed to
acquire, hold and breed with them; and the right to raise offspring
to viability. (This would underline the claim that the right to
"equality" refers to equality of opportunity, not equality of
outcome. The outcome has to be unequal or natural selection would not
take place.) We could speak of a "human right to procreate", although
I would prefer to state it as the "right to engage in reproductive
competition." For it is important that we recognize these basic human
rights not as claims to some kind of benevolence or handouts from the
collectivity (even though we may decide such benevolence is due for
other reasons). They are claims to be allowed to take part in the
reproductive struggle. Insofar as we fail, we fail, and as long as we
were not artificially restricted in our attempt we have no cause for

To take a currently contentious issue: Is there a "human right" to
free choice of one's marriage partner? (I am sure Clinton would
regard this as a "human" and not a "political" right.) To those of us
reared in a relentlessly individualistic society, such a right seems
obvious and basic. But it is so only in such a society. In a society
where the clan or extended family is the basic unit--and note that
this itself is the basic "human" unit--then it is equally obvious
that such a choice is too important to be left to individual whim.
What is at stake is the continuing reproductive success of a group of
genetically close individuals. The parents of any potential couple
carefully monitor the match in light of the probability of a
successful reproductive outcome. In doing so, they are acting not
only in protection of their own inclusive fitness, but also, in terms
of their greater experience and predictive ability, in protection of
that of the young couple.

There is nothing either unnatural or inhuman here. On the contrary,
our attitude of allowing whimsical affections and passions to decide
the choice of partner, with the often subsequent consequences of
divorce, step-parent abuse, one-parent family problems and the like,
can be seen as inhuman, unnatural and reprehensible. But so high in
our value system have we elevated individual choice that it appears
to us simply "self-evident" that arranged marriage is unthinkable. It
is an infringement of "human rights." It may be an infringement of
something, and there may indeed be good moral arguments against it,
but the "human rights" argument will not wash.

You might counter that I have just said that the group should not
interfere with the right to compete for reproductive success. But in
the case just cited it does not do so. Rather, it seeks to re-inforce
the chances of individual reproductive success, and we could
forcefully argue that the group has the "human right" to do so.
Societies with arranged marriages are easily out-reproducing those
with free choice, despite the access to better medical care,
sanitation and nutrition in the latter. There is nothing in the "laws
of nature" that says the kin group (the pool of genes related by
descent) should not seek to enhance the reproductive success of its
members. On the contrary, it should seek to do so, since
individuals--given imagination, intelligence and free will, and hence
the capacity for delusion--as often as not act against their
reproductive self-interest.

Thus, non-kin collectivities, while certainly often acting against
the interests of their members, will also often move in to prevent at
least self-destructive behavior that might injure individual
reproductive success: drug misuse, suicide, child abuse, infanticide
or abortion. More positively, they support those whose behavior has
reduced their chances of raising children to viability. Monastic
institutions in the Middle Ages, while manned by celibate "brothers
and sisters", were homes for a staggering number of otherwise doomed
infants deposited by those unable to support them. Social welfare
systems operate on the same principle: although we have no natural
right to their assistance, they have a natural right to assist us.
Here non-kin collectivities are taking over the functions that
originated, and have their logic, in the kin group. If we support
them and they support us it is because of a natural extension of
mutuality from the "original position" of kin support.

It is in the interest of a nation, for example, that it reproduce
itself. It tends, in its delusional-ideological system, to pass
itself off as a super kin group. At the primitive level of evolving
humanity (99 percent of our existence as a species) there was no need
for such pretense. The kin group was, in essence, the social
collectivity. This is why I have argued above that at the most basic,
and hence most "human", level there would be no "rights" issue. In
promoting the success of near kin we are promoting the success of our
own genes (or, more correctly, they are using us to promote their

Still within the purview of basic kin selection theory, we have
another human right: the right to nepotistic assistance. We have the
right both to assist close kin and to receive assistance from them in
the pursuit of our own reproductive success. Until the advent of
meritocratic bureaucracy, the world lived by this principle. It is
what "kinship" is all about: all those gentes, clans, sibs, septs,
moieties, phratries, lineages, houses, kindreds and extended
families. There is no human society that does not map out, often in
alarming detail, its universe of kin, the better to calculate the
degree and kind of help and obligation expected. The term nepotism,
from the Latin nepos (grandson, sister's son), was first invented to
describe the hypocritical (but most certainly "natural") tendency of
prelates either to favor their nephews or to hide their illegitimate
sons under the nepotic title. In another stunning reversal of natural
values, we have now made it one of the worst crimes against
"equality"--which it most assuredly is. This does not prevent us,
though, at all levels of society up to the very top, from wallowing
in the hypocrisy. The most basic feature of social evolution is not
so easily defined away.

The point of the above examples is to make us wary of a free and easy
use of the terms "human" and "natural." It is not to say that there
are no other rights than those that exist in some guttural,
shambling, scavenging state of proto-human existence. Of course there
are. But we should be more careful in the logical underpinning we
choose to give to these rights, if for no other reason than that we
render the terms meaningless and empty and rob them even of
rhetorical value.

Essay Types: Essay