What makes us human?

When we are talking about making the way we work human it makes sense to look at what our human nature actually is. Are there common patterns that we all share? Are we thriving for the same things or are we driven by different things? That is what we are going to look at in the following.



When defining a universal human nature the obvious starting point is to look at our ancestry. Where do we come from? What is biologically shared by all humans? What is the evolutionary theory of humankind?


In order to have a starting point and to get a first broad classification of human beings, one way is to first define what we are not. That means to set clear boarders for what separates us from other species.


We are not instinct driven animals

When we look back at our ancestors it is clear that we descended from animals, more specifically the Hominids, the group of great apes. What separates us from animals, though, is the size of our brains. And with the development of greater brain sizes comes a realization of self, a form of consciousness. This conscious mind allows us to weigh decisions and potential outcomes against each other and decide for the most desirable option. That goes in line with our possession of triangular awareness. It means that we can assess what effect our actions have on a relationship that two others persons share, who we also have a relationship with. In other words, what they are saying about us when we are not there.   

Although we still have the same biological needs of water, food and sex, as animals and we need to make sure to fulfill them regularly to stay alive, it is not our instinct that drives us to satisfy these needs. We make conscious decisions about what we eat and when or how much for example.

One of the key characteristics that makes us human appears to be that we can think about alternative futures and make deliberate choices accordingly. Creatures without such a capacity cannot be bound into a social contract and take moral responsibility. Once we become aware about what we cause, however, we may feel morally obliged to change our ways. – Thomas Suddendorf,Professor of Psychology and author of ‘The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals’


We are not rational calculating machines

Facing the possibility of singularity within our lifetime, it seems necessary to draw a clear distinction towards what might be the next evolutionary step. Singularity is the moment when artificial intelligence is able to grow and self-improve itself. The speed at how machines are updated and artificial intelligence is increasing is now faster than ever. We speak of the fourth Industrial Revolution. In times of the development of supercomputers like IBM’s Watson and with the risk of robots taking over our jobs, it might be relevant to define what makes us human now more than ever.

If robots work faster without getting tired than we can, what jobs will humans do in the future? We need to focus on our humanness in a future of smart robots, since we are not rational calculating machines.

The risk of being replaced by a robot in a work context might give us the freedom to do and focus on what is important to us in our lives and the lives of others. Maybe robots are not our enemies, but can actually help us reach the next evolutionary step.


Our nature determines what we can become

“Yes, man is in a way his own project and he does make himself. But also there are limits upon what he can make himself into. The project is predetermined biologically for all men; it is to become a man.” – Abraham Maslow

What is distinctive human is defined by natural evolution, also referred to as genetic determinism. As Maslow pointed out we cannot become anything else than human. But what is it that is distinctive about us?

Essentialists like Plato or Descartes for example have argued that there must be some kind of essence that is shared by all human beings and only by human beings. Language, reason and morality have been raised as distinctions for our human nature. But then again not all humans are able to express or understand language. These differences between individual human beings make it difficult to find a common determinant which we all share. Which led Satre conclude that there is no human nature.

“[M]an first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.” – Jean-Paul Satre


Human nature

The nomological notion of our human nature takes a different perspective. It accepts the individual differences and speaks of a human nature that is shared by most humans as a result of evolution. These properties that we share are not definitional; they are not necessarily shared by all humans. The capacity to speak, for example, could be limited in an individual due to damaged brain function. Including the evolutionary notion allows us to define a distinctive human nature. A robot could for example possess all the properties of a human being, but that does not make it human. This definition of our human nature also accepts that it is not permanent. With continuous evolution, our human nature might change over time.


Let us summarize what evolution has taught us so far. Although our genes determine what we can become, we are able to make conscious decisions about what we do and can reflect on the outcome.



Since our genetics and evolution alone cannot explain the differences between humans, there must be another aspect next to nature. Why do human beings differ so widely?

Culture of the human in form of two monks

sasint / Pixabay


Social beings

The human is a cultural being. We are an interdependent species and have a dynamic network of relationships with other people. Our phenotype, an organism’s observable characteristics or traits, is influenced by the people around us, our in-group or tribe. Some examples of the human phenotype is the use of language, having and showing emotions, creating tools to make tools, the use of fire, living in groups, creating social identities, the division of labor, using empathy, being able to distinct between right and wrong and realizing responsibility and intentionality.

We hold beliefs and attitudes, socially-transmitted representations and practices, which shape our experience and behavior. This phenomenon is termed population thinking. Information is carried within a cultural group. Culture is defined as information capable of affecting individual’s behavior that we acquire from other members of our species through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission. People in different cultural groups behave differently, since they acquired different skills, beliefs and values.


Influenced by our environment

Environmentalists speak of cultural and social determinism. They share the standpoint that all our behavior is a result of the environment we live in. Satre’s definition of human nature is only possible in a social context. Without other humans around there would be no need to define what makes us human. His point is that we decide the meaning of life individually, since social constructs exist only in our heads. Social order for example is constructed, whereas in reality it is an exchange between equals instead. The freedom which comes with such a limitless mental belief can however be intimidating, that is why we chose to live in self-deception. We believe only what we want to believe, in order to be able to justify our own actions.

Interactionists, on the contrary share the view that human traits are the product of genes and environment. As described above, the evolutionary aspect of human nature cannot be denied. Humans have experienced constant change and adaption of minds to environments, processing information that is adaptive, constantly changing, or in other words complex. Today these experiences might take place faster than our mind can develop. We possess an innate core knowledge or cognitive endowment we are born with, but also have the capability for learning and cultural differences. These so called developmental systems respond differently to diverse environments, which explain variations between human beings around the world.


Summarized it can be said that genes determine our evolutionary possibilities and the environment brings out the most appropriate responses. But we are not determined by our environment and can make conscious decisions instead as we learned in the evolutionary part.

What motivates our decision-making and behavior then?


Human motivation

human motivation of climing a mountain

Unsplash / Pixabay

First selfish, then altruistic

“[…S]ociety is an uneasy compromise between individuals with conflicting ambitions…” – Matt Ridley

We all have universal needs. We all have the need for biological survival, which can be achieved by drinking water, eating food and having sex. Further we want to be safe, loved and create a unique social identity of ourselves. It is in our self-interest to satisfy these needs first to be able to live healthy in the long run. In other words, if these basic needs are not covered, we act selfishly. Our first instinct is to make sure our own needs are covered, before we think of fulfilling someone else’s needs. However, we are able to act altruistic as well, but the chances are more likely if our own needs are covered. Altruism is defined by acting selflessly and creating long-term benefits for others at short-term personal costs. It is in our nature to be a cooperative species as examples of large scale welfare show.


Ultimatum Game

Another example is the fairness to strangers in market societies. In the Ultimatum Game the Proposer receives a sum of money and makes an offer of how to split it to the Responder, who can either accept the offer or reject it. If the offer is accepted, both parties receive the money. If the offer is rejected neither party receives anything. In case of solely self-interest the Proposer should offer a low amount and the Responder should accept; both parties would be better off. However, even in another version, the Dictator Game, where there is no option for rejection, the proposed offers are close to an even split. This is especially true in western, industrialized countries and shows a sense of fairness and cooperation. In less developed countries lower offers are made and are usually accepted, showing selfish behavior if basic needs are not covered.


Intrinsic thrive

In general it can be said that in the short term we seek gratification by avoiding punishment or seeking pleasure. However, not all our actions are driven by seeking hedonic pleasure. Altruistic behavior is possible through personal suffering in the short term to reach long term benefits for everyone. What is it that we are ultimately striving for then?



At the end of the day we all want to go to bed with the feeling that today was a good day. This eudemonic contentment, the human flourishing, is what we all aim for. Maslow described this process as self-transcendence with Being-Values like truth, beauty or perfection. Underneath that idea lays the assumption that we are driven by a curiosity for what might come and that we want to improve our environment for ourselves and others. Ideally in a synergetic way, where our actions are at the same time selfish and altruistic.

In order for our social system to sustain over time, there are minimum requirements that have to be present within that system however. The Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development identifies these requirements as our capacity for self-organization and learning, being able to find common meaning and having trust as well as diversity. In other words we need to have Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose to thrive as human beings, as these are our intrinsic motivations.


There is a universal nature, with universal needs and aspirations, but there are individual preferences, perspectives and solutions, highlighting the uniqueness of every individual. Ultimately we want to make our own lives better and contribute to the advancement of mankind.

Why are we then making irrational decisions so often?


Irrational decisions

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect).” – Mark Twain

As already mentioned, if our basic needs are not covered, we act selfishly. Moreover, the reason why we make so many irrational decisions, which are from an outside perspective quite obvious, is because we are not a rational, machine-like homo economicus, but make choices based on the behavior of our in-group. And since we only know the behavior of our cultural group, we cannot even be blamed. We simply do not know better. By design we humans are a social being that gets our skills, beliefs and values from the cultural environment we are part of.

But even if we are aware of alternative behaviors or solutions, we struggle to follow through with our own actions, especially if the alternative is not conforming to the perspective of the majority of our cultural group. Being seen as an outsider as a social being is the least desirable situation we could be in. In addition, it is easier to imitate than to create something new. That is why we use imitation to reach economic success, when it actually reduces our genetic fitness or threatens the sustainability of our social system and planet. We make irrational choices, because we want to fit in with our per-group.

“Man is destined by his reason to live in a society with men and in it to cultivate himself, to civilize himself, and to make himself moral by the arts and sciences. No matter how strong his animal tendency to yield passively to the attractions of comfort and well-being, which he calls happiness, he is still destined to make himself worthy of humanity by actively struggling with the obstacle that cling to him because of the crudity of his nature.” – Immanuel Kant


What makes us human?

Evolution and thus our genes determine what we can become, whereas the socio-economic environment we are in brings out behaviors that match the skills, beliefs and values of that cultural group. We are not a homo economicus that makes rational decisions like machines. Instead we are constantly struggling with defining our own social identity, reaching uniqueness and freedom, while at the same time not wanting to be seen as an outsider. Our thrive for being virtuous and doing the right thing, based on what we believe and value, is constantly challenged by our need for social belongingness and fitting in with the opinion of the majority. However, we are able to make conscious decisions and follow through with our actions, fighting our own nature of instincts despite the external circumstances. We create something new by building up on other people’s ideas and adding our own perspective, which helps us to make rapid process.

It is our moral obligation to make decisions and direct humanity into a direction that are on the long term beneficial for everyone, even if it involves personal suffering in the short term. Our guiding principle is the effect we have on other people, a strategy of empathy, to reach our own goals and simultaneously help other people reach theirs as well. What makes us human is perfectly expressed in the philosophy of Ubuntu: “The only way for me to be human, is for you to reflect my humanity back at me.” There is no way for us to be human without other humans.


What makes you human?


This post was inspired by the book ‘Arguing about Human Nature’ by Stephen Downes and Eduard Machery. The authors have collected scientific perspectives that spread new light on the classic discussion if humans are the product of nature or nurture.

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About Businesshumanizer

My name is Jens and I write about organizational evolution to inspire a way of organizing work that is human-centric. Find me at www.humanbusiness.eu

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