Beyond Human Nature: Cloud Atlas

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The Question of Human Nature in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas

… an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue don’t stay the same it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul.1

This is how author David Mitchell introduces his central metaphor for the human: complex arrangements of atoms, at once endlessly malleable and yet at the same time defined by an essential essence. It is this tension between conceptions of an inherent human nature and the manifest diversity of human cultural expression that drives and underlies Cloud Atlas’s philosophical meditations. As George Gessert observes in his review of the novel, its scope – both spatial and temporal – allows it to explore ‘the human condition’ in such a way as to ‘suggest patterns that transcend historical circumstance’, and indeed the novel’s very title would seem to indicate that Mitchell is attempting nothing less than a mapping of those underlying inherencies.2

Turning to the contemporary sciences with questions of human nature, one cannot go far without encountering the name Edward O. Wilson. Author of On Human Nature (1978) and father of the body of theory now known as ‘evolutionary psychology’ (a discipline born of out of his own 1975 synthesis, ‘sociobiology’), Wilson has perhaps done more than anybody else in recent decades to empirically ground and theoretically refine the ‘hereditarian’ position on human mental development while simultaneously collapsing its artificial distinction from the seemingly-opposed ‘nurturist’ argument. 3 His work has certainly given the debate an unprecedented prominence in intellectual circles.4

1 David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (London: Sceptre, 2004), p.324. 2 George Gessert, ‘Cloud Atlas (review)’, Leonardo, 38 (2005), 425-426 (p.425). 3 Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1978). Edward. O Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1975). Regarding his own selection of the terms ‘nurturist’ and ‘hereditarian’, Wilson notes with some amusement that ‘Nurturists are sometimes called environmentalists; and hereditarians cannot be called naturists, unless they hold their conferences in the nude’ – Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Knopf, 1998), p.142. 4 For a full account of the sociobiology controversy, see Ullica Segerstråle, Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Evolutionary psychology is elegantly defined by Leda Cosmides, John Tooby and Jerome H. Barkow in their introduction to The Adapted Mind (1992) as follows:

Evolutionary psychology is simply psychology that is informed by the additional knowledge that evolutionary biology has to offer, in the expectation that understanding the process that designed the human mind will advance the discovery of its architecture.5

Perhaps evolutionary psychology’s most basic assumption is that the adaptive problems our minds are shaped to deal with were those that arose during our two million year period as Pleistocene hunter-gatherers, and the several hundred million years prior spent as one kind of forager or another. The last few hundred thousand years of civilization are to be recognized as an eye-blink in evolutionary time, and not expected to have resulted in any significant adaption to agricultural or industrial living, for example.6

Unlike the controversial sociobiology, however, evolutionary psychology ‘does not attempt to apply evolutionary biology directly to human social life’; it evades accusations of simplistic biological determinism by focusing instead upon the psychological mechanisms that give rise to culture rather than prescribe it.7 This is not to attribute any kind of transcendence to human psychology; only to recognize it as an essential causal link between biology and culture of which a full and comprehensive survey ought to be undertaken if one is to understand that complex interrelationship.

For Wilson, this synthesis...
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