Whatever Happened to Human Nature?

The Winnipeg Lectures

and Related Essays



For my host in Winnipeg, Robert O’Kell and for my teachers whose work bears most importantly on this volume, Robert S. Brumbaugh, John Dollard, George Engel, Bob Hinshelwood and Sydney Klein 

Published in Great Britain in 1995 by 

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¬© 1995 Robert M. Young 

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Whatever Happened to Human Nature?

Most of the reasons for believing in a clear and coherent idea of human nature are in doubt and under fire. The author here attempts to bring together urgent current issues in a number of fields which bear on the understanding of human nature: psychoanalysis, Darwinism, ideology and postmodernism. He was invited to the University of Manitoba as a ‘Distinguished Visitor’ to give public lectures across the whole range of his scholarship and clinical work. He has brought these wide-ranging talks together with others originally presented as seminar papers in specialist academic settings. The result is an unusual combination of general and scholarly explorations in a number of disciplines which are relevant to how we think about human nature in a time of deep uncertainty: psychoanalysis, history of ideas, sociology of knowledge, psychology, psychiatry, philosophy of science and cultural studies. His approach is to combat disappointment, despair and pessimism with stoical reasons for hope drawn from the deepest levels of scientific thinking and the understanding of unconscious processes in object relations terms. 

Robert M. Young is a psychotherapist in private practice and teaches psychoanalytic theory for a number of trainings in London, abroad and at Sheffield University. He is a Member of the Lincoln Centre and Institute for Psychotherapy and the Institute for Psychotherapy and Social Studies and is registered with the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy and the British Confederation of Psychotherapists. He studied philosophy at Yale and medical sciences at Rochester before training in the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge, where he taught for many years and was a Fellow and Graduate Tutor at King’s College and Director of the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine. He has taught and published widely in the history and philosophy of the biological and human sciences, with particular reference to ideas about human nature. He is the editor of the quarterly journals Free Associations: Psychoanalysis, Groups, Politics, Culture and Science as Culture. He also makes television documentaries and takes part in cultural debates about science and humanity. 


Psychoanalysis, Darwinism, Ideology, Postmodernism: this book is a collection of some of my writings about those topics which I hope and believe hangs together. I was invited by the University of Manitoba at Winnipeg to be a ‘Distinguished Visitor’ and to give a public lecture to the university and seminars to the interdepartmental Darwin Seminar, the Department of Psychology and the Department of Psychiatry. The level of exposition which this invitation made appropriate led me to range widely over the academic and clinical disciplines with which I have been involved over four decades. I have complemented those lectures with essays based on other lectures and seminars which go more deeply into issues in psychoanalysis, Darwinian ideas about humanity and concepts of nature, human nature and second nature. My intention is that the eight chapters, representing, in some cases, substantial revisions of the original materials, should be mutually reinforcing and illuminating. 

Human nature is a tall order, and although I believe that the chapters are helpfully interdigitated, I cannot claim that I have come near to integrating the various domains of my research. I believe that I have made a beginning, though. 

I have been thinking about human nature, mostly in a bewildered way, for a long time – ever since I could not square my family’s religion with how we behaved in the family or my parent’s ideals with my mother’s depression and my father’s authoritarianism or the slogans of the school with the tyranny of the bullies in the neighbourhood. I was astonished and delighted to learn that universities offered ways of thinking about the gap between what we aspire to and what people do and that it was called philosophy. I could not get enough of it, and I was very grateful, indeed, to be allowed to work as an aide in a mental hospital and to be an assistant in research on psychotherapy. I next went to medical school with the intention of becoming a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, but the illness of my wife and the need to care for my infant son dictated a detour. 

I turned to research on the history of ideas about the relations between ideas of human nature in psychology and the science most relevant to mind – brain research. That led on to trying to understand the biological context within which that research was conducted and to evolutionary ideas about humanity. That, in turn, led on to attempts to understand the relationship between value systems, ideology and the forces which constrain and constitute the research programmes in academic disciplines which bear on ideas of human nature. From Darwinian ideas about what the Victorians called ‘man’s place in nature’ to the place of the concept of nature in the broader culture took me from the history of ideas to the sociology of knowledge and – in the context of the Vietnam War and the student movement of the late 1960s – to Marxist and related ideas about the relations between knowledge and power, expressed in the concepts of mediation and ideology. 

Psychoanalysis was a persistent preoccupation throughout. I read it, taught it at Cambridge and eventually underwent it and trained as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. The more I got involved in clinical work, teaching and research, the more I saw that it is important but difficult to relate psychoanalysis to the issues on which my scholarly research had centred. This volume is my second attempt to bring them into a single compass. The first one, Mental Space (1994), was rooted in psychoanalysis. This one is more evenly balanced on psychoanalysis and the history of scientific ideas about human nature. All but three of the chapters are published here for the first time. An earlier version of chapter two appeared in Science as Culture no. 16: 81-96; chapter five in Melanie Klein and Object Relations 12 (no. 2): 1-20; chapter seven in Science as Culture (no. 15) 3:165-207. 

It is my intention to bring out further collections of my writings on these and related subjects. I do not think the ensemble of them will be anything systematic, but there is a chance that they may be edifying. 

Islington – January 1995