What exactly is “human nature”?

My wife drew my attention to this brilliant profile of Joe Henrich, a behavioral science researcher at Columbia University. Originally an anthropologist, Henrich is the pioneer of a field of research examining how culture and upbringing shape how we view the world and how we behave.

The article begins by telling the story of Henrich’s behavioral experiment with the Machiguenga, an indigenous group in Peru, which found that the Machiguenga’s choices when playing a simple game involving giving and receiving sums of money were dramatically different from the choices of Western participants. Specifically, the Machiguenga seemed not to behave in a self-interested, rational manner as you might think. Here’s a passage from the piece:

As Heine, Norenzayan, and Henrich furthered their search, they began to find research suggesting wide cultural differences almost everywhere they looked: in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others, and other arenas. These differences, they believed, were not genetic. The distinct ways Americans and Machiguengans played the ultimatum game, for instance, wasn’t because they had differently evolved brains. Rather, Americans, without fully realizing it, were manifesting a psychological tendency shared with people in other industrialized countries that had been refined and handed down through thousands of generations in ever more complex market economies… In the small-scale societies with a strong culture of gift-giving, yet another conception of fairness prevailed. There, generous financial offers were turned down because people’s minds had been shaped by a cultural norm that taught them that the acceptance of generous gifts brought burdensome obligations. Our economies hadn’t been shaped by our sense of fairness; it was the other way around.

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