Essentialism: The Mother of All Linear Thinking

Our gut tells us people, groups and objects have essences. Our intuition is dead wrong

There are some feelings we just can’t think our way out of or ignore until they go away. A case in point is the conviction that we all carry with us that we have a core or essence — a certain je ne sais quoi that makes us who we are.

From this false sense of self, we extrapolate to the world around us. If we have an essence that we can be reduced to, then just about everything and everyone else has the same quality. There is one fundamental thing that gives virtually everything in the universe its particular character. Even if we can’t put our finger on it, it’s there.

From this perspective, essentialism isn’t so much a philosophy as it is an attitude. It’s an attempt to take our point of view and build a justification to back it up rather than an effort to better understand the world as it really is.

… the river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once, and that there is only the present time for it, not the shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future.” ~ Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

Our environment consists of complex systems — ourselves included — that have many necessary parts but not sufficient ones. Each is carrying out a number of processes that react dynamically to other processes going on both within the system itself and within the larger world. Finding an essence in this pea soup of moving parts and feedback loops isn’t so much like looking for a needle in a haystack as it is like trying to find the butterfly in China that caused the hurricane in the Caribbean. It turns out there was an awful lot that had to go right from that hurricane’s perspective between the flapping of the butterfly’s wings and its development into a storm. Take away any one of them and you end up with something weaker than a hurricane, or maybe even nothing at all.

Furthermore, why stop with the butterfly? Before it there was a caterpillar, so the caterpillar, not the butterfly, must be the fundamental (i.e. first) cause of the hurricane. But we can’t consider the caterpillar without considering everything that went into making it, can we? And so on, and so on…

Essentialism is defined as “The principle or theory that any entity such as a person, group, object, or concept has innate and universal qualities.” The online sociology dictionary from which this definition was pulled gives as an example “a person is born gay.”

Homosexuality is an interesting choice, given it’s relatively easy to dismiss sexuality as an example of a “universal” quality, even if it is demonstrably innate. Let’s consider for a moment some of the varieties of human sexuality: heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, & asexual. These can refer to preferences, behaviors, or both. The preferences may be strong, even absolute and inflexible in some people, while being weaker in others. A person who is very sexual in their teens and 20s may be largely asexual in their later years, or vice versa.

But if the quality of being universal is relatively easy to challenge, what about innateness? Certainly it is pretty well established at this point that homosexuality is genetic, isn’t it? There definitely is strong evidence that homosexuality, at least in most cases, has a biological basis. But then again sexuality in general has a biological basis, so attributing it to biology isn’t really saying much. Regardless, it’s not clear why identifying a gene(s) or other physical trigger with a particular behavior or preference qualifies as uncovering something essential about a person.

It is precisely because people exhibit a variety of sexual preferences and behaviors that no single one of them can be essential to being human. It follows then that no physical cause we might correlate with these behaviors will be essential either. Regardless, there are certainly instances of homosexuality (and heterosexuality, etc.) out there where the biological indicators of a different preference are present to at least some degree. In such cases we have to conclude that cultural, psychological and/or other environmental factors played a role. These cases cloud the either/or choices genetic/biological essentialism attempts to force upon us even further.

Essentialism doesn’t just fail to find something universal, let alone necessary, in particular expressions of sexuality. Differences in our physical abilities likewise reveal the weakness of linear essentialist thinking when it comes to human identity.

We are, with very very rare exceptions, born with two legs and arms, ten toes and fingers, etc. These features of the human body are, most definitely, innate. Bipedalism and opposable thumbs are two features we use to distinguish ourselves from other species. If essentialism was to find a home anywhere, surely it would be in these truly innate universal traits.

As it turns out losing a limb or limbs, while having a profound physical impact upon a person’s body, does not impact upon the essential humanity of the person suffering the loss. Indeed, thanks to advances in medical and other technologies these losses, though still traumatic, are arguably less significant now than they have ever been.

As I was completing this piece, the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking died. If anyone proved the essence of a human being does not reside in a healthy fully functioning body, he did. Hawking spent more than five decades crippled by the debilitating illness known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Yet in spite of being unable to move his limbs and having to rely upon sophisticated technology to communicate, his mind remained sharp. Indeed, few in history rivalled his capacity to transform the way we think about the universe.

So what does it mean to be essentially human, or anything else? Is there one component or quality that a person, group, or object can be reduced to that defines their essence?

In his book Scale, the theoretical physicist Geoffrey West puts the problem this way: “Because the essence of any measurable quantity cannot depend on an arbitrary choice of units made by human beings, neither can the laws of physics.”

West wasn’t talking about essentialism in a sociological or philosophical context, but still his point is well taken. If anything can arguably be described as the essence of a thing, it cannot be “an arbitrary choice” by humans that we depend upon to define it. In physics a good example is an object’s mass. Mass doesn’t vary according to whether we are using kilograms or pounds to articulate it. The unit of measurement is referring to something that is invariant and should not be mistaken for the thing (i.e. mass) it is referring to.

Can humans be reduced to a single invariant quality? Can other species for that matter? Keep in mind we are talking about an invariant quality, not biological processes that follow the same scaling laws regardless of species or environment. Do we even want such an unmovable center at the heart of our complexity given the implications that follow from it for things such as choice, resilience, and openness to new experiences?

The effort to reduce human beings to as few data points as possible, with one being the obvious if unobtainable ideal, has taken on new urgency in the age of big data. That correlation does not equal causation has not stopped marketers, corporations, and governments from correlating the hell out of us. With every click or swipe they make new assumptions about our personalities and preferences. By nudging us in that direction with the next ad or search result that appears on the screen algorithms seek confirmation through their own self reinforcing feedback loops.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, if there’s one thing humans can’t be objective about it’s themselves. But even if we could, somehow, find a magic place from which to cast an unbiased eye over our own experiences (collective as well as individual), it’s hard to imagine finding from that transcendent perch a single essential thing at the core of the human experience from which every other aspect of our existence could be understood and predicted.

The gene won’t do. The more we learn about genetics the more mutable the gene becomes. The relatively new field of epigenetics has revealed that changes take place in gene expression over our lifetime which even have implications for future generations not exposed to the original environmental trigger. These impacts are in addition to the usual mutations that play a key role in both disease and evolution.

Likewise, the brain has proven itself to be incredibly modular and plastic. Finding something essential there is a quixotic endeavor in light of this fluidity. Attempting to pin the essential tail on the existential donkey when the donkey in question is different from one day to the next at the cellular, organ, and experiential level isn’t just difficult. It’s an exercise in futility.

Essentialism is a product of our tendency to categorize things in our environment and to draw clear lines between these categories that connect a supposed cause to an actual effect. Historically these lines have often been fantastic, leading to all manner of superstitions and myths being offered up as explanations for everything from the weather to illness.

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” ~ John Muir

But with the possible exception of the most fundamental forces in nature connections are rarely few and linear. As systems become more complex, the list of influences contributing to a particular outcome grows creating a web of variables that no algorithm or supercomputer can possibly deal with entirely, let alone comprehend.

This isn’t to say life is just too complex for us to get closer to the truth of the matter. However, it is to say we can’t get very close to the truth by thinking in simple linear terms the way essentialism invites us to. Essentialism is the easy way out.

As Andrew Shtulman put it in his book Science Blind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong, “Essentialist construals of genetic information are neither accurate nor productive, but they are an enduring obstacle to how we interpret such information because essentialism is our universal starting point for thinking about inheritance.” Shtulman concludes, “Even geneticists were once preschoolers intent on imbuing the biological world with discrete, immutable essences.” That isn’t just true of genetics and future geneticists playing in the preschool sandbox, but of virtually every area of human inquiry and everybody else. Fostering greater tolerance for nuance and uncertainty may not be as reassuring or intuitive as essentialism, but in the long run it’s by far our best bet.

Other recent articles by Craig: Are You Getting Enough Awe in Your Experiential Diet? & This Darwin Day Let’s Remember Evolution is About Kinship Too

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US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

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