Skip to content Skip to navigation

Conflict, Cooperation, and Human Nature

I had the great pleasure of teaching this class with my partner in things creative and procreative, Libra R. Hilde. We offered this class in Stanford's Introduction to the Humanities Program, a compulsory sequence of classes that all Stanford freshmen take. The motivating idea was to introduce students to thinking about human nature by challenging what we see as fallacious trope of a humans in a "state of nature." Isolating human action from its social context is like trying to describe honey without the sweet.

As Libra has moved to San Jose State and I have teaching constraints imposed by a research grant, Fall of 2005 was the last time we expect to teach CCHN. I can certainly imagine a future when we would teach something similar, but that will remain a hypothetical for some time to come...

Course Description: 

What does your mother's brother's daughter call you? Chances are pretty good that she calls you "cousin," and because of this, you assume a host of duties, expectations, and social responsibilities. The classification of other people is a human universal, intimately related to the tension between conflict and cooperation that pervades human social systems, and helps define who we are.

In this course, you will explore some striking forms of human social interaction and their relationship with what makes us human. In addition to the construction of family systems, warfare and slavery are uniquely human activities: upon these we will focus our discussion of human nature. How people manipulate such social classifications as "nonhuman" or "kin" in an effort to define a potential spouse, an opponent in war, or a slave, and how people resist attempts at denying them their humanity, will provide insight into what makes a person "human."

Using tools from anthropology and history, we will approach the question "What is human?" from a broad historical and comparative perspective. Throughout our investigations, we will strive to understand how variation on social structures and cultural norms can provide more general insights into human nature and the resolution of social problems.