When I was about halfway through the essays collected by Harold W. Baillie and Timothy K. Casey in Is Human Nature Obsolete? Genetics, Bioengineering, and the Future of the Human Condition (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005, $24.95), I took a few days off to compete in my first triathlon, the off-road type. This might seem inconsequential to a review of the book, but as this excellent anthology reminds us, there is no such thing as "inconsequential." No act is without consequence, and nothing, in the end, is safe from sequencing.
Swimming is a primitive, even atavistic, sport. This is especially true if one adheres to the theory that we evolved from aquatic ancestors. Like running, swimming requires no conspicuous technological implements—no sticks, no projectiles, no protective equipment. And yet I could easily argue that running is more "natural" than swimming, at least for a human being. Running is primary, a universal response to danger. Swimming, on the other hand, is a provocation, an embracing of danger in defiance of human limitations. What leads oxygen-sucking human beings back into the water? Is it, as I have already suggested, an atavistic effect of phylogenesis? Or does it have to do with ontogeny, a deep memory of our origin in frantically swimming sperm or tranquil, floating fetus? Or does a swimmer's attraction to the water have something to do with provocation itself, with a hard-coded, psychological, perhaps Oedipal, need to defy human finitude? What makes human beings swim? This question has been taken up in many books and essays on swimming, none of which I am concerned with here; but it is still relevant in the context of Baillie and Casey's book, because it begs the question, What is human nature?, along with its corollaries: What is a human being? What is nature?
If one were able to ask the Romantic poet Byron about man's motivation [End Page 164] to swim, the answer would be predictable: a woman. Consider the mythological figure, Leander, who swam the Hellespont nightly to be united with his lover, Hero. In an equally mythical journey, Byron swam the Hellespont himself, a typically Romantic exercise in the pursuit of poetic glory. As Byron's poem on the adventure goes, the cost of this nature-defying swim was drowning for Leander, but only "the ague" for himself. Nevertheless, as Charles Sprawson observes in Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero, both mortals swam the Hellespont with the same goal in mind: heroism. And both did indeed achieve heroic transcendence, even immortality. Leander, Byron, and the multitude of heroic swimmers after them tell us something about human nature. Following Otto Rank, Ernest Becker, and other philosophers and cultural anthropologists, I would argue that heroism is a key component of human nature, if not its essence. In his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker suggests that "each cultural system is a dramatization of earthly heroics; each system cuts out roles for performances of various degrees of heroism: from the 'high' heroism of a Churchill, a Mao, or a Buddha, to the 'low' heroism of the coal miner, the peasant, the simple priest" (p. 5). Far from being simple, self-preserving organisms, human beings are highly self-conscious; we seek recognition, yearn for evidence of our "cosmic specialness," even to the point of disdaining our material instantiation and denying our finitude. The heroic essence of human nature is especially evident in a culture of war, but it betrays itself equally in a culture of extreme sports, blogging, and genetic engineering.
The denial of human finitude is a prevalent theme in Is Human Nature Obsolete?—no doubt spurred on by the rhetoric of immortality with which genetic engineering is often celebrated. Jean Bethke Elshtain, for example, suggests that genetic engineering is symptomatic of the "flight from finitude" that serves as "an overarching and framing thematic of contemporary U.S. culture" (p. 156). Elshtain's conception of human nature is framed in religious tradition and informed by Heidegger's conception of technology and human being. Other authors invoke Heidegger and finitude as well. Co...