Distraction Free Reading

Busting Myths of Human Nature: An Interview with Dr. Agustín Fuentes

Many of our most enduring social problems are propped up by equally enduring beliefs in the inherent, biological nature of human beings – our perceptions, behaviors, and potentials are ‘hard-wired’ through genetics and evolution. This is particularly true in matters of racial and gender inequality, as well as beliefs in humans’ supposedly innate aggressiveness. In the past, professionals in the human sciences helped to perpetuate these myths, lending their voices and authority to assertions that lacked evidence and allowing stereotypes and biases to stand in for genuine research. Dr. Agustín Fuentes, biological anthropologist and primatologist at Norte Dame University, takes on these assertions in his book Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths About Human Nature.

My discussion with Dr. Fuentes took place in January 2018, one day after Donald Trump’s derogatory comments on immigrants from Haiti and Africa, and our talk inevitably turned to the ways that social scientists should confront such racism. Dr. Fuentes’ criticisms of biological determinism were not new to me, nor will they be to anyone familiar with the strongest traditions of sociocultural anthropology, beginning with Franz Boas. I encountered his book as part of my own research into the problematic history of biology as it has entered into socio-political discourses and policies (e.g. eugenics or the ‘Bell Curve’). But, Fuentes reminds us, such knowledge is uncommon outside our professional lives, and moreover we have taken far too long to reflexively call out racism and sexism in our own disciplines. Anthropologists and other social scientists have a responsibility to speak out against determinism in all social arenas, whether these notions come from the pens of our colleagues or the mouth of a president.

David Gerstle: I wanted to start by touching on your motivations for publishing on this topic.

Agustín Fuentes: Anthropology, sociology, the social and biological sciences produce this immense amount of information, but the majority of it stays in the Ivory Tower. And I think that’s criminal. Given where we are in the world, disseminating that knowledge, translating it to a broader audience – and to folks not in the social and biological sciences – is a critical thing to do.

DG: So the book came out in 2012, and I’m wondering what, in our present socio-political climate – like what happened yesterday – a message of this sort might address.

AF: The whole point of [the 2012 book] is to bust misconceptions and dangerous falsehoods about what it means to be human. And I think those specific ones – things about race, things about aggression and the nature of humanity, and things about gender and gender roles – are more prominent, more in the news, and more in our faces and everyday lives than they were when I published this book, five years ago. I think the current political, economic crises – and the responses to them (which I think have sometimes been very positive) – push sex, race, and aggression right up to the front of everyday life for everyone.

DG: You employ the concept of myth throughout the book, which could be a tricky idea to introduce when talking about science. What do you see are some of the complexities of using this concept?

AF: It’s an anthropological truism that we say (but we don’t give enough credit as it deserves) that a social construct is real for those who hold it. Social constructs are not just things that are made up and sitting out there in the ether. What people believe is real for them. And that’s the power of myth. A myth is something that is believed and engaged with, but is empirically, demonstrably false. People have these deep, serious beliefs. Things that fit into that realm – racism, sexism, notions about aggression – are common within our own popular world because they fit with our own expectations and belief systems. But the reality is that there is substantial empirical and scientific data that refute these myths and that information needs to get out.

DG: Moving on to those particular perceptions of human nature, could you summarize those issues of race, aggression, and sex, maybe focusing on how scientific (or pseudo-scientific) beliefs helped in their production and perpetuation?

AF: First, the biggest myth is that racial groups – as they are categorized into (using the US example) Black, White, Asian, Latino – these divisions are genetic and some kind of evolutionary, biological division of humans across the planet. That is a myth. That is false. And yet it is extremely common, meaning that if people see differences in incarceration rates between Black and White, differences in IQ scores between Asian and White, or difference in sexuality or performance in different sports, then people think there is an evolutionary or biological reason for those differences and that it is part of human nature. This has been used by racialized scientists and the racialized public for years.

Second, there is this notion that, if you rip off the sort of ‘veneer’ of cultural control, in our hearts, humans are these Hobbesian beasts. Without the control of society and law and structures, it’s sort of every man for himself. Here I think we mean every man, meaning that by nature men are just aggressive and violent. This idea is based on erroneous assumptions and interpretations of the fossil, genetic, and behavioral data of humans and primates and other animals – and a very superficial re-imposition of contemporary gender stereotypes onto the past.

Third, the bias in sex research is that males and females are more different than they are similar. Now let me be clear here: there are significant differences between males and females biologically and in a variety of patterns and developmental contexts. But there are more similarities within members of the species Homo sapiens than there are differences. Contemporary gender roles are not supported by, or evident in, the genetic, behavioral, fossil, and archaeological evidence for the deep past. Gender as a human experience has obviously been with us for a long time. But contemporary gender realities are not evolved adaptations.

DG: The issues of aggression and gender seem to be very fluid.

AF: Absolutely – and I think now in the moment where you’re seeing some of the really heartfelt, very important ‘calling out’ of abusers, bullies, and harassers. But, you can also see women responding against the Me Too Movement and the Time’s Up Movement, because they’ve internalized this notion of what is natural for males and what is natural for females.

DG: You wanted your book to be directed toward a broader audience. Could talk about your writing process?

AF: For me, context matters. You need to know where someone is coming from. Any author – particularly a scientist – who makes a set of assertions without clarifying the things they are bringing to the table concerns me. Any scientist who says they are not biased is lying. I like to set the stage and say ‘here’s my background, here’s my context’. I am going to do my best to read across areas and across disciplines and especially the things that I disagree with, because I’m interested in it as data. I’m a diehard when it comes to science being a great way to think and ask questions about the world. But I am never a true believer in the fact that science is neutral. I don’t expect you to believe anything I say. Check the references. Have a look at the data. Try to figure this out for yourself and talk with other people about it. Challenge what scientists say, don’t just accept it. But understand how they go about the process of doing that. For me, the process of sitting down and writing this was: what do I want the reader to know about me, before I ask them to trust me to be intelligent and trained enough to go through this with them.

DG: Are you at all optimistic about the direction of US politics, economy, or race relations? Do you think that things are getting – possibly – better, in terms of these myths and the ways that they’re being challenged?

AF: I like to think of myself as a cautious optimist but a realist at the same time. I think things are getting better because demography happens. The world is changing and people who were in the dominant power structure who don’t like the pattern of change – they’re going to be out of power because of the way the world is changing.

However, what I’m really worried about right now is those with power who are trying to push racialized, misogynistic agendas and other structures of inequality into more and more secure positions. I feel they’re in a very good position to be doing that right now. And so I’m worried particularly about the United States, because of the divisiveness and the ignorance in the general discourse.

DG: Sometimes people discriminate against a person’s gender or race because they feel that this person needs ‘help’ or is not as capable as others. Maybe people do horrible things when they feel they are doing the right thing.

AF: Nelson Mandela, who is a great hero of mine, said no one is born hating. You have to learn how to hate. And that’s true, that’s absolutely true. So I think that’s a very optimistic position. But then how we learn – how we grow today – really inculcates, engenders, enculturates people into hatred.

What is also optimistic as an evolutionary scientist is that if you look at our last two million years in the evolution of our genus, there is no way we would have made it if we were deeply malicious animals. We would be extinct. Cooperation and getting along (whether we wanted to or not) was core to getting here.

Given those two things: we know that you have to learn how to hate and that we know that cooperation is intrinsic in humanity (for better and for worse)… we have a real possibility for increased benefit for all.

DG: Thank you. That’s going to make the rest of my day much better.

AF: It’s stuff I care deeply about and this is the kind of conversation that should be happening all the time, but everyone is too concerned about shitholes, right? A colleague of mine tweeted out something today that I thought was very important There are all of these changes from NPR to every other media organization that have allowed their anchors to say “shithole” on the air, but they’re still not saying “racist”.

DG: Right. There was an op-ed in the New York Times this morning – it was stunning. You can say “shithole” – but you can’t call it a racist when there’s a racist in front you.

AF: And the data – by definition – the data are now unequivocal. Right? How do you define racism? The use of, and participation in, racialized discourse or racialized acts.

DG: And I guess that was what inspired my last question. We can’t know what is in Trump’s heart. We can’t know what is in his mind. But we do know what’s in his actions. And that’s really what matters. That’s where empirical science can have some positive effect – is laying out the data.

AF: And this is why I think science is so important. There’s such a push in the last couple years in this country to demonize science and scientists, and demonizing the understanding of trying to collect data and refute assertions rather than prove assertions correct. That’s a really important thing. Because if you’re really doing science… all your life, you’re going to be wrong. You’re just going to get less wrong over time. And that’s awesome!





1 Comment

  • Adrienne says:

    Fascinating account of the very serious consequences of the myths of biological determinism. Or, as Dr. Fuentes puts it: “What people believe is real for them. And that’s the power of myth.”

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