When Notre Dame anthropologist Agustín Fuentes discusses the latest examples of violence in the news – from racial clashes with the police to the barbarism of ISIS terrorists to war in the Ukraine – he dissects the myth of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The iconic literary character embodies the common belief that a violent beast lurks at the true heart of human nature, hiding beneath a thin veneer of constraining civilization. And since survival of the fittest determines evolutionary success, it follows that violent behavior must be natural to humans.
Except that it’s not.
Powerful myths reinforce, at least at some level, acceptance of violent aggression as inevitable. Fuentes, who studies primates and human evolution and whose adventures in exotic locations call to mind a true-life Indiana Jones, says biology and evolution are not to be blamed for human choice and behavior.
His research shows that the actual secret of human success in recent millennia is cooperation, slowed by occasional outbreaks of violence. Humans are the most successful large animal on the planet despite few natural defenses, like claws or horns or wings, because we are good at working things out with our big brains. The monkeys he chases from Gibraltar to Singapore exhibit similar behaviors.
“There’s good data out there that aggression is not our default mode,” Fuentes said. “If we understand that, we’re better equipped to understand crime than if we assume we’re beasts.”
The good news: if brutality isn’t our natural state, then the problem of human violence can be more readily fixed, without this false excuse. When others suggest bad behavior, from inequality to oppression, is simply acting human, Fuentes’ research employs science to deconstruct and reject this attitude. “You can say, ‘No, you’re wrong – those are all potentials, not absolutes,’” he said. “Go out there and be human. Cooperate, collaborate, get along, make a difference – it is after all what we do best.”
Currently, Fuentes is working on two books about human nature. He and a colleague won a $1.8 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to train theologians in evolutionary and archeological anthropology so that this scientific knowledge may lead to new avenues of theological research. The Human Wisdom Project, which began this year, is also opening new ways of thinking about the evolution of the human species.
A regular contributor to National Geographic and Psychology Today, Fuentes specializes in unpacking the power of myths in everyday life. His work shows how much of what we consider natural or obvious is actually based on false assumptions, incomplete information and deep-rooted myth. The historical consequences of this ignorance – from the rationales about why women shouldn’t vote or blacks and whites shouldn’t marry – have been devastating, and a significant influence lingers to this day.
Possibly the most fascinating aspect of his research is how he connects the study of primates and evolution to everyday behavior. One example Fuentes explores is the stereotype about men refusing to ask for directions.
On the basic level, men act this way because they are proud do-it-yourselfers and believe it is masculine to be in charge and know where you’re going. But an underlying assumption is that men have better spatial reasoning and innate mathematical abilities than women, so they must be better at skills like map reading, calculating distances and translating a spatial idea into a complex reality. Dig even further and you get the mythical explanation for why men have historically acquired these spatial abilities compared to woman: man the hunter.
As with most myths, there are some reasons they came to be, but Fuentes’ research and arguments show that the myth rests on falsehoods and illogical leaps in the absence of information. Based on facts we do know – that men on average are bigger and have more muscle density, and that in most remaining primitive tribes men do most of the hunting – large assumptions have transformed a little data into a “truth” about the natural world.
In fact, Fuentes says we don’t know that men have always hunted while women gathered or watched children. And how would knowing where the elk herd grazes be any more complex than where the distant fig tree can be found? In fact, tests of male-female differences in math and spatial abilities, as well as hand-eye coordination, yield inconclusive results. And of course, men who want to ask for directions have heard the jokes and expectations, so they would avoid asking exactly because it’s considered un-manly. The stereotype self-reinforces.
“Go out there and be human. Cooperate, collaborate, get along, make a difference – it is after all what we do best.”
It’s Not All Sex and Violence
Fuentes questions the belief that humans are at their core violent, aggressive, and oversexed.
The Three Major Myths About Human Nature
Fuentes’ 2012 book is titled “Race, Monogamy and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths about Human Nature.” It presents scientific evidence from diverse fields – including anthropology, biology and psychology – to counter pernicious myths that negatively impact society and inhibit our understanding of what it means to be human.
The myths persist because they seem like common sense and they help us make shorthand sense of the world without delving deeper into complications. But Fuentes sets out to prove the three major myths about race, sex and aggression as baseless, and that changing our viewpoint could help alleviate intolerance, inequality and abuse.
Humans are divided into different biological races (black, white, Asian, etc)
Helps generate/maintain intolerance; creates barriers to getting along with the ‘other’
There is no genetic difference; our concept of race is entirely social, not biological, but that does not mean race doesn’t matter in the United States.
Removing cultural constraints reveals the violent beast within us (esp. men)
Restricts personal relations; creates fear; enables acceptance of abuse as natural
There is no “beast within” that makes us naturally violent; in fact, humans are the most successful large animal on the planet despite few natural defenses (claws, horns) because we are good at working things out with our big brains.
Men and women are truly different in behavior, desires and internal wiring.
Harms gender relations; supports sexual inequality; creates problematic preconceptions to live up to.
Humans are not biologically monogamous, but we can become socially so, which can create problems (because humans have a lot of sex compared to other animals).
“Changing our viewpoint could help alleviate intolerance, inequality and abuse.”
Fuentes was born in the United States to a Spanish father and American mother. Both were educators, his father at the university level and his mother in primary schools. He grew up mainly in the U.S. but also lived in Spain and Indonesia, speaking those three languages fluently as well as others to a lesser extent. His travels and research have taken him from the tiny Pacific islands of Micronesia to the jungles of New Guinea to the mountains of Venezuela.
“Travel helps you see how many successful ways there are to be human,” Fuentes said. “And you realize that each way is just a tiny sliver of the human experience. There’s something that makes humans really distinctive in the world, but there’s a lot that unites us. How can we be so diverse and yet so homogenous at the same time?”
He earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of California at Berkeley in zoology and anthropology. He said he’s had his share of Indiana Jones experiences, though the movie star presents a poor role model for anthropologists. Once, he was unable to make it through the jungle in time to catch a ride on a boat, which left without him and capsized in the shark-infested Indian Ocean, leaving no survivors. Another time, villagers in Indonesia killed a large, beautiful sea turtle – and as the guest, he was given the “honor” of eating about a pound of caked, dried turtle blood that had been baked in bamboo.
Some of his recent research has focused on the interaction of humans and macaque monkeys. He studies the macaque habitats, tracks their movement patterns and observes their interaction with locals and tourists in Gibraltar, Singapore and other places they come into extensive contact with people. His studies will impact primate management and how to prevent disease transmission to people.
So how does he get from observing people and macaques to theories about evolution and human nature? His focus, he writes, is “on natural history, the idea that you need to see organisms, watch them in their daily lives, and get a strong idea of what things they actually do before you make a series of assumptions about why they do what they do.”
Fuentes cites as example what he has learned working with National Geographic on a technology called Crittercam. These new cameras are small and unobtrusive enough not to bother the monkeys (which often manage to remove electronic collars or cameras) and provide a view of the world as they see it:
“What’s amazing is you get to see stuff you wouldn’t normally see – like this male cruising across this pedestrian footbridge over a giant six-lane road. We know there’s a fig tree on the other side, but he stops halfway through, and he sits on the edge and watches traffic for a couple of minutes. And in Gibraltar, we see them position themselves to look out over the Mediterranean with this postcard view.”
“So you have to ask: Why are they taking this aesthetic perspective – it gives you some insight that there’s more going on in that monkey’s head than just food, sex and sleep. It makes humans even more impressive and shows the evolutionary depth of our desire to appreciate beauty.”
“Travel helps you see how many successful ways there are to be human.”
Fuentes uses a combination of anthropological observation and academic research across various fields to bust myths about human nature. Let’s look at how he deconstructs the concept of race.
When the police identify a suspect, the first thing they name is race – as in “white female.” But Fuentes argues that the very notion of identification through race is a cultural construct, a myth that has been built by humans over time. In fact, there is no way to divide humanity into any biological units that correspond to race.
This does not jibe with common sense, one might argue. Just look at a black person from Kenya and white one from Finland or an Asian one from China – they don’t look the same.
Fuentes notes that there are many variations of the human species, but they are all homo sapiens. He provides a picture of himself with three boys and asks for racial identification.
The boys appear to be black, based on their skin color, noses and hair – yet they are not from Africa but Indonesia, half a world away. In fact, Fuentes’ European heritage is closer in DNA to African populations than that of the boys.
Biological research proves that there is more genetic variation within human population groups than between them. All human genetic variation outside of Africa is less than the variation within Africa, because all human variation is a subset of that in Africa, where modern humans have existed the longest. Therefore “we find more genetic variation between a population of deer from northern North Carolina compared with one from Florida than we do between human populations from Central America, central Asia, and central Africa.”
To prove that there are no identifiable markers that correspond to our current concepts of racial categories, Fuentes goes through a list of often-cited differences:
No overlap between the ABO classification of blood type and big three racial divisions of European, African and Asian.
Sickle cell disease, often associated with black people in America, can be found in higher proportions in many non-African populations – the overlap is found with areas with a prevalence of malaria, which sickled blood cells inhibit.
Ancestry information markers
DNA tests can identify specific patterns that show up more frequently in geographic and cultural clusters such as Japanese, Finnish, or Yoruba – but they cannot distinguish racial constructs such as white or black. These patterns can show just as much variation within a supposed racial group (eg: Somalia, Liberia and South Africa) as between the first set.
Short and compact bodies retain heat better, so they are more likely to be found in cold climates than long, lanky bodies that shed heat well. These adaptations to strong climactic stress also do not map to racial categories.
It’s true that American forensic scientists can classify a skull into racial categories at about 80 percent accuracy. But they can also differentiate white male crania from 1979 from white males in 1840. Does that mean white males in 1979 are a different race than those in 1840? No, cranial form changes measurably across time within any population.
The most obvious indicator is just another adaptation to climactic stress that maps more closely to the incidence of UV light than to the big three racial categories.
The socially accepted definitions of race get reinforced by governmental definitions. But even Census categories show obvious signs of social construction. African-Americans are classified as descended from the “black racial groups of Africa” while all other groups are identified with the “original peoples” of certain geographies. Middle East and Arab peoples are considered “white,” a leftover from a time when the relationship between the United States and the Muslim countries of the Middle East was quite different. Would Americans today consider Osama bin Laden as white?
Fuentes clearly states that his research does not show that race doesn’t matter. Stereotypes persist, and they determine everything from who gets picked first in a pickup basketball game to who will figure out a math problem to who should lead a project or company. Fuentes noted a Notre Dame colleague’s research that African-American job prospects improve in companies that drug test – presumably the test allows black applicants to prove they don’t do drugs, which is otherwise a myth-based concern for employers. But these patterns are not the result of genes or biology; they are the complex results of historical and social realities, residence patterns, socioeconomic access and popular perception. “Races are social and historical creations—they are real for our society but they are neither static nor inevitable nor biological,” he wrote.
To drive home how race is more of a cultural construct than a biological division, Fuentes asks a simple question: If President Obama is half white and half black, why is he considered black and not white? Going further, if he married a white woman, would their kids still be considered black? Fuentes theorizes that this racial categorization of people into the lower-ranking group goes back to historical practices of discrimination: the idea of contamination by even “one drop of black blood.”
“There is no way to divide humanity into any biological units that correspond to race.”
Agustín Fuentes tackles existing myths about sex, race, and aggression in 60 seconds.
Breaking the Myth Grip
Just how powerful are these myths that have burrowed deep in our psyche? And how can dispelling them change the way we see the world and thus our actions?
To answer these questions, Fuentes often employs analogies. He brings up a product called Airborne.
Many people assume that plane travel is a health risk because germs easily proliferate in the small cabin’s recirculated air. Based on this fear, a schoolteacher and her husband developed a dietary supplement called Airborne, which contained vitamin C and was marketed as a way to boost the immune system to prevent colds and sickness during air travel.
Fuentes points out that airplane air is not recirculated nor more risky than other enclosed spaces. And there is no known vaccine or cure for the viruses that cause common colds. There is zero proof the product does anything. Still, Airborne generated more than $300 million in sales in 2008 – the same year the company settled a lawsuit for false advertising.
“If such a small myth set that is relatively inconsequential to our daily lives can be so pervasive in the face of available evidence against it,” he wrote, “what does that say about much larger, more ingrained myths about human nature?”
If, for instance, people recognize that race is a fictional division, it would be harder to discriminate against an “other.” If people realize that Dr. Jekyll is much closer to true human nature, then they should reject Mr. Hyde in their midst.