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Examining the Bases of Power, Inequality, and Human Variation

Stefano B. Longo is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at East Tennessee State University. His research examines the relations between social and natural systems and has been published in a variety of journals including Organization and Environment, Critical Sociology, and Rural Sociology. Nicholas Malone is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Auckland. His writing is informed by research examining the behavior and ecology of endangered primates in Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Agustín Fuentes, Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths About Human Nature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 274 pages, $27.50, hardback.

Fundamental issues that arise in both popular and academic discussions of human behavior are debates over the existence of a universal human nature, and the relative importance of biological (often glossed as genetic) versus environmental (including sociocultural)determinants. Many disputes within and between the natural and social sciences are historically rooted in this dichotomy. Moreover, political discourse and social policy influence, and are profoundly influenced by, these debates.

Like many before him, Agustín Fuentes takes on this issue in his latest book Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths About Human Nature. However, making use of a wealth of data from both the natural and social sciences, Fuentes’s examination makes a contribution toward transcending such traditional—and false—scholarly chasms by providing more nuanced explanations. In acknowledging and engaging with the complexities of the human condition, Fuentes’s work goes a long way toward burying some of the most pervasive myths about human beings, social life, and the prospects for human social development.

In a style reminiscent of the esteemed evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, Fuentes uses an interdisciplinary analytical approach in order to debunk widespread and often harmful misconceptions about the biological determinants of human behavior and social life. At the center of his argument is the notion that humans are “naturenurtural,” an original catchword used to describe a principal feature of human behavior. Fuentes explains that human behavior is “a true synthesis of nature and nurture, not just a product of adding nurture to nature” (16). Thus, throughout the book Fuentes provides a powerful description of the ways that material nature creates the basic conditions of human life, but also describes how sociocultural context and experience interacts with nature (biology) to shape each other. He argues that: “As a human organism we are born into a suite of inherited ecologies, cultural patterns, and social contexts that immediately become entangled with our biological structures, initiating a process of biocultural development: we are naturenurtural” (66).

As a biological anthropologist with an expertise in primate behavior, Fuentes recognizes the importance of human biological characteristics that have provided the structure and framework for human behavior. Yet, he clearly explains that the parameters and drivers of human behavior are not simply biologically defined, and that the potentials of human nature are not the same as performance or expression. The potential, or conceivable range of variation of exhibited human behavior, is promoted or constrained by both physical and social forces. Thus modern social conditions become a primary actor in guiding human behavior, and what we often think of as human nature.

Fuentes’s approach appears to be influenced not only by Gould (although he is not cited directly), but by the great “dialectical” biologist Richard Lewontin whose work on human variation and race provides a foundation for the book’s treatment of race, gender, and the social and biological misconceptions about both.1 Lewontin’s groundbreaking article on human variation provided the physical evidence that undermined the existence of biologically delineated human races, showing that genetic variation between so-called races were not significantly different than those within socially defined racial groups. It is important to note that, somewhat ironically, the persistence of racial inequalities can become “embodied—literally—in the biological well-being of racialized groups and individuals.”2 Therefore, for a range of biological outcomes and health disparities among racially defined groups, the smoking gun is found to rest within social rather than biological difference. Therefore, at the heart of the book lies an approach to understanding human biology, nature, and social life, as intricately related to power, social inequality, and human exploitation.

Fuentes centers his book around three major myths about human nature: (1) that humans are divided into biological races; (2) that we are inherently aggressive and violent, and that this is an evolutionary adaptation, especially in males; and (3) that men and women are very different from one another, and behavioral differences between the sexes are hardwired. In doing so, he establishes the widespread beliefs in these social myths and proceeds to bust them each in turn. This is accomplished using a heavy dose of support from research conducted in the human sciences, and is given application using theoretical frameworks originating in the social sciences.

To exemplify the myth busting toolkit—the primary analytical convention that is deployed throughout the book—we briefly summarize Fuentes’s tackling of the notion that there are well-established patterns of difference between the sexes. He begins by outlining the four core assumptions about sex: (1) that males and females are very different from one another; (2) that behavioral differences are hardwired; (3) that it is a natural human goal to obtain a “unique and powerful sexually monogamous romantic relationship” (159); and (4) that men and women want different things when it comes to sexuality, namely sex and relationships, respectively. Each core assumption is followed by series of tests for which available evidence can then be scrutinized and deemed to either support or refute the assumption under examination. For example, given that differences between men and women in sexual behavior (i.e., what people actually do) is of primary concern, a key test of the fourth assumption is to examine the question of “do the sexes differ dramatically in how, when and how much they have sex?” (160).

After a careful and balanced review of the available data, Fuentes concludes that there are relatively few differences in the patterns of sexual activity between men and women. Behavioral differences between males and females in how they “act on and think about sex” (200) do exist, but the evidence suggests that these are the products of cultural and gender-based structures, rather than those of evolutionary histories. He masterfully provides the evidence that each of the assumptions about human behavior thought to reside in our nature or biology is in large part the result of misconceptions derived from preconceived ideas that have legitimized various types of social inequality and oppression.

The book illustrates the ways that myths are formed to justify power and exploitation. Popular culture, the media, science, and education are implicated in the development of simplistic explanations and misinformation that reinforces the status quo and legitimizes social hierarchies which are supposedly based on biological, and therefore unchangeable, characteristics of the human species, or human nature. Fuentes clearly recognizes these biases in the classic works, such as those of Hobbes, Rousseau, and Locke. But he makes it clear that the belief that human biology is the primary motor of human behavior and decision-making, and thus at the core of our current social policy and organization, is not an argument that was simply promulgated by a conservative elite clinging to power. On the contrary, it finds continued support in modern institutions, and is often disseminated by forces within science and the media.

The social supremacy of the power elite is often reaffirmed by resorting to the arguments that nature is the source of social disparities, and thus there is little to be done about concerns such as poverty or the subjugation of different social groups. Further, these arguments justify the continued concentration of wealth and power based on the theory that biological or genetic differences are the basis for defining race, class, and gender inequality. Fuentes’s book clearly lays out the ways in which these theoretical arguments are unfounded, busting the myths that support them. In doing so, he explains that, while humans are different from one another, to always associate these differences with predefined behavioral and social outcomes is scientifically dubious and ultimately socially dangerous. Hence, Fuentes contributes to the evidence that modern social life is not a simple outcome of natural forces, but socially and historically structured, further substantiating the notion that “human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality it is the ensemble of social relations.”3

Fuentes’s book offers a glimpse into what Richard Levins calls the “dual-nature of science.”4 This is the capacity of science to enlighten us about the world, and, yet, at the same time science “reflects the conditions of its production and the viewpoints of its producers or owners.”5 Consequently, the book has the potential to advance the liberating power of science because it recognizes that knowledge is not produced or interpreted in a social vacuum. The result is a critical examination of scientific and popular interpretations of human behavior and a product that can chip away at the many assumptions regarding the inevitability of social relations and the human condition under capitalist development.

Notes

  1. Richard C. Lewontin, “The Apportionment of Human Diversity,” Evolutionary Biology 6 (1972): 381–98.
  2. Clarence C. Gravlee, “How Race Becomes Biology: The Embodiment of Social Inequality,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 139, no. 1, (2009): 47–57.
  3. Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” in Robert Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 1978).
  4. Richard Levins, “Ten Propositions on Science and AntiScience,” Social Text 46/47 (1996): 101–111.
  5. Ibid., 104.
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