Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths about Human Nature

  • Agustín Fuentes
  • University of California Press
  • 304 pp.

The Notre Dame University Professor of Anthropology gives readers a “myth-busting toolkit” to reveal the cultural construction of race, aggression and sexuality.

Reviewed by Y.S. Fing

It’s a noble aspiration to attempt to debunk pervasive myths which pervert societies. Nobody can question the sincere purpose that Agustín Fuentes brings to his most recent work. It’s clear, with his third book, that Fuentes intends to popularize recent scientific research across the spectra of human evolution, behavior and biology, and educate more than just his pupils.

Fuentes begins, “Scientific facts are few and far between, popular facts are commonplace and not usually facts at all.” To illustrate this, he states, “Gravity is not a fact. It is a well-tested explanation of the fact of things falling toward the earth when we drop them.” Fuentes explores this gray area, between what science knows and people’s opinions about science, to reveal the crusty sediment of common (mis)conceptions of human nature. People misinterpret science to support their mythological beliefs. His thesis: “I intend to demonstrate that a major portion of the three myths of human nature that we will bust are based on culturally constructed concepts that incorporate some science, but a greater amount of opinion (including the opinions of scientists) that is not supported by the actual knowledge derived from science itself.”

The three myths are race, aggression and sexuality — all ripe for rational analysis. The irony is that such ripeness means there are thousands of studies to sort through and document, many of which “scientifically” support the very myths which Fuentes proposes to prove wrong. It must indeed be a long slog through the multitudinous information out there, but Fuentes is never impatient, and he refuses to leave his reader behind. He is really most encouraging: “… as you get older and experience more and more in life you need to be able to integrate information from different subject areas to really get good pictures of what is going on.”

In the interest of integrating information, Fuentes analyzes human development, starting with the foundation that “becoming (and being) human is a process that is simultaneously biological and cultural.” His term for this dual structure to human development is “naturenurtural.” It’s never just nature or just nurture stimulating our development. It is both acting together unrelentingly. The “ongoing patterns in our society, our community, and our family,” along with our physical growth, give us the structure of our worldview, or “schemata.” “Not only do we learn [these schemata] from observation and direct instruction … the body’s perception systems also have a series of built-in mechanisms for taking what we are regularly exposed to and making it a part of our neurological makeup.”

Exposing the manner of observation leading to deeply held belief, which is the very essence of culture (“the shared, dynamic social context in which personal schemata develop”), is only half the job though. Fuentes goes on to examine this general tendency in its specific applications regarding race, aggression and sexuality, revealing the way that cultures have evolved by the misunderstandings of the people within them.

One misunderstanding is of evolution. Fuentes cites Voltaire’s character Dr. Pangloss, who “mixes up ‘is’ and ‘ought’ ” to conclude that we live in a world “the way it should be.” He writes, “Natural selection results in survival and reproduction of the sufficient or the good enough, not necessarily the best or most ferocious.” Evolution is not “for the best,” and change is inevitable. Then Fuentes looks at misunderstandings of genetics. And then he moves from genetics to social behavior, all so clearly riven with complexity that one easily agrees with Fuentes, who insists it’s never simple.

Still, he knows that’s why people prefer myths. Once informed of the use of a myth, one no longer has to ask questions or adjust behavior. So Fuentes is never smug in his frequent use of the phrase, “The myth of ________ is debunked.” He knows that myths have power. This is why the wise reviewer would leave the content of Fuentes’ penultimate section of the book, sex, to the reader. It’s too complex to begin to render here. Nearly all myths readers have been raised to believe are presented as false — not because they are culturally constructed and have an element of truth, but because they can’t be applied to everybody. There are simply too many of us, and social behavior too intricate, to differentiate between races or aggression or sexuality.

However, the feckless reviewer might consider the myth of monogamy. This is one of the subtitles in the “Myths about Sex” chapter, “It Is Not Human Nature to Seek Marriage and a Specific Sexually Monogamous Romantic Relationship, But It Is in Our Nature to Pair Bond and in Our Culture to Seek Marriage.” Not a ringing endorsement one way or the other — so don’t call your divorce lawyer yet.

Fuentes deserves praise for and success with this book. The myth-busting toolkit, which is essentially a pattern of questioning, is a wonderful device. The eight “Take-Home Points” in the last chapter “Beyond the Myths: Now What?” are constructive in the face of the reality that “... it is often difficult to challenge the status quo.” Fuentes is not just informing, he is teaching readers how to think critically. But we must keep in perspective the sobering fact that far more people are reading the Bible and the Koran — and that, to them, synthesized scholarship about scientific studies just isn’t mythological enough.

Y.S. Fing, an instructor of English at a university in the D.C. area, is the author of such unpublished works as Socialize Yourself: A Teacher’s and Student’s Guide to College-Level Composition and Event Horizons: Aphorisms on the Life of D. Selby Fing (www.dselbyfing.com).

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