There is Nothing Simple about Being Human


Michael Reedy

by Agustín Fuentes

As theoretical possibilities, one can envisage that man might be genetically determined as aggressive or submissive, warlike or peaceful, territorial or wanderer, selfish or generous, mean or good. Are any of these possibilities likely to be realized? Would the fixation of any of these dispositions, so that they become uncontrollable urges or drives, increase the adaptiveness of a species which relies on culture for its survival? I believe that the answers to these questions are in the negative.

-Theodosius Dobzhansky

A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.

-Albert Einstein

I would like to assert right up front that being human is messy. Humans are beings with hyper-complex lives and histories that shape and populate our perceptions and philosophies: we are simultaneously biological and cultural. There is no battle of nature versus nurture.

The quest to provide a concise description of human nature is ancient, extensive and recently in vogue again. But the simplistic and linear narratives frequently offered up for whom we are and why we do what we do are mostly wrong. These basic, and erroneous, stories such as those regarding the depth of differences between males and females, the belief that at our core we are an aggressive species, and that humans are divided into biological races, are myths about human nature that permeate the popular landscape.

In my recent book, Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths about Human Nature, I coin the term “naturenurtural” to reflect the simultaneity that is humanity. There is not only one way to become, or be, human, and there are a number of potential outcomes to the human experience. However, the way we see the world, the cultural milieus we are immersed in, limit the ways in which we can perceive and experience potential paths. In the quote above Einstein encourages us to see what is, as opposed to what we already believe to be true. In order to do this when thinking about human nature (or natures) we need a kind of myth-busting toolkit.

The core toolkit needed to effectively engage with assertions about what it means to be human requires a baseline understanding of culture, genetics and evolution. Humans are not a blank slate at birth to be filled in via cultural experiences. We are born as an organism, a collection of organs, tissues and cells generated by the interactions of DNA and all of our developmental processes. But these processes do not exist in a vacuum. These organic, material processes have been shaped by our evolutionary histories and we are conceived and born into a human altered world of inherited ecologies, cultural patterns, and nutritional and social contexts which are intrinsically entangled with our biological structures even before the moment that we leave the womb. This process is what we call biocultural development: we begin, become and are human as naturenurtural beings.

Aspects of our selves develop in particular directions heavily influenced by patterns of our DNA and our biological histories; the color of our hair, the shape of our face and the shades of our skin, for example. But these material parts of our body also exist in cultural context of our everyday lives. We shave or color our hair, change the shape of our nose, adorn our lips and eyes with colors and alter the shades of our skins; we are active in the way we live in, and perceive, our bodies. And of course, very active in the ways we view the bodies of others. Our face is a collection of tissues arising from the interactions of genetics and development, but for humans, the face is as much a part of our cultural selves as it is a part of our biological form.

Other aspects of the human experience, such as the flavors in our food, the people we are attracted to, the sports we play, the way we dance all emerge from the mutual, and interactive, development of our bodies and our experiences. Our adult height and weight, our ability to do well (or poorly) on exams, how we raise our children, our resistance to disease, or even what we think of as “natural” behavior for a man or a woman are products of different relationships that entangle the biological and the cultural, the historical and the evolutionary, into a single process.

Many myths about human nature are successful because they rely on our tendency to assume that: Culture + Biology = Us. Becoming human is not simple arithmetic. A better way to think about what humans do is the concept of potential and performance. Performance is the expression of physical or behavioral traits. Potential is the underlying genetic, physical and cultural factors that affect the potential range of performance. Take for example the length of the long bone in your upper leg (the femur). While the fetus develops in the womb a mass of tissue that eventually becomes the femur is formed largely by the interactions of genes and their material products. During development the shape of the femur is affected by interactions among cells and between different masses of tissues and hormones, which are influenced by the mother’s health and behavior (which are affected by her cultural milieu). After birth, bone growth is affected by nutrition, activity patterns, and exposure to disease, injury and other trauma. The point here is that two individuals with identical potential for the femur (such as identical twins separated at birth) but different life experiences will have femurs that are functionally and structurally different despite being genetically identical. As a behavioral example, take physical aggression in humans. There is a huge range of potential types and patterns of physical aggression that any individual human can exhibit, but the actual performance of physical aggression is influenced by body size, muscle density, gender, health, social and economic histories, cultural patterns, life experience, and the availability of weapons or other tools (minimally).

The point of a myth busting toolkit is to provide the infrastructure to enable one to focus on the actual details of human potential and performance, and why they often do not necessarily line up with peoples’ perceptions about what is “natural” for humans. Our notion of what is natural and accepted as the reality of being human (such as the myths of race, aggression and sex) is influenced by popular assumptions, some misrepresentations of science, and our own, often limited, life experiences. This affects our views of the world and the ways we act in it. Because myths about human nature are powerful and relevant to our everyday lives it is important to understand what they actually are and challenge the assumptions that underlie them.

There are what I term “the big three” myths: race, aggression and sex. But why are the “big three” so important to bust? The Race myth asserts that humans are divided into biological races (black, white, asian, etc…) and that there are specific natural differences in these groups. If we accept this as true, and let it remain unchallenged, it lays a baseline for how we act toward and perceive others. This then shapes what we expect, and what we think we can achieve, as far as human equality, and whether or not we can build community in an increasingly diverse societies across the globe. But what if this is not true? What if race is not biological but a social construct? It still matters, but its underlying reality and the ways in which issues can be approached and ameliorated become radically transfigured. In the book I focus on the situation in North America, but the reality of racism and racial discord is widespread across the planet and the toolkit, and myth-busting information, is entirely transportable.

The myth of Aggression asserts that nature and nurture are different things and that our animal core (some would say, our evolutionary heritage) is that of a primordial beast. If this is true then cultural constraints (our nurture) manages an inner nature that is primitive and aggressive (especially in men). It also follows then that this beast emerges whenever the grasp of civilization weakens, times of social crisis, riots and even sporting matches. This assumption about humans is quite old and rooted deeply in our European theological and philosophical heritage. If we believe that this is truly the nature of humanity then we accept a wide range of violence as inevitable, and we will see war, rape and murder as just part of the nature of being human. However, what if these expressions of aggression and violence are actually one part of our potential, and not our nature? Well, then a broader range of perspectives, scenarios and ways of living together become possible.

Finally, the core belief underlying the myth of Sex is that men and women are different by design, that our very natures are opposite, or at least distinct, ways of being. This view holds that our innate difference is visible in our behavior, desires and internal wiring. Again, this is a widely held belief that does not reflect what we actually know about the human species, male and female. The relationships between, and within, the sexes and genders are constrained if we accept the natural opposites view. The possible range of ways to be and become human and express our sexual and social selves is extremely limited by such a perspective. However, what if the differences in the sexes are present but much less extreme and manifest in different ways than we currently envision? In this case the possibilities for human relations expand and, as in the cases of Race and Aggression, our abilities to build communities and co-exist in sustainable ways in our increasingly crowded, diverse, and complex world could become slightly improved.

Busting myths of human nature is not like busting a myth about the physical world (like the earth is flat or that a tooth left over night in Coca-Cola will dissolve). There is not going to be one single test that refutes these myths. There is not even a simple right or wrong answer when assessing the many parts of most myths about human nature. There are many bits of information and complex sets of data and theoretical concepts that have to be considered and assessed. Myth busting in human nature is neither flashy nor easy.

I end with a core framework of basic concepts so that you can have an idea of the minimal toolkit and maybe go out and start challenging, even busting, and some myths for yourself. They are the bits of information about culture and biology that you need to understand that humans are indeed naturenurtural beings. These are basic units in the toolkit for busting myths about human nature:

1. Culture helps give meaning to human experiences of the world.

2. Cultural constructs are the ways in which a given culture sees, describes and expects reality to work. These beliefs are quite real for those that share them.

3. Our worldviews (often called “Schemata”) vary depending of a range of elements in our individual and collective social contexts. This can vary even within different sections of a society thus explaining why people of different social classes and ethnicities in the same society might not perceive what they see as reality in the same way.

4. Some cultural constructs are more pervasive than others (like the myths of Race, Aggression and Sex), thus more important to understand as they strongly affect how we live and act and treat others.

5.  Evolution is change over time. Specifically, it is change in genes and bodies across generations due to a variety of processes. There are many processes in evolution. Mutation generates new genetic variation, gene flow and genetic drift move that variation around, and natural selection (Darwin and Wallace’s contribution) shapes the variation in response to environmental pressures.

6. Recent innovation in evolutionary theory expands on what we know about biological change on the planet. Niche construction theory shows us that humans and their environments are mutually interactive participants in the evolutionary processes and helps us realize that we play an important role in shaping the world around us and that ecological inheritance is important. Multiple inheritance theory illustrates that evolutionarily relevant inheritance can be at the genetic, epigenetic, behavioral and symbolic levels.

7. Our DNA alone does not determine who we are and how we behave, but it is a primary component in the development and maintenance of our bodies and behaviors. Genes contain the basic instructions for the building blocks of biological systems. Genes and our daily lives are connected, but not in a one to one relationship.

8. All of these processes and concepts are ALWAYS integrated and entangled in human beings.

About the Author:

Agustín Fuentes, trained in Zoology and Anthropology, is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. His research delves into the how and why of being human. Ranging from chasing monkeys in the jungles and cities of Asia, to exploring the lives of our evolutionary ancestors, to examining what people actually do across the globe, Professor Fuentes is interested in both the big questions and the small details of what makes humans and our closest relatives tick. Fuentes brings nearly two decades of training and research to his current book on busting myths about human nature. He is the author of Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths about Human Nature.