Josh Stowe '01 | October 26, 2018
Agustín Fuentes has spent much of his academic career debunking myths about human nature in ways that non-academic audiences can understand, and this afternoon is no different.
We’re sitting in his office in Corbett Family Hall, and the anthropology professor, who also serves as Notre Dame’s Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, CSC, Endowed Chair in Anthropology, is counting up the ways people oversimplify what it means to be human.
Far too often, he says, we focus on the worst aspects of human behavior — things like violence, cruelty and tribalism. And we tell ourselves this behavior must result from innate traits that are nature’s unfortunate inheritance to us. But while that belief may square with our intuition, he says, it’s also wrong. Reality is more complex, and ultimately, more hopeful.
“My research, and the research of countless other folks into understanding human biology, human society and human evolution demonstrates that at the core of what makes humans successful is an uncanny and intense capacity to collaborate, to cooperate, and to create,” he says. “Now, that can have horrible outcomes, but often it has very positive outcomes. And we never pay attention to that.”
That said, Fuentes is no Pollyanna. He speaks passionately about rising economic inequality, is appalled by today’s political climate, and would relish the opportunity to debate a public intellectual like Steven Pinker, whose latest work on human progress, he wrote earlier this year, demonstrates “a stunning lack of empathy.” It’s not that the world isn’t at times a cruel and violent place, he says, but it’s a mistake to say that’s because of inborn human traits. Which leads him to myth-busting.
“All these people have all these assumptions, but you can actually go and look at the data,” Fuentes says. “The myths are these simplistic, easy explanations, and it turns out nothing about the human is easy. So I take busting myths as an intellectual contribution to the world. We have data and knowledge inside the University. We try to convey it to students as best we can to inspire them to think, to create, to move forward and change the world, but at the same time we need to move forward to translate outside the academy. And that’s where the myth-busting work is really important.”
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