podcast interview with Agustín Fuentes, the author of Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You
Myths about Human Nature Are Powerful-and Misleading
There is a shared set of beliefs about human nature that shapes the way we see the world- common assumptions about race, aggression, and sex that are seen as just part of being human.
While we might not always admit it in public, most people think that there is a specific set of biological differences between various kinds of people in the world, and that if you strip away society and laws, humans become beasts, with survival of the fittest and the bigger, badder, more aggressive taking control. And of course, nearly everyone knows that it is natural that men and women want, and need, different things from sex and personal relationships.
These beliefs are myths based on misinformation, partial truths, and a large dose of ignorance as to what we actually know about our species. This book is focused on challenging what many people assume is common knowledge about what it means to be human. We are going to use information from a wide range of researchers and research projects to bust these myths and replace them with more accurate stories about who we are and what we do.
Why do these concepts about race, sex, and aggression seem to be common sense to so many people? It is largely because of the shared assumption that under the thin veneer of culture we have a basic set of instincts, a raw humanity. There is a popular perception of what human nature is, and common views of race, aggression, and sex permeate society. This can be encapsulated in three key myths:
1. Race: Humans are divided into biological races (black, white, Asian, etc.).
2. Aggression: Removing cultural constraints reveals the violent beast within us (especially in men).
3. Sex: Men and women are truly different in behavior, desires, and internal wiring.
By the end of this book you will see that what we know about these topics demonstrates, unequivocally, that humans are not more naturally monogamous, aggressive, and violent than we are polygamous, peaceful, and egalitarian, that men and women are not nearly as different as one might think, and that even though humans all belong to one race, racism matters. Being human is a lot more complicated than many of us think, but myths about human nature are powerful and remain quite popular.
What is a myth?
"If common sense is as much an interpretation of the immediacies of experience, a gloss on them, as are myth, painting, epistemology, or whatever, then it is, like them, historically constructed and, like them, subjected to historically defined standards of judgment. It can be questioned, disputed, affirmed, developed, formalized, contemplated, even taught, and it can vary dramatically from one people to the next. It is, in short, a cultural system, though not usually a very tightly integrated one, and it rests on the same basis that any other such system rests; the conviction by those whose possession it is of its value and validity. Here, as elsewhere, things are what you make of them."
-Clifford Geertz (anthropologist)
In this book we are interested in myths as stories, or explanations, of why things are the way we think they are. They make up a part of what many of us would call common sense: the stuff that you just know about the world around you, especially about race, sex, and aggression. This is why they are so powerful. By helping us make sense of the behaviors we see around us and the symbols we use, they allow us to go on from day to day, appearing to understand our world without having to reanalyze, or critically analyze, every day's situations.
For example, if someone makes a joke about women and shopping or a man reacts violently to a sports event, you already have a baseline of explanation in your head that allows you to "get" the joke (because shopping is part of being female) or understand the man's response (because men "get all testosteroned out" over sports). Now, in both of these examples there is some societal truth: many women do like to shop and many men do get aggressive about sporting events. However, are these things actually part of our nature or is something more interesting going on?
More subtly, in our society most people rely on a set of assumptions about someone when they see them, or first meet them, based on which race they appear to be. It's not that we are naturally inclined to be racist, or even racial, but rather that race means something in our society and we have a whole suite of myths about what to expect and understand about people and races.
None of these reactions are necessarily conscious thoughts; rather, the myths are so pervasive that these responses often go on without any active consideration on our part. The myths provide explanations and contexts so that we don't have to: they supply ready-made common sense. This does not mean that everything about our societal myths is untrue or that all such myths are false. There are many myths that have a lot of accuracy; however, the myths about race, aggression, and sex generally do not, or at least not in the ways we tend to think they do.
Dictionaries tell us that the word "myth" is a noun and define it as a traditional story concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, typically involving the supernatural, a widely held but false belief, or a fictitious person or thing. The principle definition tells us a myth is a popular but false way of explaining things. According to the philosopher Mary Midgely, "we are accustomed to think of myths as the opposite of science. But, in fact, they are a central part of it, the part that decides its significance in our lives. So we very much need to understand them.... They are imaginative patterns, networks of powerful symbols that suggest particular ways of interpreting the world."
We usually differentiate information associated with science from other types of information. However, what we think of as scientific realities are often filled with myth. For example, scientists of the 1700s were convinced that humors (liquids in the body) could move around and change the body as needed and so the medical establishment treated patients "scientifically" with that myth as their starting point. Now we know that blood does move through the body and affects the health and status of the body, but it does not do so in the ways that doctors in the 1700s thought it did. Some aspect of reality (the circulation of blood) and a major component of myth (the power of the humors) worked together to create a baseline reality that was accepted until other, more accurate, information came along and was integrated into society's (and science's) myth structure. The myth of the humors has not left us totally. Think of how many times we use the term "bad blood" to refer to ill health or ill will between people, implying that the state of the blood (humor) is what is driving health and behavior.
This way of thinking about myths is a bit different from what many people mean by the word "myth," where in most cases the referent is presumed to be Greek and Roman myths, Native American myths, or broader religious and spiritual stories. However, there are many similarities. The Greek myths were explanations for natural phenomena. Take the myth of the Pillars of Hercules. If you go to the Strait of Gibraltar (the narrow strait between southern Spain and northern Morocco that links the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean), you see two amazing, granite mini-mountains rising just off the coastline, the Rock of Gibraltar to the north and Jebel Musa to the south. In one version of the myth Hercules has to cross a set of mountains and, rather than climb over them, he uses his terrific strength to move them apart, joining the two seas as a result. Here the myth explains a striking aspect of the local geology. Myths also acted as lessons, guidelines, and justifications for how one should live one's life. For example, the myth of Icarus (who flew too close to the sun with wings of wax despite his father's warnings) is a parable about respect and attention to parents, about caution in risk-taking, and about the lure of the beautiful and prohibited. Unlike these ancient Greek myths, the myths we are concerned with in this book are not about heroes, monsters, and mountains. Rather, they are the day-to-day beliefs we carry with us that act in the same way to explain, give reasons to, and help us navigate the world we come into contact with. These myths about human nature can be potentially harmful to us as a society. The mythical ideas we share about humanity can affect the ways in which we behave toward and think about other people and set up expectations and assumptions about where we are as a species. We have many beliefs about why humans do what they do; but a number of these beliefs, as I will point out in this book, are neither factual nor a true baseline for humanity.
Myths have an impact on the way we think and feel
Our societal myths help us navigate our daily lives by providing handy basic assumptions about the goings-on around us; they help move our day along, even if subconsciously. When a man screams out in anger from a car stuck in traffic on the freeway, or a woman cries after her grocery bags tear and the contents fall to the floor, we respond to what happened. But, at the same time, we also have a ready-made explanation for a man's rapid turn to aggression or violence and the women's emotional response. When we hear about a couple's breakup around infidelity, we tend to make assumptions about whom, what, and where, based on our preconceptions about males and females. When a group of high school kids line up to pick sides for a basketball game, assumptions are made about the abilities of the potential players based on the color of their skin and their ethnic backgrounds. The same occurs when a teacher watches a classroom of mixed ethnicities and genders sit down to take a standardized exam. We have expectations about behavior and potential based both on our life experiences and our myths about humanity. Together, our prior experiences and our shared myths act to build common sense or provide basic explanations for the world we live in and help shape that world and our behavior in it. Let's use two very simple examples to demonstrate these points: one from a myth we'll bust later in the book and another from a very popular set of myths about health, travel, and cures.
It is commonly assumed that men are loath to ask for directions. This is the brunt of many jokes that persist because we are participants in the myth about who men are. However, the myth is not really about asking questions, it is about how we define and understand male biology and male nature. Inherent in this popular perception about men not asking for directions are some assumptions about male gender: men are proud, men like to be do-it-yourselfers, and it is masculine to be in charge and know where you are going. These are important components of the gender-role definition for males in our culture (indeed, in many cultures), So at one level, the joke about men not asking for directions rests on a set of cultural expectations about how males should act, but this is not the myth. The myth is what underlies much of these cultural assumptions, the part that most people do not actively think about when laughing at the jokes about men and directions.
What we are really interested in here is the myth of male nature that creates an evolutionary, or biological, story to support cultural expectations of male gender. This myth involves the assumption that men have better spatial reasoning abilities than women, including innate mathematical abilities. This makes men more likely to be able to navigate spatial problems (like getting from one place to another) by individual actions such as map reading, calculating distances, imagining complex spatial layouts, and then actually following them. Now, that men may have this superior spatial capability is not totally accurate or inaccurate (as is examined further in chapter 6), but even this is not the core of the myth. The real meat of interest here is our mythical explanation for why men might have these spatial abilities over women: man the hunter.
We share a mythical notion about men as hunters. Most people would agree that in our past, humans relied heavily on hunting animals for food and hides and bones. Most would also agree that this hunting was done by men and not women. If this were the case, over time men would have become really good (biologically), and better than women, at the skills needed for hunting: spatial reasoning, tracking game, mentally mapping landscapes. and hand-eye coordination for making and using making tools and weapons. It turns out that for the vast majority of human history (that is, the last two million years or so) we do not have good evidence for who had these skills (nothing one way or another, even though most researchers make the assumption about men, hunting, tool use, and tool making. What we do know is that in most of the few remaining hunter/gatherer groups left on the planet, men do the lion's share of the big game hunting (even if women bring home a large portion of the actual calories eaten by the group in the form of gathered foods). We also have evidence that over the last 10,000 years there has been an increasingly common pattern across human societies of big differences between male and female roles in the acquisition and processing of food.
So, despite the myth that men evolved as hunters and tool users and makers and women did something else (usually we think of them preparing the food and tending to babies), We don't have any evidence that early men made more tools than early women (or even that there were any differences in who made which tools), nor that one gender had more spatial knowledge of the areas used by the group. We know that in societies across the planet today there are large differences in the types of tools men and women make and use, and that there are widening differences in the use of living and working space as agriculture, industrialization, and economic stratification increases. We also have no evidence indicating who prepared the food in the past, but we do know that today preparation of food varies across cultures, with a majority of societies having women do most of the preparation work. We also have widely varied results from tests that measure male and female math and spatial abilities (though actually there is very little difference overall: see chapter 6) as well as from tests that measure hand-eye coordination, although men seem to be able to throw things a little better and farther. Still, that pattern might also be related to men being bigger and having higher muscle density on average than women.
Is there hard and fast evidence that men and women today are different in some facets of hunting or that there are differences between modern male and female roles in regard to acquiring and preparing food? Is there sufficient evidence to support an assertion that over the history of the human species men (and not women) were the hunters and that this leads to a better, natural, innate, male ability at spatial reasoning and navigation? No, there is not. This myth comes from a mix of information about modern hunting and gathering societies, rooted in current cultural expectations of gender roles (how men and women are supposed to behave), and some obvious average differences in size and strength between males and females. This practice of making a large set of assumptions from a small bit of data and then asserting it as a "truth" about the natural world is common in many arenas of human behavior, especially when we are using these assumptions to think about the nature of humanity. Critically thinking about our popular notion of men not asking for directions reveals the more serious and powerful myth about men's nature. Assessing that underlying myth shows a more complex reality than the one reflected in facile assumptions about men and women.
In a very different, but related vein, let's take a look at a set of beliefs that we will not be reviewing in depth in this book, but which gives us a good idea about how cultural myths can have financial and societal impact. There is a widespread assumption that traveling on planes can be dangerous because of the recirculated air and the frequency of sick passengers on board. Most people think that air on planes is largely recirculated, enabling germs to flow around the cabin and infect multiple people. People generally have a notion that when they travel by plane they run a higher risk of catching a cold than in other contexts (working in public buildings, traveling by train, etc.). Victoria Knight-McDowell (a schoolteacher) and her husband, Rider McDowell (a writer) developed a prophylactic (something you take to avoid catching something else) dietary supplement called Airborne. Airborne's initial packaging and marketing focused on the assumed risk of getting sick while flying. By 2008 this product was generating over $300 million in sales and could be found in travelers' pockets across the United States (including my academic colleagues and even members of my family). The product label implies that taking it regularly can boost one's immune system and thus prevent or cure colds (however, it never states that it actually does so). The ingredients include vitamin C, which has been shown to have limited success at reducing the length of cold (largely by reducing the symptoms), and many people in our society think that taking a lot of vitamin C can help rid them of a cold. None of the other ingredients have been demonstrated to be effective against colds or specifically beneficial for the immune system (nor has Airborne itself, which is not regulated by the FDA).
How is this anecdote relevant to our myths about human nature? It reflects a broader myth about biology and technology that influences behavior. Even a small myth, when popular, can affect the way a society thinks, acts, and spends money. How is it a myth? Well, for one, it is simply not true that air on planes is predominantly recirculated or germ-laden. Modern airplanes mix some compressed air with air drawn in from outside and the mix is about 50 percent at any given time. The air is refreshed throughout the flight with very effective filters and there is a total changeover in cabin air (that is total cabin air moving through the filters) every three minutes or so. So the danger from planes and disease (unless one is seated directly next to someone who is highly contagious) is pretty minimal relative to what one risks in most large office buildings. Also, what we call the common cold comes from viruses (mostly a group of rhinoviruses and corona viruses), meaning that one would need an antiviral drug or compound to prevent them. We do not currently have one. There is no vaccine for these viruses and the only demonstrated method of avoiding a cold is to ensure the viruses do not get into your upper respiratory tract (washing hands regularly and not touching your mouth and nose is probably your best bet).
What we actually know about technology shows us that planes are not particularly dangerous places to catch a cold, and biological and medical research shows us that there is nothing (currently) that we could consume that would help us avoid or prevent catching a cold. Yet, tens of thousands of people have purchased Airborne prior to flying in the expectation that they are about to undertake a disease risk (the plane journey) and that these dietary supplements (Airborne) will protect them from the disease (a cold). Despite easily available information busting the myths of plane travel and the effectiveness of Airborne, and what we actually know about cold viruses and catching colds, this myth set remains present and powerful. 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, what does that say about much larger more ingrained myths about human nature?
Good question. To move forward into our consideration of major myths in human nature and why we should be really concerned with them, we first need to think a bit about what we mean by "human nature" and why it is important to the way we construct ideas about ourselves in society.
What is human nature for most people?
"All studies of man, from history to linguistics and psychology, are faced with the question of whether, in the last instance, we are the product of all kinds of external factors, or if, in spite of our differences, we have something we could call a common human nature, by which we can recognize each other as human beings."
-Fons Edlers (philosopher)
"So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory. The first maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. The first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men's persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name."
-Thomas Hobbes (philosopher)
"It is true that I mistrust the notion of human nature a little.... In the history of knowledge, the notion of human nature seems to me mainly to have played the role of an epistemological indicator to designate certain types of discourse in relation to or in opposition to theology or biology or history."
-Michel Foucault (philosopher)
Is there a human nature? Is it based on individuality, competition, and the struggle for survival? Or is the whole concept of human nature just a tool to help us think about differences between ways of asking questions about being human? The usual definition of human nature as the general characteristics, feelings, and traits of people does not really tell us much. Philosophers have spent several millennia debating the subject, but generally seem to answer it by questioning the ubiquity of any human nature or proposing that human nature is animalistic and brutish. Many philosophers, especially those emerging from the Enlightenment, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, suggest that it is in our nature to move past the animalism at our core and toward a set of agreements by human beings to surrender our individual rights in order to secure the protection and stability of social organization (eventually a government).
However, most people do not delve into the writings of philosophers to understand human nature. Today, because of our increasing knowledge and expectations about genetics and biology, we frequently turn to scientists, largely biologists and psychologists, for explanations of what a human nature might be. In many cases these scientists agree that there is some core to humanity but disagree as to how we should best envision it as interacting with the world around us, especially with that pesky thing we call culture.
Here are two quotes from different scientists that seem to express opposing opinions about human nature:
"Human behavior is a product both of our innate human nature and of our individual experience and environment....We emphasize biological influences on human behavior, because most social scientists explain human behavior as if evolution stops at the neck and as if our behavior is a product almost entirely of environment and socialization. In contrast, evolutionary psychologists see human nature as a collection of psychological adaptations that often operate beneath conscious thinking to solve problems of survival and reproduction by predisposing us to think or feel in certain ways. Our preference for sweets and fats is an evolved psychological mechanism. We do not consciously choose to like sweets and fats; they just taste good to us. The implications of some of the ideas in this article may seem immoral.... We state them because they are true, supported by documented scientific evidence. Like it or not, human nature is simply not politically correct."
-Alan Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa (evolutionary psychologists)
"... there is no such thing as a fixed human nature, but rather an interaction between our genotypes, the genetic information we have and the different environments we live in, with the result that all our natures are unique.... [I] emphasize the gigantic role that cultural evolution plays in making individuals different, and in making groups different. I'm hoping to counter a view that I'm afraid is all too common among the American public, that all of our behavior is controlled by our genes, and that there are genes that code for aggressiveness, inquisitiveness and so on. The truth is, you can never remove culture from the mix."
Paul Ehrlich (biologist)
Can both of these quotes be right? More worrisome, if scientists don't agree on human nature, what about the rest of us? Perhaps song lyrics and Wikipedia might be more reflective of how people every day get some idea of what human nature is. These common resources can tell us that there is a human nature and an inherent set of characteristics that are unavoidably part of being human. The popular take on the theme suggests that going against this human nature is difficult and that if we express our basic selves, our inner drives, even in the face of negative reactions from society, what we get is a reflection of our human nature:
"Human nature refers to the distinguishing characteristics, including ways of thinking, feeling and acting, that humans tend to have naturally."
"You cannot go against nature
because when you do go against nature it's part of nature, too"
-Love and Rockets (band)
"Express yourself, don't repress yourself,
And I'm not sorry, It's human nature"
Certainly most people (philosophers, scientists, pop stars, and the public) would agree that there are many things that unite humanity, but whether there is a specific set of behaviors and proclivities that could be called a "nature" is not quite so clear. To understand why we are reviewing what "human nature" might mean let's think about this term and the power it has in our society.
We know that, at a genetic level, there is indeed a unity at the base of humanity. We all share the same basic set of DNA (more detail on this in chapter 3), are the same species, and thus share a common general biological history and a set of the same distant ancestors. This is a fact. However, does this mean that there is also some specific set of behaviors or drives and desires that emerge from this shared DNA and biological histories? This is what those who argue for a specific human nature would suggest. This proposition is a very attractive one and many folks buy into it (at least a bit) and also see men and women as having slightly different specific sets of behavior stemming from this genetic and evolutionary origin (that is, slightly different natures). Although many would not admit it, there is probably also a significant set of folks who would accept that the different races also have some differences at this basic, "natural," level. A common popular perspective is that we all share a general human nature, which we can see expressed as behavior and proclivities, and that different divisions of humanity (sexes, races) might have their own specific patterns emerging out of this nature.
Why is this important? If this view of human nature is popular, we encounter a problem of conflating "natural" and "right" (or "is" and "ought") with the misperception that we can identify one true way to be human. This stance has been much debated and discussed by philosophers and scientists for centuries, and has been an especially hot topic over the last five decades. If there is a specific natural way to be a human, then one could rightfully argue that this is the way humans evolved (or were designed) to be. It then follows that if we have societal rules and expectations that contradict or inhibit these natural drives and behaviors, we might see problems as humans try to conform to societal rules and "go against" their natures. This view assumes that the behaviors and drives emerging from our nature are more correct, and set deeper, than behaviors emerging from externally influenced sources (like societal expectations). In other words, this is a position that can explain and accept human behavior, regardless of its implications, by invoking our inner nature as a justification. These are exactly the kind of societal myths that we are tackling in this book.
Let's think about a few examples of how this might play out. The most prominent is the idea about a biological core and a cultural coating-that we have a basic nature and that our culture conceals our more savage and animalistic side. One of the best depictions of this idea comes from the Lord of the Flies, the famous novella by William Golding. In his story a group of young and well-behaved English schoolboys are shipwrecked on an island. As time wears on without rescue the boys begin to shed the restraints of society; their cultural veneer is slowly stripped away. First, they begin to change their behavior and dress, chanting and dancing around the fire, painting themselves and wearing less and less clothing. They become savages, reflecting our more primitive (natural) selves. The stronger boys begin to dominate the weak through social intimidation and physical threat. Only one boy seems to hold on to his humanity (the protagonist), trying in vain to maintain a just and civil society. But in the end, even his basic instincts of violence and savagery emerge. It's a commonly held belief that if you strip away culture, that which keeps us well behaved, then a beastly savage will emerge (especially in men).
This kind of idea about what a person's basic self is can be played off what the individual (or society) tries to make of them. If the person fails, goes astray, or deviates from societal expectations we often say "that is just the way he (she) was born," implying that despite the trappings of society, for some people (many people?) their nature is constantly trying to push through. This can be utilized to create and justify myths about human nature, or even to alter criminal cases.
Interestingly, this way of thinking about human nature has both religious and atheistic analogues. That is, it does not matter whether you believe our genetic and biological heritage set the baseline for what we do and why we do it or whether you believe that a deity created humans and set the baseline from which we occasionally stray. For example, one of the foremost atheists and proponents of a strong genetic basis for humanity's inner core, the zoologist Richard Dawkins, argues that a human nature is created by the competition between selfish genes resulting in selfish behavior in regards to food, health, and reproductive success for the humans whose bodies the genes are in. Therefore, our evolutionary history sets up why we do what we do. However, he also notes a major role for culture and even a sort of free will wherein humans can be cognizant of their nature and thus make active decisions to try and go against it. On the other hand Thomas Aquinas, arguably one of the most influential philosophers and Christian theologians of the last millennia and the propagator of the philosophy of natural law, tells us that humans have basic instincts that they share with all other animals. He suggests that these instincts emerge as desires (often selfish desires of food, drink, sexual activity, etc.) but that reason acts to mediate the expression of these desires and that humans act together (via reason) to create rules that enable us to satisfy the core of the desires in moral and useful ways (society). However, for Aquinas this essential human nature (part of what is called natural law) and our unique human ability to reason are all creations of God, not our biological histories. It is the ability to reason that enables us to escape the basic, animalistic facets of our inner nature (a form of free will, enabled or created and set in motion by a deity). Whether we attribute our inner selves to a deity or to genes (DNA), the result is the same. There is an assumption of a competitive, animalistic drive that might be reined in by human rationality, society, and our cultural actions.
It is important to emphasize that I am not leading toward the argument that there is not a shared evolutionary heritage, biological similarities, and shared patterns of behavior across our species; there is. Those who would argue that we are a blank slate at birth, that our social and experiential histories are all that count in making us who we are, are wrong. We examine this in the next two chapters and then later when we tackle the major myths themselves. I am not making a purely "nurture" argument for human behavior. Much of what we have covered so far, and much of what is prominent in both the popular and the many academic views of this topic is from the nature-nurture debate. Nearly everyone agrees that both biology and culture are important in human behavior, but many want to be able to parse out how much of our genes or our culture is responsible for any given human action or set of beliefs. However, as we will see from busting the myths about race, aggression, and sex differences, it is almost never an either/or situation with nature and nurture. In fact, human behavior is almost always "naturenurtural"; it is a true synthesis and fusion of nature and nurture, not just the product of adding nurture to nature. There are not two halves to being human. When we think about humans it is a mistake to think that our biology exists without our cultural experience and that our cultural selves are not constantly entangled with our biology. Simple examples of this kind of engagement can be found in things like our adult height (a product of the integration of at least genes, diet, physical experience, climate, and conditions of health and disease) or the ability to throw a baseball and kick a soccer ball (which can be influenced by integration of at least health, height, training, structure of lower limb muscles, altitude, nationality, sex, gender, peer group, and diet). We go into this in more detail in subsequent chapters, but be very clear that humans are neither a blank slate nor preordained entities; both of those perspectives miss the boat: we are naturenurtural.
Science, society, and ignorance: Ignorance is not bliss, it's just ignorance
What is wrong with the statement "ignorance is bliss"? Ignorance usually means a lack of knowledge or information. The idea that not knowing something can make a person happy is a fairly common one. This is usually associated with children being happy because they might not understand the concept of death, the flipside being that adults are unhappy or burdened with the knowledge of their eventual death. This is encapsulated in the oft-quoted line "ignorance is bliss" from the British poet Thomas Gray's poem, "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" (1742). It is the last line from which we get the saying: "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise." But it is worth reading at least the entire last stanza to understand the point:
To each his sufferings: all are men, Condemned alike to groan; The tender for another's pain, The unfeeling for his own. Yet ah! why should they know their fate? Since sorrow never comes too late, And happiness too swiftly flies. Thought would destroy their paradise. No more; where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise.
Written shortly after his graduation from Eton, the poem seems to be an ode to the happy times as a student and the potentially terrifying realities (knowledge, life, responsibilities) that await the graduate. Many of us hold some idealistic notions that we are happier at times when we do not really know the big picture and are able to live in our clamshells, insulated from the negatives of the larger world. As with Gray, this is often the case for those of us lucky enough to have gentle and protected upbringings, involving good schools and supportive environments. The concept that thought (knowledge) destroys paradise, that not knowing certain things is a blessing, can be a nice literary turn of phrase, but it is a dangerous tool when applied to ideas about human nature.
Throughout the main portion of this book, as we bust three major myths of human nature, we are going to be combating a widespread ignorance of what we actually know about human beings. Ignorance-the lack of knowledge or information about human behavior, biology, and history-only acts to inhibit our ability to understand who we are and why we do what we do.
The concept that there can be too much knowledge is ridiculous in this context; we need to have access to as much information as possible to be able to make up our own minds. We can never know everything, nor even nearly as much as we might like. However, we should all have access to the information and the basic skills with which to assemble and critically assess the information. In this case, ignorance is in part the result of active concealment on a few issues, but mainly the result of a real lack of science education and a divide between academic scientific knowledge and the public which needs to have access to this scientific understanding. The information we need in order not to be ignorant about human nature lies in many different places, mostly in academic contexts separated from the public and even from different types of researchers.
Okay, so how does not knowing much about science and biological and historical details about humans put us at a disadvantage when trying to think about human nature? First of all, we may be much more easily manipulated. If we do not know what information is actually available or how to use specific information to begin to ask effective questions, then we might not even recognize relevant information when we come across it. If we do not recognize specific types of knowledge as relevant, or know how to apply that information, our ability to use that information to affect our lives and surroundings via active choice is reduced, and even simple decisions might be constrained.
Take food labels, which are a perfect example of the need to integrate basic scientific knowledge and general public information. When shopping the aisles of an American grocery store we may notice the panel of nutritional facts on food labels. On this panel is a description of the contents, energetic values, and major dietary components in the packaged food. This information is meant to allow us to make an informed choice about what we eat, if we wish to protect our health and well-being. The panel begins with the amount of calories and calories from fat, total fat, different types of fat (saturated, trans, polyunsaturated, etc.), amounts of cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fibers, proteins, and a variety of vitamins. Often, at the bottom of this panel there is also a chart showing how much of each item should be consumed, depending on the daily calories in one's diet (usually a choice between either 2,000 or 2,500). Also on the package label is a list of all the ingredients found in that foodstuff.
What do we need to know to be able to use the scientific information on this label to our benefit? First of all, we must have a basic understanding of math and the measurement system of our society. The items are generally listed on a per-serving size given in both English and metric units (such as fr1/2/fr cup, 3 oz., 2 tablespoons, 50ml, 40g, etc.). To calculate the actual amounts requires that we know how much a teaspoon, a cup, an ounce, a milliliter, or a gram is. This is one area where there is some manipulation on the part of food packagers. By listing fairly small and unrealistic serving sizes, they create an artificial picture of what is contained in the actual serving that one eats. For example, some soft drink cans list one 12-ounce can as two servings, but how many people typically drink half a can of soda and save the rest for later?
After math, we need to know what a calorie is (it is a unit of energy) and why it matters what percentage of calories are from fat. We need to know what fat is (oils and lipids, which are organic chemical compounds of glycerols and fatty acids) and what that has to do with our body. Then we need to know about cholesterol (a steroid metabolite) and sodium (salt), and finally carbohydrates (sugars made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules) and fiber (the indigestible portions of plants) and the interactions between them. And we have not even broached the subject of actual ingredients. This is a lot of very detailed and complex knowledge about society, biology, and mathematics. How do we usually deal with this? Ignorance and myth.
Many people now realize that we should be aware of what the food labels say. However, most of us use a mixture of commonly held assumptions (societal myths) and a little bit of knowledge about health to read the labels. Many of us gloss over the labels and make a calculation based on the assumption that lower fat and/or lower calories is good. Or, we look at the carbohydrates, and make the assessment that more is bad and less is good. Others might know that higher fiber alters what carbohydrates do in the digestive tract so they do a quick calculation of the fiber to carbohydrate ratio. Do most people know what a fat molecule is or how many calories they both burn and consume in a day? Do most of us even know what that means? Do we know what "good" and "bad" cholesterol are and how that relates to the cholesterol label on foods? No, in fact many people rely on a bit of knowledge and a lot of popular assumptions about what these terms mean. The main point here is that we actually have a good deal of information available to us (the data are there on the food labels), but the vast majority of us are ignorant of what the information means and/or how to use it to make a good assessment of what is best for our dietary needs and health. So, we wing it.
But in this case, winging it is really taking what we hear on the television, read on the Internet or in books, and get from friends, as our baseline knowledge. A good deal of this information comes first, second, or third hand from so-called experts, scientists and medical doctors who are pitching an item, writing a book, blog, or Web site about health, or are featured on a television program. As a society, we have a tendency to believe what we think comes from the realm of science without fully understanding what science is or how we should approach information delivered by scientists.
Should we listen to what scientists have to say?
Yes and no. For example, James Watson, the Nobel-Prize-winning geneticist, former director of the Cold Springs Harbor Research Institute, and codiscoverer of the structure of DNA, told a British audience in 2007 that he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours-whereas all the testing says not really." The knowledge that Watson helped produce regarding the structure of DNA remains one of the most well-tested and well-supported important contributions to modern genetics. However, his thoughts on race, Africa, and intelligence are opinions that contradict the well-tested scientific knowledge available about how race, geography, and genetics in humans actually work (see chapter 4). Here is a case where the scientific knowledge is available, but the scientist is stating a personal opinion regardless of the available information. Conflating the thoughts and opinions of scientists with science itself is a source of much of the misinformation leading to myths about human nature.
We should care about the knowledge generated by scientific projects, but not always so much what scientists themselves have to say. The word "science" is a powerful one in our society and popular explanations associated with science and scientists have a lot of weight in our views of what humans do. However, we need to be careful about what we actually mean by "science" and pay close attention to how and where scientific knowledge is produced and disseminated. For example, the anthropologist Jon Marks critiques the notion that science reflects a neutral investigation of reality but at the same time contends that it can produce real and important results:
"Science is the production of convincing knowledge in modern society.... By using production we acknowledge that science is not a passive experience. Scientific knowledge is a product-and as a product it is the result of some process.... There is a subtler and more threatening point embedded in this recognition, however. If science is the active production of something-say, reliable information about the universe-then it is more than, or at least different from, mere discovery. Discovery is a passive operation: to a suitably primed observer, the fact merely reveals itself ... the production of scientific knowledge is highly context-specific, and ... it is the context, more than the particulars of the discovery, that are critical."
-Jonathan Marks (anthropologist)
Marks, as many have done before him, focuses on how scientists (the people doing science) affect the kinds of questions asked, methods used, and results obtained. He notes that science is a process that can lead to discovery, but the specific context from which the discovery emerges can be as important as the facts themselves. Take the example of the discovery that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome AIDS, for which there is treatment but no cure. We have an enormous amount of scientific knowledge about HIV and AIDS,but at the same time there are numerous scientists and other figures offering opinions about the origin of the virus and disease that are not based on the scientific data available.
Much of the knowledge produced via the method we call science is valuable to us because it can be tested and verified. In reality, science is not a thing or a system of thinking, it is a method. That method is more or less as follows: observe an event or occurrence, create a testable explanation (a hypothesis) for the event, and test it. If the test is refuted, showing the explanation to be wrong, develop another testable explanation and test that. If the first test is positive, then retest it numerous times and maybe have other people run the same tests to see if they get the same answer. If all tests support the explanation then it is a viable explanation (hypothesis). If a bunch of supported hypotheses can be put together to create a broader and more robust general explanation, then that becomes what we call a theory. Now in practice today much science is taking other people's observations, or things that we know occur, and creating lots of different hypotheses and testing them. Many people practicing science no longer collect the initial observations themselves but rather, use the gigantic body of available knowledge to create more refined and detailed explanations that they can then test.
Gravity is a perfect example of this. If we drop something from a sufficiently high spot anywhere on the planet it will eventually accelerate to about 9.81m/s2 (or 32.2 feet/s2). This is a fact discovered through observation and scientific inquiry. Scientists explain the reason objects fall at that rate by the theory of gravity. Gravity is not a fact. It is a well-tested explanation of the fact of things falling toward earth when we drop them. Thousands of scientists over the last three centuries have questioned and tested the theory of gravity and found it supported. This is science; it is a process of examining the world around us and reducing the number of possible explanations to a few probable explanations via testing.
When we talk about facts in science, we are talking about something very different from facts in a court case. In a scientific context, a fact has to be the same for everyone (i.e., when falling, all objects accelerate at the same rate). In the courtroom, in journalism, and in popular usage a fact is more along the lines of something that appears to be indisputably accurate, or more generally, facts are simply information used as evidence or to support a position (regardless of their actual accuracy). This is where the popular understanding of science, facts, and scientists becomes complicated. Scientific facts are few and far between, popular facts are commonplace and not usually facts at all.
This is an important point because in our society we often conflate the science and the scientists. Or even more dangerous: we conflate any specialist in a science-related field with the facts from that field. For example, many advertisements use the tagline "Four out of five dentists prefer product X." You can substitute doctors or other professional specialists for dentists and the result is the same. Note that the ad does not say "Data collected and hypotheses tested by the following three reputable research laboratories show that ...," but rather it relies on the opinion of specialists, not on science. Now, one might argue that the opinion of specialists is informed by science, and that is possible, but it remains clear that science itself does not receive payments, create advertisements, speak publicly, publish books, or issue press statements.
Our understanding of scientific assertions and knowledge is very important because it is considered specialist knowledge, and our society deems specialist knowledge, especially if it appears to be rooted in biology or something related to science, as more relevant to discussions about human nature than other types of knowledge. The anthropologist Jon Marks credits the physicist and novelist C. P. Snow with forcefully acknowledging that we can see the field of science as an anthropological culture and that it is, at least in part, culturally constructed. This is particularly relevant in the context of this book. 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 the science itself.
Think back to the two examples of popular myths we have discussed so far in this chapter: the link between airplanes, vitamin c, and colds; and the reluctance of men to ask for directions. Then think of what we briefly reviewed regarding what we know, from testing and analyses, about plane travel and air circulation, cold viruses and their impact, male and female similarities and differences, and human evolutionary history. Now think about people's opinions on these topics and where those opinions might be coming from. The power of specialist opinion (and advertising) is particularly strong in our society. Think about the assertions for the dietary supplement Airborne and the claims of books about understanding and negotiating male and female differences. There is a tendency to appeal to some biological core, to get at the base of being human and, nearly always, that base is considered more natural if it is tied in some way (even superficially) to our biology. This brings us back to the nature-nurture fallacy. This is one of our biggest hurdles to busting major myths in human nature. As humans we are not one or the other, we are always naturenurtural. The problem with this perspective is that to tackle it, to use such a complicated viewpoint, we need to draw and integrate information from a wide variety of sources, something that is increasingly difficult in our society.
Why should we try to integrate different types of knowledge in our attempts at understanding?
The ability to really get to the heart of topics that deal with human behavior requires us to synthesize bits of information from many different sources. Even to understand the simple examples of the success of Airborne and the humor in the joke about men not asking for directions we need a bit of chemistry and engineering, some ideas about biology and health, some familiarity with human physiology and sex differences, and knowledge about the history of gender perspectives in our society. Unfortunately, our education system does not always do a good job of getting us the skills to integrate different types of information. In math classes we do math, in history class, history, and in biology class, biology. This is important when we are trying to get basic skills down, but 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.
Let's take the example of women's voting rights. The Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution passed in August 1920 gave women the right to vote. Up until that time, women in the United States were not allowed to cast ballots for public office (although a few western states gave women some voting rights in the first decade of the 1900s). Most people would think that to understand why this was the case we need information from history and maybe political science, and we do. We need to know about the Constitution, the folks who wrote it, and how it expanded from the 1780s to today. We also need to know that the women's suffrage movement kicked into high gear in the mid to late 1800s and was tied in with-and often opposed to because of this tie-the right to vote for American males of African descent (the Fifteenth Amendment. which passed in 1869). The Fifteenth Amendment expanded who could vote but still defined "citizen" as male (just now as both white and black males) and thus was actually opposed by many in the women's suffrage campaign. However, in addition to this cultural and political history we need to know a bit of biology, psychology, and to think about popular myths. It turns out that one of the main arguments against giving women the right to vote was based on a popular myth about male and female differences. There were serious expectations about women's roles in society and their need to be in specific social positions (homemaking and caretaking for examples) relative to men that were challenged by an expansion in women's roles both during the Civil War and World War I.
As women displayed more public abilities to participate in a wider array of social positions, many men looked for deeper justifications for keeping them out of politics. This justification found its foothold in the form of "natural" differences between men and women. As famously noted by the Reverend O. B. Frothingham, in a essay in Arena Magazine in 1900, women had a natural preponderance of "feeling" relative to men, which disqualified them from acting in the sphere of practical politics. What Frothingham was really saying was that women's "natural" inability to be practical and logical made them unsuitable for participating in the complicated and nuanced political reality of voting and running the government; they made decisions based on feeling, were sweeping and overly general, and never nuanced. This is a myth that had great impact then (and remains somewhat alive today). To understand the validity of the Nineteenth Amendment we must understand why this myth is incorrect. We have to know a bit about human biology and behavior, including that males and female brains are not different in their ability to perform logical analyses and that our limbic systems (that are the basis of our emotions) are largely identical. A bit of psychology (to understand why people thought about these differences this way) and a bit of cultural anthropology and historical archeology to tell us about how men and women really lived in that time period (a lot more overlap than we are commonly led to believe today) are core to our ability to get a full picture of what was going on and why it was happening.
Another good example of the need to mix different types of information comes from the hypothesis about a link between slavery and salt. First proposed in the late 1980s to explain higher rates of hypertension (high blood pressure) in Americans of African descent, this idea was rapidly picked up by the popular press and gained credence due to a number of myths in our society. In a nutshell, this hypothesis suggests that blacks are genetically biased toward having high blood pressure because peoples from West Africa (who were transported to the Americas during in the slave trade) were adapted to low-salt environments; the forced voyage across the Atlantic on slave ships and the harsh life on plantations favored those individuals with high ability to retain salt (giving them better resistance to diseases that caused diarrhea and dehydration). The presumed genetic proclivity to retain salt was then passed to descendants of slaves, leading to the problems of hypertension in the high-salt environments of today. Fascinating story, but not true. The slavery and salt story rests on the myth of races exhibiting real biological differences. To realize that this is a false set of ideas and misrepresentation of data we need to know about the ecology of West Africa and the plantations in the South and Caribbean, the slave trade and the transatlantic journeys, the differences between slave conditions and health in the United States and Caribbean countries, the salt trade (that occurred alongside the slave trade), the reality of hypertension in the United States across all ethnic groups, economic classes, and regions, and a bit about human biology and genetics. Getting information from archeology, cultural anthropology, physiology, genetics, history, and evolutionary theory are key to busting the myth of slavery and salt as an explanation for a "naturalness" in health inequalities in the United States.
My point here is that the lack of an effective integration of biological, anthropological, and evolutionary knowledge (at a minimum) with societal perspectives and popular discussions can dramatically inhibit our understanding of our histories, our daily lives, and of what human nature might be. Without these kinds of integration we remain ignorant about many core areas of being human and human histories and are susceptible to participating in, and propagating, false myths about human nature. The need to integrate across different areas of knowledge also comes with a suite of problems. Where do we find the information? How do we select the right information from the vast amount out there? How do we understand details in fields that we know little or nothing about? All good questions and in the appendix of this book we tackle a few of them. However, the goal for the bulk of this book is to distill the appropriate information from diverse sources into nuggets that we can use and place them in a context that makes sense to the general reader. To start this distillation, chapters 2 and 3 focus on the interrelations of human development, the realities of culture, and evolution and biology. Then in chapters 4, 5, and 6 we use this contextual perspective to assess data available for busting three major myths about human nature.