Exploring the Myths of Human Nature

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Being human is a lot more complicated than many of us think, but myths about human nature are powerful and remain quite popular.
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Race, aggression and sex, the three main myths about human nature, are explored in “Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You.”

This myth-busting narrative exposes three major myths about human beings. Author Agustin Fuentes challenges the misconceptions about race, aggression and sex in Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You (University of California Press, 2012). In this excerpt taken from part one, “Myth-Busting Tool Kit,” Fuentes explores what myths are and why we assume them to be part of human nature.

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, 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 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.

Reprinted with permission from Race, Monogomy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting the Myths About Human Nature by Augustin Fuentes and published by University of California Press, 2012.

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