Jun 13, 2012

Race, Monogamy and Other Lies they Told You by Agustín Fuentes

Race, Monogamy and Other Lies they Told You by Agustín Fuentes

Agustín Fuentes, biological anthropologist and author of Race, Monogamy and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths About Human Nature, just might be the winner of my brain crush of the year award. (In case you’re wondering, last year’s winner was Cordelia Fine.) In this book, Fuentes painstakingly dismantles three pervasive and damaging myths about human nature – the belief that race is a biological category rather than a cultural construct; the idea that the veneer of civilisation hides the beast within all of us, especially in men; and the myth that there are hardwired gender differences in personality, aptitudes, sex drive, etc. – the whole Mars vs Venus package.

As Fuentes explains, these myths are problematic not only because they’re untrue, but also because they have very serious practical consequences:
Three major myths—about race, aggression, and sex—have a negative impact on our society and inhibit an accurate understanding of what it means to be human. These myths create a false set of societally accepted “truths” that in turn cause a range of problems for us. The myth that humans are divided into biological races—that black, white, Asian, etc. are natural categories—helps generate and maintain intolerance and inequality, and leads to difficulties in creating and sustaining communities in our increasingly diverse society. The myth that removing the constraints of culture and civilization reveals the innate, violent beast within us (especially in men) restricts how we can relate to one another, encourages fear, and enables an acceptance of certain kinds of abuse and violence as natural or inevitable. The myth that men and women are dramatically different in behavior, desires, and perspectives due to natural differences in “internal wiring” facilitates poor intersexual relations, creates and maintains sexual inequality, and causes a range of problems for individual men and women labouring under a preconception about who and how they are supposed to be.
These myths about what’s “natural” are often used to disguise social inequalities: one of the examples Fuentes gives in relation to race is the idea that the black population of the US has a greater incidence of high blood pressure than the white population due to the biological legacy of slavery. Individuals with a better ability to retain salt were more likely to survive the Middle Passage and the brutal conditions of slavery; now that their descents no longer live in a salt-deprived environment, this biological advantage has ceased to be adaptative and results in high blood pressure and all the associated health problems. At first glance this theory might strike us as something that makes sense, but it ignores two crucial things: first, that the black population of the West Indies is also largely descendent from slaves, and yet there are no racial differences in the incidence of high blood pressure there. And secondly, that although there are small biological differences across human populations, these population do not correspond to the major race categories we recognise – black, white, Asian, Latino/a, etc. There is far more variation within any of these groups than across them.

Of course, saying that race is a social construct is not at all the same as saying that racism isn’t real, or that race doesn’t profoundly affect people’s lives in our world. It’s exactly because the effects of racism are so pervasive and profound that we see health differences between the black and white populations of modern day American. But if we think of these differences as natural, we mask the social explanations that are more likely to account for them – like deep inequalities in access to health care. Attributing these differences to “natural” causes enables us to believe that there’s nothing we can do about them, that the world is in fact fair, and that things will always be the way they currently are.

Similarly, the myth that human beings are intrinsically violent “enables a kind of inevitability in our communal sense of aggression and society, especially as it relates to males”. This is the myth behind rape prevention campaigns that treat it, as Katha Pollitt once put it, like a weather phenomenon: if male aggression in general and the propensity for rape in particular are a force of nature akin to a tornado, then the onus is on women to get out of the way. Not only that, but violent men can’t really be held responsible for their behaviour – after all, they’re only following their nature.

Race, Monogamy and Other Lies They Told You is an introductory book primarily meant for readers encountering these concepts for the first time; but unlike, say, The Truth About Boys and Girls, it never feels too 101. It’s never dull or oversimplified, and it gives even the more seasoned reader plenty to think about. The book is structured as follows: there’s a chapter devoted to busting each of the three major myths, but before that, Fuentes equips the reader with what he calls a myth-busting tool kit: he provides an accurate and accessible overview of the basics of evolution, DNA, culture as defined in anthropology, etc. – everything a non-specialist needs to know to be able to move beyond simply consuming the information Fuentes is about to provide and actually engage with it critically. The structure of the book is designed to empower readers to be better critical thinkers, which was something I very much appreciated.

Somewhat to my surprised, I enjoyed these introductory chapters almost more than the myth-busting ones. I’d encountered most of the concepts they cover before, but Fuentes’ economic and effective way of defining them was still very valuable to me. I particularly appreciated his approach to the question of nature and nurture: as he explains, we’re not blank slates and biology is real, but acknowledging this doesn’t have to result in determinism. With this in mind, he introduces the concept of “naturenurtural”:
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).
In sum, the two factors constantly interact and the environment impacts our biology. Furthermore, contrary to what many people seem to believe, culture doesn’t work to hide or change our “real” underlying natures – human nature is what our environment (working along with our biology) makes of it.

One of the main reasons why I liked Fuentes’ approach so much is because he combats bad science through my absolute favourite method: more and better science. If Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and Cordelina Fine’s Delusions of Gender had a baby, the result would be something like this book. Race, Monogamy and Other Lies They Told You is timely, important and accessible, and I hope it reaches a very wide audience.

Favourite bits:
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.

All too often people make the assumption that because a cultural construct is “constructed” within a society that it is not a real thing. This is akin to people confusing psychosomatic (“it’s all in your head”) illness with fake illness. Whether your stomach hurts because of a bacterial infection or because of gastric disequilibrium due to stress from workplace tension, it still hurts. The mind can cause the body to react so as to create pain just as an infection can. The remedies might be different, but the pain can be the same. This is the case with cultural constructs; they are very real for those who hold them. In the example of the nuclear family and single-family residences, a failure to marry, have kids, and own a home can cause a wide range of problems socially and psychologically for individuals in the United States.
It is one of our society’s cultural constructs to assign a certain intrinsic value to things we deem natural (coming from outside of human control) as opposed to things we see as being altered by human society and customs. It is easy to argue that walking on two legs is natural for humans, but walking on our hands is also natural (our hands arose via similar biological developmental processes as our feet, but just not as practical as a way of regular walking. The point is that we have to exert extreme caution when arguing that something is “natural,” or the way it should be. Assuming something is natural does not necessarily mean it is “fit” or “correct.” Nor does it necessarily mean that social and historical contexts did not have a hand in shaping it. This specific issue will be very obvious in some of the core assumptions for each major myth we are going to bust.
(Also this!)
If we discard the myth that men and women are so different then we can see the range of individuals more clearly. If we accept that there are many ways to be male and female and that many of these ways overlap, we can be more accepting of a wider range of masculinity and femininity within and between individuals. A nine-year-old male who picks up a baseball for the first time and throws it ineptly is not “throwing like a girl” as his teammates might say. He is throwing the ball like a human who has not been trained to throw a small round ball with accuracy and speed. When a nine-year-old girl plays baseball well, sliding hard, getting dirty, and running out every time she is at bat she is called a tomboy or is described with masculine adjectives. She is being a good athlete, not being like a boy. These are simplistic examples, but the idea has significant impact across all aspects of our lives.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be glad to link to you.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%. I received a free copy of this book for review.


  1. This sounds incredibly good. I've been pondering these questions a lot, especially after talks with my sister who studies biology, and she's starting to vehemently defend biological determinism for some things. To me, that's scary, but I wonder if it's because I've been "raised" as a scholar within a completely different environment: social constructionism. We always end up defending opposing sides of this spectrum. And I think the second quote is an important reminder of something that is often forgotten on her side of things, and that it doesn't mean biology isn't "true". The reason why I mention this is because I think it's scary that in a widely acclaimed and financed research area such as biology, there is so little reflection on these theoretical issues. At least not in the bachelor or master curriculum.

    Anyway, long associative comment. The bottom line is that I want to read this. Much like Delusions of Gender.

  2. You always make my To Read pile grow.

  3. Sounds interesting. I'm glad to know it's not too dull.

  4. What a fantastic book. It has been added to my wish list.

  5. ha! I read your Tumblr post first and left a comment that was very similar to what you are saying here but from the perspective of the role of language in creating myths. Must read this one as well!

  6. This sounds like something I would like!

  7. From reading your review, I can definitely see why you would have a brain crush on this author! This sounds like a fantastic book. I'm going to see if my library has this. Thanks for bringing this book to our attention.

  8. Okay, I'm sold. This sounds like a great read.

  9. This is an interesting book.The natural way, the biological process is way different on the process that the society and the culture is dictated us. This has caused much debate. This is worth reading. Thank you for posting. I will definitely read this one.

  10. Iris: You're right, biological determinism is on the rise, and I'd love to see it be addressed more often in undergrad degrees. I'm not a "pure" constructionist but I'm uncomfortable with most attacks on constructionism because they seem to be motivated by the wrong reasons. It's wonderful to find sensible, articulate scientists such as Fuentes who express my thoughts on this matter better than I ever could.

    dumbsainthood: Hopefully that's a good thing? :P

    Kathy: Not dull at all!

    Heather: Hope you enjoy it if you have the chance to pick it up :)

    Jill: Very good point! Different things but similar process overall.

    Kelly: I think you would, yes :)

    Vasilly: You're most welcome! I hope you manage to find it at your library.

    Trisha: It really was!

    AML: The book actually argues the opposite of that - that there is no great distinction between "natural" and "culturally constructed". Would love to hear your thoughts on the subject after you've read it!

  11. I finished Delusions of Gender today! It was so glorious. And sad, really. Very sad in many ways, particularly as I re-enter the work force. BUT more on that later, probably in an off-line email :-)

    This book sounds like an excellent follow-up to Delusions of Gender, expanding upon the many myths we are told not just about the sexes, but about human biology and DNA.

    Is it wrong of me to LOVE that this is written by a man, and that he is talking about the whole biology thing and the lack of differences in the sexes? (Though I am disappointed that the whole sex differences/lack thereof just got wrapped up into "and other lies.") Because I think that is awesome. We need the word "feminist" to become gender-neutral!

  12. Intersectionality of prejudices is my very extra favorite. To my total delight, Mumsy said to me, "Don't buy this! I'm going to buy it! And you can read it when you're home." :D:D:D

    (I was actually at the bookstore yesterday thinking about buying it, and I decided it not to because of Mumsy saying not to.)

  13. You make books I ordinarily would pass up, sound interesting! I'm still working up the nerve to get Freakonomics because of your review a few years ago, so this one will come after it.

    I do like how you think, analyze and criticize what you read and share what you find out with us. You explain science in such a lucid way that the points of the books (good and bad) and clearly laid out. It's fabulous writing, Nymeth.

  14. Totally my type of book too :D It's now on my wish list! Sounds amazing.

  15. Can Brain Crush of the Year be an official award?

    This sounds amazing. Must read.

  16. This sounds completely fascinating - thank you for bringing it to my attention. It sounds like I'd have a brain crush on him too!

  17. Aarti: Yes, it definetely makes me happy to see male allies joining this fight. I do agree about the title, though - I wish it had been more straight to the point. Dying to hear your thoughts on Delusions of Gender, btw!

    Jenny: yay! That makes me very happy :D

    Susan: Aw, thank you so much, Susan! That clarity was pretty much my favourite thing about the book, so it's great to know that I was able to convey it in my post.

    Amy: Enjoy!

    Lu: Ha! That's a very tempting idea :P

    Meghan: You're most welcome!

  18. This sounds awesome! I'll have to get it from my library soon. :D

  19. It is hard to take this book seriously given the absurd strawman Fuentes creates to combat the "myth" of race. He suggests that there are no race specific genes, that races aren't static, entitities and the categories can change over time. This does not mean they don't exist - if that was the case then a lot of species wouldn't exist either. It would also be interesting to see how many sub-species or races would exist in other species if one were to adopt Fuentes' absurdly narrow concept of race.

    A more reasonable approach is adopted by Professor Jerry Coyne, who recently wrote:

    "In my own field of evolutionary biology, races of animals (also called "subspecies" or "ecotypes") are morphologically distinguishable populations that live in allopatry (i.e. are geographically separated). There is no firm criterion on how much morphological difference it takes to delimit a race. Races of mice, for example, are described solely on the basis of difference in coat color, which could involve only one or two genes." Coyne notes that using this approach that of course there are human races.

    Fuentes also manages to avoid the work of Professor Neil Risch, the 2004 Curt Stern award winner for outstanding genetics research over the previous 10 years. Risch points out that population genetics research have recapitulated the classical definition of races based on continental ancestry. So to say that race and ethnicity has no biological basis is well intentioned but wrong. You might as well say there is no such thing as population biology. If there were no biological basis to race, then people who identify themselves as African American or Chinese would be no more likely to have certain genes than people who identify themselves as Native American. But that is not true. As demonstrated by Neil Risch, or more recently Bruce Lahn and Lanny Ebenstein ("Let's Celebrate Human Genetic Diversity" Nature, 2010).

  20. Viewer, I'm going to assume you haven't actually read the book you're dismissing; otherwise you'd surely have realised that Fuentes doesn't once argue that genetically diverse human populations don't exist. He merely points out that there's no direct correspondence between these populations and the racial categories that are socially recognised (and which vary considerably from time to time and from place to place - for example, I'm from Europe and here we don't have the concept of "Latino/a" as a race that exists in America). So yes, there are distinct human populations that are genetically different from one another, but the broad categories of "Black", "Asian", "Caucasian" or "Latino/a" are NOT the same as these populations. There's far more genetic diversity within each one of them than across them, and this is why Fuentes (as well as others such as Jesse J. Prinz or Nina Jablonski) persuasively argues that they're not biologically meaningful categories but rather social constructs.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.