Are Racism, Violence, and Inequality Part of “Human Nature”? : Why Understanding Human Evolution Matters

Agustin FuentesProfessor and Chair Department of Anthropology, University of Notre Dame

Many popular accounts of human evolution do a great job of conveying interpretations and perspectives which are entertaining, but often wrong. Such accounts offer incomplete, and at times toxic, portrayals of human biology and evolution that can be used to promulgate and perpetuate racist, misogynistic, and ill-informed views of “human nature.” We are left with perceptions and policies of what is “natural” in contemporary society that damage our capacity to challenge inequity, discrimination, and bias.

Human evolution is ongoing and human populations continue to grow in size and complexity. Getting a handle on “the human” in the Anthropocene is no easy matter and getting the science of human evolution right is important. It turns out that meaning, imagination, and hope are as central to the human story as are bones, genes, and ecologies. Neither selfish aggression nor peaceful altruism dominates human behavior as a whole. We are a species distinguished by our extraordinary capacity for creative cooperation, our simultaneously extreme biological diversity and homogeneity, and our ability to imagine possibilities and to make them material reality.

In the 21st century significant shifts in our understanding of evolutionary biology and theory and of genetics, plus radical expansions in the archeological and fossil records, have led to increasing collaboration across multiple fields of inquiry. Collaboration and expansion of knowledge are altering our capacities to investigate and to understand our history and our future(s). This lecture offers a glimpse, via specific examples, of our past and present to illustrate why, and how, the science of human evolution—far from being dead or outdated–is relevant today.

Agustín Fuentes is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. His current foci include cooperation and bonding in human evolution, ethnoprimatology and multispecies anthropology, evolutionary theory, and public perceptions of, and interdisciplinary approaches to, human nature(s). Fuentes examines human evolution from several perspectives, and his research sheds light on some of the most common misconceptions about human nature, specifically in the areas of race, sex and aggression. He has authored multiple books, including, The Creative Spark (2017), Race, Monogamy and Other Lies They Told You: Busting myths about human behavior (2012), Evolution of Human Behavior (2008), Health, Risk and Adversity (2008), Core Concepts in Biological Anthropology (2006) and has co-authored and coedited several others. His articles have been published in notable journals, including, American Journal of Primatology, American Anthropologist, and Theology and Science.

Discussant: Susan Antón, Professor, Department of Anthropology, New York University

Newsletter

Sign up for email notifications about upcoming events and lectures.