The Dismal Science of Human Nature
from the preface of _Toward a Biosocial Science_, in criticism of woke human 'science'
This is a critique of the woke view on human nature adhered to by many in the contemporary human sciences, articulated here by an anthropologist named Agustin Fuentes. I am putting it up here now because Fuentes just published something on the sex binary in humans that is at least as wrong-headed as the TEDx talk I discuss below. Here’s the concluding paragraph from his recent piece:
“So, instead of listening to people who are misogynistic, sexist, or homo/transphobic; incels; or politicians who base their ideologies on a biological sex binary and myths about its evolution, we can and should be open to a serious understanding of biology and its better options for human flourishing. The simple male/female binary does not effectively express the normal range of being human. Understanding this and incorporating it into our education, lives, and laws offers better possibilities, greater equity, and more joy for human society.”
Did you get that? Basically: “Only evil people could possible disagree with me, because I am on the side of the science.”
If you’re thinking “It’s kinda weird that a scientist would talk like that,” you’re right. This isn’t human science. It’s straightforward far left politics and a vehement disdain for rigorous scientific inquiry wearing an academic mask because this might attach some undeserved status to enervated claims about human nature.
In a TEDx at Notre Dame talk titled “It’s Not All Sex and Violence” that I have used in my introduction of sociology class for a number of years now, the anthropologist Agustin Fuentes presents a warm, cheery view of humankind and human nature. Cooperation and the ability to selflessly, peacefully get along with one another are what fundamentally marks us as a species, he argues while pacing the stage in a loose-fitting suit and shaggy, rock-star locks. Competition and conflict, and especially their more aggressive forms, are a morbid distraction from the main story of human history, which is our amazing capacity to happily work together in harmony.
It is certainly an encouraging story, and my students typically agree with the charming, widely-smiling Fuentes readily and completely.
They agree with his case so easily, in fact, that they seldom note even the more glaring holes in Fuentes’ argument, and the more subtle oversimplifications and misrepresentations that require more backgrounding and research to recognize escape them completely. For Fuentes’ presentation is insufficiently attentive to the great amount of evidence for the parts of human nature he would like to ignore. He willfully caricatures in the most unsophisticated terms an intellectual position that is much more nuanced and consistent with evidence than his own.
Of course humans do cooperate, and we do this quite well. Contrary to what Fuentes insinuates, few scholars who agree with the perspective on humankind I will present in this book make any effort at all to deny this patently undeniable part of human nature. But a full social science requires that we recognize and build into our social theory robust understanding that humans also compete with one another, and we pursue conflict, and we disagree, and we gossip, and we fight, and sometimes we even attack and kill. This is obvious to anyone paying attention, and the basic task of the social sciences is to discern what kind of intriguing creatures we are to engage in both the cooperation and the conflict and what forces and processes have made us so.
As part of his case for our peaceful nature, Fuentes presents a headline he suggests we all find easy to believe because we have been so misled by the media into a dark image of our species—”4 killed over weekend in New York City.” He insists another, more impressive fact will never make headlines—”8,399,996 got along over weekend in New York City.” His point is correct in one sense—extreme violence is rare in modern societies. The why of that fact, though, is far more complex and less flattering to Rousseauian myths about our innocent natures than Fuentes suggests. But beyond that acknowledgement, we must also note that his second headline is straightforwardly false.
First, his basic math is off. It is necessary to count the killers as well as the killed among those who did not pass a peaceful weekend, so even in his framework, there are twice as many individuals as he counts engaged in aggression. But the real core of the problem with his view has to do with a much larger omitted number. Of the people living in New York City who were not among the small number of those killed and their killers that weekend, how many were involved as perpetrators or victims in thefts, robberies, extortions, kidnappings, rapes, assaults, and domestic abuse? Many hundreds, perhaps even a few thousand. How many got into fights that did not make it to the level of reporting to police? Many, many more than that. How many of those people at some point over the weekend got into an argument, or took advantage of someone else, or verbally berated someone, or contemplated or even planned some species of future conflict? Quite a large number, indeed.
The reality is that competition, conflict, and aggression are much, much more common than Fuentes admits, and the reasons have to do with the fundamental forces that made us and continue to drive our behaviors and our social lives.
It’s a TED talk, of course, and not a book or scholarly article, so the treatment is necessarily brisk, and my students understand we grant some liberties in argument in such a medium. They nonetheless start to perk up when we go through some of the other major problems with Fuentes’ case.
He dismisses the Hobbesian philosophical position that a centralized political authority in modernity helps to contain what otherwise would be much more widespread crime and violence, but the evidence of what happens in modern cities when the police disappear—looting and a significant uptick in crime are the most common results--is fairly straightforwardly supportive of Hobbes.
He claims aggression could not be something selected for in evolutionary terms because it is too varied a form of behavior, but in the same breath he argues that our capacity to cooperate and “be social”—something at least as varied and complex as aggression—is “wired” into us.
He points to “the way we parent” as evidence of our selflessness, but he must know that the theory of natural selection has a more complicated view not only on why our parenting looks like it does, but also on what in fact motivates the behavior we call selflessness. Parents do lovingly look after their young. And they also pick favorites among them, and sometimes abuse them, abandon them, and prevent them from being born altogether, and even kill them.
The competition between parent and child begins before birth, and sexual reproduction itself bears its traces. Half of all human pregnancies fail because we have invasive placentas, and implantation of the embryo is an aggressive and invasive process by which the fetus gains increased control over its own nutrition. The tradeoff for this augmented ability of the fetus to override the mother’s interest in saving her nutritive intake for herself is the higher risk of pre-eclampsia and metastatic cancer, as the invasive stem cells in the placenta are similar to metastatic cancer cells. The mother’s endometrium both enables and limits the placental invasion. The embryo’s efforts to increase nutrients from its mother increases her blood sugar, which might give her gestational diabetes. This is complicated stuff, and it only gets more complicated when the child emerges.
Fuentes even explicitly misrepresents a documentary on aggression in humans on which he was a scholarly consultant. Made in 2010 for the National Geographic channel, “Born to Rage?” is hosted by Henry Rollins and deals with the gene MAOA, colloquially known as the warrior gene. In the effort to reject out of hand the idea—which is the subject of a serious scholarly literature--that this gene might tell us something useful about aggressive and violent proclivities in males, Fuentes declares that the only people involved with the program whose DNA tests showed the aggressive allele for the gene were several Buddhist monks and himself.
A consultation of the program shows that, of the aggressive subjects presented, more than half in fact had the warrior gene, directly contrary to his claim. He also fails to note that the scholarly literature indicates that the frequency of the gene varies by race, with whites less prone to have the affected allele, and nearly all the aggressive men portrayed in the program are white. This fact coupled with the accurate results from the documentary’s DNA tests reveals that the individuals in the program who displayed aggressive behavior had the warrior gene at a frequency that is substantially more pronounced than in the broader white population.
This TEDx talk, though delivered by an anthropologist, gives a fair approximation of the worldview my students who have taken previous courses in sociology before mine have encountered in those courses. Humans, in this lens, are innately and fundamentally social and cooperative; competition, violence, aggression, hierarchy, and inequality are anomalous behaviors and forms of social organization thoroughly inconsistent with our natures; and human traits and basic aspects of social organization are fully products of socialization and environment with relatively little contribution from crude biology. In this perspective, there is little of explanatory utility to be gained in an effort to understand our species by applying in as rigorous a way as possible the one theory on the development of life on the planet with the most impressive track record of the past century and a half, namely, the Darwinian theory of natural selection.
This view on how to think about human nature and human social life is simply unsustainable in the long term.
 As of this writing, the documentary can still be found online here: