Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You by Agustin Fuentes

Source of book: I own this


Agustin Fuentes is an anthropologist. A guy who studies humans. That term was, of course, a by-word for evil in the subculture I grew up in, because anthropologists believed in evolution and studied how humans were rather than how Fundamentalist theology taught us they should be. As I came to realize as a teen and later adult, the emotional attachment to ideology is often stronger than even love between humans, and any level of slander is considered justified to defend the belief system. 


At the same time, I learned more about science, and more about other people outside the subculture, and the more I did, the less tenable certain lies about human nature were. 


This book is all about that. 


Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You is a fairly short book, particularly compared to what it could be. Fuentes states outright that he has merely skimmed the surface of the research that supports his ideas - and encourages the reader to follow the endnotes to the original sources. His intent isn’t to make an exhaustively researched case, but to introduce the ideas, and give the reader a “toolbox” for debunking cultural myths and coming to a more complete, accurate, and nuanced view of human nature. It is also a bit nerdy, so definitely plan on reading a bit at a time to digest it. 


Here is the basic idea: three myths about human nature pervade our society, and these myths prevent us from understanding ourselves, while at the same time giving intellectual and moral cover for the maintenance of unjust power structures that oppress the vulnerable. Here is how the author puts it:


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 laboring under a preconception about who and how they are supposed to be. 


One could also state the three evils that these myths support: Racism, Authoritarianism, and Misogyny. 


Hey, that’s also the goal of right-wing governments everywhere! Who knew? I will also say that each and every one of these myths has been a source of hurt and trauma in my own life - the lies about race, about the need for authoritarianism, and horseshit about sex and gender have been used as weapons against me and my family by those to whom maintaining the myths are more important than basic human decency to others. 


For such a relatively short book, I ended up with a lot of notes. I figure it is worth going through them just because of how much fascinating information and illuminating discussion is in the book. 


The book is divided into sections. Part 1 is his “Myth-Busting Tool Kit.” The author gives an introduction to the tools that anthropologists use, ways of thinking scientifically, good sources of information, and other helpful ideas and tools for thinking clearly about the subject. I think a lot of people could use these techniques in general, to learn to distinguish between facts and fiction, between ideology and proof, and so on. 


The second part looks at the three specific myths. He breaks them down into component parts, and poses hypotheses that can be disproven, then proceeds to do so, using the research that has been done. The appendix at the end gives links for sources of peer-reviewed studies and other reliable sources for useful information.


Let me continue from the above quote, which opens the book, and look at the other important ideas Fuentes examines.


He gives an account of his education, training, and experience, and notes an important facet of being an actual scientist. 


[At UC Berkeley] I benefited from an amazing focus on natural history, the idea that you need to see organisms, watch them in their daily lives, and get a strong idea of what things they actually do before you make a series of assumptions about why they do what they do. 


This is crucial. One of the biggest problems I have had with Fundamentalism in particular, and ideological systems in general is that they jump straight to theories about why before they even bother to be honest about the what. And in fact, they tend to lie egregiously about the what, because maintaining those lies are fundamentally necessary to support the ideology of why


One of the toughest problems in debunking myths of this sort is that they seem to be supported by “common sense.” We look around at our world, and see certain phenomena, and find that what we see fits with the myths we already believe. For example, it is easy enough for a white guy like me to look at people in my country, and see that on average white people have more assets and income, better health, and so on. I could easily (and, embarrassingly did for years) assume that there was somehow something superior about white people. And likewise, I could see that there is violence in the world, and go to the myth that people tend to be violent unless we use state violence to keep them in check. And finally, I could see that women tend to do most of the childcare and housework, and conclude that there is something inherent about women that makes them suited for those tasks. As the author puts it:


This twist on the adage “seeing is believing” pinpoints an aspect of being human that makes myths about human nature so resilient. What we believe to be true affects how we see the world, the way we think things should be, and how we interpret information presented to us. That our perspectives affect our perceptions on a daily basis is a core concept of this book. 


But I would be missing the actual what here. 


What led me (long before this book) to start reconsidering these myths were different perspectives. The question of race looks a lot different from the other side. I realized pretty early on that I myself do not tend toward violence, nor do most people I know. In practice (as the book examines in depth), humans are capable of violence, but also are the most cooperative species on the planet - that’s why we have thrived in every ecosystem. And, perhaps most obviously, I became friends with (and the spouse of in one case) women who did not fit the gender stereotypes, and that lie crumbled pretty damn fast. 


One thing that Fuentes points out that really resonates is that in order to truly examine these myths, we need an interdisciplinary approach. We cannot just look at one facet, but need to look at many elements. For example, he talks about the myth that people of African descent are prone to high blood pressure because of genetics. This myth is widely believed, even among doctors. But it turns out not to be true. In order to disprove it, however, you have to look at a bunch of things, starting with genetics, but also cultural anthropology, physiology, and history to tease out the truth. (I’ll return to this one later - the truth is truly fascinating.) 


Another key idea that Fuentes emphasizes is that culture matters a lot when it comes to these myths. Culture creates and maintains these myths, it gives meaning to the data, and it presupposes that something is “good and right” in these contexts. 


Generally, when we think about the elements of culture, we point to overt examples such as symbols (like flags or traditional clothing), ritual behaviors (such as those associated with religion, daily grooming, or greetings), linguistic patterns (forms of colloquial speech or slang), or specific social behavior (like personal space use and other aspects of body language). However, we do not always think about the cultural constructs - the ideas, ideologies, and systems of meaning - that pervade societies. A cultural construct is a belief, or social ideology, about the world that originates within a particular society and is (generally) shared by its members.


If you want to understand what the Culture Wars™ in the US are actually about, that quote above is key. There has been a significant shift in the cultural constructs of our society - specifically, we have moved toward a belief in the equality of women and racial minorities - and this has caused the reactionary elements of our society (particularly the Fundamentalists) to lose their shit. 


Next up is a discussion of evolution, which I think should be required reading. I have noted elsewhere on this blog that I stopped believing in a young earth as a kid, and realized that the “creationist” ideology (really, more of a belief that that particular part of the Bible is meant to be taken literally and specifically) was scientifically unsupportable. [Side note: for my generation, I would say that the issue of evolution has caused more people to leave Christianity than any other. For Millennials, probably it is LGBTQ rights. For my kids, too, but also the unholy marriage of Trump and Ku Klux Klan politics to religion.] 


There are so many great passages in this chapter, but I will just mention two. 


The idea that nature is brutish and life is short owes more to philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith than it does to Darwin. In fact, this concept is an important and powerful cultural construct that permeates our society.


This is very true. It is also puzzling to me that those who claim to disbelieve Darwin regarding evolution also tend to be those most committed to the Social Darwinist view of economic policy - which, as Fuentes notes, has little to do with Darwin or evolution, and everything to do with eugenicist philosophy. 


The other is this one:


Evolution is actually two things: a fact and a theory. When the majority of people say “evolution” they are usually referring to some facet of the theory, glossing over the most important part: the fact. The fact of evolution is that all organic life on this planet changes over time. Really, that’s it: change over time. This is easily observable in the fossil record and in the laboratory. There is no debate, it is a scientific fact: evolution happens. 


This is the stumbling block in Fundamentalism that has yet to be fully addressed. Evolution happens. We have seen it in Covid-19, which is one reason I believe that the American Right Wing has been so very resistant to every single scientific truth about the virus. It is living proof of evolution, and thus strikes at the heart of a very cherished myth. Thus, it has to have originated in a lab, because only an intelligence can create a new organism. It has to be a hoax, because otherwise we have a new life form that supports the truth of evolution. 


The next concept that I really love in this book is the idea that humans aren’t simply the product of our genes. (Our nature.) Or simply the product of of our circumstances (Our nurture.) And we aren’t some mathematical combination of Nature and Nurture. Rather, we are immensely complex, and all of it is intertwined in ways that we cannot fully understand. And humans are adaptable and flexible - that is our superpower. We are not simply machines that can be predicted to respond in line with our programming. Fuentes uses the term “naturenurtural” to describe this. We have certain potentiality determined by our genes (we cannot grow wings and fly, for example) and we are affected by our experiences. But ultimately, it is more complicated than that. 


Moving on, the first topic is that of race. And man, does Fuentes take this myth apart. This is one area in which I myself held some residual mythical beliefs - and I learned a lot from this chapter. 


Here is one of those fascinating facts. The Human Genome Project revealed some unexpected conclusions. 


The very first draft of the project confirmed what many anthropologists, biologists, and geneticists had been saying for nearly fifty years: humans, as a species, demonstrate little genetic variation between populations…the vast majority of human genetic variation is found within populations rather than between populations. 


By the way, this term, “populations” is really important. “Race” isn’t biologically real. As this book thoroughly demonstrates. “Populations” are. A group of people who have lived in a particular area for tens of thousands of years can indeed show certain characteristics as a result. But these populations do not line up with what we popularly think of as “races” at all. 


What the above quote also explains is that even within populations, there is tremendous variation, and this individual variation is greater than the overall variation between different populations. At the macro level, we are very much alike, while we are different up close. 


Just an example of this: if you take my extended family on either side, you can see a huge variation in height. We have really short (my mom is 4’ 11”) and really tall (plenty of my cousins on both sides 6’ or taller.) And that is despite the fact that both sides are ethnically half German, and became part of the same immigrant communities here in the US. 


Fuentes then goes on to look at genetic indicators. I was surprised to find that these are literally all over the place. The gene for Sickle Cell trait is something we Americans tend to think of as an “African” gene. But in fact, it exists around the globe….in populations that lived near the equator, and thus were constantly exposed to malaria. 


Or how about the gene for type “B” blood? You can find it in certain African populations. But also in India. And - get this - northern Russia. Some of the whitest people in existence. And there are thousands of genetic traits like this, that seem to exist in places that we don’t think of as related. The bottom line is that genetically, there is no such thing as race. The concept of race was created - as African American thinkers from Frederick Douglass on down have reminded us - as a philosophical justification for imperialism and enslavement. 


So, race doesn’t exist biologically. But race does exist socially and culturally. Our beliefs about race and color and hierarchies make a HUGE difference in the opportunities people have and the way they are treated. 


Fuentes takes a bit of time to explain some of the ways this works. Obviously, this isn’t a book about systemic racism, so he just hits a few highlights. Here is one:


According to popular opinion, having even one drop of “black blood” in your genealogy makes you black, but having many drops of white blood does not make you white. Why is this? It is tied to the concept that races are biological units and that some races are better than others; thus biological influence (or contamination) from one race dictates what race you are. This is rooted in misguided notions about genetics and biology, but nonetheless remains, subconsciously, a de facto reality for our society. This is one reason why Barack Obama is considered black and not white. 


It is way too long to quote, but Fuentes takes a look at the US Census questions, and pretty much eviscerates how they take the reality of race for granted - and in some really weird ways. He doesn’t fault the government, exactly, though, because as the Census explains, it uses the “social definition” of race in our society. I wish I could go into detail, but it is literally a couple dense pages long. But it is quite revealing of our history of thinking in terms of race. 


And that brings us back around to blood pressure. Using the interdisciplinary approach, you can find that the patterns of hypertension that we see in US-born persons of African ancestry do not hold true outside of the US. Caribbean blacks do not have the same patterns. It doesn’t hold true in Africa either. 


What IS true is that there is a direct connection between the experience of discrimination and racial harassment and blood pressure. Particularly if the victim feels they cannot speak up about it. Hey, stress causes hypertension? Who knew?


In an excellent study focusing specifically on this factor the anthropologist Clarence Gravlee and colleagues demonstrated that skin color as a factor in social classification based on culturally defined race categories was a better predictor of blood pressure than a genetic estimate of ancestry (percentage of ancestry from African populations.) 


Yikes. Racism and discrimination literally kill people. 


Fuentes hits it on the head with his conclusion. If we cannot find actual biological evidence that races exist in reality, then the generalizations that we take for granted are not based in biology, but in…something else. 


Today, generally, most people look around and say that blacks are better at physical sports, whites run companies, and Asians do really well on tests. But are these generalizations really accurate? And if they are, we know that race is not a biological unit, so an explanation for the differences has to be largely nonbiological and thus social and historical. 


Yes. Social and historical. It is all about the culture, and the systems that support the hierarchies and the myths.


Next up is the myth of aggression. Specifically, it is the myth that human males in particular are aggressive by nature. And that this is an evolutionary trait - the “most successful human males” are the aggressive ones.


Sorry, this is bullshit, as I could have told you. 


I am not an aggressive person. I am a strong personality, I will go head to head with you in an argument if I feel I am right, but I have no interest in violence. I’m not really competitive. And what I really want is to work together with most people. And most men I know are not aggressive either. And furthermore, it is pretty obvious that the most aggressive males are NOT the most successful. Much to their rage and fury. 


One of the truly fascinating parts of the book is the one where the author looks at war as a human phenomenon. Our immediate ancestors didn’t engage in war, and war has not been a universal state of existence for humans. In an article by another anthropologist, Brian Ferguson, notes that while humans have existed in more or less their present form for 100,000 years, evidence of war only dates back at most 12,000 years or even less. So it isn’t biology, but something else. And it sure looks like culture is a prime suspect. I thought two of Ferguson’s observations about war were particularly interesting:


War is a continuation of domestic policies by other means.

Leaders favor war because war favors leaders. 




Ursula Le Guin had something to say about that. It does appear perhaps that the narcissists and sociopaths have found a way of utilizing humankind’s amazing ability for cooperation to maintain themselves in power by convincing humans to kill each other. In fact, modern wars require an almost unthinkable level of cooperation to sustain. There is definitely something more going on here than a mere “human males are naturally aggressive.” 


I also thought Fuentes did a great job on his analysis of sex and violence. Guess what? Males are actually NOT more aggressive than females. Did you know that? You could, perhaps, ask an attorney who does family law. The statistics bear out my own experience: in relationships, females more frequently use physical violence than males. However - and this is a big one - males are capable of far more damage when they are violent. This is for two reasons. First, larger average size and strength. And second - Fuentes points this out too, and good for him - violence takes place in a cultural context. The belief in inherent male violence makes excuses for male violence. The inequality of men and women in society mean women have fewer options outside of a relationship - even a violent one - with a man. 


Oh, and there are other interesting findings in the research. Because of the way we humans are culturally engendered - we learn as infants how to act in a gendered way - males and females tend to express aggression differently. Anger is expressed equally often by both males and females. In same-sex aggressive encounters, males are slightly more likely to express physical - or verbal aggression. But females are slightly more likely to display indirect aggression. Because those are the culturally permissible ways to express anger, based on gender expectations. 


Also of note: aggressive behavior peaks around age 2 or 3, and the levels of aggression actually vary a LOT among males. For males, particularly, aggression at that early age is somewhat predictive of aggression later in life. But it isn’t as predictive as you might think. Less than half of aggressive toddler males remain aggressive. And even fewer aggressive toddler females. Gee, maybe culture and nurture from those ages matter too. 


But the biggest takeaway really should be this:


The majority of humans are not violent. Most people rarely if ever engage in violent aggression. If I were to conclude anything about the persistence of this myth, it would be that stoking fears of “those people” being inherently violent sells. It sells on television and in print, and at the ballot box. But really, for most of us males, we are not out there being violent or belligerent. And for most of us, our everyday lives are not filled with acts of violence, but rather with thousands of acts of cooperation and mutuality. That is the most human of our tendencies. 


Fuentes also looks at what we know of the biology. I won’t get into all the details of hormones and receptors and all that, but it turns out that there isn’t really a clear link to genetics when it comes to aggression, and certainly testosterone isn’t a clear driver of violence. (In fact, human males do NOT become more aggressive after puberty - or after administration of testosterone. Another myth that is not supported by the research.) 


Here is an interesting observation on this:


Even in detailed studies of the molecules that directly impact portions of the brain that are implicated in the expression of aggressive behavior it turns out that the context-specific, socially mediated, and contingent nature of the expression of aggression in humans remains the best explanation. 


In other words: It’s the culture, stupid. 


And then, what about the myth that if you are a male, aggressive and violent behavior is what gets you ahead in the “survival of the fittest” game? Also busted. 


Fuentes starts with the ludicrous beliefs about “alpha males.” This mostly stems from now-debunked studies done on captive animals (like wolves and primates) that were not reproducible in the wild. As it turns out, dominance is not actually correlated to aggression. Which actually seems intuitive if you think about it. 


But dominance is not simply about being aggressive; it is about skillful social negotiation. High rates of aggression by male monkeys can be detrimental to their ability to stay in a social group. 


Bullies get thrown out of the group. This is pretty well known to be true, and not just in other primates. Every human society ever studied has some sort of social reinforcement of behavior standards. As anthropologist Christopher Boehm is noted as saying:


[R]ather than preference for aggression there appears to be positive reinforcement of nonaggressive traits in adult men in most of these societies.


If you bully, cheat, lie, steal, or kill, you tend to find yourself dealt with harshly by human society. Cooperation is literally what humans do best, and what has made us a successful species. 


So where does the rubber hit the road here? Well, for one thing, Fuentes argues that we need to study human violence, and look primarily to the cultural component of it. And even more so to the political component of violence. Humans do behave with violence in certain contexts, and one of the successes of modern life has been, as Stephen Pinker extensively documents in The Better Angels of our Nature, a significant reduction in those circumstances in which violence is likely to be the reaction.  Speaking of Pinker, there is a great quote from him in this chapter:


“We will never understand violence by looking only at the genes or brains of violent people. Violence is a social and political problem, not just a biological and psychological one.”


Fuentes also notes the real damage that this myth causes in our society. 


If we believe that we are aggressive at our base, that males stripped of social constraints will resort to a brutish nature, then we will expect and accept certain types of violence as inevitable. This means that instead of really trying to understand and rectify the horrific and complex realities of rape, genocide, civil war, and torture, we will chalk at least a part of these events up to human nature. This is a dangerous state of mind that traps us in a vicious cycle of inaction and futility when it comes to moving forward as societies invested in understanding and managing violence. 




The chapter examining the myths about sex (and there is a whole constellation of beliefs that are encompassed in the myth) is the longest, and for good reason. There is so much to unpack and address. This chapter is also the one that is the most personal for me. As a white guy, I haven’t exactly experienced the pernicious effects of myths about race. I’ve probably mostly benefited from them. And I don’t really occupy the place in society where myths about violence personally affect me. So, while I definitely care about debunking these myths, I do not have the level of personal and emotional investment in them as I do in the ones about sex. 


Frankly put, the myths about men and women have had a profound negative impact on me, my relationships with my family, on my children, and on every corner of society. In fact, I have become increasingly inclined to think that as deeply and viciously racist as American society is, it is probably even more sexist and misogynist. 


Fuentes starts the chapter out by talking about Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. For obvious reasons. This book is a microcosm of an entire industrial complex, built on the myth that men and women are so incredibly, irreconcilably different, that they cannot possibly understand each other without the expenditure of endless time and money. 


I cannot even begin to express how much damage this myth has done in my own life. And in that of millions of others. 


The myth is so powerful, it is taken for granted as true by so many - and it has served to justify the abuse and subordination of women, the evisceration of the emotional lives of men, and baptized the worst cultural behaviors of both men and women as somehow biologically driven and thus acceptable. 


The myth is so powerful, that many people have chosen to reject any women (or men) who fail to support the myth. If the person doesn’t fit the myth, the person is wrong - bad, evil, stupid, worthy of rejection and hate. The myth itself couldn’t possibly be wrong, right?


Later in the book, Fuentes asks the question of WHY we are lied to with these myths. And in the case of myths about men and women, the answer usually is “because women need to stay in their place.” 


I will hit some highlights from the chapter, but understand that there is so much more, and I strongly recommend purchasing and reading this book. 


Among the other facets of the myth, Fuentes looks at questions such as whether men and women are really all that biologically different. Answer: not really. Just a few highlights. While our reproductive systems are different, they actually start out the same, and diverge from there. You could technically change the sex of a fetus at a certain point in development. We all have the same hormones - and they work in the same way. The same nurturing hormones affect both men and women in the same circumstances. (Which is why I can snuggle babies as well as any woman.) Fuentes discusses intersex individuals - and the fact that they are fairly common. He looks at male and female brains. In all of this, the fact becomes clear that while there are sex differences, these are largely about the physical act of reproduction, and we are largely very similar. 


Fuentes asks us to examine whether differences in male and female are primarily biological, or whether they are actually primarily culture based - “patterned social differences between genders.” 


Also discussed is the question of monogamy. What is it, are humans actually monogamous? Is pair bonding the same as marriage? (Answer: definitely not.) And is the “nuclear family” the default for humans? (Answer: nope. It is a very recent cultural development and only in some cultures.) 


The foundation of Fuentes’ argument begins with the fundamental question: Just HOW different are men and women anyway? And in what ways? 


He starts with an obvious difference, that of average height. Indeed, males are on average taller than women. But, that doesn’t mean that every man is taller than every woman. Averages tell us nothing about a specific man or woman. There is actually a lot of overlap on size. (I would know - at 5’7”, I am shorter than an average man, and shorter than a lot of women I know.) 


From there, Fuentes notes that height is one of the characteristics of sex that has the least overlap. In the overwhelming majority of other traits that have been studied, the overlap is far greater. (See below.) 


Fuentes notes that even on the characteristic with the least overlap - genitalia - there is still some overlap. And there is even more overlap in chromosomes (which leads to a great discussion of intersex characteristics.) There is also an excellent look at the myths surrounding reproduction. Specifically, the idea that women invest a lot in reproduction, while all men do is produce cheap sperm, and that therefore men are promiscuous, while women want commitment, not sex. (Both are…not true in practice.) Because human children require years of parental - and community - investment, both sexes have an incentive to bring children into the world in a way that maximizes the chance of survival and thriving - and that means both supportive parents and a supportive community. (Hillary Clinton was absolutely correct about that, regardless of what right wingers wish to believe.) Because we are social creatures, the entire social context drives reproductive behavior. 


Males cannot simply walk up to females and inseminate them. In social organisms, especially complex ones like humans, mating is part of a larger social reality and thus the behavior, the costs, and the contexts of reproduction are tied to a variety of factors, not just eggs and sperm. 


Although not discussed in the book, I want to point out that this is why attempts to boost birth rates have largely been unsuccessful. Banning abortion and contraception (in places as diverse as Iran and Romania) hasn’t succeeded in arresting the fall of birth rates - the larger social context and the realities of costs and benefits of children in a post-agrarian world are far stronger than authoritarian policies. 


Going back to the overlap of characteristics, Fuentes discusses a 2005 psychological and physical trait survey that looked at dozens of studies over the prior 25 years that involved sex differences. The results were fascinating. For most characteristics, the differences were minor, even at the level of average. Unlike physical size, the overlap was far greater than not. I have reproduced the graph below. Note that the one on the left is for physical size. The other shows an overlap where d=.35. (If you understand statistics, that will make sense. Otherwise, just understand that .35 is the difference between what are considered “small” and “moderate.” 


Fully 77% of the tested characteristics were below .35, meaning that those had even more overlap than the graph on the right. I am not kidding. For most of these characteristics, the overlap was nearly complete, which means that sex/gender differences are literally meaningless for most traits. There are exceptions, of course. Specifically: grip strength, sprinting, throwing, and frequency of masturbation. Slightly over the line toward moderate was mental rotation of objects. (Interesting to me because both my wife and I are above average on mental rotation - and our children likewise appear to be very good at that. In any case, one wonders how much that has or will change as females are taught math with the expectation that they will be good at it.) Also fascinating is that this is just one aspect of spacial skills - men have no advantage over women on mapping skills or spacial memory. 


One more thing that was interesting refers back to the previous chapter: males are more likely to express physical aggression, while females are more likely to express indirect aggression - something that is highly linked to cultural expectations. 


From there, Fuentes examines why we see gender differences in society, if we are all fairly similar in abilities and traits. The answer is pretty obvious: culture and gendered expectations. The discussion of the difference between sex and gender (and the way they are entangled) is outstanding. Gender is most certainly not a binary either, even less so than sex. Because gender is a constellation of expected behaviors and traits, most humans fall somewhere on the continuum. Very few display “total masculinity” or “total femininity” - even in subcultures like the one I grew up in, where the gender dichotomy is rigidly and sometimes viciously enforced. 


The way the gendered expectations play out is that when a woman displays traits or behaviors that are culturally associated with maleness, she is “acting like a man.” (My wife does this a lot, by the way. She literally tested out during our premarital counseling as 90% male, while I tested about 60%.) And, of course, a man who displays “feminine” traits is acting like a woman. I know this from experience - I’m a strongly cishet guy who plays violin, grows flowers, loves poetry, snuggles cats and babies, and isn’t into competition particularly. 


Bottom line: the stereotypes arise from cultural gender role expectations, not anything biological in being male or female. 


How did these cultural roles arise? Fuentes acknowledges that he cannot go into great detail, but essentially a few physical differences started the ball rolling, so to speak, and culture took it from there, far beyond the physical reality. These cultural beliefs are not static, however, and have changed - for the better in my opinion - in more recent time. While no country in the world has yet achieved full gender equality, alas, many countries have trended in the direction of equality over the last few hundred years. Fuentes also points out that because males have and continue to hold most of the political power, they have been able to maintain this dominance - keeping women in their place, essentially. 


The section on sexual behavior was fascinating, and revealed some unexpected truths. Let’s start with the bottom line:


Over the last three decades sufficient overviews of human mating patterns and sexual behavior have emerged to resoundingly demonstrate that most humans, today and in our evolutionary past, did not mate monogamously across their life span. But many individuals do have one or more relatively monogamous sexual pair bonds during their lifetimes.


Also, most societies today (and in the past) legally sanction polygynous as well as monogamous marriage systems. And even within monogamous marriage, there is plenty of polygamous mating going on. This should surprise exactly no one. Humans are relatively monogamous, but not truly monogamous. 


Fuentes also points out that the idea that marriage and romance are connected is relatively recent. It stems from the 16th Century, and is mostly limited to the Judeo-Christian-Muslim religions. Interesting. 


I should also mention his use of the term “pair bonding.” This is a concept I hadn’t run across before, but it makes a lot of sense. At the molecular level, so to speak, humans bond in pairs. One person to one person. From there, webs of social relationships are formed. Pair bonding is decidedly non-exclusive, because the bonding isn’t the same as sexuality. I myself have and have had, many pair bonds over my lifetime. With my parents, with my siblings, with friends, with mentors, and so on. A social pair bond is the natural state of humanity, so to speak. Pair bonding can also be sexual, but confusing a social and a sexual pair bond is problematic. 


Just to illustrate that, we all probably know married couples who have a social pair bond that is important to them, but not a sexual pair bond. (Bill and Hillary Clinton come to mind in this regard - and she was blamed for it, not him, even though he was the one playing around.) I could also see that if, in the future, my wife no longer wanted a sexual pair bond, I would still want a social pair bond, because the friendship part of our relationship is strong. (Not saying I would want to lose the sexual pair bond, of course, and neither would she. But making the distinction.) 


Suffice it to say that by the time Fuentes gets through with this topic, it becomes obvious that sexuality is a complicated mess, and not reducible to either gender stereotypes or easy answers. Sexual behavior, from promiscuity to same-sex behavior is spread across a wide spectrum, and there are fewer differences between men and women than you would expect. Just to name one, statistically men prefer more sexual partners, but this is driven entirely by the outliers at the extreme. The median preference for men and women was essentially the same - and very close to “one lifetime sexual partner is best.” A few horny dudes skew the numbers. 


The question of differences in approach to sexual behavior between the sexes - to the extent it exists - has always been strongly connected to culture. Humans are actually highly sexual compared to other animals (we don’t need females to be in heat, for example…) and the actual behaviors are highly connected to the cultural context. 


These strong similarities in male and female bodies and behavior do not mean that gender differences are not very real and very important. Just like the concept of socially constructed races, the perception and expectation of gender differences are part of all cultures and impact individuals and society. We all experience these patterns of gender difference - and they can fool us into thinking that men and women are so very different by nature. 

Different cultures do it in different ways, but certain patterns are relatively consistent. Males tend to control economic and political resources, not because they are evolved to do so or that women are less capable of doing so, but because of the social and historical paths that have favored patriarchy. Women are associated with the domestic sphere and children due to their giving birth and lactating, not due to any inability of males generally to care for offspring. There is no biological mandate that only females care for young and only males care for economics and politics. In fact, it is highly likely that it is the cooperation between parents and other people in the raising of young that enabled humans to be as successful as we are today. 


I have spent a lot of time caring for my children over the years - from the age of three months, I had each of them alone overnight, so I am a badass at midnight feedings, comforting sick infants, keeping toddlers from destroying themselves along with the house, and all the other things that go along with raising young. I do not consider myself to be inferior to a woman in that regard - and there is no evidence that men general are inferior. My generation - and the next - has shown that men are indeed nurturing, and our actual behavior is sure a far cry from that of my parents’ or especially my grandparents’ generations. It’s cultural, not biological. And at the core, the Culture Wars™ are all about that question of political, economic, and social equality for women. The Fundamentalists do not want equality, and intend to use the force of government to deny it to women, by any means necessary. 


The final chapter is a discussion of how we proceed beyond the myths. There are some amazing quotes in this brief section. 


This book explores some of the complicated patterns of becoming and being human, with a focus on the issues of race, aggression, and sex. Hopefully, after reading it you are less likely to passively accept popular notions about what it means to be human. Simply asking if there is a human nature is the wrong question. Rather, we need to ask what do humans actually do? How do we vary and how are we same? And, most important, how do we best explain the results of these questions? We have to be ready for multiple valid explanations and intertwined and complicated answers. A one-size-fits-all approach is insufficient but it sure helps propagate myths. These myths limit our abilities to ask good questions about who we are and why we do what we do. 


The one-size-fits-all is indeed insufficient and deeply harmful, but it is very attractive for those who want certainty and a formula to follow. That was, after all, the attraction of Gothard and Dobson and the rest of the religious and cultural charlatans that deceived my parents and many like them. That simple, infallible explanation for everything - it was always just a myth. A convenient myth. So why are these myths so popular? 


Why were we lied to? A lie is generally defined as a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood, something intended or serving to convey a false impression; imposture; or an inaccurate or false statement. Much in the common myths about human nature is a lie.  The popular media, advertisements, Web sites, even academic publications can contain large amounts of misinformation and falsehoods associated with the basic ideas about race, aggression, and sex. I like to think that in most cases these lies are not on purpose. That is, the individuals arguing that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, that we are savage beasts by nature, and that race is underpinned by biology, actually believe what they are saying. They may believe it because it is a core part of the schemata or they might be doing research that provides some support for one part of the myth or they may simply be reading a series of books, articles, and Web sites that all push the same concept and thus are convinced. Schemata, inertia, historical precedence, and ignorance are very powerful: it is often difficult to challenge the status quo.


This largely describes my parents and others like them. They genuinely believe the lies. And, as Fuentes notes, the lies are a core part of their schemata - or, as we Fundies were wont to say, “Worldview.” The inferiority and subordination of women is a core belief, as is the “total depravity of man.” And, unfortunately, as it turns out, the inherent superiority of white people and white American culture to everyone else. Challenging the status quo is indeed incredibly difficult. Ultimately, when faced with the fact that belief in these myths was destroying our relationship, that it was hurting us, they chose the myths. That makes me deeply sad. 


Sadness, however, is not what I feel about the false teachers that deceived them. Fuentes gets it right about them, although he is far more generous to religion than I would be:


However, there is a more nefarious reality in some cases of adamant supporters of these myths. Think about the arguments against racial or gender equality over the past few centuries that have been pushed by scientists, politicians, and even religious leaders with a specific intent: to support particular myths of difference by showing so-called scientific, and/or theological proof of superiority/inferiority. This involves manipulating actual information and data, even to the point of outright lying. People with particular biases and agendas can alter or selectively manipulate information and beliefs to make sure they support the appropriate outcomes. This can then cascade into legal and social issues. 


I believe that most religious and political leaders know they are lying about these myths. And I believe they lie because they very much want to put women and minorities (racial, sexual, and country of origin) back “in their place” below white males. And propagate the myth of violence so as to justify their own violent behavior. 


One more comment from this section, and that is another reason that the myths are so appealing. 


Another important reason why misinformation, and even overt lies, remain prominent in the public mind is simplicity versus complexity in explanations. To counter what we think of, and experience, as everyday reality requires deconstruction of the assumptions, assessment of the assumptions, and then refutation of the assumptions - whereas supporting popular myths simply relies on reinforcing what you already “know,” thanks to your schemata. 


This is inertia at work, and it seems to particularly affect the older generations - they developed their “worldview” decades ago, and no amount of new information, or cultural change will change their minds. Rather, as their myths are shown to be lies, they double down on the myths, and become increasingly anti-democracy, anti-progress, anti-change. (Yes, there are exceptions, and those people are my heroes and role models. I want to remain mentally flexible as I age!) 


The thing is, fighting misinformation and lies is hard work. Challenging one’s own assumptions is far from easy - it has been a harrowing process for me over the last 30 years, to say the least, and it has hardly been linear. But ultimately, it is rewarding. As someone famous once said, “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Lies are shackles. Which is why the Father of Lies loves them so much. To be truly free, we must reject the myths, and embrace what is true. 


This book is phenomenal, and I strongly recommend it for everyone, particularly those who crave a more constructive approach to the cultural and political wars that bedevil us. 




More on the complexity of truth versus the simplicity of myths:


Doug Muder writes a fantastic blog on current events. One of his best is this explanation of what he calls the Conservative Fantasy World - the world of myths where right wing policies don’t hurt people. Here are the posts on this, which I think fit well with this book:


Five Pretty Lies and the Ugly Truths They Hide

No Victims Allowed




A personal story on gender essentialism:


Back when our kids were small, and we were getting FAR too little sleep, my wife and I went through a rough patch. My wife ended up getting a copy of Love and Respect, one of the many gender essentialist books popular in the Fundamentalist/Evangelical subculture. The fact that there are so many is indicative that they are like cold remedies: there are so many because NONE of them work. 


The ironic thing is, the book actually did help our marriage. But in a way that the author would be shocked to find out. In essence, my wife realized that the book was right: one of us was craving love, and the other, respect. 


But it was ME who was craving love, and HER who was craving respect. 


Oh shit, that doesn’t fit with the gender dichotomy, does it? But it was true. While I believe that all healthy relationships require both love and respect, different humans require different proportions of these. My greatest fear was (and still is if I am honest) that I am unloveable, particularly by an attractive and desirable woman. Yes, this was something I learned as a child - I knew I was short and unattractive, and combined with family dynamics, this made me fear I would never find a spouse. Unless I “settled” for whatever pathologically needy woman would take me. So yeah, this is something we had to work through, for me to recognize and accept the reality of love from my wife. 


She, on the other hand, needs respect, and she cannot have a relationship with someone who refuses to give her respect. Yes, she enjoys love. But without respect, it is just a pat on the head from a condescending person who thinks she is inferior because of some combination of age and gender. 


So, she remembers to let me know she loves me. And I remember to make sure she receives the respect she has thoroughly earned. 

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