Busting Myths About Human Nature

Race, monogamy, and other lies they told you.

“I Wouldn’t Have Seen It if I Hadn’t Believed It”

Checking ourselves when thinking about human nature.

My graduate advisor, Phyllis Dolhinow, once started a lecture on understanding behavior by warning us not to fall into the trap of “I would not have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.” A fair warning indeed, for if we already know how the world “is,” it’s hard to ask good questions and be open to a range of answers.

As humans, we grow up in a complex social world and acquire through life experience family, religion, schooling, peers, social media, etc…, the schemata, or world view, that we see our daily lives through. Or, in other words, we wear a pair of “reality goggles.” Our perceptions and expectations of what is real, and normal, pre-interprets the world around us and gives us the ability to move through life without having to analyze and critically dissect every interaction and experience we have.

This can have some very good outcomes. We want to be able to do things like drive a car, greet people, shop for food, and behave in a socially appropriate manner in public more or less on auto-pilot. But this same perceptual auto-pilot also comes with a suite of assumptions about what is natural for humans. So when we ask questions about why humans do what we do, we often assume we already know the answers, even if not consciously.

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Let me give you an example. If a man grabs a baseball and throws by flicking it forward from the elbow, we are more likely than not to say he “throws like a girl.” But we are wrong: he throws like a human who has not been trained to throw a baseball.

Throwing a small round object by flexing the arm at the elbow is fully in-line with how human upper limb anatomy functions. Winding the arm back and throwing from the shoulder is not: it has to be learned (think about all the injuries throwing like that causes to pitchers).

What does this have to do asking questions about human nature? We see this guy “throwing like a girl” because we assume that men naturally throw balls and women do not. Just like we assume many things about what is “natural” for men and women. But many of these assumed differences are either wrong or overblown (I’ll cover some in future blogs).

This guy, like many girls, was throwing like a human untrained in baseball, not “like a girl.” We saw a sex difference aspect to this behavior because we believed it was there, but not because it was there biologically speaking.

Let’s stay with this sex focus. Many of you have heard about differences in the desire for multiple sexual partners; men want many and women want few. Also, many studies report men want to have more sex than women. The most common explanation is that men have evolved to seek many sex partners and women just a few high quality ones.

OK, but the interesting thing is that when you control for political, economic, and educational gender equality in your interview pool the differences get smaller. Also, in the USA, if you compare median versus mean number of desired partners (the actual middle number versus the average), men and women come out very close. Male averages are higher because more men tend to report extremely high numbers of desired partners. Is this really just a reflection of our evolutionary history or could social expectations and gender roles also have something to do with how people answer questions about desire?

Which brings me to the punchline: when you look into actual sexual behavior, not reported desire, men and women come out very similar. So, we might be “seeing” sexuality differences as a reflection of an evolved human nature, but the real pattern and explanations might not be so clear.

When thinking about human nature, when hearing news stories, or reading articles and blogs on the subject, we should always check ourselves and ask: was the question asked in such a way that predetermined the answer? Are we ignoring alternative explanations? Are our specific “reality goggles” getting in the way of seeing reality?

There is a great quote attributed to Einstein “A man should look for what is, and not what he thinks should be.” Obviously, I’d change “man” to “human,” but you get the point. We need to be as critical and open minded as possible when thinking, and talking, about human nature.

Don’t see because you believe. Rather, just try to understand. Be ready to accept that things might be messy, complicated, and not quite the way you expected. As my insightful colleague Wally Ruston says “try not to be wed to one outcome.”

Here are some good readings on patterns of sexuality and their complexities:

M. G. Alexander and T. D. Fisher (2002), Truth and consequences: Using the bogus pipeline to examine sex differences in self-reported sexuality, Journal of Sex Research 40(1): 27- 35.

Anne Fausto-Sterling (2000) Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality

D. Herbenick, M. Reece, V. Schick, S. A. Sanders, B. Dodge, and J. D. Fortenberry (2010), Sexual behavior in the united states: Results from a national probability sample of men and women ages 14–94, Journal of Sexual Medicine 7(suppl. 5): 255–65

W. C. Pedersen, L. C. Miller, A. D. Putcha-Bhagavatula, and Y. Yang (2002), Evolved sex differences in the number of partners desired? The long and the short of it, Psychological Science 13(2): 157–61.

D. P. Schmitt (2005), Sociosexuality from Argentina to Zimbabwe: A 48-nation study of sex, culture, and strategies of human mating, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28: 247–311.

Agustín Fuentes, Ph.D, is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.

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