Busting Myths About Human Nature

Race, monogamy, and other lies they told you.

Hook-ups, Horror, and Human Evolution

It’s a good thing when pop culture and good science get together

Anyone reading my blogs and articles immediately notices that I think being human is messy…and this is not a bad thing. Humans have amazingly rich lives and ridiculously complex social and evolutionary histories that structure the way we see the world: we are simultaneously biological and cultural. There is no such thing as nature versus nurture: we are naturenurtural.

While a large percentage of researchers (and science writers) give this view a nod, they tend to end up favoring a “nature” (usually dubbed “evolutionary”) or a “nurture” (labeled “culture”) bias when writing about topics close to the public eye/heart. I realize it is usually easier to do things that way, and most of us generally want things explained in reasonably straightforward manners.   Unfortunately, simplistic and linear narratives offered up for who we are and why we do what we do are usually wrong.

That is why I am excited by a recent issue of the Review of General Psychology. The articles in the issue have the goal to “analyze popular culture, thereby finding an ample variety of psychological principles and insights into human character.” Generally, I would shudder at this premise as it is often an invitation to do one-dimensional analyses of popular ideas (frequently myths of human nature) and use simplistic selectionist logic to “support” them. However, this is not the case for many of the articles in this volume (some, unfortunately, do fall into that realm). Best of all two of the finest articles touch on some of my favorite pop-topics: horror and sex!

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The article “Sexual Hookup Culture: a review “ by Garcia, Reiber, Massey, and Merriwether is an good example of high quality integration of pop and diverse theory. They do a terrific job of integrating popular perspectives with real data, and acknowledge the complexities behind obtaining and assessing data about sexual activity and perspectives.  

Garcia et al. approach their topic open to diverse theoretical orientations and are quite explicit about the need for broad and non-reductionist explanatory toolkit. They conclude that “Both evolutionary and social forces are likely facilitating hookup behavior, and together may help explain the rates of hookups, motivations for hooking up, perceptions of hookup culture, and the conflicting presence and lack of sex differences observed in various studies" and opine “This review suggests that uncommitted sex, now being explored from a variety of disciplinary and theoretical perspectives, is best understood from a biopsychosocial perspective that incorporates recent research trends in human biology, reproductive and mental health, and sexuality studies.” In short, they do good science and note that the results are messy and require cross-disciplinary and engaged theoretical treatment. Best of all, they write in a very readable fashion with no fear of slipping in popular lingo and references now and again (they open with Katy Perry lyrics).

In “Monsters Evolve: A Biocultural Approach to Horror Stories” Mathias Clasen also does great job examining the allure of the horror film genre. Although one could easily fall into an overly simplistic selectionist explanation, Clasen resists and makes the case that “a biocultural approach, one that recognizes evolutionary underpinnings and cultural variation” is the best way to tackle this fascinating popular phenomena.

Clasen uses an approach that integrates humanistic and social scientific perspectives with human evolutionary histories and the modeling of adaptive scenarios. He argues for this more complicated, but ultimately more effective approach, as “It avoids the pitfall of unnecessary monocausal reductionism, both in constructivist and evolutionary approaches: An attempt to explain horror fiction by appealing only to biological hard-wiring is as futile as appealing only to cultural contingency. Only a fully integrated biocultural approach is up to the task of making sense of the monsters that prowl our storyscapes.” Music to my ears. It is a fun read and has a great graph from a digital humanities project demonstrating the relative popularity of vampires, werewolves and zombies over the last 200 years!

There are other worthwhile reads in this issue, the overview of evolutionary psychology and popular culture by Gad Saad (with an interesting discussion of Psychology Today blogs) for example. And, although I do not agree with the assertion that “Chris Rock is funny because he evokes our evolved psychology,” the article about evolutionary psychology as told though the comedy of Chris Rock by Barry X, Kuhle is a fun read for many reasons.  

There is, of course, a cluster of the simplistic and reductionist approaches in some of these articles, and I wish that the authors would read a bit more broadly in the evolutionary, psychological and anthropological literature. But I do applaud the attempt to engage with, and use, popular culture as a valid site for analyses.  

Albert Einstein once asked us to us to see what is, as opposed to what we already believe to be true.  Humans are shaped by our evolutionary histories and we are born into a human altered world of inherited ecologies, cultural patterns, and nutritional and social contexts which are intrinsically entangled with our biological structures even before the moment that we leave the womb. This process is what we call biocultural development: we begin, become, and are human as naturenurtural beings, as the anthropologist Jon Marks eloquently lays out. There is not only one way to become, or be, human, and there are a number of possible outcomes to the human experience. The pop-culture world is a great place for good science…it can help us try to figure out why we do what we do.

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

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