Anthropology and the Assault on Common Sense: Critical Thinking About Being Human Is a Useful Hobby

08/31/2012 02:50 pm ET | Updated Oct 31, 2012

By Agustin Fuentes

Recently, the nominee for vice president on the Republican ticket, Paul Ryan, talking about human rights, stated, "Our rights come from nature and God, not from government." Thinking as an anthropologist, one would be forced to ask Ryan, "What do you mean by 'nature,' and whose God are you talking about?" Rather than assuming that there is one way to be human, one set of human behaviors that lie in our genes or our culture, and one way to experience the spiritual and transcendental, anthropologists know that there are many ways to be and become human.

An important way to ask about human behavior, why humans do what we do, is to first question what we assume is "normal" or "natural" behavior. The renowned anthropologist Clifford Geertz told us that common sense "can be questioned, disputed, affirmed, developed, formalized, contemplated, even taught, and it can vary dramatically from one people to the next. It is, in short, a cultural system.... Here, as elsewhere, things are what you make of them." Much of what we think of as "natural," what we consider intuitive knowledge and common sense, rarely emerges from some inner biological core, subconsciously telling us what is "true." Rather it is more likely the result of the experiences we have had throughout the course of our lives and the way in which these events interact with and shape or influence our bodies and minds.

More than 80 years ago one of the core figures in American anthropology, Franz Boas, noted this and saw that we are influenced by the world around us and that, at the same time, our actions shape and influence that world, as well. We are biological organisms, but the totality of the human experience cannot be reduced to either specific innate (biological/nature) or external (environmental/nurture) influences. Rather, it is a synthesis of both; we are naturenurtural. The anthropologist Tim Ingold tells us that "to exist as a sentient being, people must already be situated in a certain environment and committed to the relationships this entails," and these relationships are built up and modified over the course of our lives.

Unfortunately, rather than being open to, and interested in, this perspective, many people get uncomfortable when challenged to be critical of their common sense. Realizing that what we take for granted as a given in the world is actually a hodge-podge of reality, belief, and experience melded together into what only feels like the truth (and varies from person to person and culture to culture) is a hard fact to face. Few of us want to accept that we know much less than we think, or that the basis for many of our actions and perceptions are not "natural" but naturenurtural: emergent properties of how we live our lives.

For example, many of us watched the Olympics recently, and a large percentage of folks looked at the "races" of the athletes and expected to be able to predict their success in different events. This perspective assumes that there are indeed biological categories of humans called races and that these races differ in behavior and ability in sports (and other things). This is not true, but it is a very common-sense assumption based on the context of our culture and everyday lives. Our experiences (in the U.S.A., in this case) tell us that race is a real biological thing and that there are clear patterns of difference between the races, but if you look closely, this is not at all what you see. Look at the bodies, colors, and origins of the athletes, and it is not as clear as one might expect. Examine how race played out in the gold-medal basketball game between Spain and the U.S.A.? There were a lot of white guys on the court who are very good and can jump extremely well. What about China winning 10 medals in swimming and five in track and field? What about Russia's and Turkey's wins in the track and field areas? Sure, many individuals from a few African countries did well in some of the track and field events, and many Europeans did well in the equestrian events, and Asians did dominate table tennis. But these results are not about racial differences in behavior or ability, not some reflection of our nature; rather they are about training, culture, geography, biological variation, economics, history, and context. Being human is complicated, and simple explanations (and assumptions), even for something as seemingly easy to understand as sports behavior, are rarely accurate. So imagine trying to truly understand and explain where human rights come from (and, for that matter, what they are).

Why is this kind of anthropological approach to human behavior and perception especially important now? Because of Facebook "addiction," the upcoming elections, and the fact that the enormous array of informational challenges we face on a daily basis is increasing. We all need an effective, and robust, toolkit to interpret this reality. Anthropology can be of assistance. Introductory textbooks and popular books by anthropologists and some highly regarded websites (such as this one and this one) can help. But we all have to realize, and accept, that the process of becoming and being human is messy, and it takes a lot of work to try to direct your own path in life. One must be an active learner and a critical thinker, always. Otherwise, we are doomed to sit back and ride the flow of common sense... and if you do this, beware of the hidden rocks, the perilous falls around the bend, and the particularly dangerous undertow of complacency.


Tim Ingold (2000) The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill London: Routledge.

Clifford Geertz (1983) Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic Books.

Agustín Fuentes, trained in zoology and anthropology, is a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. His research delves into the how and why of being human. From chasing monkeys in the jungles and cities of Asia, to exploring the lives of our evolutionary ancestors, to examining what people actually do across the globe, Professor Fuentes is interested in both the big questions and the small details of what makes humans and our closest relatives tick.