On Being with Krista Tippett

Agustín Fuentes

This Species Moment

Last Updated

November 25, 2020

We’ve realized in 2020 that the way we’ve organized culture — from the economy to race to work — could be done radically differently. We’ve been modeling our life together on “survival of the fittest” long after science itself moved on from that. And we’re learning to see that in every sphere of life we inhabit ecosystems. Agustín Fuentes brings spacious insight into all of this as a biological and evolutionary anthropologist, exploring how humans behave, function, and change together. In this conversation, he is full of refreshingly creative and practical fodder for the necessary reinvention ahead.

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Agustín Fuentes is a professor of anthropology at Princeton University. He’s authored or edited more than 20 books, most recently Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being.


Krista Tippett: As a scientist on frontiers of how humans behave, and function together, and change together — Agustín Fuentes brings spacious perspective to what I’ve taken to calling our species moment. There are many ways to begin the story of 2020, and one of them would be this: all together, we remembered that civilization is built on bodies breathing in proximity to other bodies. Enough of us started asking human questions of our life together. We started experiencing that the way we’ve done much — from the economy to race to work — could be done radically differently. What Agustín Fuentes knows is refreshingly creative and practical fodder for the necessary reinvention ahead. For we have been modeling our life together on “survival of the fittest” long after science itself moved on from that. We’ve been organizing around parts even as we’re learning to see that in every sphere of life we inhabit ecosystems.

Agustín Fuentes: This great ecosystem dynamics, these different processes pushing, pulling, melding, shifting across the landscape. Again, it’s messy; it’s actually hard to explain, but once you start to get into it, it makes so much more sense with the actual world.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

Agustín Fuentes has done work in primatology but specializes in biological and evolutionary anthropology, based most recently at Notre Dame and Princeton. He’s delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures and written and edited more than 20 books, mostly on human nature — from belief and creativity to race and wisdom. He was born in Santa Barbara, California.

Tippett: So Agustín, I feel that the kind of questions you ask in your work in these various fields you work in, around how humans work and why we work and what we do and why we do it, are really all variations on the core question of what it means to be human. And so you take this up scientifically, and yet it overlaps with moral and spiritual and theological inquiry. And I’m just curious about how you would trace the roots of this kind of thinking and questioning that you do, in your childhood, in the earliest background of your life.

Fuentes: I think about this maybe once a month, or maybe more frequently, because it comes up. I’m in the midst of some kind of project or research, or thinking about evolution or human behavior or some of the significant social problems of the day, and I ask myself, why — [laughs] why do I care so much? And I think a lot of it has to do with my family.

Tippett: Your family — you would’ve had family in different countries, I suspect.

Fuentes: Different countries, different languages, different socioeconomic areas —

Tippett: Tell me a little bit about that makeup of your immediate family.

Fuentes: [laughs] So my father’s from Spain, from Madrid, and my mother’s from New York. And we have friends and family spread around multiple countries. And I was lucky enough to spend time, while growing up, with my family in Spain, and also to spend time with my family in the United States, who were very different — came from different worlds and different patterns. And then in the United States, I lived in Oakland and San Antonio, Texas, and Berkeley, Richmond, California; I’ve lived in Washington State, Indiana. All of those variations give you insight into the different types of people, patterns, places, but also the sameness.

Tippett: I love the way, someplace, you described that what you got excited about about anthropology is that it was a space that linked the bones and muscles and gut and DNA — human DNA, and behavior, and didn’t detach that from culture and history and power.

Fuentes: Exactly. The whole idea that, for us, to really understand the human, you have to understand how muscles and bones and genetics and the circulatory system work, but you have to also understand how the neurobiologies interface with the perceptions, the histories, the social experiences, the languages, and the daily lives of people. And it’s that conflux of events, that ongoing dynamic, that really draws me. And it’s messy. It’s messy to be human, but it’s really fascinating.

Tippett: So I have said, in this last year … it’s this extraordinary thing that we, on some global sense, have had an experience together. I’d love to hear your reaction, if I had been at a dinner party with you when that phrase, “species moment,” was put out into the air — I’d love to know, where does that take you? What’s your reaction? How would you start talking to me about that?

Fuentes: The first thing I’d say is, it’s a multispecies moment; that this year, 2020 — and I’m gonna talk mostly about humans, but I can’t initiate this conversation without nodding to the fact that we’ve partnered with another species, this virus, SARS-CoV-2. And it came and joined us in a world that we have largely created, modified, and changed. So the species moment for humans is how we navigate this multispecies relationship that we have largely, but not singly, formed.

Tippett: It seems to me, it strikes me as I dive into your work, that the COVID-19 pandemic, in many ways, is such an illustration of what you call “the human niche”: the way humanity exists in the world. Would you lay that out, what that human niche…?

Fuentes: I wish COVID-19 was not such a great example of everything I’ve been arguing about. [laughs] It really would be better if it was just some minor thing in that whole process.

Tippett: I want to read something that you wrote, just to illustrate how my mind made that connection. “Humans evolved as beings whose needs to touch and be touched, to converse, debate, and laugh together, to smile and flirt with one another, and to interact in groups, are central to healthy lives.”

Fuentes: And those are data-driven assertions. That’s based on our physiology, on what we understand about human psychology and social behavior, about human economic and social and societal structures, and about human evolution. Being together, being with one another, is not just about a social context or a psychological context. It’s also central to the way our physiologies, our bodies, our circulatory and digestive systems function. And so that’s a baseline. And that has been really successful for us.

But it turns out, [laughs] for transmission of something like SARS-CoV-2, that’s also the perfect landscape. We are really a perfect species for an incredible jumpy, [laughs] easily transmittable virus.

Tippett: I sometimes feel like — science — we get the science we’re ready for. And there’s something so interesting — interesting at a remove; also terrifying, close up — that we’ve just really, in the fields you’re working in and touching with your work, we’ve really just come to this point of understanding, not just taking in the notion of ecosystem as the way life works for all species, life on this planet works, but also that our own bodies are ecosystems.

Fuentes: It’s amazing. There’s this notion, and a number of just incredible scholars are doing really good work on this, but this idea of something called the “holobiont” — that organisms are not —

Tippett: Say it again?

Fuentes: The holobiont. And this is this basic concept, demonstrated in a very, very rigorous way, that organisms are, ourselves, things, cells that are made up of our own DNA and proteins and all of that — plus thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of other organisms and their DNA, simultaneously. So we are ourselves ecosystems, as you said. And the idea that these holobionts move around in the world, interacting, shedding, sharing, overlapping, fusing — it sounds like a science fiction movie.

Tippett: So we’re the holobionts.

Fuentes: Yes. Yes. We are holobionts.

Tippett: Is it true — I think I read somewhere recently that there are more microbial cells in a human body than there are human cells.

Fuentes: It’s sort of debated, how you want to do that. But put it this way — if you were to suck out of the body everything that is human, that is clearly just us, you’d still have a very strong outline and much of the body filled in.

Tippett: And even how — this is in second part of that quote from you that I just read — “the very functioning of neurobiological systems, of the hormones and enzymes circulating through arteries, guts, and other organs, is tied to human social connections and relationships to others.” But even things like the gut and like the gut biome, which is now described as the “second brain” — that’s very new information .

Fuentes: It’s new, but actually, if you go around the world and you talk to people everywhere — cultures across the planet today and, I bet, in the past — they’ll tell you that when you eat certain things or go through certain kinds of stresses, bad things happen, they’re gonna tell you that things are disordered, things are out of whack. So they may not know specifically that it was lactobacillus populations in your gut dropping out that’s affecting this physiological system, but they knew there was something wrong in the body. And so I think what we’ve done, scientifically, is gotten better and better and better at disarticulating the pieces. And now the challenge for science is to put them back together in ways that are understandable and make sense, not just to the researchers but to everyone else.

Tippett: So talk to me about the social ecosystem of the human niche.

Fuentes: So if you think about a niche, a niche is a description of the way an organism makes a living in the world, and that world that it lives in, and their relationship. And so when you talk about humans, our niche is social, through and through. Humans are never really alone. Even when we’re by ourselves spatially, like sitting in a room, our thoughts are filled with others; our bodies are even potentially carrying the skin cells of others and a variety of other things. So we are always thinking with and about other people, even when we’re not with them. In fact, our resting neurobiological state, like when you’re at complete rest, the default state of the brain is social. It’s the same one that turns on for social interactions.

So that means that over evolutionary time, the bodies, the structures of being human have adapted to and integrated themselves into the system where the social is everything. The psychologist Michael Tomasello says this great phrase: “a fish is born expecting water; a human is born expecting culture.” And so if we step out and think of the culture, the social, all of that dynamics as the water we live and breathe and move in, and how it shapes us and we shape it, then that statement makes sense.

Tippett: It also just underscores why the disruption of the social, because of the pandemic, is so completely stressful to us on every single level, and at a physiological level, as well.

Fuentes: And I think this is — one of my great fears is that people are not paying enough attention to the psychophysiological, or more specifically put, the neuroendocrinological, the hormone physiology and brain impacts of what we’re doing now. This lack of connections, these distancings, even though they’re so important for overall health and for societal and economic health, we need to be aware that we have to find some way to keep social, because our bodies and our minds are being damaged by not being around other people, not touching other people. The most common thing I hear now, when I talk to people about what is it like, six, eight, nine months into this thing, and they say, “I miss hugging people.”

Tippett: But you’re saying that missing hugging people goes very deep; that it’s actually really reaching into us at a cellular level, that missing.
Fuentes: Yeah, and at a psychological level and at exactly the superficial level that “I just want to be near someone.” So I’m sure, as someone jokingly said, the dogs all got together and planned this, because dogs are probably getting more hugs on a daily basis.

Tippett: [laughs] That’s true — or evil cats.

Fuentes: Yes.

Tippett: I’m allergic to them, so they …

Fuentes: They might’ve just done it on purpose.

[music: “Arizona Moon” by Blue Dot Studios]

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with biological and evolutionary anthropologist Agustín Fuentes.

[music: “Arizona Moon” by Blue Dot Studios]

Tippett: You said a minute ago that science has to put us back together. So that’s true, what I said, “We get the science we’re ready for.” And on the other hand, on these cutting edges, we realize that every single culture around the world has this deep intelligence about guts. And so now the science catches up.

But it’s also true that evolutionary biology is another field that has itself evolved. You touch on that, and you’ve used the word “evolution” a few times in this conversation. Here’s something you wrote: “Evolution is not” — but this is an emergent understanding — “evolution is not about bigger, badder, or more beautiful winning the day. It does not stop at the perfect solution, nor is it goal-directed.” And that is out of sync with an older idea of evolution that is so deeply planted in our cultures and in the ways we do all kinds of things, including think about an economy.

Fuentes: Absolutely. So here’s just two things to point out. One is, what you said is absolutely true, in the general, popular, and unfortunately some scientists’ notion of evolution. They’re really out of step with what we know about how evolutionary processes work. But in actuality, if people go back and read Darwin and Wallace and actually read through a lot of evolutionary [laughs] theorists and biologists, you’ll find it’s much more complicated. It was never about the bigger, faster — the ones with the bigger teeth winning, or the fastest runners. It’s really complex —

Tippett: It was never just about winners and losers.

Fuentes: It was never just about winners and losers. And actually, it’s really a bunch of small tweaks and moves and shifts, and most of it’s quite boring, [laughs] from a structural thing; it’s not all sex and violence.

Tippett: Right. [laughs] Right.

Fuentes: But it is critical to understanding who we are and why we are the way we are. And so I think it’s a shame, and I think damaging to our societies, that we don’t have good evolutionary education in K through 12, in the younger age schools, and that we don’t involve —for example, there is no evolutionary biology in most medical schools and medical training. And that’s a little scary.

Tippett: So spin that out. How would that inform and illuminate what people are learning in medical school or practicing as physicians?

Fuentes: So think about when we talk about organs or organ systems. Right now most of medicine is built on a failure model: the idea that something’s broken, we go in there and fix it. When in fact, an evolutionary focus asks, what are the patterns and processes of variation in this system, and how do they work? That’s your baseline: what’s the variability; what’s the range going on here? And in that range, what’s the variability, and how do we modify these different systems together so that they come together and function well?

That’s very different from “what’s wrong? Let me target a place and fix that problem.” And it’s true, it’s very hard to deal with a lot of diseases in a holistic sense. But the baseline starting point should be there, and then we should move to the specifics. Again, I’m not knocking the incredible advances we’ve made in medical technologies and medical understandings. What I am knocking is the assumptions by many doctors, about what the human body is and about what human lives are like. And I think an evolutionary perspective would help that.

And I think evolutionary perspectives would help everyone, because you can see the interconnectedness of life and understand a little bit more about why systems work the way they do. And that doesn’t take any of the wonder away from life. It actually adds to it.

Tippett: That’s also all the way through Darwin.

I’ve had some wonderful conversations across the years with David Sloan Wilson, who’s one of the people who’s been on this edge of opening up imaginations about it being so much bigger than survival of the fittest.

But so just tell me, for example — how old are you?

Fuentes: I am 54.

Tippett: Fifty-four. So when you first started thinking about evolutionary biology — how have you watched the field, as you’ve interacted with it, change from maybe what you thought, growing up, if you thought about it?

Fuentes: So when I did, absolutely, think about it, and I remember some of the early stuff I read. I was really influenced, as so many were, by something like Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene, Robert Ardrey’s book about killer apes — this whole idea — Space Odyssey 2001, those apes finding the bone and smashing each over the head, this Hobbesian notion that you strip away the veneer of culture, there’s this competition and this aggressive animal. But you know what really started to push me away from that was, I started doing science. I started researching things and watching organisms. It had always struck me that humans weren’t nearly as bad, on average, as we think they are; that most people are actually doing great stuff all the time. We have an amazing capacity to be horrible, but day in, day out, most people are pretty cool with one another. So that struck me.

And then I started watching all these other animals, and I started noticing, wait, wait. This cost-benefit analysis, this winner-loser competition, that doesn’t seem to pan out. And then I started taking classes and reading, with really good evolutionary biologists, and they really spun my head around.

Tippett: They’ve totally moved away from that.

Fuentes: Yeah, and evolutionary biology itself, with something now called the “extended evolutionary synthesis”, is moving away from these simplistic, linear explanations of “progress” or change via competition over time, and just seeing, back to the beginning of our conversation, this great ecosystem dynamics, these different processes pushing, pulling, melding, shifting across the landscape. Again, it’s messy; it’s actually hard to explain, but once you start to get into it, it makes so much more sense with the actual world.

Tippett: I’m so struck, when I’m speaking with people like David Sloan Wilson and others who are looking at us in this way … There’s been the fascination with the dysfunction, the focus on the dysfunction, and there was the focus on what I think we would call our dysfunction, hyper-competitiveness. And now there’s this fascination with the human superpower of cooperation and how that’s what helped us survive, as much as fighting and winning.

Fuentes: So I wish we would stop with the binaries. It’s always like, “Well, no, it’s this!” “No, no, no, it’s totally not that. You’re completely wrong. It’s this!” And the problem is, that whole competition on one end and cooperation on the other, that’s a false dichotomy. Those things are not in opposition to one another. In fact, for humans, the best cooperators make the best competitors, [laughs] if you think about that.

Tippett: It’s a way to success.

Fuentes: Exactly. Exactly. And so I think what we really want to do is step back and say, what do we see? And that’s why I do focus on cooperation and collaboration as central, because the data are in. David Sloan Wilson has demonstrated this; many, many folks working in human evolutionary processes; people working with other primates. Collaboration and cooperation is central to social mammals, and extremely important for primates, and most important for humans. But that doesn’t mean we’re good all the time or that we’re running, holding hands, through the daisies for most of our evolutionary history. No, we hit each other over the head. It’s just on average, those who spent all their time hitting people over the head didn’t do very well.

Tippett: And even filling out the picture — this is from your Gifford Lectures — “meaning, imagination, and hope are essential to the human story, as are bones, genes, and ecologies.” [laughs] And that’s kind of what we’ve looked at when we’ve told this human story of who we are, who we deeply are.

Fuentes: I think hope is an important thing, too. And I think my interactions with theologians, with philosophers and other humanists, have helped me see how including the way in which people live their lives and commit themselves, how they believe, what they engage in — those things are critical in shaping the human niche. And anthropological research also demonstrates that the deep ethnographic moment — how people actually are in the world — shapes the way they see, they perceive, they interact, and those are evolutionarily relevant processes.

[music: “Idle Ways” by Blue Dot Studios]

Tippett: An illuminating book by David Sloan Wilson, who we just discussed, is This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. And after a short break, more with Agustín Fuentes.

[music: “Idle Ways” by Blue Dot Studios]

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with biological and evolutionary anthropologist Agustín Fuentes. We’re exploring his spacious perspective on human nature and capacities, his intelligence for working with the insights 2020 has laid bare. In a chapter on the economy in his most recent book, Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being, he underscores that every economy is an act of human imagination, literally believed into being. And modern economic theory was founded on a belief  that human beings are on balance rational and logical as economic actors. But this cannot be squared with the extreme inequity in wealth distribution across the planet in the early 21st century, or with the disconnect of the stock market with human well-being across the pandemic.

Tippett: We touched on COVID-19, the virus, and this is also part of the human niche as you describe it. Then there’s the incredible economic fallout of the response to this virus. And it’s also a moment — this moment was upon us, but it’s even more upon us now, and I think this will deepen as we move into next year — that there’s something profoundly out of whack in the way we do an economy.

And this, the perspective that you bring, is an interesting and, I think, a refreshing way to look at it, because the discussion that gets had becomes very partisan, and actually quite emotional. But just to point out, as you do, that we have this system that actually is based on an idea about how human beings behave, that is simply not true —

Fuentes: I think something that’s really important to point out is that everyone says, “Well, communism failed.” Yes. Soviet communism failed miserably. That doesn’t mean that American capitalism is working wonderfully. Those two things are actually not even related.

Tippett: Right. Again, it’s a false binary.

Fuentes: So let’s get rid of that binary, and let’s ask ourselves, how does our economy work? Are people getting paid the level, the value of the quality of their work? Is there equal access to different things? These questions, as you said, have been going on — for example, in the United States over the last century, there’s been this incredible dynamic of thinking about these kind of economic processes. But now I think you’re right, I think people are saying, wait a minute. How did we get here?

Tippett: Something that you point at that I really appreciate is that why we don’t behave as rational economic actors — because you are about understanding why and how we actually do things — is not because we’re stupid, but because we’re social.

Fuentes: Exactly.

Tippett: There’s this sentence from your writing that — I had to think hard about it. But you said, “We willingly accept losses as often as gains, in exchanges. The reason is that for the majority of humans” — because classic economic theory would say that we would have an intolerance for loss. But you said, “For the majority of humans, exchanges are not about profit, but about making and keeping social connections.” And I had to think about that, because I think a lot of the spending, a lot of the loss that I do, I would think about things like clothing and face creams, or supporting my favorite restaurants in lockdown, doing a lot more takeout; spending more money on food in that way. But then, when I thought about it, those are actually social acts, right? That’s about me being a social creature.

Fuentes: Exactly. These exchanges, these back-and-forth — this is about our sociality. It’s not about the money. There are many exchanges that are about money, but really, humans are constantly — we do things all the time for people, which if we did the cost-benefit analysis, we’d end up losing, but we do them because we end up winning. They’re part of this whole social dynamic that we’ve been talking about.

And I think if we understand that, then we come back to this notion that what’s really central for humanity are our acts of compassion and caring. And that gets us back to this idea of hope. There’s always hope for humanity, and there’s capacity, if we think about our exchanges not just as economic relationships, but as the patterns and processes of building the human society, we’re gonna think about it in a very different way.

But you’ve got to change the way people think about it, because it is driven in us. They’re like, “Oh, no, you gotta get the best deal, best bang for your buck.” That phrase could  be unpacked in many horrible ways. But the whole idea that we should be rationally assessing all of our interactions for cost benefits and come out ahead, that the idea that he who dies — and it’s usually he — who dies with the most money, wins — we know that’s not true.

Tippett: We know that’s not true. That’s the thing. It’s so weird, because we know. We know. We have all these adages, like “money can’t buy you happiness.” And we actually have a million articles in the newspaper that prove that is true — [laughs] articles about the richest people. But somehow, we still keep living and aspiring, as you say, according to these deeply ingrained beliefs that we’ve been taught, that we’ve societally accepted and built our economy around.

Fuentes: And back to this idea of the human niche, if what we perceive is real for us, what we believe is real, then it’s gonna maintain itself until we start to shift those perceptions and tweak those beliefs in a way that’ll result in greater benefits for a greater amount of people.

Tippett: I had this professor of theology who used to talk about the “real” and the “really real.” And it sounds fanciful if you just say it that way, but the older I grow, the more that language and that notion of distinguishing between what is really real [laughs] and what we take as real but in fact it is not, it’s flimsy …

Fuentes: But flimsy reality can be as damaging as really real, and that’s the scary part. The thing is, we gotta get away from this idea that anything in the human or for the human can be all in your head. That — [laughs] it just doesn’t work that way, because the head is connected to the body, the body’s connected to the world, and so how we think about things really matters.

Tippett: Right. Right. “Just thinking” is kind of a nonsense phrase.

Fuentes: Yes, exactly.

Tippett: From the kind of science you do as an anthropologist, you also know very well that data doesn’t penetrate the human brain and heart — data alone. And this is something else I wanted to ask you about, but that, too. What is one thing that’s emerging is the breakdown of the notion of truth and the experience of trust across our society, across many societies. And you know we’re not just brains. This is you: “Our brains do nothing without our bodies. Our bodies are never outside our social/ecological contexts.” So how do you think — because I have been, just recently, with a number of people who’ve said, we’ve got to restore truth, and we’ve got to restore trust. That’s a common feeling now. But how do we do that? What do you know about how we do that?

Fuentes: Well, the first thing is, you’re right. Data are not gonna do it. They can help — data are important. I really love data. I think information that you are basing your assertions on is important — but you’re right. So truth and trust, let’s just take those two. First off, truth has always been a slippery and problematic reality. No matter what, everyone has their truths. And that’s tied to what people believe and how they see the world.

Tippett: Like human natures?

Fuentes: Exactly. Exactly. So let’s back away from “truth” and think about information, about data and veracity. Is what you’re seeing, is what someone says — can you demonstrate that that has veracity, that that is accurate? So rather than this broad gloss of truth, let’s break it down to the specific arguments, the specific assertions. So I think that’s one important way: to not stop pointing out what is not supported, what can be verified and what can’t be. So I think that’s very important.

But the other thing, trust, that’s much more — and trust is not just about convincing people to put their faith in you; it’s demonstrating predictability, reliability, and compassion. And we know how to do that. And so if the goal of many of our politicians were to demonstrate predictability, reliability, and compassion, I think we might be in a different place. And if our social and community structures were putting that in the forefront, as opposed to other things in the forefront — economic interests, let’s say — I think we’d see differences. This is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but if you look at the political debates in New Zealand, for example, you can see some attempt or a system, wherein these ideas of predictability, reliability, and compassion are at play.

Tippett: Your description of the human niche — of, as you say, this ecosystem which human beings are and in which we operate, whether we know it or not — if you think about a loss of trust, with us as such utterly social creatures, you start to see how a breakdown of trust is just a breakdown of everything, it’s such a loss of connective tissue within that ecosystem.

Fuentes: Exactly. The metaphor of connective tissue is great, because as trust breaks down in the human niche, pieces fall out or get wobbly and insecure, and so rather than navigating this complex niche, working together, pushing and pulling against things to move through this world, we start having it fall in on us, and we get lost and we get separated and isolated. And that’s when things fall apart.

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with biological and evolutionary anthropologist Agustín Fuentes.

[music: “Borough” by Blue Dot Studios]

Tippett: I find it very helpful, in a really quiet way, that your insistence — you said the world doesn’t feel like a very compassionate place, but it is, or better put, we are; and as you say, on average, in the main.

And I think about this so much, even when I’m having these conversations with people about how demoralizing and depressing it is to read or watch or listen to the news, if we just step back and think about the world around us, the people we know, there’s a disconnect between that utterly depraved [laughs] picture of us that’s emerging, and how life actually really works, kind of day to day, hour to hour.

Fuentes: Yes, absolutely. That’s a perfect way to phrase it. We all know this. We actually block it from the front of our minds. The fact is, day to day, we have lots of positive interactions with a whole range of people, now, even in these socially distanced times. Just today, I went to the store. I was in the shopping aisles, moving around people angling their shopping carts and baskets in some ways — and some people not doing it, so you get all angry at them — but ninety percent of the people did, and many of them smiled behind their masks. And when I asked someone for help, they pointed me to where it was. A woman asked me to grab a can from a high shelf; I did that for her without thinking about it. That wasn’t a cost-benefit analysis, that was just me doing what every human does, multiple times on a daily basis. And if we step back and recognize that not only do we have this capacity to do this, but we actually do it all the time …

Tippett: We do it, yeah.

Fuentes: … it’s very impressive. And we’re forgetting that right now. And that terrifies me.

Tippett: This week, something came across my screen. It’s a group called The Holding Co., or The Holding Company, and they’ve created this list of the CARE 100. And it’s just extraordinary individuals and nonprofits and initiatives that are bringing the ideas and strategies of care, and the practice of care and caring and caregiving, both at the personal level and on a public level — giving that a new future. And just such an amazing alternate list to, I don’t know, the Forbes 100, the richest people. And I just feel like that’s also a story of our time, and just reading through this CARE 100 list made you feel so wonderful about what other human beings are doing. And as you just said, it correlates to experiences I have in my life, and at the grocery store as much as in more dramatic places.

If you think about — so how can we coax ourselves and others — because as you’re saying, we’re having these experiences, and they correlate to a list like the CARE 100. But we don’t take it as seriously as we take that narrative of disarray.

Fuentes: Well, I think something that people need to do, and for their own[laughs] mental and physical health, is to acknowledge those times that they receive a nod, a smile, an act of compassion from others, and when they give those acts, congratulate themselves or revel in it a little bit. That’s one thing. And I think we blow these things off; we don’t even pay attention to them, most of the time. But stop and say, oh, oh, that was really nice, or something like that. It’s very small, and it sounds a little silly to people, but try it for a little while, and you might be, whoa, this is interesting.

Another thing we can do is, the act of being involved is also really important, because then you feel connected. And also, if people are lucky enough to be able to spend some quiet time by themselves and just relax, just do whatever it takes to relax, that’s also important. So I think people need to really consider what they can do for themselves and for others. And acknowledge it. And that’s going to have an impact on your health and on the way you see the world.

Tippett: Is it even gonna have an impact on your neurobiology?

Fuentes: Yes! Oh, absolutely. It’ll have probably the easiestly measurable impact on your blood flow, the kinds of patterns in what’s going on in your brain — but you don’t know those. What you know is how you feel. And people have to recognize that what you feel is actually a reflection of your body, your endocrine system, your neurobiology, the interactions you’ve had, the environment you’re in, and whether or not your dog is rubbing up against your leg or something. All of those things create how we feel, and if you think about it, we have a lot of control over that. It just — it feels like we don’t.

Tippett: You have to claim that agency.

Fuentes: Humans are incredible agents, for better and worse. We’ve done horrible things to each other and the planet, but we also regularly do wonderful things. And we just need to lean into that part of it.

Tippett: I know that you did teach at Notre Dame for a while, and I know you’ve been involved in dialogues with theologians around the subject of wisdom, and maybe that agency we can claim as we move forward. I always think about how homo sapiens means “the creatures who are wise,” and can we grow into that, into our name?

Fuentes: Yeah, you know, I’m not sure that was the best idea, to right up front name us homo sapiens. Especially — we’re the subspecies sapiens sapiens, “doubly wise” — you know, lately, we’re just not living up to that label.

Tippett: It’s aspirational.

Fuentes: It’s aspirational, exactly. So this is another one of those incredible examples where pulling out of the lab, or field research and statistics, and sitting with theologians and philosophers and people who really, deeply think about why people are the way they are — not so much the biological end of it, but all these other ends, all these other processes — help me. And wisdom, I think, is important, because I’ve come to believe — to be convinced — that wisdom is the capacity to learn, to understand, and to experience, through perceptions and ways that facilitate different kinds of effectiveness and success in human lives. And so becoming wise is not so much, necessarily, the accumulation of information, but it’s how you engage information and how you use that with others and for others. So wisdom is this capacity to take knowledge and experience and do something with it, and do something with it that offers the opportunity for change.

And I like to connect wisdom with hope, because I think it’s that deep perspective, that thinking, that offers you this incredible thing that humans have the capacity for, which is hope: this ability to really, despite what’s materially going on around you, to imagine possible futures that are better, and to strive for them.

This also, with wisdom, is another thing that really concerns me, because there is a connection — not exclusively, but a strong connection — with age and wisdom, the idea that the more experience you have in life, the greater the possibilities are of accumulating knowledge and experiences and thinking with them and sharing with them. And for many people — for example, here in the United States — to be flippant about the real, serious damage that this COVID-19 landscape is inflicting upon elderly individuals — that terrifies me, because to devalue our elders is to devalue the very source of a lot of human success.

Tippett: I feel like we’ve hardly spoken that out loud. I think people have thought it, and that conversation is happening inside hearts and minds all over the place, but not in our common, collective discourse.

Just one more I want to throw at you. A conversation that comes up in a lot of my conversations, especially about our racial reckonings and living into the wisdom of activists and elders who were so active in the middle of the twentieth century, and bringing that wisdom into the present — this notion of love, of love as a public good, is something I think about a lot. I’m just curious, if I throw that at you, is that something…

Fuentes: Absolutely. Because you can’t not engage with it if you’re gonna be talking about why we believe, if you’re talking about what it means to be human. Love is front and center. And I’ve long been hesitant to engage with that, because it’s a complex topic, to say the least, and it’s very loaded.

Tippett: It’s loaded, yeah — well, it’s a way watered-down, overused word.

Fuentes: Right, exactly. So let’s get rid of the way watered-down, overused version, the Hallmark card version, and let’s ask ourselves, what is it, really? It is this deep, whole investment in another or others: in other humans; in ideas; in commitments. To love is to take this incredible human capacity for bonding and attachment and apply it wholly and forcefully. And so you can see that if you think about it that way, there’s romantic love, there’s familial love — there’s all of these different ways in which you can do this, you can connect it.

But it also is really important because we have that capacity, and we can develop, I think, wise ways to target this and to apply it. And if we recognize, I think, how so many activists, using the example you gave, so many people who gave their lives to trying for change, we can see that love lies centrally, in the entire process. And to deny that is to deny the kind of work that they’ve done and the kind of work we can do or help do. And so I think beyond just words like commitment or devotion, I think we should think about employing something as fundamentally dramatic [laughs] as love, in some of these cases.

Tippett: I think of love as a form of intelligence that we have, as you say, in so many ways. What it really means to love your children or love your partner or love your neighbors or love your colleagues, is mostly about actions. So what if we could take, also, what we know about how complicated and hard love is, and yet worth it, in our private lives, and we could apply that to the public canvas?

Fuentes: Also, I can think of love economics, an economics perspective where the goal here is not to maximize financial benefit or success, but to think about the ways in which we could work within our economic system to reduce inequity, to reduce the stresses and suffering of others, and to infuse compassionate processes into economic patterns. Maybe people just call me idealistic, but I think that frame might actually be beneficial.

Tippett: Yeah, it’s wonderful.

If I ask you this question that we kind of began with, that I think runs through all of your work, what it means to be human — if you just reflected on how your understanding of that has evolved, is evolving right now, it’s a huge question, but I’m curious about how you would just start thinking that through.

Fuentes: I went through many phases. I would say, initially I thought humans were this particularly weird, magical creature that moved around the planet. Then I started going to school, and that was unfortunately beaten out of me slightly. And then I began to think of humans as another animal, one of the many animals, and I really thought of humans as animals and that we’re just completely part of the world. And then, the more I studied other animals, particularly other primates and humans, I began to recognize, yes, humans are animals, but you know, we’re a very distinctive animal. We are so distinctive that we better maybe modify some of the ways we ask questions and measure data when it comes to humans.

And so now when you ask me, what is the human? I would argue: one of the most amazing, challenging, world-changing animals out there, with the capacity for incredible horror and amazing love. So I’m back to the magic part, I guess, but still, I really think that I stand by that statement, because I think it’s understanding the processes and patterns and the capacities, rather than saying it’s all this or all that. It’s gonna get us a lot further in understanding why we are the way we are.

Tippett: Thank you so much. This has been really fun.

Fuentes: Thank you, Krista. This has been just a really enjoyable conversation.

Tippett: Agustín Fuentes is a professor of Anthropology at Princeton University. He’s written and edited more than 20 books, most recently Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being.

[music: “Vittore” by Blue Dot Studios]

Tippett: In these days around Thanksgiving, we have a tradition of thanking people who make On Being possible behind the scenes. They include:

Heather Wang, our transcriber; Michael DeMark, who made our poetry archive sing; Tom Fletcher, Jim Hessian, and the team at Eli’s Cleaning, partners in our Loring Park space; Alfonso Wenker and Trina Olson and their colleagues at Team Dynamics for leading our internal placemaking work.

Our communication partners at No.29, Erin Allweiss, Karen Navarre Wicki, Karyn Towey and Sue Ariza.

Also Jerry Colonna and the wonderful people at Reboot.

Kristin Jones Pierre and her team at Faegre Baker Daniels.

Heidi Grinde, Mary Warner, Hannah Polsgrove, Jennifer Vanyo, and our partners at Clifton Larson Allen.

We’re also grateful for the teams at Simplecast and Nation Builder, and Melissa LaCasse, Alicia Allen and everybody at WNYC.

Kristi Ceccarossi, Thomas Urell, Jess Hendricks, Barbara Hebert, and all of the team at Common Media.

Our funding partners named at the end of this show, along with many generous individual donors — including some of you listening right now — make our work possible.

And lastly a bow to our small but mighty board of directors who we call our Wisdom Council: Jay Cowles, Konda Mason, and Srinija Srinivasan. Thank you.

The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.

On Being is an independent nonprofit production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by WNYC Studios. I created this show at American Public Media.

Our funding partners include:

The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.

Kalliopeia Foundation. Dedicated to reconnecting ecology, culture, and spirituality. Supporting organizations and initiatives that uphold a sacred relationship with life on Earth. Learn more at kalliopeia.org.

Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.

The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.

And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.

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