As my interests in sociology, social stratification, identity, and the scientific enterprise develop, I am very happy to have come across a book that ties all of these interests together. The book explains, clearly, what evolution is, and more importantly, what it is not, and the relation evolutionary biology has to culture and society. Specifically, he explains how race, gender, monogamy, and aggression relate to biology, and why there are so many widespread misconceptions about them.
Above all, Fuentes' book provides what he calls a toolkit for bustin myths about human nature. A strong understanding of evolution is the foundation of the discussion, and Fuentes provides that in one of the early chapters. Most importantly, in the toolkit for busting myths about human nature, he wants readers to understand the things that evolution is not: a process to the best, strongest, fastest, prettiest, or "best" species or individuals; that evolution is over, or that humans have reached the "end of evolution"; that it is oriented toward progress toward a particular goal and that organisms are perfectly suited to their environments; that it all happens by chance. Basically, evolution is change over time within populations in genotype and phenotype. In addition, it involves more than simply natural selection. In detail, he discusses, among other things, gene flow, genetic drift, and the intriguing (and to me, new) niche construction theory; a new habitat or environment that a species constructs can itself become a selecting force in evolution in its own right. By transforming natural selection pressures, niche construction generates feedback in evolution, on a scale hitherto underestimated, and in a manner that alters the evolutionary dynamic. That is just one example of the fascinating aspects of evolution most people don't know about that the author discusses. Our evolutionary heritage as social primates is what allowed us to create culture, and culture is what gave rise to cultural constructs, and critical thinking will help us understand evolution and cultural constructs.
Another aspect of the book that I really enjoyed is that at the end, Fuentes lists eight "take-home points," distilling the essential parts of the book that you, as an informed and scientifically literate citizen should know:
* Humans are simultaneously biological and cultural- We have compex biology and cultural schemata that shape us. The nature/nurture divide seems to be a wrong way of looking at being human
* Culture Matters- Culture is "both a product of human action and something that influences that action." It helps give meaning to our world as social creatures, so cultural constructs are real for those who share them. For example, money is a cultural construct, though that does not mean that it's optional or easy to get rid of.
* Evolution Matters- It shapes who we are. At its most basic level, evolution is change over time; specifically, change in genotype and phenotype across generations due to a variety of processes.
* Genes do not equal human nature- DNA is a primary component in the development and maintenance of ourselves, and genes constrail what is possible, but there is rarely a one-to-one relationship between genes and specific traits or behaviors. Human nature is also influences by ecological, social, cultural and historical contexts.
* Race is not what we think it is- It's a social construct, not a biological reality. End of story.
* Humans are not aggressive by nature- We have great potential for aggression, but we do not rely on aggression and violence more than cooperation as a species in our evolutionary history
* Men and women are not as different as you may think- There's a greater overlap between males and females than most people will allow, and while there are some differences (beyond the obvious physiological ones), efforts to locate "innate" differences that conveniently fit in with perceived social norms don't hold water. See Cordelia Fine's "Delusions of Gender" and Anne Fausto-Sterling's "Myths of Gender" for more in-depth treatment of this point.
* Busting myths about human nature requires critical thinking and a lot of work- Self-explanatory.
In the United States, we are besieged by scientific illiteracy and lack of critical thinking about what social constructs mean, where they come from, and the implications they have. If this book is widely read and understood, hopefully that situation will be rectified somewhat.