In today’s information saturated digital landscape, discerning the truth has become an increasingly complex challenge. While many assert that science holds the factual truth, the line between science as a methodology and scientism — which asserts that scientific knowledge is more reliable and valuable than all other forms of knowledge — often blurs. When scientists exceed the boundaries of testable hypotheses, personal belief systems intermingle with empirical evidence, complicating our understanding of truth.
Anthropologist Agustín Fuentes contends that human experiences are inherently messy and influenced by factors like racism, sexism, and historical contexts. He argues that a comprehensive understanding of human biology, history, culture, and evolution demands grappling with these complexities, the intricate dynamics of which often extend beyond the assertions of science.
Fuentes’ vision for the future of scientific practice centers around diversifying voices, experiences, and methodologies. A more diverse group of individuals contributes to a richer understanding of the world, offering different perspectives and insights; no one scientist is the same. Embracing the complexity and messiness of the human experience fosters collaboration, creativity, and a holistic approach to knowledge. After all, science is conducted by humans — complex beings inextricably intertwined with their own biases and cultural narratives.
Fuentes: One of the biggest challenges today is to figure out in the contemporary world with Google and all this information, like, what's true? How do I figure that out? How do I assess information? Many people would argue, "Well, you know what? Science tells us the truth. Those are the facts, and everything else is sort of opinion or belief or philosophy." That's not true. It turns out that there's a big difference between science as a methodology and scientism. When you say, "Here's a bunch of data, or an organism or something, I'm gonna test the hypothesis. And given the data, we either support it or refute it." That's science as a method. But a lot of people who call themselves scientists, they go beyond that method and they say, "Okay, well, here's the truth."
There are many scientists, for example, who would say, "There is no God." Okay, that's fine, but that's not a scientifically testable hypothesis. So, why are you saying that? And the reason they say that is because they have a faith system of their own. So it's really important that we divide out the science that is the replicable hypothesis testing, historical analyses of data and the world, from the opinions of people who do that stuff. So I frequently argue that humans are messy, complicated, and not so simple.
I also argue that the way in which we think about science and practice evolutionary biology is influenced by racism, sexism, and historical economic and political frames. Because I make those cases, people say that, "Oh, I'm not doing science, I'm doing politics." What I try to do is say, "Okay, what's the topic you're arguing about? Let's do biology. Let's do anthropology. Let's do culture, let's do ethnography. What is the data? What do we know?" And this is something that's going on in the science community right now, and it's an incredibly exciting time because people are pushing back against this whole idea that we already know about sex, that we already know about human variation, that we already know how things work.
So, for example, when I argue that the binary, male/female, is not the best way to characterize humans, I am arguing that the biological dynamics and variation in human bodies is complicated, and isn't always representative of this binary characterization: that there's more going on, and that understanding that more is central to doing a better job of understanding the human. Now, that's more complicated, and it goes against cultural norms. Everyone knows there's right way to be a male and a female. I'm like, "Well, what about people who aren't male or female?" What about senses of identity and gender and history and culture and politics and reality of biological dynamism?" We either deal with the 100% of the problem and not just be happy to explain 80%, or we admit what we're doing.
My argument is the data: that cooperation, coordination, creativity, imagination, are central in understanding the human, and that reductive approaches, either biological or cultural, are not gonna get us sufficient answers. One of the most important things I think in the contemporary practice of science is diversifying the voices, the bodies, the experiences, and the modes of doing science. The more diverse group of humans that we have doing that, the better opportunities we have to get different perspectives, different views, different understandings to get a more comprehensive picture of the world we find ourselves in. I think the world is complex and messy, and evolutionary biology and human evolution demonstrates that.
However, I am very much struck by the fact that we are cooperative, we're collaborative, we're creative. That individualistic, competition-based or gene-based reductionist approaches don't do the best job of categorizing science in general, and humans in particular. And therefore, we need to take a holistic, and I would say, generous approach, to thinking about human biology, human history, human culture and human evolution. Science is always done by humans, and humans are always messy, cultural, biased, believing creatures. And so, we need to have the skill set and the collaboration to look at the science and understand it- not just via the scientist, but in its own right.