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Agustín Fuentes | To Believe is Human

Agustín Fuentes has looked to science for the question, what does it mean to be human, but the answers he finds speak to something bigger than science.


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Agustín Fuentes has looked to science for the question, what does it mean to be human, but the answers he finds speak to something bigger than science.

Description

The question, what does it mean to be human, demands answers from many fields of study. Agustín Fuentes has looked to anthropology for answers to this question but the answers he has found speak to something that is bigger than science. He proposes that one of the things that make us human is our ability to believe.

  • Originally aired on December 17, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

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Transcript

Fuentes:

I think that capacity, particularly in primates, to experience a moment—a sunrise, a sunset, looking at a jungle or seeing some colors or a waterfall—something that stimulates maybe a transcendent experience, I can’t tell because I’m not that individual, but they behave as if it does. And I think this is more widespread than humans like to admit, right, this capacity to experience awe and wonder. But humans don’t just experience awe and wonder, we turn it into things, right? And we let it drive our behavior and our ideas and our societies. And I think that’s the distinctive capacity for belief in humans.

My name is Agustín Fuentes and I am a professor of anthropology at Princeton University.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

If you’ve been listening to the show for a while, you might notice that we frequently find ourselves in conversations that explore the question, what does it mean to be human. We think this is a question that must find answers in both science and in theology and the answers help us to know how to live our lives. We’ll be getting even deeper into this question of human identity in a series of episodes sometime next year, exploring it from a variety of angles, but it is also at the heart of our conversation today. 

Agustín Fuentes is an anthropology professor at Princeton. He primarily engages the sciences to answer this question about what it means to be human. But he recognizes the limitations of science, and respects people of faith. We talk primarily about his 2019 book, Why We Believe, which makes the case that our capacity to believe has made us what we are and distinguishes us from all other creatures. We discuss belief in general, but then also religious belief—how it developed from the evolutionary perspective, and how it facilitates a uniquely human way of being in the world. Anthropologists can be threatening to religious believers, because they often explain away faith as just another curious cultural byproduct. But Fuentes doesn’t do this, and I think he offers a really interesting way of thinking about people of other faiths, and what that means for our own faith.

This is our last episode of 2020. We’ll be back next year with some new episodes and the new series on what it means to be human. Follow BioLogos on social media for updates.

Now, let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Thanks for joining us, Agustín, we appreciate it so much.

Fuentes:

My pleasure to be here.

Stump:

Well, a lot of the science that has contributed to science and religion dialogue has been physics or biology, but you’re an anthropologist, which might be something new and different for some of our audience. So let’s start by having you give us at least some idea of the big picture of what anthropology studies, what kinds of questions anthropologists are trying to answer.

Fuentes:

Well, unsurprisingly, if you think about the name anthro-pology, it’s the study of humanity, right? It is the study of the big and the small, the daily and the historical, the evolutionary and the future of what humankind has done, is doing, and will do and how we do it, and why we do it. So pretty much anthropology covers everything.

Stump:

So what’s been your specialization within that broader field then?

Fuentes:

So I’m particularly interested in the biological and cultural processes, what we call bio-cultural reality of humans. For humans, the material, the perceptual, the experiential, and the cultural are always entangled and it’s very hard to disarticulate them. So I’m particularly interested in studying bodies and processes and histories and behaviors and trying to connect those things to sort of the perceptual and cultural realities in which they exist. So I am interested in a bio-cultural understanding of the how, the why, and the what, of humanity.

Stump:

And I assume this includes a fair amount of like, field research on your part. Where has your research taken you and what kinds of studies have you been involved in?

Fuentes:

Well, what a lot of people forget or simply don’t know is that humans are primates, right? We’re a part of a group of mammals called the primates. It includes monkeys and apes, lemurs, things like that. And so I’ve been very interested throughout my career in the comparative approach. So I have studied human primates, but I’ve also started other primates—macaque monkeys, chimpanzees, and a variety of others—gibbons. And so my work has taken me around the planet, to look at both humans and other primates in the wild. And the wild could be a jungle, or it could be an urban landscape. So I’ve chased people and monkeys across cities, forests, savannas, and mountain tops in multiple places in the world. And that’s taught me a lot. And I think one of the most important things is it’s taught me a lot of humility, because people and monkeys both seem to never read the textbooks and don’t do what they’re supposed to most of the time when you’re conducting a study.

Stump:

Any stories in that regard that might be interesting to hear about?

Fuentes:  

Oh, my dissertation was focused actually on a particular kind of primate, a particular monkey that was supposed to be monogamous, sort of family living, and sort of really typify everything we thought about those two terms. And I got out into the field, first of all, it’s an incredibly difficult place to be so…

Stump:

Where was this?

Fuentes:

The Mentawai islands off the west coast of Sumatra, one of the most remote places on the planet, still is today. Long story short, I got there and ended up studying people as much as I studied monkeys. But the monkeys I did go to study, quickly smacked me in the face with reality, pointing out that my whole notion and the assumptions that I had had about monogamy, about pair bonding, about family groups were much more complicated, much more dynamic and much more interesting than I thought. In short, they didn’t do what they were supposed to do, but they taught me a lot.

Stump:

Interesting. Well, we are here primarily to talk about a book that has come out under your name, last year, called Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being. So this came from your Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh in 2018, right?

Fuentes:

Absolutely. And I just, you know, the Gifford lecture organization is absolutely fantastic. Edinburgh is a wonderful university and an amazing city and the people were really incredible. These lectures, the Gifford lectures, the audience, the scholars I interacted with, were a life changing experience. And what I hoped to do in this book, right, was to capture some of that vibrancy and exchange and intellectual generosity and put it out into the world.

Stump:

So the Giffords have typically been about natural theology. How do you connect this book on belief to their topic, and maybe more generally even just give us a little bit of an overview, we’ll dive into some of the more specific points in the book, but give us a little bit of an overview of what you were hoping to accomplish in the book.

Fuentes:

Well, I mean, the Giffords focusing on natural theology are really not so much—I mean, even though they are often about science and religion—they’re not the sort of classic science and religion. They’re a broader philosophical space that invites thinkers, scholars to come and share their broad perspectives on the why, and the how, connecting or, let’s say, resisting the contemporary divisions between the religious, the secular, theology and other sciences, and asking thinkers to come in and spend some time with colleagues and with an audience and exploring those possibilities. So that’s what really drew me to them. And the history of speakers have been theologians, religious leaders, research scientists, authors. So there’s a huge diversity of just amazing people. And I feel so humbled and honored to have been, lucky enough to be included amongst the Gifford speakers. But what was the point, right? What was the point of this? The title of the book is Why We Believe, and I’m particularly interested in this capacity humans have to believe, right? To look at the world, to combine experiences with imagination and perceptions, to develop ideologies, concepts, beliefs, and to wholly commit to them, wholly in person, in the body. And in a  transcendent sort of format. I think it’s really an amazing capacity. And I think this capacity to believe, to wholly commit to an idea, to something that may be not materially tangible, but is wholly felt, and true for the believer, I think that’s a really powerful thing in humanity. And as an anthropologist, I see this in many, many different forms. We’re not just talking about religion, we’re talking about many, many different ways in which belief manifests. And because of that, I think it’s important to understand. And so I’m interested in the sort of evolutionary histories, the psychological and cognitive structures, and really, how it shapes what we do in the world, and how it helps us understand why we do it.

Stump:

Good. So let’s dig into that a little bit deeper. You begin the book, the preface, with this line: “belief is the most prominent, promising and dangerous capacity that humanity has evolved.” Could we go through each of those briefly and touch on them? So first, how is belief the most prominent human capacity? That’s not one that I think most people think of when you look at a human to start with, right?

Fuentes:

Right, but that’s because we take it for granted, right? All of us, every single human has the capacity for belief and many beliefs, right? And so this ability of humans to look at the world around them, to draw in all of their experiences, to draw on the words and thoughts and ideas of others, to combine them with their imagination, and to develop an idea, a possibility, a truth, and to wholly commit to that in such a way that it becomes reality for the individual, that’s powerful. It’s incredible. And I think it makes humans quite distinctive. And it has enabled humans to do amazing things. That’s why it’s so prominent. The capacity for belief is a human pattern and process, and it has facilitated much of the human world that we know today.

Stump:

So I’ll come back a little bit to that distinctiveness aspect of it. But let’s keep going on this introductory bit here. So you also say that belief is the most promising capacity we have, what do you mean by that?

Fuentes:

Because from belief comes hope. And hope is, I think, what has driven humans to the highest, and as we’ll get to, in a moment, some of the lowest, outcomes. But the fact that we can believe, that that is a capacity of humanity, provides us opportunities to overcome some of the most difficult and apparently insurmountable barriers, challenges, problems that we face and have faced. So the ability to believe, to come together around beliefs, is an amazing capacity for humans that offers great promise.

Stump:

And the flip side, our most dangerous capacity?

Fuentes:

That wonderful promise that we have is also the underlying cause for probably the most horrific things that humans have done throughout history. And it enables us to be cruel in a way that no other organism can be. So it’s not two sides. It’s the same thing. It’s just how it emerges and how it’s deployed, can have sort of the most wonderful, and the most horrible impacts. And that’s what humans are.

Stump:

So can you flesh that out a little bit with a concrete example, perhaps of some sort, of connecting specifically how the human capacity to believe something has resulted in something really wonderful, or something really awful?

Fuentes:

Well, think about everything we do in life, right? Think about human societies. Think about these incredible communities where people come together, where thousands, if not millions of people, come together. They collaborate, they work together, they create infrastructures, they build societies, around beliefs, around ideologies, around hopes and dreams, providing opportunities for everyone within those communities to flourish. Those are incredible. And we have countless examples of that throughout history and even right now, today. At the same time, that same capacity for belief, that same capacity to come together has facilitated war, has facilitated terror. And right now today in the United States, we can see divergent patterns of beliefs, setting up horrible outcomes with this COVID-19 scenario, and challenging humanity to the core. So the same capacity, depending on how it’s lived, engaged, delivered and played out, can have incredibly oppositional outcomes. 

Stump:

Hmm. Okay, let me come back to this most prominent aspect of belief you talked about. Are humans the only species that have beliefs?

Fuentes:

Well, we are the only species that have beliefs in the human way, right? That is, we have language, we have particular cognitive processes with particular cultural, structural, material and perceptual realities.  That is, humans are a particular way in the world. And that way that we are, facilitates and creates opportunities for particular patterns of belief. Do other organisms sort of meld their experiences into, sort of, thoughts and commitments about the world? Probably. But nowhere near the intensity, the complexity and the distribution that humans do. Human beliefs are shared, right? Human beliefs are developed and implemented and have cascade effects across not just the human species, but across the entire planet. And that’s something that we don’t see in other animals. What a chimpanzee may believe or what they may be committed to, what a wolf may be committed to, what an elephant may be committed to, what a frog may be committed to, does not have the kind of impact coherence or really substantial complexity within its own community, that human beliefs do.

Stump:

You keep using this word “committed” as a way of explaining belief. Is it possible to give a precise definition? Sorry, I’m a philosopher so I’m contractually bound to ask for precise definitions of some sort. What do you mean exactly by belief in the way that you’re using it here?

Fuentes:

How about… [pages turn] One second, I have the complex and the simple version of this. 

Stump:

I guess I asked for it. 

Fuentes:

Right, right. [laughter] Let me, yeah. So here’s how I define belief: “belief is the ability to draw on our range of cognitive and social resources, our histories and experiences and combine them with our imagination. It is the power to think beyond what is here and now and develop mental representations in order to see and feel and know something: an idea, a vision, a necessity, a possibility, a truth, that something is not immediately present to the senses, but we can then invest in it wholly and authentically so that that something becomes our reality.”

Stump:

So that’s a much more complex understanding of belief than simply, “I accept something is true,” right? It’s enmeshed in a much wider—the, I think the phrase you use, “the way of being human,” right?

Fuentes:

Yeah, yeah. And I think this is important. Because really, if people are honest with themselves, when they do believe, the shortcut is, “I accept something to be true.” But that’s not actually how it works. Right? That acceptance is actually an incredibly complex suite of things that I just described. And I think we sometimes underplay how amazing we are, when we just say, “I just accept it.” You don’t just accept it’s a process. It’s incredibly important to understand how it works.

Stump:

So your area of specialization has to do with the evolutionary development of these things. So how is it that we developed that capacity to believe in that really complex way?

Fuentes:

Well, I tried to summarize it in a couple hundred pages. [laughter]

Stump:

Give us some high points here. 

Fuentes:

Yeah, I mean, the bottom line is that all organisms have something called a niche, right? The niche is the sort of the way in which organisms are in the world, how they make a living, how they navigate their lives, and one another, and everything around them. The human niche, right, is built of our material connections to the world and to one another, our perceptual connections—how we see and experience one another how we think about them, right? And it turns out, that over the last couple million years, changes and processes and patterns in our bodies, and in our niche, have facilitated the appearance of this capacity to believe, right? And we can watch that history, particularly in the last 300,000, 400,000, 500,000 years, show us some material evidence of the initial possibilities of belief\ and then more formally, with archaeological evidence, more recently, we start to see the material outcomes of belief systems, sort of at play, that we can assess. So belief shows up as part of this structuring process as humans, our bodies, our minds and our societies develop over time.

Stump:

Okay, good. So if I could dig into a couple of those requirements that are needed for us in order to have this capacity? And have you say something about them. So one of these, you’ve said we are part of the primates, primate sociality is one of the requirements here. So first of all, what do we mean by sociality? Is it just that we hang out together in groups? Or is there some more specific understanding of that?

Fuentes:

A lot of species hang out together in groups, and a lot them do it in very interesting ways. Primates, though, for primates, this socialness, it’s not just about being in a group, it’s about being in a group with your kin, right? Your relatives. It’s about being a group that is familiar to you. It’s about being in a group that make up your niche, right? So for primates, the social, your interactions from day to day, with your mother or your father or your siblings, or those who are closely related to you, or those who are not biologically related to you, but hang out with you all the time, those day to day relationships, the touching, the sitting nearby, the watching one another, the sharing of food, the fighting over food, all of that is done through social interactions, social negotiations, and that social, that set of relationships that are behavioral, and social, are the basis of primate existence. So primate sociality sets the stage for humans to sort of draw on that to make even more complicated social realities, the ones that we have.

Stump:

Okay, so even to get that primate sociality that we humans built on, there are a suite of developments you say that were required for that and some of these are not surprising, like more substantial cognitive capacities. We have bigger brains to be able to have those kind of relationships. Some of the others on your list, though, did surprise me a bit. So I wonder if you might say briefly how some of these things helped to bring about sociality, things like extended and intense mother-infant bonds. What does this do to help bring about that bigger group dynamic?

Fuentes:

Well, one of the things that’s characteristic of highly social mammals, be it primates, elephants, whales and dolphins—right cetaceans—and many others, wolves—one of the characteristic that you will find in the most complex social organisms, but particularly social mammals, is this incredible bond between caretakers—frequently the mother, but not exclusively the mother—between caretakers and infants, such that the infants don’t just get sort of come out of the mother and are cared for a bit, but rather, their early lives are spent on the bodies of the mother, not just drawing nutrition from mom or the other caretakers, but drawing physical contact, care, and observing their behaviors, their faces, and who they interact with. And so what happens in these social primates is that the growing-up phase of infancy is slowed down relative to many other mammals. And the infant is actually growing as a social being as much as it is a physical being. And so that incredibly tight bond between caretaker and infant sets the stage for the bonds, the social connections, that we see expanding later in life.

Stump:

Are we able to guess at all about the difference that kind of relationship makes for how we think, how we believe? As opposed to say—I just watched a documentary about octopus, and you know, there’s zero there’s, there’s zero mother infant bond there, right? There’s hundreds of thousands of young that are just let out and a few of them survive. And that’s how their species propagates. But octopuses seem to have fairly sophisticated thinking in some ways, but it is very different when it’s not enmeshed in this kind of social situation?

Fuentes:

Yeah, so octopuses, that’s a great example, because they are brilliant, they’re fascinating. Everyone wants to know what like a highly intelligent alien life form is? It’s octopuses, right? Because they have incredible sort of sensory cognition. You know, their neurons are distributed throughout their arms so when they touch, they also think what they touch. It’s absolutely incredible. And so they’re brilliant. But they’re social in a totally different way than humans are. And they’re encased in themselves and their landscape. But they do not rely, in the way humans and all other primates, but particularly humans. For an octopus, others are part of the landscape and part of its life. For humans, others are part of us, part of our mind, part of our very being. And that’s the big difference, right? We grow up, as well primates and most social mammals, but humans in particular, we grow up formed and shaped, literally, in our neurophysiology, by our interactions with others.

Stump:

Okay, so another of these developments that leads to sociality is grasping hands. What do our hands have to do with how we come to believe?

Fuentes:

So there are a lot of incredible social mammals with large, complex brains, really complex cognition in really dynamic societies, right? Let’s take orcas—killer whales—for example. Killer Whales are incredibly complex, brilliant organisms with incredible sort of capacities. But they don’t walk around and they don’t have thumbs or hands. If orcas had thumbs and hands, I’d be a lot more worried than I am. But they don’t and we do. And there’s this primate capacity, because of this highly manipulatory capacity of their hands, that they can manipulate the world around them in particular ways. And we see this very interestingly, in primates, and in—a lot of animals use tools, but primates do it a lot and they do it very interestingly. But humans, because we have these incredible hands, combined with an incredible cognition and a few other things, have enabled us to alter the material world in ways that are not possible for other organisms. And it’s that capacity that it has been in this sort of feedback relationship with our cognition, actually enabled the baseline for belief. So none of these things are by themselves. But it is the unique constellation of these and many more things in our specific human lineage, that facilitate the emergence of belief.

Stump:

A few episodes back, we talked to David Lahti and the topic of cultural evolution came up a bit there in regard to his work. As an anthropologist, this is pretty central to what you’re doing so I want to try to wrap our heads around this one more time for our audience here. So can you explain what is cultural evolution and give us some examples of how that works?

Fuentes:

Well, let me be clear here. Evolution is change over time. Right? That’s the very basic thing. We can talk about evolution in organic processes, sort of, molecules, or we can talk about organismal evolution, where we see populations of organisms over time shift in their morphology and physiology. But we can also talk about cultural evolution. And that is where behavioral processes that are not genetically or biologically predetermined, also change over time with impacts on the population, right? So cultural evolution is just a way of looking at particular changes over time that have substantive impacts on populations, but focusing on the cultural processes. And let me point out here, humans aren’t the only things that have cultural evolution. But our culture is so dynamic and complex, that human cultural evolution is much more significant in structuring our lives and the lives of everything else on this planet than is cultural evolution in other organisms. Does that help at all?

Stump:

Yeah, so give us some examples of cultural evolution in other species and then perhaps how different it is, or at least the difference of scale, of how it works for humans.

Fuentes:

Yeah. So for example, let’s go back to orcas again. There’s this really, really incredible research on different populations of orcas in different parts of the world. And what we find is that in some places, led by their matriarchs, the older females who are the sort of dominant sort of focal, social leaders in these group—what we see is some of these populations, groups in certain populations have sort of begun hunting seals or other animals in particular styles. And that hunting style then spreads culturally, behaviorally through learned behavior to individuals emulating and learning from these older females. This hunting style then becomes sort of entrenched as a cultural process in this population. And what’s interesting is that over then, many, many, many generations, this hunting style feeds back on their bodies, changing some of their physiology, changing some of their genetic structure and selection for different sort of patterns there. So this cultural shift in the way they engage in chasing and consuming food and which foods they consume, has biological shifts that over time change their bodies and their populations, right? So there’s a good example in orcas. We can see this in many different primates. There’s very, very good evidence of chimpanzee micro-cultural variation, different communities of chimpanzees having very specific sort of social behaviors, the way they greet one another, the way they use certain tools or use certain foods, and how that changes the structure of the community over time. So those are good examples

Stump:

This reciprocal relationship I think is really interesting. We create culture, but it also creates us. 

Fuentes: 

Exactly. Exactly.

Stump:

And the example you give there of the orcas, I think it’s fairly obvious. Or sometimes in, I think, what gets called niche construction, the example of beavers building dams is something that alters the environment, that then gives them perhaps a survival advantage in some sense, but connect that now a little bit more to this human belief. And how is it that—so because this seems a little more abstract, right than just building a dam. How is it that the kind of culture we create and perpetuate changes us or influences us when it doesn’t feel like it’s quite as material as it is, you know, the things that we believe, the human way of believing that affects us?

Fuentes:

Well, let’s first back up for a second and point out that there’s huge aspects of material culture in humans that have significant change, right? You know, the building and wearing clothing, changes in the way we interface with the world. The use of fire. When humans began to create, make and maintain fires, right? And as we go through time, this sort of changing modes of tools, right, the idea of a combustion engine, right? All of those things, radically changed the way in which we engage the environment, which changes our bodies, actually. So we can, you know, let’s set all that aside, because there’s all this incredible human material culture change that’s part of cultural evolution that’s important. But if you want to talk about sort of belief or perceptual and behavioral change, well, let us talk about religion, let us talk about laws, let us talk about economies, all of which emerged from the capacity to believe, and all of which are actually belief systems, right? Economies are belief systems as much as religions are. And those economies, let’s say, the structure of the economy changes the way in which we obtain nutrition, in which the way our bodies work, in which the way we perceive success in the world, and thus the way we act. So these perceptions, these beliefs, these ideologies, actually structure the way in which human bodies interact with one another in the world. So yes, absolutely, belief is a central component in cultural evolution.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. Here at BioLogos we think that asking questions is a worthwhile part of any faith journey. We hope this podcast helps you to think through long held questions and consider new ones but you probably have other questions we haven’t covered yet. That’s why we want to take this quick break to tell you about the common questions page on our website. You’ll find questions like “How could humans have evolved and still be in the image of god,” “how should we interpret the Genesis flood account?” and “What created God?” Each with thoughtful and in depth answers written in collaboration by scientists, biblical scholars and other experts. Just go to biologos.org and click the common questions tab at the top of the page. Back to the show!

Interview Part Two

Stump:

So you say there’s no such thing as “just in your mind.” But when you—I think i’m quoting from you here, “cultural constructs are real for those who hold them.” There’s a bit of a worry, there’s a bit of a warning flag that comes up in my mind, though still. And maybe it’s, you know, our BioLogos community is really invested in religion. And are these just cultural constructs that, you know, in the same sense of democracy, something we just made up? Or is there any sense when we get talking about religion that for those of us who have religious beliefs, does this explain away religious beliefs in a sense, to treat them this way?

Fuentes:

Absolutely not. 

Stump:

Good! So explain that a little more.

Fuentes:

And we can talk about democracy and economies, economics and all of that, I think those are very important, but let’s—because I think that the capacity to believe is central in all of these. But something that I try very carefully to point out is that one of the critical aspects that emerged in human evolution probably in the last 300,000, 400,000 or 500,000 years, is this reality—let me let me emphasize: reality— that transcendent experiences, that is experiences that cannot be explained by the material here and now, become ubiquitous in the human experience. All human cultures throughout history, all human individuals have the capacity to experience this. Okay. So if the transcendent is part of the human experience, right, and by part of the human experience, I mean it is neuro-biologically and physically felt, it is emotionally and psychologically felt, and it is communally—you know, it influences the way in which communities are. So if that’s the case, then we can talk about this transcendent experience as it is engaged, right, in religious-ness, or religious sensation, as a part and parcel of human capacity. Now, to be very clear, I differentiate between religious-ness and the capacity for religious experience and religious feeling from religions, which are institutional sort of structured, theological frames that facilitate particular motifs and rituals and ways of engaging in the religious.

Stump:

Yeah, so that’s really interesting. Give a little bit of what you do in the book here on the development of our capacity for that kind of transcendent experience. Because as you as you say, religions themselves, we have a fairly good understanding of their history and where they came from. But the experience of the transcendent, which presumably preceded all of those organized religions in some way, is something that’s deeply embedded in our own biology, our own evolution, right?

Fuentes:

Exactly, exactly. And so as I say, at one point in the book, you know, humanity is very old. Contemporary religions are not. But the capacity to be religious, this thing that is a necessary reality, to engage in faith practice, is a central capacity of all humanity. So if that’s the case, it must have shown up deep in our history. And there’s good evidence, I argue, that it did. And I think this evidence is in this capacity for these mental representations, for these sort of meaning laden objects, what people might call symbols, although we can debate what that word actually means. The idea that meaning can be infused into material objects, into ideas and expressions, and into the processes of behavior by humans. That indicates something. And I think it indicates the opening of humans, to experience beyond the here and now, beyond the material. And once that happens, and I think that happened a long time ago, humans begin to explore that experience and it leads them in particular ways.

Stump:

Do any other species have anything that comes close to the transcendent, acknowledging the transcendent, or belief in the transcendent?

Fuentes:

So, you know, there’s two ways to answer it. The simple answer is there’s nothing that looks like human meaning making out there that we know of, or at least we can recognize. If there is, we’re not able to recognize it, right? That doesn’t mean other organisms don’t have some interesting experiences that may overlap with those of humans. And I offer a few examples in the book of primates, behaviorally, I can’t get into their minds, but they behaviorally, while I’m watching them, what the data we collect suggests, that they’re experiencing something like wonder or awe. And I think that capacity, particularly in primates, to experience a moment—a sunrise, a sunset, a looking at a jungle or seeing some colors or a waterfall—something that stimulates maybe a transcendent experience, I can’t tell because I’m not that individual, but they behave as if it does. And I think I think this is more widespread than humans like to admit, right, this capacity to experience awe and wonder. But humans don’t just experience awe and wonder, we turn it into things, right? And we let it drive our behavior and our ideas and our societies. And I think that’s the distinctive capacity for belief in humans.

Stump:

Some people, like the popular author Yuval Harare, have invoked belief in a big God who’s always watching, to explain how we might have been able to control bigger and bigger populations in cities. If I’m reading you, right though, you think that kind of belief couldn’t have just popped out of nowhere, right? That there must have already been these kinds of religious experiences as part of the human landscape in order for more complex religions to develop?

Fuentes:

Absolutely, absolutely. Absolutely. And I think this whole idea of Harare has made, and the psychologist Ara Norenzayan, and many others make, this Big God’s argument, that like, the reason we see this sort of characteristics, sort of Abrahamic, big God religions, these central monotheistic things is because those are an adaptive sort of reality that lets groups come together and control. I think that’s the cart before the horse, right? I would argue, as have many scholars, and I think done a very good job of this, is that these particular contemporary institutions—the religion—not so much the faith practices because that’s another thing—but these institutions, with particular structured theologies and philosophies, right, of management and the way they are, those emerged simultaneously with the emergence of towns, cities, of economies, of long distance trade. And so that’s part of cultural evolutionary processes. I don’t think humans invented big Gods so that they could have big societies. I think data reject that pretty clearly. But what I find more interesting is that around the world, humans do and did become influenced by transcendent experiences, by experiences more than the human now, that for one reason or another, led them to start thinking, to start structuring theological processes, patterns and edicts that led them to start changing the way they live their lives. I find that fascinating that this happens again and again and again. And is characteristic of humans today. So that tells me a lot. It tells me that this is a deep capacity, this capacity for religious-ness, is central in the human experience.

Stump:

Besides religion, you also apply the ideas on belief here to love. I’d like to talk about that a little bit. There’s a narrative about evolution that emphasizes survival of the fittest in the sense that only the strong survive, that the weak are systematically eliminated. But over the last decade, especially, there’s been a lot more work in understanding the role of compassion, even love, in the development of our species. Can you talk about that a little bit? How does this work? 

Fuentes:

Yeah, I think that’s really important. But it’s also important to push back, that yes, this sort of competition, survival-of-the-fittest motif is how popular interpretations of evolutionary processes have been running but even way back with Darwin, Darwin talks about the kinds of compassion and social caring for the group as a central in evolutionary processes. It just hasn’t been highlighted until more recently. But in human evolution, compassion looks like—given our archaeological record—it really looks like compassion, the ability to care beyond yourself, not just in an immediate manipulation or selfish way, but to extend your love, right, this ability to bond and connect with others in your group and even others outside of your group in very significant ways that might be at harm to you. That capacity seems to be fairly common in human history, as evidenced by individuals with severe deformities or severe injuries that lived for quite some time. Most organisms, even the most incredible organisms other than humans—elephants, for example, some other primates, cetaceans—they do help, on occasion, their injured brethren. They do show grief and caring, but not consistently, not ubiquitously, and not to the level that humans do. So it looks like this compassion, as a way of being in the world, has been central to the human experience and human evolution—cultural and biological—for quite some time. Now, let me be very clear. That is not to say humans can’t be cruel and horrific and violent and aggressive, because they are and they are a lot. It’s just that compassion is a central motif. Right? And I want to be very clear, because people always accuse me of saying, oh, you’re all about, you know, our ancestors ran through the daisies holding hands. Like no, no, I didn’t say that. They hit each other over the head. There’s no arguing that. That happened. But more frequently, they cared for one another.

Stump:

And connect then this capacity for love, specifically, then to evolutionary success. Because we’re still kind of, I think, for many of us, we’re stuck in this mode of “wouldn’t it be better to weed out the weak rather than to have compassion and to care for them to use up valuable resources of our community and caring for the weak?” How has this been an evolutionarily successful strategy for us?

Fuentes:

Well, the first thing is to knock right off, knock out of play, this idea that individuals are the unit that we’re talking about. For humans for millions of years already—for primates in general, but for humans, for since our genius, the genus homo shows up, it has never been that the unit of evolutionary analysis is just one solitary individual, separate from everyone else. To live, to reproduce, to get food, to be cognizant and develop as a human being, we need other human beings and we need to be around human beings. So our unit of analysis is the group, right? It’s not that evolution doesn’t work on individuals. It’s just that to understand any individual we have to understand their connections within the group. And if we talk about human caretaking, right, the human infants are basically incapable of anything by themselves or any ability to live by themselves for years, right? No other organism has that. It’s that deficit. That means from the get-go, for that capacity, that process to evolve, we must have already had a kind of incredible caretaking. So humans are always reliant on others. So if that’s your baseline, that the human sort of—the way the human niche works is by humans being in social groups, where it takes multiple individuals to raise offspring and multiple individuals to make a living in the world, then the basic understanding is that if one of those individuals is injured, if one of those individuals has a problem, and you rely on all these individuals, it’s probably a good idea to help. Right? And so the problem—the reason people have trouble with this is because they have this erroneous baseline, which actually doesn’t work for a lot of animals, that the individual is the unit of analysis, and that The Selfish Gene in a Dawkinsian sense is the way in which to model evolutionary process and both of these are refutable by data. And we know those are not true. So if we move away from those, and we ask ourselves, what is it to be human? Like, what is the human niche? What’s our adaptation? It’s an incredible kind of sociality, and reliance on one another. And then, if that’s the case, in an evolutionary sense, understanding why humans would help other humans in their own group, actually isn’t very complicated at all.

Stump:

So that brings us back to belief, groups, the way we function in this human niche. You say in the last chapter of the book Does Belief Matter, “belief changes our motivations and shapes our behavior, and it does so in groups going beyond individual psychology and generating deep solidarity in ways that have significant consequences.” Bring us back here now then to belief in this sense, of why does it matter? Why does it matter that we are these kinds of creatures that have the capacity for belief, that this is maintained within bigger group settings like this, and it’s been this positive thing for humans and that has promise going forward for us?

Fuentes:

It has great promise going forward. But let me point out, one of the horrors of it, and one of the big problems with it, is that it has great promise, but it can also lead whole groups of humans to do horrible things. Right now, today, in the United States, we are in the midst of an incredible pandemic, the COVID-19 landscape, right, the infection by SARS CoV2, and all of its concomitant morbidity and mortality and all the problems that issues what we call COVID-19—is incredibly bad in the United States. In fact, it’s worse in the United States than anywhere on the planet because, in large part of certain segments of society—U.S. society’s—belief about things like wearing masks, about things like the reality of the threat of SARS CoV2. They are wholly committed, these people don’t—they’re not faking an argument about masks, they believe, and that belief is dangerous, and has clear and evident damage and harm to our society and to many individuals, right? And so I just want to be really clear that belief, I have great hope for, because throughout history, belief has been a central tenet, a central way in which humans have done good in the world and made it. But it’s also clearly a way in which we can really screw up and do horrible, horrible things.

Stump:

So in this last chapter of the book, you make the case that we must not just acknowledge the reality of belief, but we have to positively engage with belief in order to increase the good in the world. So you give an example here of COVID-19 and the beliefs that are driving certain aspects of it. You gave an example in the book, though, of a long term collaborative project in Indonesia that you were involved in and how the beliefs of the community play an important role in what good can be accomplished. Can you tell us that story here? I think it’s really fascinating.

Fuentes:

Sure. It’s a wonderful story. And it really was a humbling experience, again, to recognize as a scientist, how much we assume and how little we know. But just in a nutshell, I was working with my Indonesian and Balinese collaborators in an area in Bali that was this temple complex with a forest and a bunch of monkeys. And this was a central area of great importance for the villagers, for the people there, the Balinese there, for us as researchers because of the relationship between monkeys and humans and ecology. And so there’s a lot of convergent interest, and it also ended up it was a tourist destination. So it had financial and political implications in a very powerful way. 

There’s a problem in this forest. The forest that was surrounding this temple complex was dying. There had been a switch in the couple decades before we arrived there to do our project, where people have gone because of economic and other reasons, people have gone from wrapping foods and wrapping things in banana leaves and papaya leaves and sort of these degradable, biological, organic baskets or containers, and to start using plastic and plastic bags and plastic wraps and things like that. And what had happened because this forest was a used place, it was a place where people lived and used and interacted and temple ceremonies occurred, the plastic began to be sort of accumulating. There weren’t garbage sort of removal things and because people had the habit of throwing away their wrappers, which were biological beforehand, what we got was this understory of plastic across the entire forest choking new growth, and killing the sacred forest itself. 

So this was a big problem. And we recognize this early on, and of course, the people there the priests, the local Balinese, and my colleagues from the university, all recognized this and the local village manager, the manager of the site, a man named Pak Acin—pak is a referential term in Indonesian. So Pak Acin recognized this and he asked us since we were, you know, researchers in this area, he’s like, “well, look, you’re doing research, you’re studying ecology and all these kinds of things, what do you think? What can we do?” So he asked my input, asked our input, to help in the situation. So I said to him, look, what you’ve got to do is pull all the—you know, I did the science thing, what are the data? So we did a survey, we looked at soils, we did soil quality assessment, we looked and we found this deep layer plastics. I’m like, “okay, here’s what you’ve got to do, remove the plastic, sort of re-fertilize the area, bring in soil, truck it in, you can, we can do this, right? We can change this. There’s basic agricultural ecological structures, and processes we can do. But the problem is you need to make it illegal for everyone to use plastic. You can’t have people use plastic, because then you still have the problem.” At which point, he laughed. And I say, “why are you laughing?” He’s like, “okay, that’s what we thought, you know, we know that.” And I’m like, “well, you know, what’s the issue?” He’s like, “well, we can’t just make plastic illegal, right? That’s what people are used to. That’s what people do. What we need to do is we need, you and I, need to collaborate, and we need to come up with a way to show people, to convince people that it’s not bad to use plastic and make it illegal, that it is problematic because plastic doesn’t fit with the way the world is, or should be, the way the Balinese see the world.” And it turns out, the Balinese have a philosophy called Tri Hita Karana, which in a long, complex sort of way, lays out the way humans and the world should live in a kind of mutual respect and accordance, that harmony should be maintained. And there’s a very clear way in which sort of the Balinese Hindu practices and religions are connected to that. 

And so as we’re walking through I’m like, “well, you know, we can take all the stuff, but you’re going to have to make a law.” And he was like, “we’re not going to make a law.” And he mused to me and he said, “you know, what we really need is to develop a goddess of plastic.” [laughter] And I looked at him like, well, I don’t think that’s the way you know—you know better than I, but I don’t think that’s the way it works in religious systems. And he’s like, “no, here’s what I mean, what we need to do is to look at our own theological commitments, to look at the structures of our faith traditions and practices, and to see where they resonate, right, with the notion of harmony with the soils, with the monkeys, with the trees, and see how we can deploy that in crafting a message in combination with the science you’re providing us, to deliver the people information and possibilities in ways that make sense to them, that fit with the world, and are understandable.” And that’s what we did. And in a large part, it was the framing and the combination, right. Because the data alone wouldn’t work, a law wouldn’t work. It was bringing these things together. And doing it in a way that made sense that acknowledged the contemporary belief systems of the people, their faith traditions and practices, the way the world is for them. And work with that, to develop understandings that involve the science, but did not prioritize it.

Stump:

So that’s really fascinating. And it brings up a couple of questions for me, that strike a little bit close to home. So forgive me, even if I sound a little defensive in all of this, because I’m sure that an anthropologist might look at what BioLogos is doing with regard to science and say that in some sense, we too, are attempting to leverage the religious beliefs of our audience, to get them to accept these scientific realities like evolution, or like climate change, for example. Is that a fair comparison from this example that you just gave?

Fuentes:

No, I would push against some of the terms you just use because—what I see you doing at BioLogos—I mean, I don’t know, right, you’re doing it, not I—but I see not “force people to accept.” That’s exactly what Pak Acin said would never work, or rather help people to understand. Right? So it’s not—for example, if you understand the processes and patterns of evolution over the course of life on the planet, it doesn’t matter whether you accept it or not, it’s ongoing. But how does it fit with your understanding of the world? How does it connect and make sense in the particular way in which you are in the world. And I think that’s really important. And I think the real benefit of a project like BioLogos, is to illustrate how the complexities of diverse theological interpretations, readings, experiences can connect with the patterns of processes emerging from scientific research, and create an opportunity for communities of faith, and others, to engage in dialogue that moves us all towards a better understanding of the world. 

Stump:

I think the challenge for us is, we hear your story and think, oh, a goddess of plastic? Come on. That’s just this cultural belief that they have that you’re— And we don’t want to think of our own religious beliefs in that same sense, right? Because it, then it feels like, well, they’re not really real, they’re not really true, are they? But that’s what you’re pushing back to try to get me to not think of it quite in those terms.

Fuentes:

Yes. Don’t think of it that way. Because—and this is what Pak Acin said, when I said “oh, you know, that’s not true,” he’s like, “no, I didn’t—” He didn’t mean literally, we’re gonna create a goddess of plastic and put it there. He meant, look, this is the way we see the world. And I think what’s really important is for Balinese Hindus, on average, right, and in my experience of interacting with them, like when students would ask me, you know, well, do they really believe that? I’m like, well, that’s not the right question. Right? In most of the world, someone’s faith tradition, the way in which they experience the world is part and parcel of their day to day reality. Here in the United States, and in much of the Western world, we have this weird thing between secular and religious, like we divide out like, well, I’m religious on Sunday, but the rest of the time I’m secular. That’s absurd. That’s not the way belief works, right? In that case, it’s not actually belief, it’s something else. So if we recognize that what people believe, and let’s use, you know, faith traditions here in this context, or who they are in the world, how they see and feel and interpret and perceive the world for real, then connecting those interpretations, those experiences and thinking through them with scientific data, or other kinds of insights or information, and finding places where they join and touch and shape one another, that’s powerful. That’s what I’m talking about.

Stump:

Good. Well, you have persuaded me that belief is a much more complex process than just accepting something as true, right? That it’s enmeshed in this much bigger way of being human. 

Fuentes:

Yeah. And I tell you, if people are really honest with themselves, you will find out that no one just accepts something. And even the process that has this sort of deep roots in Christian theological tradition of sort of opening yourself up, right, to the transcendent, opening yourself up to God, in that sense, that if you look back at the theologians who were writing this, they weren’t saying this was just a sort of a poof moment. There’s processes here. These are ways in which the body, the mind, the experience changes, where you become more than just the shell that you are. I think there’s a lot more going on. And I think just to say, “oh, we just accept something,” that really undermines the magic, the complexity and the science of what we’re talking about.

Stump:

Good. So the book was called Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being. Agustín, thanks so much for talking to us. Hopefully, we can do it again sometime.

Fuentes:

Absolutely. It was a great pleasure. Thank you for having me. 

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote workspaces and homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Agustin Fuentes

Agustín Fuentes

Agustín Fuentes is an anthropologist whose research focuses on the biosocial, delving into the entanglement of biological systems with the social and cultural lives of humans, our ancestors, and a few of the other animals with whom humanity shares close relations. From chasing monkeys in jungles and cities, to exploring the lives of our evolutionary ancestors, to examining human health, behavior, and diversity across the globe, he is interested in both the big questions and the small details of what makes humans and our close relations tick.

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