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Professor receives grant for new study

Nicole Toczauer | Friday, March 25, 2011

What makes humans unique?

This age-old question has garnered anthropology professor Agustin Fuentes a $197,000 grant to conduct the Human Natures Project, a study geared toward finding similarities between different disciplines in the discussion on human uniqueness.

“I’ve realized over the past couple of decades that many different disciplines have different ways of asking the same questions,” Fuentes said. “My project is to get people to understand the whole picture and push the discussion forward with more interaction and participants.”

He said the preliminary effort of the project is to determine whether the disciplines of anthropology, biology, psychology, philosophy and theology are similar in their perspectives on human nature. The project will focus on taking narrative threads from interdisciplinary conversations and understanding how they overlap, Fuentes said.

“My hypothesis is that there’s space for all of these or parts of all of them to get together,” Fuentes said. “One part of that is, I think, an interface between human evolution, culture and biology.”

The John Templeton Foundation has pledged to fund Fuentes’s ethnographic investigation, and Fuentes said he plans to hire a team of undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral research students once the grant becomes effective June 1.

Fuentes said he will spend most of the next year traveling the world to interview individuals who write about human uniqueness. He said he believes he will uncover more similarities through these interviews and discussions than in reading published material on the subject of human nature.

“Publishing keeps you stuck in a discipline, but talking allows more engagement and flexibility,” Fuentes said. “All these people write books and articles, but what you print isn’t always what you believe.”

In discussing human nature, behavior and motivation, Fuentes said he believes each discipline finds part of the truth, but still falls short of defining humans as a whole. He compared this issue to an old folktale about six blindfolded men touching different parts of an elephant.

A man who touched the elephant’s tail thought it was a snake, while another believed its tusk was a spear. Fuentes said their interpretations were not completely wrong, but their conclusions were inaccurate because they were unable to see the whole picture.

“If you stick a bunch of people around an elephant with blindfolds on, they will think it’s different things, and I think this is what’s going on with the different disciplines,” he said. “My project is trying to take all of the blindfolds off.”

Fuentes said he hopes to eliminate shortsightedness between the disciplines by widening the forum of discussion and highlighting similarities between different areas of study.  He said Notre Dame is the perfect place to begin the Human Natures Project because the University provides individuals from each of the five disciplines who can help him achieve his goal.

Fuentes also said the University’s academic reputation and financial connections helped make his project a reality.

“I’m also really thankful to the John Templeton Foundation for sponsoring this,” Fuentes said. “You propose it and it’s a little adventurous, but at Notre Dame you can receive help to research this.”

Ultimately, Fuentes said he is not trying to discover what constitutes human uniqueness. Instead, he said he hopes to find ways for people to pursue the topic more effectively and begin to think across the disciplines in new ways.

Most people agree human nature is a relevant and important topic, Fuentes said. But he said the real question is whether or not people actually agree on what human nature is, how they discuss it and how it contributes to their understanding of the world.

“I think there’s something in human cultures and the mind — how they work and function,” he said. “We have a connection to the world around us and to other animals, but there’s something else that makes humans especially interesting. “