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Many Minds

Oct 13, 2021

Welcome back folks! Today’s episode circles some big questions. What does it mean to be human? What’s distinctive about the human mind and the human mode of being? What is human nature—if such a thing exists—and how could we catch a glimpse of it? Should we go looking for it in other primate species? Should we look deep in our fossil record?

My guest today is Dr. Agustín Fuentes, Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University. He is the other of a number of books, most recently The Creative Spark, in 2017, and Why We Believe, in 2019. Agustín was trained as a biological anthropologist, but as, you’ll hear, he’s very much interested in the whole human, not just our skulls and teeth and genes. He’s spent the better part of his career trying to build a more integrated, more fully fleshed out view of our species—one that takes seriously our bodies and brains, our culture and cognition, our primate heritage and our Pleistocene past. 

Here we talk about Agustín’s career—how he got into anthropology in the first place, and how he went from observing langurs in Indonesia, to writing about human creativity and belief. We discuss the human niche and why it’s distinctive (but maybe not unique). We touch on monogamy and how it’s not a monolith. We talk about maleness and masculinity. And, for those who’ve been following recent hubbubs online, rest assured that we also talk about Darwin—and specifically what Darwin got wrong about biological sex and race.

I’ve been following Agustín’s work for some time and was thrilled to get him on the show. He’s an unusually expansive and boundary-crossing thinker—and that’s on full display in this conversation. He also doesn’t shy away from messiness. He welcomes the mess. He celebrates complexity. He enthuses about the richly, entangled human condition. Whether or not you yourself celebrate mess and complexity and entanglement—I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy hearing what Agustín has to say about it. 

One quick announcement before he get to it: we’d like to welcome a new member of the Many Minds team: Cecilia Padilla. She is our new Assistant Producer, and we’re super excited to have her on board. 

Alright friends—here’s my chat with Dr. Agustín Fuentes. Enjoy!


A transcript of this episode is available here


Notes and links

6:00 – One of the first anthropology courses to inspire Dr. Fuentes was taught by Dr. Phyllis Dolhinow of UC Berkeley.

9:15 – An early publication by Dr. Fuentes on the Mentawai langur (Presbytis potenziani).

12:00 – A 2012 paper by Dr. Fuentes laying out the aims, findings, and history of the subfield known as ethnoprimatology, which studies interactions between humans and primates.

13:30 – A 2013 paper by Dr. Fuentes describing ethnoprimatological findings from Bali.

17:30 – Dr. Fuentes’s 1998 paper on monogamy, which he considers one of his first important contributions to the field.

22:00 – In 2008 Dr. Fuentes published Evolution and Human Behavior, a book-length comparison of different accounts of why humans are the way they are.

23:15 – The classic book on niche construction by Odling-Smee and colleagues. A single-article discussion of the concept of niche construction is available here.

26:00 – The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis website, which Dr. Fuentes recommends.

29:40 – A paper by Dr. Fuentes on the human niche.

32:00 – One distinctive aspect of the human niche—belief—is discussed extensively in Dr. Fuentes’s book Why We Believe.

37:00 – Dr. Fuentes recently reviewed Kindred, by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, who we had on the show previously.

39:30 – Dr. Fuentes’s recent paper on the search for the “roots” of masculinity.

54:00 – Dr. Fuentes recently wrote a chapter on Darwin’s account of the “races of man” in A Most Interesting Problem, a volume edited by Jeremy De Silva. See also his recent editorial in Science, which raised quite a stir. Dr. Fuentes also recommends the chapter in the De Silva volume by Dr. Holly Dunsworth titled ‘This View of Wife.’

1:03:00 – For the broader historical and biographical context of Darwin’s ideas, I recommend Janet Browne’s two-volume biography.

1:12:15 – Dr. Fuentes quotes Tim Ingold’s idea that “anthropology is philosophy with people in it.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the topics we discussed, be sure to check out Why We Believe and The Creative Spark. Dr. Fuentes also recommends:

Kindred, Rebecca Wragg Sykes

The Promise of Contemporary Primatology, Erin P. Riley

Emergent Warfare in Our Evolutionary Past, Nam C. Kim & Marc Kissel

Recent books on race by Dorothy Roberts and Alondra Nelson

Anthropology: Why It Matters, Tim Ingold

Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, Kevin Laland

Pink Brain, Blue Brain, Lise Eliot

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


You can find Dr. Fuentes on Twitter (@Anthrofuentes) and follow his research at his website.   


Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from assistant producer Cecilia Padilla. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd ( Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (

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