Verbs, Bones, and Brains

Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Human Nature

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Editor(s): 
Agustín Fuentes, Aku Visala
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , January
     2017.
     302 pages.
     $50.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780268101145.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Verbs, Bones, and Brains brings to publication the papers and responses from the culminating conference of the Human Nature(s) Project: Assessing and Understanding Transdisciplinary Approaches to Culture, Biology and Human Uniqueness at the University of Notre Dame in April of 2014. The core aim of that project was to find ways to articulate what human nature might be from a variety of disciplinary perspectives that avoid the tendencies to, on the one hand, essentialize human nature, and on the other, to reject the possibility of human nature as a meaningful concept. In order to accomplish this, much of the consideration of human nature in this book reflects on the “extended evolutionary synthesis [EES]” (249), which includes at least four causes of evolutionary variation: genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic (Jablonka & Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions, MIT Press, 2005). Agustín Fuentes, one of the editors, contends that EES is a more suitable theory for engaging in interdisciplinary, and he hopes transdisciplinary, consideration of human nature than either Darwinian or Neo-Darwinian theories of evolution. Contributors to the volume include various types of anthropologists, psychologists, theologians, and philosophers.

Perhaps the most important contribution of this volume is its call to understand human nature in light of evolution without succumbing to the tendencies toward either materialist reductionism or social constructivism in the literature. This call is likely to prove a real challenge to theologians who desire to participate in the project, as evidenced by the fact that the theologians who contributed were extremely hesitant in advancing any really theological claims, restricting their commentary largely to clearing out space in the conversation for future work. Nevertheless, this call should be taken to heart as an invitation to undertake such work in earnest, which hospitality is rarely forthcoming from either the social or the natural sciences.

Like many conference volumes, this collection suffers from several significant limitations. First, for a book that strives toward interdisciplinarity, and even transdisciplinarity, a rather limited range of perspectives was, in fact, incorporated. A biologist laying out the full landscape of evolutionary theory would have been welcome, as would a scientist providing a robust account of emergence theory. Aside from non-expert responses representing Daoism and Judaism, all of the other religious reflections in this book are Christian. Consideration of the rigorous debates about human nature in Confucianism in light of evolutionary theory would have perhaps been especially fruitful. Second, it is not until the end of the volume that Fuentes acknowledges that the extended evolutionary synthesis is not a universally accepted theory, and in a footnote at that. Given that his conception of transdisciplinarity involves inviting disciplines to reconsider their methods, worldviews, and language in light of findings from other disciplines, it would seem that such an invitation would be more likely accepted if it were to be offered from surer footing.

Nonetheless, Verbs, Bones, and Brains is an excellent example of how to have collegial and productive conversation among the sciences and the humanities, and on a topic as contested in various literatures as human nature. It brings into contemporary perspective and deeper scientific engagement many of the issues which were raised two decades ago in Is There a Human Nature? (Leroy S. Rouner, University of Notre Dame Press, 1997. Indeed, the contributors are to be commended for, at various points, recognizing and addressing the ethical and political implications of construing human nature in particular ways. The groundwork laid in this volume is fecund for theological and religious reflection on human nature and so it should be taken by scholars of religion as a provocation to engagement.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lawrence A. Whitney is a doctoral candidate in philosophical and comparative theology at Boston University.

Date of Review: 
June 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Agustín Fuentes is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. 
Aku Visala is a university researcher in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki, Finland.

Keywords: 

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