Video: Anthropologist Agustín Fuentes on human imagination and creativity

Author: Todd Boruff


“Humans have this incredible capacity to look at the world around them, to see how it is, to imagine something completely different, and to try to make that reality.” 

— Agustín Fuentes

Agustín Fuentes is the Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. His research interests include the roles of creativity and imagination in human evolution, multispecies anthropology, evolutionary theory, and the structures of race and racism. More information can be found on his faculty page.

Video Transcript

I’m an anthropologist. I am a particular kind of anthropologist that we sometimes call a biological anthropologist. I’m interested in everything about the human: our deep past — let’s say the last 2 million years, our contemporary present — how we behave, how we live, what our bodies do, what hormones and health and lifestyles are like, and trying to think about how we can reconstruct the ways our ancestors interacted with the world based on their bones, based on the tools they left behind, and based on that incredible brain that they have.

Humans have this incredible capacity to look at the world around them, to see how it is, to imagine something completely different, and to try to make that reality. That capacity comes from our neural biologies, our endocrine or hormone systems, our deep evolutionary histories, our ways of living and getting together, and by mixing all of that, along with cultural and linguistic diversity, we get an answer to why we can do that. So I think understanding the way our brain works, the way our bodies work, what our history looks like, help us think about how we make those things matter for the future, for a better future, for all humans, and for everything else that we share the planet with.

What really surprises me is how long and how deep our history is of working together, of imagining and creating. 100,000 years ago, they were making beads and these incredible carvings. 200,000 years ago, they were using ochre to paint their bodies. 300 thousand years ago, our deep ancestors were building structures inside of caves. That’s what got us here and it’s what, I hope, is gonna make us stay here well into the future.

Technology has opened a whole bunch of new windows so we get more data. What technology hasn’t given us are the skills to think about that data, and that comes not from the new technology, but from the deep investment in traditional scholarly learning. That’s why philosophy and the humanities are critical to the sciences and the social sciences. We need to remember that we have to reflect on things, we have to critique things, we have to engage with things, and so it’s this integration of a deep tradition of learning, of understanding, of scholarship, mixed with new technologies that’s really going to change the future.

Notre Dame encourages and fosters interdisciplinary scholar engagement. I work with theologians, with biologists, with other social scientists, and folks from the humanities. We think together in a space that’s not constrained by some of the traditional notions of, well, the humanities go here, the sciences go here. To ask good questions about anything, like health for example, to understand human health, you have to understand human biology, right? You have to understand a health system, that’s sociology and anthropology and ethnography. You have to be able to talk to a bunch of people, to collaborate with a bunch of people who have different trainings, different backgrounds, different vocabularies. You have to be ready to be wrong, you have to be ready to learn, and you have to be ready to work with others, but the payoff is enormous.

Originally published by Todd Boruff at on October 22, 2019.