Agustin Fuentes

Biological anthropologist, University of Notre Dame


Hosted by AAA President Virginia R. Dominguez, “Inside the President’s Studio” features interviews with anthropologists about their ideas, research and passions. It is part of an ongoing effort to foster public, visible and active engagement with anthropologists. Become a part of the conversation by reading and listening to the interviews, adding your comments to the blog, and suggesting people or topics for future pieces.

This month the studio features  Notre Dame biological anthropologist Agustin Fuentes.   In this podcast, he  talks about his research and teaching interests, which include the evolution of social complexity in human and primate societies, cooperation and conflict negotiation, human diversity, and reproductive behavior and ecology.

Dr. Fuentes was provided with a series of questions by before the podcast was recorded, and his written answers are provided below.

(1)  What are you most passionate about–in life, work, anthropology, society, science, or play?

••••All of it simultaneously…to be honest I have trouble differentiating between these categories…I am a “true believer” in that, for me, anthropology crosses all of these categories so I am always an anthropologist, whether I want to be or not.   In enjoy work (I generally am lucky enough to be paid to do what I like to do)…I am not really sure what “play” is…I love eating, films, art, socializing, but those are also a core part of what interests me professionally…
(2)  Does your answer surprise you in any way?  Would it have surprised you 10 or 20 years ago?

•••••No, I think I’ve always been pretty much the same…the only real change is that maybe 25 years ago I did not know that I’d be doing this via an anthropological lens
(3)  Do you remember when you first thought you’d want to be an anthropologist, and was this, by any chance, while visiting a museum of anthropology, or an  anthropology wing in a museum of natural history?

••••••I always was interested in what makes humans tick, in travel, in human variation (of all stripes), and on the world of animals (and humans’ place in it) …but did not really connect this with anthropology until my 2nd and 3rd year of UG studies where I had courses with Phyllis Dolhinow, Laura Nader and Andre Simic (who was visiting a UC Berkeley then) …it was at that point that I realized anthropology existed and that it was more or less what I was looking for.
(4) Do you remember when you first thought about becoming a primatologist?  Did it have anything to do with visiting zoos and their primate exhibits?

••••••I’ve read that you   were very influenced by a course you took as an undergraduate.  Was that more significant a factor than any face-to-face encounter you’d had with primates at  that point?

I was a 19 year old sitting in a primate behavior class and Phyllis Dolhinow (who later became my graduate advisor) was lecturing about chimpanzees and langurs and she referred to individuals (in general) as “she” and proceeded to describe a day in the life of these individuals ….I was hooked

(5) How long have you been a member of AAA?  Many biological anthropologists these days belong to be American Association of Physical Anthropologists but not the AAA.  Are primatologists likelier than other types of biological anthropologists to be members of both?  If so, is it because their work demands careful thinking   about primate social behavior and even entails long periods of fieldwork (in ways similar to what social, cultural, linguistic, political, and economic    anthropologists do)?

••••••Since 1996, the year I entered my first Tenure-track position.  I think that many bioanthropologists are missing the boat by not being part of the AAA…it is a very large organization, but it is a critical one for the discipline on the whole…but I am not in the bioanth mainstream on this, in fact one problem may be that I see myself as an anthropologist, who happens to have a particular suite of biologically oriented training and whose work is often focused on human and primate behavior and evolution…
(6) How and why have you focused on macaques?  Over the years I’ve had colleagues in primatology who worked with (and loved working with) lemurs, bonobos,  chimpanzees, or gorillas.  I don’t think I have ever knowingly talked with a colleague who worked with macaques.

••••••I’ve worked with many species of monkeys, a few species of apes , and with humans  (not to mention various rodents, and seagulls too).  Macaques and humans are the two groups that interest me most.  The share a common ability to spread successfully across disparate environments, share a common expansion in the Pleistocene, social flexibility and are pretty much the two most successful primates on the planet…also, they co-exist remarkably well compared to humans and nearly any other mammals.
(7) If you were in charge of public health programs in places with “wild” monkeys or primates sharing public space with humans –including, I gather, Gibraltar where you   do some of your own work– what policies or practices would you put in place?  I have seen the mix of humans and monkeys in Mumbai, India, and found it both   amazing and non-disruptive, but I was neither living there for any length of time nor charged with the task of maintaining public order or public health.

••••••Yeah, I have actually made a number of management recommendations to various places around the world…in fact, a chunk of my research is largely with management in mind (at least at the human-macaque interface) …I can go into much more detail as needed

(8)  Do you see yourself as part of the emergent and very multi-disciplinary world of “animal studies” that includes people in the humanities, social sciences, and some of    the biological sciences?  Are there certain kinds of questions or approaches coming out of those scholarly interactions that you see as especially worthwhile and   not already being asked or answered in the “sciences” per se, or even within anthropology or primatology?

••••••In short: YES.  I have an article coming out in the Nov. issue of Cultural Anthropology in a series of papers guest edited by Eben Kirksey and Stefan Heimriech on just that topic (Multispecies becomings and such).  I am not sure, but I think I might be the first “biological anthropologist” to publish in Cultural Anthropology….I am also one of the founding members of the emerging field of ethnoprimatology, which is a very important contributor to the multispecies literature and theory.   I would be glad to go on at some length about where these interactions are and how they are moving us towards a better way to look at humans and others in the anthropocene.

(9) I must ask about zoos.  Primatologists I know and like seem to have to do some of their work with primates in various kinds of settings controlled by humans—zoos,    research facilities, sanctuaries, national preserves.  As a primatologist, how do you experience these settings?  Must the planet have them?  Do you feel it is the right and duty of humans to maintain them?

••••••Yeah, I (and my students) have worked in Zoos as well.   However, I am increasingly uncomfortable with an array of captive contexts for most animals, and especially many primates and social mammals.  There are some very important potential contributions from Zoos…however, I am less and less positive about many of the large animal research centers.  I will gladly share my thoughts on this….

(10) Have you ever thought of becoming a university president? a liberal arts college president? U.S. Secretary of Education?  I ask because my “sources” tell me that you love to work with undergraduates, mentor them, and sponsor their research experiences.  I can imagine you’d have strong positions on what we do right and wrong in tertiary education in the U.S.

••••••Well, I am a 50% administrator now and have been in one position or another for some time…apparently I am pretty good at administration even though I really do not like it.  I have no desire to move up the ladder as an administrator, but do take great pride in doing a job well and feel that it is a professional obligation as a professor to spend some time as an administrator (and that administrators really need to be in the classroom every now and then).   I have a number of string positions on what we do right and wrong as far as tertiary ed in the USA  (and primary and secondary education…nearly all of my immediate family members are educators).

(11) Are there certain things about you–in work or play–that only close friends know but that you are willing to share with others here?  One of my first guests on INSIDE   THE PRESIDENT’S STUDIO admitted to loving chocolate, a second to being a fairly good pianist, and a third to having been pretty countercultural while living as   a young man in Hawai’i.  Our listeners enjoy getting to know the person I interview beyond hearing about their professional areas of expertise.  Is this enough  encouragement to let us in on some little secret?

••••••Hmm,  well I LOVE chocolate, good food and good wine, and thus love to cook (and paid for a chunk of graduate school doing just that).…but most people who know me know that.  Probably one that would surprise folks (or not) is that I am an independent film producer  (with many IMDB credits).  My partner, Devi Snively, is a writer/director and very well known for short horror comedies and overall contribution to the indie film scene.  I have collaborated with her on a number of film projects and travel with her to many film festivals.  Actually, this melds very well with my anthropological interests, but it is probably not very typical of the academic world.

(12) What is the one question I have not (yet) asked that you really want me to ask and have you answer?

••••••Well…one that is often asked of me: why anthropology?    I truly feel that we have let ourselves slip a bit from public relevance …I am committed to answering that question in public venues on topics that matter to everyday lives (currently I speak and write on issue related to  race, sex and aggression).  Anthropology has much to say, especially in order to counter much of the prevailing “common sense” and societal myths in this country.


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