Tuesday, February 16

Human Ethology: Part I of ?

When I started getting into primatology field work, I went to talk to Jerry Schneider, my former teacher and boss from my 9.20 days, to ask his advice. Jerry's known a lot of behavior people over the years, and he was right there in Boston through the whole sociobiology controversy. Jerry's recommended a lot of books to me over the years, this time he said that if I was interested in primatology, specifically an anthrocentric view, I ought to read Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt's Human Ethology.

Ethology is the study of the natural behavior of animals. Human ethology focuses on humans, though evolutionary science often brings chimps, bonobos, and other primates into the picture. Human ethology is basically a different way of looking at anthropology, instead of taking a cognitive approach, or working down from societies and cultures to the individual, human ethology examines anthropology from an evolutionary standpoint, a sociobiological standpoint. It attacks problems by asking what the adaptability of human behaviors are.

I brought the tome with me to Africa, and have since burned through its contents. Eibl-Eibesfeldt's work remains a liberating source of knowlegde, but it does have a few drawbacks:
  1. The text is outdated. It was originally published 1989, and while I have the "Second Edition" from 2008, it is effectively just a reprint and does not incorporate new data from the intervening twenty years.
  2. Eibl-Eibesfeldt's primary goal was to present the facts of natural human behavior, rather than give recommendations on one ought to do. He does give some tips, as it would be impossible not to in a good discussion. The book is in turth a textbook; a descriptive work, not a persuasive one.
I'm interested in taking the findings presented by Eibl-Eibesfeldt and others (who are hopefully more up to date), and seeing how we can improved short and long term aspects of one's lifestyle. Self-help, basically.

So what's new in this line of advocacy? We already have methods in ergonomics, which were invented in order to take advantage of how we were meant to sit. We have products like the FiveFingers, designed to be as much like a normal human foot as possible, so that we can run the way we were meant to. Perhaps most popular are the "new" diets, based on prehistoric peoples who didn't have the option of processing their grains into bleached flour, so they just ate the wholegrains, nuts, and fruits, which could be easily gathered in their habitat - how we're meant to eat. Human ethology grapples with a broader and arguably different problem: how are we meant to act?

Our minds and bodies are attuned for life running through savannas, hunting, picking berries, laying the the dirt, being exposed to the elements under the sun all day. Life under the protective watch of civilization does open up all kinds of new avenues of discovery and enlightenment, but sometime our environment can become over-protective, leading to negative effects. Stress levels are higher, overall health is declining, infections race through populations unchecked. Simply put, people aren't meant to live this way. The nature-versus-nuture debate tell us that both influences come into play when shaping a person's development. We are not blank slates, and we possess many innate qualities and tendencies. We need to figure out how we can work with our natural affinities, not around them or ignoring them entirely. We need to able to find a way to keep progressing while not losing sight of our roots. Human ethology allows us to do this.
For my purposes, I'm going to use human ethology as a blanket to cover related topic, like nutrition and exercise, which I've already discussed. These topics still have a strong behavioral component because of the power of choice. For example, diet becomes more useful and interesting to discuss when we try to understand why we make poor dietary choices. The more you know, the better you can make the informed decision.

Here's a quick but telling example: Birthing. Unquestionably one of the most crucial moments in human life. In my discussions with primatologists, I've learned that monkeys and apes don't have much of a problem with giving birth, which is certainly not true for humans. Our births are long and arduous, with a high mortality rate for mother and child. There are a number of reasons for this, but can we do anything to combat mortality? We can't increase the size of our pelvic girdle or stop walking upright - these are unalterable physical traits. Yet we can alter alter our approach to the situation; how we behave under these circumstances.

Modern hospitals have been getting with the picture in terms of providing ethological birthing beds, but the problem is still worth noting, since the majority of readers were probably born under poor conditions. "Primitive" cultures all around the globe rely on squatting births, which is how our other ape buddies do it. Gravity is a powerful factor, but more fundamentally, this was how the human birth canal was designed to be used. If you're not giving birth in a squat, you're basically doing it wrong (unless there are extenuating circumstances, of course). And doing birth wrong is one of the biggest mistakes you could make.

The circumstances are another thing we don't need to take for granted. A hospital is not a fun place to be. Few enjoy being in a hospital for the obvious reason of its-a-hospital-full-of-sick-and-dying-people-oh-this-is-depressing. That's not the whole story though - a hospital is bare, sterile, mechanistic. They are cold and unfamiliar: hospital interiors are unlike anything else in our lives, except for the occasional nursing home or science lab.

Animals want to give birth somewhere comfortable. This varies among animals, I've learned from the baboons that they tend to do it at night, when they're around their sleeping site, a known safe location. The rest of the troop can be gotten away from for more privacy and comfort, but the mother knows they are nearby for assistance if she needs it. Humans are more needy in birth than baboons, desiring assistance to be on hand throughout, usually in the form of female relatives. A female rushed to a hospital and dumped in a bed is put under enormous stress, and she must get used to the unfamiliar location before giving birth. This is going to lengthen the birthing time by a lot - studies have revealed that home births take significantly less time than hospital birth.

We've stumbled upon the first lesson of human ethology - you should never assume physical comfort is good for you. Bringing ergonomics back into the picture, La-Z-Boy makes these wonderfully soft couches which look great and do feel great at first, but provide very little support. Pretty soon, you'll probably develop a sore back or buttocks from sitting on one of those. Since we are so distantly removed from our primordial homelands, our behavior is removed as well, which requires we contemplate our drives and desires, and interpret them in the unnatural context of our everyday lives. We're aren't a blank slate, our minds are the most malleable and fluid in the world. This advantage might have gotten us into this jam in the first place, but it can definitely get us out.

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