May 08, 2014 by Richard Furstein
Last week, I had the pleasure of attending “Love, Lust and Loathing: The Science Behind Our Strongest Emotions,” organized by the Philadelphia Science Festival. Of the six scientists (and one comedian) who presented that evening, the lecture that stayed with me most was by Coren Apicella. An assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Apicella spoke to us about her study of the relationship between men’s vocal cords and their perceived sexual attractiveness. Her hypothesis was fairly innocuous: Men with deeper voices are considered more attractive. Her methodology, however, was deeply troubling.
Apicella decided to test her hypothesis on the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer group living in Tanzania, located in East Africa. As she described the culture she had selected, she invoked an image of a simplistic, isolated group of people living as their (and our) ancestors did for the past 50,000 years. She noted that they are a “natural birthing population,” meaning they do not use birth control. To complete the fetishized image of primitivism, she showed a photo of herself next to several Hadza people, in their traditional garb.
When evolutionary biologists wish to study a particular trait in an animal species, they select a model group. This small, observable group of animals is taken to stand for most members of that species, and scientists can make generalizations about the species from their observations. The problem with Apicella’s research is that the Hadza are not a model group. Unlike animals, all humans are culturally distinct, and their behaviors are virtually impossible to generalize. When Apicella describes the Hadza simply as “hunter-gatherers,” she implies that their economic model describes them completely.
When she argues that they live unaffected by the outside world, she neglects the centuries of economic, social and legal changes that have beset Tanzania. Such changes did not only affect the people who now mimic Western culture, but the Hadza as well. When she terms the Hadza a “natural birthing population,” she ignores the complex rules governing spousal selection, marriage and reproduction at play in every society (including the ones without Plan B pills). The Hadza do not simply mate with whomever they feel like, they have rules and rituals to regulate their reproduction.
Apicella’s implicit characterization of the Hadza is based on a deficit model. Rather than speaking about what makes this Sub-Saharan African society unique, she is more interested in describing them as a precursor to our “modern” societies. The idea of primitive vs. civilized people was invented by social scientists in the late 19th century. At that time, luminaries like L.H. Morgan and Herbert Spencer described human culture as “evolving,” arguing that European society was highly evolved compared to the cultures of Africa and North America. This evolution, it followed, justified Europe’s colonial domination of other countries and the subjugation of people of color for manual labor purposes.
The idea that cultures “evolve” was rejected by anthropologists more than 100 years ago. It is racist, self-aggrandizing and lacks any substantial evidence. Who is to say that Hadza culture resembles the hunter-gathering cultures of our past? The Hadza do not even behave like other hunter-gatherer groups in the present. The deficit model speaks of groups like the Hadza as lacking “culture,” because they live closer to nature. It blinds us to the ways that Hadza culture has evolved over the centuries by focusing only on the aspects we see as “primitive.”
It may be hard to understand the Hadza as anything other than an exotic hunter-gatherer band because their culture is nearly invisible to us. This invisibility makes it all the more vital for researchers to represent the Hadza ethically and realistically. By using them to model “typical” early humans, researchers are negating their cultural uniqueness and deceiving the consumers of their research. If Apicella’s research is to uncover the deeper truths about human behavior, why did she choose a group that is so different from us? Why not multiple cultural groups? Or simply multiple Americans?
It is tempting for scientists to ignore the impact of culture upon human behavior, but such ignorance ultimately weakens their work. Further, pretending that some groups have more or less culture than others is not only inaccurate, it is deeply disrespectful to groups like the Hadza. Since the days of Emile Durkheim, anthropologists have been aware of the incredible benefits of consulting psychology when doing their work. It is unfortunate that even in 2014, psychologists still think it is appropriate to disregard the work of anthropologists and treat some humans as living models.
Richard Furstein is a senior anthropology major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.