Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Health of the Hadza

Stephan of Whole Health Source has written an interesting post on the contrasts of modern living against the culture of some primitives. However, I believe this post to erogenous in diagnosing current problems and that it encourages the emulation of impractical habits.

Due to some technical errors I was not allowed to post the comment I originally wanted. I managed to get my comment below 4,000 characters, but still it would not accept it, so here's what I posted in its place:

Interesting, but I think you're stepping out of your specialization here. Biology and nutrition can explain a lot, but not that which is within the jurisdiction of philosophy (ethics) and psychology (emotional health).

In truth I believe the stress of modern living is not caused by modern living itself, but rather irrational ideas regarding modern living. To take your example about people being stressed by being subordinate to other people, emotions are such an individual experience that we cannot generalize from any one instance. A person who hates his job and resents his boss will necessarily feel stressed as a result and will probably suffer negative physiological effects, but the exact opposite would be true for the person that loves his job and values his boss. In the former case we cannot blame modern living for the person's stress, but rather his ideas.

It is irrational ideas, not modern living, that causes the stress.

P.S. Is there a glitch in Blogger that prevents long comments from being posted? I originally wanted to post a much longer comment, but it would not accept it even as I got it under the defined character limit.

Here's what I wanted to post:

I think you are stepping outside the appropriate specialization. Biology and nutrition can explain a great deal, but only to an extent. While it may account for some parts of mental health, as certain practices and diets can have effects on brain development and chemical balance, it cannot account for all of it, because at some point one steps outside the realm of physical science and into the realm of philosophy and psychology. I think this is an instance of such. Forgive the length of this comment, but I believe it is important for understanding the nature of the error.

Most importantly, I think this post neglects the nature of emotions, though I assume you believe in the impact on health one’s consistent emotions can have. The nature of our emotions is determined by our ideas; our emotions are the physical response to our evaluations of things. Therefore the nature of our ideas can contribute significantly to how much stress we bear.

Take the amount of free time available to the Hadza. While this appear ideal for some this would be extremely stressful for others. A person who takes an Adam and Eve view on what composes an ideal life and the nature of work may find the existence of the Hadza to be ideal since so much free time is available, but for a man who absolutely loves his work and routinely stays up late in order to keep at it this would be hell, therefore adding a negative impact on health.

This applies in many places. A person who resents his employer will necessarily dislike his job and feel stressed by it, but a person who loves his job, values his employer, or both will find that his job provides an emotional benefit in addition to his financial sustenance and may enjoy health benefits on top of all that. The issue of emotional evaluations as they apply to health is so individual that we cannot generalize from any one experience.

Furthermore, remember that the Hadza are primitive, which comes with major risks. They have no warfare, but what prevents it? Feeling good and sharing emotions with other people cannot be a sufficient defense against possible future warfare. Emotionalists, people that believe emotions can provide knowledge of existence, cannot rationally convince other people of their conclusions since their conclusions are isolated entirely within emotions. ("For those that understand no explanation is necessary; for those who do not none is possible.") An emotionalist therefore either has to suffer the stress of being impotent to persuade other people, except for people who share his emotions; break off from the group, or use physical force in order to make people adhere to his conclusions in physical action, which would inflict stress on everyone. The Hadza lack a rational ideology, so they put themselves at immense risk for stress if a significant number of people disagree in their conclusions about what is right. While the Hadza may now be enjoying peace, it is fragile and virtually unsustainable. Only in a rational society where men share a rational morality, a rational epistemology, and explicitly agree that force is an improper way of dealing with men can there be a sustainable peace and minimal violence.

To summarize, the fallacies are 1.) applying the wrong scientific methodology, 2.) neglecting how emotional responses come about and how individual they are, 3.) making a generalization off your own individual experiences, and 4.) neglecting what risk the Hadza are at for being a primitive culture without a rational ideology.

It may seem as though I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but my purpose is to make explicit that this conclusion about a primitive culture has the potential to add more stress than eliminate. In short, I think the real problem is that our culture adheres to irrational ideas regarding modern living and takes up stress as a result rather than modern living itself causing the stress. As stated above, opposing views on work will lead to vastly different emotions and physiological responses depending on what view is held. We must hold responsible the true culprit, irrational ideas, if we are to advance towards a healthy solution.

Due to the debate that went on in the comments Stephan has posted a follow up piece on how commenters have been engaging in a false dichotomy between miserable savages and Garden of Eden primitives, and I agree that it is a false dichotomy, but I still believe that his original post still makes an incorrect diagnosis.

Without a rational philosophy, man is helpless to sustain himself. Without a rational epistemology he will have no way except by luck to identify what foods are good for him, and without a rational morality he has no way to determine the practical way to live, alone and with others. The Hadza may be enjoying good health now, but can it last?


Steve D said...

I like your post and you make some good points. I do think you are overstating them to some degree. For example:

“In truth I believe the stress of modern living is not caused by modern living itself, but rather irrational ideas regarding modern living.”

I wouldn’t deny that there are certain stresses associated with modern living. Some degree of stress must exist for every living organism. There are definitely a lot of different stresses associated with primitive lifestyles as well. The questions are how much stress and how can we deal with it? Certainly the nature of our ideas can contribute significantly to how much stress we bear. We can also learn techniques to deal with stress and have a much better chance to understand the underlying issues than primitive people.

Overall, I disagree with the philosophy espoused in that particular post on Whole Health Source (I haven’t read the rest of that blog) and the original article and some of the so called facts. Here is a sample:

“The Hadza are a hunter-gatherer group living in a way that may resemble how our ancestors lived for most of the last million years.”

No! No! No! The best you might say is that the Hadza are a hunter-gatherer group living in a way that may resemble how our ancestors lived for most of the last 50,000 years. Their technology is far far beyond anything from the middle Paleolithic or earlier. In fact it is even greater than most Upper Paleolithic societies (starting about 50,000 years ago). It seems they use fairly modern technology. For example their bow and arrows technology is at or above the level from 16,000 years ago. Once again people fail to make this critical distinction between the Upper Paleolithic and earlier periods.

”although they do have homicide”

Most hunter-gatherer societies that have been studied have very high levels of homicide and very high levels of stress. Most of these types of articles are biased do not objectively present the negative evidence.

They don’t have famine of course because their numbers remain small.

“The Hadza recognize no official leaders”

True, the politics of most small bands of humans is anarchism – hence the usual high crime rate.

A lot of Stephan’s points are just wishful thinking – longing for the way things used to be. How many people if given a choice would choose to live with the Hazda?
Yes, by some indications the Neolithic revolution was a step backward but think about this carefully. If it was so bad then why did it happen in the first place? There are a number of theories but in every case certain advantages were present which made the change worthwhile. Some of these are stable homes, community living, a more stable food supply, more food overall and the ability to have and raise more children. What do you give up: less diverse food supply, some freedom? No choice is perfect but to call it ‘the biggest mistake in history’ requires a remarkable degree of bias.

It’s part of the whole deal of people worshiping anything ‘natural’ without looking at it critically. For example some herbs have natural medicine. Now, however we can isolate the active ingredients to make it work better.

Manish Pathak said...

I read many articles on human evolution with great interest and what interested me most is the evolution of human brain. Since the separation of humans from chimps about 6 million years ago evolution of human brain remained near constant for most of the time until the very late i.e. around 2 million years when it started to evolve rapidly increasing the brain size to near 1400 cc or doubled to what it was couple of million years ago.
Now more recent studies suggests that human brain has started to shrink and has managed to shrunk as much as the size of a tennis ball. Which might indicate that we actually are getting dumb! It has been argued that since humans embraced agriculture and reduced their survival efforts got more advance and made things easier to get they did not need a highly taxing brain (consider the amount of energy it requires (20%) to function compared to rest of the body).
So we actually have come down from a common brain size of 1600 to 1400 now and still losing it. What I want to know is since Hadza folks have managed to evade highly developed civil society and have struggled to get their meal, do they have their brain size remain unchanged from last 20k odd years? Are they much brighter than we are?
And for those who feel that we are smarter than our predecessors might need to reconsider the fact that we managed to invent things only after our struggle for food was over.

Please answer...