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Anthropocentrism and cultural bias in animal research

February 2, 2010

This is another aside which has turned into a post.

Checking Twitter, I ran across a link to a great set of spotted hyena photos on the BBC site. (Another stunning one: Pieter Hugo’s series The Hyena & Other Men.)

What also caught my eye? The captions, based on research from Michigan State University. They cooperate, which is supposed to be astounding. But, they are not doing this because they care about their family members, don’t enjoy watching them getting beaten up by other hyenas, and life is much more pleasant that way; “They assist their kin in gaining a competitive advantage over other group members….Interestingly, hyenas co-operated to help both their maternal and paternal relatives during fights”. ‘[G]roups of hyenas that work together to overcome their enemies seem to have an “evolutionary advantage”‘.

Guess that’s all cleared up.

Interesting combination of sharply dividing other animals’ motives from those of humans (well, Real Humans), and projecting “barbaric” human motives onto other animals. Not that this is in any way unusual, unfortunately; this example was particularly eye-catching in contrast to what I was seeing in the photos. Sort of like the way Autism Speaks has presented photos and videos completely misreading/dismissing kids who were obviously trying to communicate nonverbally. This has been a long-running theme when I have been watching wildlife documentaries: preconceived notions getting in the way of even describing the behavior accurately.

I’m just waiting for some brain-breakingly recursive EvPsych interpretation of how these hyena observations further explain human behavior. Most of the stuff produced on cooperation and altruism is contorted enough already.

The weirdness gets even deeper, going to MSU’s Hyena Research Special Report site. Some observations from Establishing dominance:

Among hyenas, many traditional gender roles are reversed…

Females control the power in hyena society…

Female spotted hyenas are surprisingly “masculine” in their behavior and appearance…

A second hypothesis suggests that, instead of having an adaptive function, the female’s odd genitalia merely represent a side-effect of selection for other male-like traits in females such as large body size or enhanced aggressiveness…
[even though]
Unlike most animals in which dominance is determined by size, strength or the ability to gather food, hyenas “inherit” their social ranks from their mothers.

Yeah, Western gender roles are so applicable here. They are not “masculine” or “feminine”, they are hyenas. Female hyenas are female hyenas. Hyenas’ social roles are, barring obvious changes in behavior, “traditional” for hyenas. Hyenas in general are well known for being big and aggressive.

While the author does mention other mammals in terms of sex-based trends in size and aggression, human gender construction is the main thing that comes across. Confusing gender and sex is part and parcel of this.

This is, if anything, even more bizarre than one of the most blatant examples of trying to interpret things through your own cultural bias in Susan Powers’ Early Art of the Southeastern Indians: Feathered Serpents and Winged Beings–which, in general, is great for illustrations of artwork, but not so good for reasonable interpretation and analysis. Unfortunately, the couple of pages in question (pp.80-84) are not included in the Google Books preview. In short, the author–based on multiple crazy published analyses–tries to sex two deliberately ambiguous Bird (Hawk/Falcon/Eagle–interpretations mixed) Dancer figures on repoussé copper plates from Etowah–seemingly by the same artist–based entirely upon current Western constructions of gender and femininity.

What indicates that one figure must be female? The actual plate of copper used to make the piece is smaller, which makes the figure on it smaller. The possible depiction of social elites in art is mentioned; should we conclude this makes “her” less important, along with “feminine”? Almost undetectable details of proportioning are pointed out, including “the line of the jaw and neck, the tapering waist,” and a miniscule difference in their chests. (This is the “masculine” figure.) “But the most striking difference from the male plate is the overall femininity of 17b, which is reinforced by the revelation of female characteristics.”

It is not even clear whether these figures are even supposed to be humans dressed in bird costumes, or if they are transforming into birds through their dancing. At any rate, the gender ambiguity is deliberate and culturally appropriate, especially when other lines are being blurred; gender is less fixed than type of animal! Asserting “overall femininity” based on the standards of your own time, place, and culture does not mean that this piece of art was intended nor interpreted as such by the Mississippian artist in that time and place. Much less by the people not fitting your gender-based physical expectations s/he was living among and producing art for. If very few members of the group have what you would consider a “tapered waist” at all, it is not going to be a mark of femininity. And so on.

Trying to put pink rhinestones onto hyenas leads to even more serious fail. I was almost surprised they didn’t go on about the “masculine” female hyenas’ lack of delicate little paws and “softer” necks and jawlines.

It’s hard to see what’s really happening in front of you when you’re forcing all your observations through this kind of mental filter. It’s unfortunately common. As Barbara Mann put it:

Combing is not just an academic chore; it is a nasty challenge to the ego as well. Few are up to the ordeal. On a personal level, most folks are reluctant to recognize that cultural bias is precisely the stuff that feels so doggone comfy when they snuggle up to it. Discovering that their mattress stuffing is really a web of lies means that, to correct the situation, the stuffing must be knocked out of their comfort zone. An honest examination requires them to endure the personal discomfort of living without a buffer, while their new cultural mattress is on order.

From a New York Times article based on Dr. Holekamp’s research, Sociable, and Smart, we get into some of the human-applied speculations:

Throughout her career, Dr. Holekamp has remained vigilant against anthropocentrism. She does not think of the hyenas as long-eared people running around on all fours. But the lives of spotted hyenas, she has concluded, share some profound similarities with our own. In both species, a complex social world has driven the evolution of a big, complex brain.

That isn’t the really strange bit; some of the interpretations driving how evidence is gathered/evaluated are.

What makes the social complexity of spotted hyenas particularly enlightening, Dr. Holekamp said, are their relatives. They belong to a family of four species, and the other three live in strikingly different societies…
Brown hyenas, for instance, live in much smaller clans that range up to about 14 animals. Although scientists do not know much about brown hyenas, it seems that some clans live in a hierarchy, while in others, the hyenas enjoy more equality…Striped hyenas live in even smaller groups of a single female and no more than three adult males…A male and female aardwolf will live as a monogamous pair…

‘It’s just what the social complexity hypothesis would predict,’ Dr. Holekamp said. ‘The hyenas with the simplest social systems have the tiniest frontal cortices. The spotted hyena, which lives in the most complex societies, has far and away the largest frontal cortex.’

The brown and striped hyenas, with intermediate social systems, have intermediate brains. ‘There’s a spectrum,’ Dr. Holekamp said.

Where have we seen this kind of societal ranking system before? Oh yeah! Though that link describes one 19th century version, this kind of thing is endemic to Western thinking. Relative equality == less “complex”/”developed” social system. And it’s another one of those assumptions which mostly goes unnoticed by now, falling into the Things Everybody Knows category. That’s even before we look at brain size and some of the ways it has been used. Complexity is another thing, but it is still hard not to be suspicious of underlying assumptions about significance, and the significance of comparisons to relative size of parts of human brains.

And none of the perceived “social complexity” could be based on cultural assumptions about how humans relate to one another and form societies, not at all.

BTW, that’s one of the reasons I don’t have much use for Marxism. It’s based in the same old Western cultural assumptions about Progress, which happens in inevitable universal stages which show the same outward forms everywhere. If you were talking about France under the feudal system, some of the interpretations throughout that art book, with the “feminine” Bird Dancer, might make some sense, based as they are in this kind of view of social development. Conflict, inequality, and hierarchical setups are inevitable and even desirable–as are larger groups living together, who fight a lot. This same old view of how the world works and humans must be organized is still very evident in archaeology, among many other fields. You can’t get away from it.

It’s also easier to see a lot of conflict if you are looking for conflict, and assuming you will see it. Ditto if you’re assuming that equality is impossible in practice; pretty soon a sachem speaking for a women’s council will become an emperor with his harem.

From my perspective, it takes a lot more “social complexity” in terms of interactions to keep more equality going in a society–not to mention for avoiding bloodshed and war. As John Mohawk put it in that context, “Progressive pragmatism ultimately is the most complex process devised so far by people who play politics.” That requires a very complex pattern of interactions. In a lot of ways, high-context cultures also depend on complexity of interaction, and some really funky “homogeneous, primitive” interpretations get put on these (non-Western*) cultures.

Frankly, it’s easier to gang up and mug other people (for springbok carcasses or expensive watches) than it is to figure out how to get along. I would be surprised if this did not also apply to brown hyenas, preferring to live in smaller groups or no. Larger group sizes do not necessarily mean higher levels of complexity in interactions, especially if you are not also paying close attention to the patterns of interactions among these smaller social units. In human terms, the very existence of villages has been missed–and population sizes underestimated–because dwellings were spread out in a different organizational pattern than the observer expected to find. Whole social/political institutions have mostly been ignored because observers were expecting a different setup, and so couldn’t see what was in front of them (including matrilineal inheritance patterns). And so on.

Yes, I’m rambling and throwing around a bunch of human ideas which very possibly don’t apply at all to hyenas’ social systems. Humans’ are another matter entirely, which is kinda the point. I’m probably talking through my hat, in a very anthropocentric way. At least I am very aware of this fact–and do not expect anyone to take it seriously!–unlike too many researchers putting interpretations on other animals’ behavior.

Edit: I didn’t even get into the very complicated projection of human gender onto pets, from associating different kinds of animals with different human genders to expecting the animals themselves to fit into human-constructed gender roles. I just ran across a good post on this at Critical Masculinities, Don’t emasculate your dog!, with the madness of Neuticles. And, for straightforward projection of human gender onto animals, just have a gander at PetSmart’s first page of dog clothes–with tutus, NFL shirts, “Top Paw™ Irridescent Butterfly Bows for Dogs”, and pink-or-blue Snuggies (pink on a miniature dachshund, blue on some kind of collie–again with the emphasis on size differences).

I had noticed this projection onto pets before–it’s hard not to, when you keep running across the material coding and people honestly considering it worse for a male animal to be nervous! But, this really jumped into focus when we adopted a ten-year-old male Staffie. Wearing a studded leather collar when we picked him up. Not only were people out and about commenting on how butch he is, he displayed a lot of the same spoiled behavior I have seen in male humans. Impatience, hollering, being pushy, whining until he got what he wanted, etc. were obviously not discouraged when he was growing up. I seriously doubt a lot of this would have been tolerated if people had been projecting femininity onto him; instead, they’d have probably encouraged his tendency toward timidity more. With some consistent feedback, he is now behaving less like a spoiled frat boy/lager lout. Oh yes, he was also never neutered, and had a bad habit of trying to hump people’s legs every time he got excited. Not fun, dealing with a generally excitable dog. This has also mostly improved with consistent feedback! It’s interesting, and disturbing, how much humans will project.

* Again with the hierarchical presentations! AFAICT, Cherokee culture (to use a familiar example) is only lower-context than Japanese or Chinese cultures in that it’s much more egalitarian, and there are fewer rules to navigate social hierarchies. African-American culture is only ranked above (monolithic) Native American cultures–as opposed to “North American”–thanks to the linear presentation. Were I coming up with a graphical representation, I would be more likely to devise groupings in a more radial setup, even with high–>low context as an organizing principle.

And yes, I am married to a Swede, on the other end of this scale. This has proven interesting at times.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2010 11:03 pm

    Wonderful post.

    I really liked your point about how anthropologists, archaeologists and other people who study lots of different human societies keep equating hierarchical social organization with societal complexity.

    (I also like hyenas, both because I think they are cute and because the females are so large, strong and aggressive relative to the males, at least when compared to the huge size and behavioral differences between the sexes of most other mammalian species.

    Now that I think of it, the common tendency to speak of “masculine” or “masculinized” female hyenas might be an instance of male-as-default bias: Because the hyena sexes don’t differ all that much in size, musculature and social behavior compared to what we humans have come to expect of other mammals, we say the females are like males.)

  2. huskylover permalink
    February 20, 2010 9:17 pm

    I enjoy reading this page, always find out something new facts.
    Emily Randall from Husky

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