Conversations with: Dr Duncan Stibbard Hawkes

Today it is my pleasure to introduce Dr Duncan Stibbard Hawkes, who is an evolutionary anthropologist! Duncan works with the Hadza in northern Tanzania, who have traditionally subsisted through hunting and gathering. Duncan is interested in food-sharing, the use and abuse of signalling theory and forager egalitarianism. He previously won the Ruggles-Gates Award from the Royal Anthropological Institute as well as a grant from the Leakey Foundation for his PhD project: Reading the signals: What does Hadza hunting success honestly convey? Duncan recently finished a teaching fellowship at Durham University, where he lectured in evolutionary anthropology. He is about to begin a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania for the ‘Culture of Schooling’ project, investigating Hadza engagement with formal education.

Dr Duncan Stibbard Hawkes, an evolutionary anthropologist at Durham University/University of Pennsylvania

What are your research interests?

My subject area is called ‘hunter-gatherer studies’. Although there continues to be much debate about whether ‘hunter-gatherer’ even makes sense as a category, the name has stuck. I work with a population called the Hadza, who traditionally hunted and gathered for most of their food. I’m interested in the motivations underlying hunting and food-sharing. I’m interested in unknotting the reasons why, despite a spectrum of differences, there are some critical similarities between hunter-gatherer groups who are united by nothing other than a shared mode of subsistence. I’m interested in the ways by which forager populations adapt when traditional subsistence practices become less viable. Finally, I am interested in forager egalitarianism. Our history books are full of kings, queens, khans and emperors. How then, despite the manifold incentives to seize power, do populations like the Hadza manage so effectively to curtail attempts at aggrandisement and prevent people from naming themselves ‘leaders’?

What originally drew you to evolutionary anthropology?

Although we like to see ourselves as exceptional, humans are as much the products of evolution as any other species. And while there are many valid frameworks with which to view ourselves, no account of our actions, our minds and our forms is wholly complete without recourse to evolutionary logic. Given this fact, it is a constant source of consternation that evolutionary anthropology is not a larger or more well-known discipline. Why isn’t evolutionary anthropology on the national curriculum? I enjoyed learning about the Tudors in school, but the origins of bipedalism are surely more universally elucidating than the English reformation. The Catcher in the Rye has a lot to say about the human condition, but perhaps not quite as much as The Origin of Species. So that’s the draw of evolutionary anthropology. Humans do not make sense without it. Not completely.

How did I get into evolutionary anthropology in the first place though? The unglamorous truth is that it was an accident. I applied to Cambridge’s now defunct ‘Archaeology and Anthropology’ course, with the idea of studying social anthropology. I was interested in learning about the full range of human experiences and cultures. As the course progressed, I did not always enjoy the sometimes high-minded epistemological wrangling of social anthropology, nor the unrelenting self-reflection and self-censure. Sometimes I felt I was learning more about what social anthropologists thought of each other than I was learning about the world and the people in it. At the same time, each lecture in the evolutionary anthropology course was a revelation. I remember reading Kristen Hawkes’ original paper on the grandmother hypothesis one day in the library. It was such a clever and interesting piece of evolutionary logic that I decided then and there that I was sold. And that was that.

What was your PhD topic and what were the findings from your PhD?

My PhD research examined the costly signalling hypothesis of human hunting, specifically the idea that hunters procure and share the meat from large animals as a way of showing-off their hunting skills. If hunting is a way of showing off, or signalling, then being known as a good hunter should be closely related to actually being a good hunter.

So is it? I found that, among the Hadza, in aggregate, people’s assessments of their peers’ hunting skills were actually pretty accurate. However, at an individual level, there was much error and noise. This is an example of a crowd wisdom effect. If you ask lots of people to guess the weight of a jar of sweets, the mean of their guesses is often freakishly close to the actual weight. But this can happen even when most individual estimates are pretty wide of the mark.

Duncan’s field vehicle parked under a thorny acacia tree.

What do my results tell us about signalling? This is open to interpretation, but my personal take is that individual assessments of hunting ability are too error-prone for hunting and sharing to be a good way of signalling skill. But the good news is that aggregated reputation scores seem pretty accurate, so we should continue to use them as a proxy variable where actual skill is unknown!

My PhD research also addressed another question. There has been extensive debate about food-sharing and family provisioning. Do Hadza hunters share their food indiscriminately? Or do they keep the lion’s share for their own families? I looked at the relationship between hunting reputation and nutrition and found that well-reputed hunters and their spouses had no better nutrition than did anyone else. As discussed in the paper, it is difficult to prove a negative, and there are some finicky barriers to inference. But results are nonetheless consistent with generalised food-sharing, in line with previous reports by Nicholas Blurton Jones, Kristen Hawkes and James Woodburn.

Where did you complete your PhD and who was your supervisor?

I did my PhD at Cambridge University. My supervisor was Frank Marlowe, who tragically took early retirement due to ill-health during my degree. His students wrote a collection of remembrances about his life and work for Human Nature which you can read here. When Frank retired, Robert Attenborough kindly took over as my supervisor, and continues to be a good friend and an occasional agony uncle.

What are you currently working on? Where do you hope these will go in the future?

I currently have a few things in the works. The first piece of upcoming research reconsiders James Woodburn’s theory that egalitarianism might be the consequence of democratised access to lethal weaponry – the idea that you shouldn’t boss people around when they’re armed and dangerous! I conclude that the evidence doesn’t support this theory, but that it might hold some explanatory power in more limited contexts. In the second piece of research with Coren Apicella and Kris Smith, we asked many Hadza directly about what motivates them to hunt, to gather and to share food. Contrary to theoretical debates, most people, both men and women, highlighted that family provisioning and signalling were both important motivators for foraging work. Finally, I’m about to start work on a project looking at the changes brought about by increased participation in formal education.

Where do I hope this research will go in the future? I hope it will go into your endnote or Mendeley libraries!

What project or publication or achievement are you most proud of?

My review article on Costly Signalling theory published in Evolutionary Anthropology precipitated some friendly but occasionally forthright email exchanges with a couple of my academic heroes. However, I think the article raises some important questions. I would like to see greater opportunities for the interrogation of established theories and frameworks by young scholars and I was very grateful to the editor for giving me the chance to publish these ideas. However, the article I am proudest of is ‘A Noisy Signal’, which I have discussed above.

Taking shelter from the midday sun in the shade of a baobab. 

What do you think has been the most revolutionary discovery in your field over the last 5 years?

In my own field of human behaviour, with a few exceptions, I think things most often progress through a process of gradual evolution and not revolution. It’s pretty difficult to dig up a new behaviour! My top four papers from the last five years are Sceleza et al’s eye-opening recent paper on diversity in human reproductive strategies, Ringen et al and Ember et al’s cross-cultural investigations of the association between risk/resource stress and food-sharing, and Singh et al’s review paper on self-interested norm enforcement. Closer to home, Alyssa Crittenden’s group have published some really good recent research about recent Hadza dietary changes, e.g. Pollom et al’s just-published paper about how a mixed-subsistence diet might actually have some advantages over a purely foraged one. I mentioned the importance of interrogating established theories, and I also want to highlight how much I liked Dan Smith’s recent paper on cultural group selection. It’s super compelling. Check it out.

What advice would you give to a student interested in your field of research?

The easy answer is that you should follow your passions. The harder answer is that a research career can be stressful. PhDs can, for some students, feel like doing low-paid work for your supervisor. Moreover scholarship, especially anthropology, is an oversaturated industry and the number of qualified applicants exceeds the number of jobs. So, make sure you know the downsides, make sure you’ve talked to people and make sure you’re going in with your eyes open. Make sure you have a backup plan. And if you’ve done all of that then go ahead and follow your passions!

What would you be if you were not an evolutionary anthropologist?

One of my greatest regrets in pursuing anthropology was that I had to abandon my nascent professional wrestling career. Though if not a wrestler, probably a journalist, maybe a foreign correspondent.

Duncan and the 2015 field team, Charles and Ibrahim

Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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