Students were not meant to live like this

MIT life from the eyes of an ethologist

Modern scientific reasoning places just emphasis on the importance of natural human needs. The field of human ethology (study of natural behavior), which incorporates aspects of evolutionary biology and psychology, indicates that life is molded by eons of environmental pressure. We lived as hunter-gatherers for millions of years, a life-style which still exists in many wild corners of the world.

Extensive research among these cultures and comparative examinations between modern hunter-gatherers, ancient societies, and contemporary civilizations have created a detailed picture of how we ought to live in order to achieve optimal physical and mental health, but the MIT administration appears to either not care or not be aware of the crucial importance of this research. In short, MIT is disregarding solid, relevant science.

Supporting our physical health with natural approaches has an established and successful industry. Ergonomics were created because people developed strain injuries from unsupportive furniture; ergonomics outlines principles of design which promote more natural body positioning. Those strange looking FiveFinger shoes are popping up more and more because research has demonstrated that our feet and bodies are much healthier when we walk and run the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors did: barefoot. This industry is successful because it works. It works because it has millions of years of evolution supporting it.

Thus far, ethological advances have given our bodies lives they are better suited for. However, building a comfortable, natural life for our minds is a more difficult task, particularly at MIT. Simply put: We weren’t meant to live this way. Students are bombarded by so much work on all fronts, they are unable to maintain healthy sleep schedules, eat properly, or get out and relax as often as would be healthy.

Of course, there are some sacrifices we make for MIT that are unavoidable. But, choice in housing is not something which must be sacrificed. In fact, if science is to be believed, MIT ought to avoid sacrificing the freedom of its housing system at all costs.

MIT Housing does not have a strong record of being ethologically conscious. Within the housing system, dining is an issue which causes a stir year after year, without fail. It is particularly striking when viewed in an ethological light. Humans have always lived in small, intensely social communities, and as a result, we thrive on frequent interpersonal contact. Communal cooking has been a part of daily human life since before our species even existed. The invention of fire and cooking was a key technological development accomplished by our hominid ancestors. Cooking is not just a means to an end; it also provides opportunity for much needed social interaction, which keeps the mind healthy and at ease. Or if you’re at MIT, more at ease.

MIT’s actual approach is far from natural. Despite the existence of small local kitchens in W1, the plan for the renovated dorm includes no kitchens, only a central dining hall. Campus wide mandatory dining plans have been proposed many times in the past, and right now, fervor on the matter has been roused yet again. Furthermore, All-You-Can-Eat services would appear laughable to a hunter-gatherer; daily exposure to unlimited and unrestricted quantities of food is unimaginable in the their world. These policies aren’t just offensive to many students, they’re founded on bad practices and cause trouble for everyone involved.

Not everyone may wish to eat and live this way, but we ought to make such options available, allowing students to choose to participate or not. There is nothing inherently malicious about the idea of a central dining hall; some might prefer access to a dining hall over kitchens. This approach only becomes a problem when administrators influence students to use dining halls over kitchens by removing kitchens or enforcing meal plans. These systems won’t be as effective as ethologically sound designs for the same reason that ergonomics has been such a success: Millions of years worth of support. Just like we need ergonomic furniture, we also need an “ergonomic” dining system designed to be ethologically sound. The proposed systems will simply give more cramps to the back of the student body.

Dining is just one part of housing and community. Humans are meant to eat, work, play, and sleep together in small communities, and we perform better under such conditions. If these communities are too “artificially frequent,” then the way to solve that is for MIT to work with students to make these social groups less artificial, which means giving students more control over where they live and how they choose to live. Attacking such a fundamental aspect of human biology by stimulating artificially frequent macrocommunities is arrogant and benefits no one in the long run.

If the MIT administration wants MIT to be an enlightened, progressive world leader in science and technology, then they ought to pay heed to the mountains of established knowledge which contradicts the current administration’s stance and attitudes. The Institute has the power to alter its attitudes on student life, to encourage a happier, healthier, and more productive student population. If the wellness and success of the student body is truly a priority for the administration, then its high time the admins started using the science which has given them their jobs for the betterment of the students. So please, let’s start being intelligent about these issues.

Drew Altschul ‘08 is a graduate of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. He is currently researching primate social behavior in South Africa.