This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
I saw this on one of Razib Khan's latest posts:
It reminded me of the time when I stupidly told a college career counselor that I wanted to have kids in my twenties. She was aghast...what a waste of a promising young woman! Looking back, perhaps they should have named her title "Capitalist Life-Extraction Encourager." Graduating in a recession, I wasn't exposed to the glamor that masked the true nature of careerism in the past. I never had an expense account or nice business trips. Co-workers have told me of a golden age where we had expensive parties with ice sculptures and wine. Since I've started working all we've had are potlucks. There is no veneer of self development, there is "do this and do it as fast as you can." I do want I do because I want to make ends meet. Though I admit there are benefits to my job, it is not a source of fulfillment for me. I know that for me and many others "career" is just a company trying to extract labor from me as efficiently as possible and that an employer is no more reliable than the old structures it replaced. Falter or just be at the wrong place at the wrong time and they will discard you. I am leaving this cycle in the autumn, something I am lucky to do. My father did the same several decades ago, becoming self-employed.
Sometimes I read feminist writers in magazines like The New Yorker with resentment. They talk about women's careers from a position of privilege, the vaunted (and highly protected) few who make ends meet by speaking their mind with considerable personal and professional freedom. The latest irking was from Elisabeth Badinter, a French feminist writer (who also happens to be a heiress worth millions), who is aghast at the growing obsession of women with "naturalism". Maybe something was lost in translation, but it seemed like she was painting a straw man in order to dismiss very real considerations about reproductive biology.
I read the excellent mini-book Razib referenced, The Baby Chase: An Adventure in Fertility. Holly Finn is an accomplished woman who is trying to have a baby in her forties. She goes through expensive IVF and gets nothing in return. She tries to date men who are wanting to start a family, but they are interested in younger fertile women. She seems a little bitter:
Any credible conversation about female aspirations today, especially one that urges women to lean way into their careers, should also talk about children—and not just as an aside. Otherwise, we are doing to the next generation what was done to many of us: robbing them of a possibility.
But I get the feeling women in their twenties aren't forgoing childbearing because of careers anyway, particularly those of us who graduated in the Great Stagnation. I get the feeling it's more about not having any money or support. I've also been reading The Coming Population Crash, which discusses the fact that fertility is declining almost everywhere, but most dramatically in wealthy developed nations. He has a few case studies in the book of first-world women and their child-baring decisions. Most of the women, particularly those in stagnant developed countries such as Italy, say they simply do not have enough money for children.
I also think reforms to the work system have been fairly shallow. Holly mentions this
One of the primary culprits cited by Drago and Varner is what they call “the Ideal Worker norm.” “In general,” they write, “the ideal worker is someone who enters a profession immediately upon receiving the relevant academic credential, works his or her way up the career ladder by putting in long hours without interruptions beyond short vacations, and continues in this fashion until retirement age. The ideal worker can contribute financially to the family, but cannot make substantial time commitments to children or other family members without endangering his or her career.” The result? Working women stop having children.
When I'm looking at foraging societies, I'm noticing that women DO work. They contribute so much to their communities all while carrying their babies around and breastfeeding them. I would like to see work options for women that acknowledge that many women want to provide a level of biological fulfillment (breastfeeding, physical closeness) and be the primary caregivers to their own children. I would like to see similar work options for men. I was in a wealthy neighborhood recently for an appointment on Wednesday at around noon. It was creepy how empty the nicely-groomed yards and million-dollar houses looked. People are just getting their energy extracted in their prime to pay for stuff they rarely get to use. They aren't going to look back when they are 80 and think of those expenses spreadsheets they used to make or the code they used to debug. I'm sure there are people who are out there who are doing awesome stuff that they love, but I guess I am skeptical that this is more than a tiny minority.
And a dysfunctional bizarro-world dating culture. I must admit a spent some time on OKCupid and I was amused that interest dropped from several messages a day to none when I indicated I was interested in having children in the near future. To be fair, OKCupid seems to be a site for people interested in casual things, but that brings up the question of where people interested in serious things are supposed to go?
Biology carries on, but I certainly didn't know how rapidly fertility drops in the thirties until I saw this chart. Sex ed is so focused on NOT having children, that it was just not in my mind. I did know about infertility though, I suppose if you are my age the odds that your parents or their friends struggled to have children is pretty high. I knew before I saw this chart that I didn't want to be 40 on my first try like so many of them.
Notice that as you age the gap between "pregnancy regardless of outcome" and "pregnancy resulting in a healthy child" widens. Age and the nature of IVF later on conspire to increase the risks of health problems and birth defects.
Holly warns: "The first thing I tell women ages 26 to 34 is: Start having babies. I know it’s not polite or funny. But I don’t want others to go through what I’m going through now." Yikes. But this is real. Take a look at that chart and start thinking of how you want to gamble. Maybe you don't want to have children at all, but if you have even an inking, it's important information. Men, if you are interested in having babies, you need to look at this too, though you guys seem to have more leeway than us.
I didn’t want to settle at 25. I wanted adventures. I just didn’t imagine their cost, and how I would struggle to keep paying it.
The Aka pygmies are nomadic horticulturalists that trade with nearby farmers for staple carbohydrates. I've written about the pygmy diet before, but variations exist among the various pygmy tribes in terms of culture. The Aka are considered "the best fathers in the world," at least among studied tribal peoples. While fathers play an important role in every tribal culture, one that liberal cultural anthropologists have tried to play down with disputed anecdotes about some cultures that may not have ideas about paternity, the Aka are still unusual in the importance of fathers. Their culture is distinguished by close bonds between couples, who net-hunt together to provide food for the family. Fathers participate in childcare and hold their children for many hours. The article linked to above is false in that there are still non-interchangeable gender roles, but genders are much less differentiated than in most tribal cultures.
In the book Intimate Fathers they describe how, like the Yequana, the Aka parents are physically indulgent, but not emotionally smothering. Many modern parents are excessively child-focused and protective, yet neglect the basic biological needs of their babies for physical closeness with their biological parents (and other relatives) and breastmilk.
Aka infancy is indulgent: infants are held almost constantly, they have skin-to-skin contact most of the day as Aka seldom wear shirts or blouses, and they are nursed on demand and attended to immediately if they fuss or cry. Aka parents interact with and stimulate their infants throughout the day. They talk to, play with, show affection to, and transit subsistence skills to their infants during the day. I was rather surprised to find parents teaching their eight-to-twelve-month-old infants how to use small pointed digging sticks, throw small spears, use miniature axes with sharp metal blades, and carry small baskets. Most of this direct teaching takes place while resting on the net hunt.
While Aka are very indulgent and intimate with their infants, they are not a child-focused society. Some have suggested that many American parents are child-focused, in that parents will give undivided attention to the child (quality time) and dramatically change their behavior or activities to attend to the desires of the children. American parents allow their children to interrupt their conversations with other adults; they ask their children what they want to eat and try to accommodate other desires of the children. Aka society is adult-centered in that parents seldom stop their activities to pay undivided attention to their children. If an infant fusses or urinates on a parent who is talking to others or playing the drums, the parent continues his activity while gently rocking the infant or wiping the urine off with a nearby leaf. There are times when the infant's desires are not considered and the infant is actually placed in danger by the parents. For instance, on the net hunt, if a woman chases a game animal into the net, she will place the infant on the ground to run after the game and kill it. The infant is left there crying until the mother or someone else comes back.*
*women don't participate in the most dangerous hunts, like the elephant hunt
Some of my readers might be interested in The Atlantic's debate on "alternative medicine." Reading it, what amused me is that opponents of alternative medicine accuse it of not being "evidence-based." Unfortunately our "normal medicine" isn't really evidence-based either. What doctors and hospitals do often seems more about the status quo than science. That explains why my sister (a biologist) and I are not exactly our doctor's favorite patients. We don't accept treatments based on outdated science, particularly when they have harmful side effects.
For example, the idea that GERD is a disease of acid burning the esophagus is several years outdated, but doctors continue to hand out medicine based on that theory (proton-pump inhibitors) like it's Halloween candy, despite a growing body of evidence that it causes immune dysfunction and bacterial overgrowth!
The list really could go on and on, from unwillingness to adopt life-saving safety practices to the handing out of antibiotics to children for every little thing (even illnesses obviously caused by viruses!) to the use of questionable materials for hip-replacements just because they are "new."
Another example showed up in my RSS reader today: Keeping Mother and Baby Together – It’s Best for Mother, Baby, and Breastfeeding. I suggest you read that post, as it has great information. Basically, in our species, the time immediately after birth is critical. Direct skin to skin contact between mother and baby is important for establishing breast feeding, bonding, and regulating the baby's physical health. That's how our species evolved, it's the infant's natural ecology. This isn't about just doing what our ancestors did; science has confirmed that these practices have important functions. Despite that, hospitals often fight this practice and a woman who wants to simply do what is appropriate for her as a Homo sapians must exert an effort to convince the hospital staff, find a sympathetic birthing center, or arrange for a home birth.
Interestingly, NICU's (new born intensive care units) have been the first to adopt this practice. For babies on the edge, everything counts, but it's something all babies deserve.
Great book on raising healthy children using real food!
So far the best book about how evolution has shaped women's bodies. Chock full of interesting info.
Is there an evolutionary explanation for something like Postpartum Depression, which seems, from the outset, so maladaptive? Ancient Bodies Modern Lives discusses cultural and social factors, but also posits some evolutionary explanations. One is that it would allow paleolithic women to "cut their losses" and abandon a baby whose care would affect her survival. Two other theories are social- that PD either spurred women to get assistance from other group members or that overall sadness allowed them to focus on their babies. None of these theories seem to hold much water in a modern context, since PD seems to affect women with healthy babies and unfortunately seems to manifest itself as negative/non-existant feelings towards their own children. Is it a "disease of civilization"?
GOOP, Gwenyth Paltrow's newsletter, is strangely addicting and has provided health bloggers with plenty of entertainment lately. Her latest newsletter is on PD and contains the story of Bryce Dallas Howard's struggle with the condition. Even if we knew that PD was a disease of civilization, civilization is clearly more complex than just diet. Diseases of civilization can be caused by the stress of modern life, for example. But conspiciously absent from her account is any mention of her diet, which is interesting because she did a completely vegan pregnancy, but has recently quit veganism for non-specified health reasons.
The ADA insists that veganism is an appropriate diet for all stages of life, including pregnancy and lactation, despite a lack of comprehensive studies on the matter. The few studies that exist have shown that vegan women do have different vitamin levels, though perhaps this will be remediated with more studies that allow better tailoring of supplements. Personally, with humans plagued by conditions like PD that are so poorly understood, I'm not going to bet on us being able to figure out a diet that protects us from diseases of civilization better than paleo does anytime soon.
It's interesting because recently in the paleo blogosphere certain vegan groups that disavow any and all supplementation have been getting press. Lost from the debate is that even vegan scientists think that the raw fruit-based diet is lunacy and worry that deficient members of that group will give all vegans a bad name when they succumb to health problems caused by a completely inadequete diet.
Yes, apparently even babies can show signs of the dreaded diseases of civilization. Ugh, very scary.
Here are some WAPF events coming up. WAPFers are paleo allies in the war for real food and delicious fat. I might not be crazy for grains or dairy, but they have some useful things to say. In NYC the paleo tribe seems to be mostly singles, but WAPFers tend to be those with children or thinking about them. That's great- we need more healthy children out there.
Here are some WAPF and Traditional Nutrition Events coming up:
Nina Planck's Real Food is an excellent primer for ditching industrial crap and eating wholesome nourishing foods, so I was excited to read Real Food for Mother and Baby. No, i'm not planning on having a baby anytime soon, but if you are planning on having a baby ever, it's important to start planning when you are young. In this book she makes the point that when you are having a baby, it is drawing on fat stores laid many years before. What kinds of fats do you want going into your future children?
Nina Planck is of the Weston A. Price school of thought and is not a paleo dieter, but since there is no paleo baby book currently and WAPF has some intersection, lots of this advice might be useful for prospective paleo parents.
Her fertility chapter is particularly good. Her four fertility rules are: be an omnivore, eat good fats, eat seafood, and don't eat carbage. The most important nutrients for boosting and maintaining fertility are:
Isn't it nutritionism to reduce it to nutrients? No, because our modern diets are so deficient that to get these naturally has to be learned. Most Americans get their folate and iodine from enriched bread and salt. You have to be aware and willing to adjust your diet to get them on the paleo diet. She also emphasizes the importance of MEN getting these nutrients too and points out all the studies that show that the quality and quantity of most modern men's sperm has decreased. For men the most important nutrients are antioxidants, vitamin C, vitamin E, folate, iron, DHA, selenium, and zine. It's a good excuse for future moms and dads to go enjoy some oysters together and then...well, you get the picture. The missing part of this chapter is information on recovering your fertility after taking the pill FOREVER, as many modern women do.
The prenatal chapter is less useful, as it talks mostly about how much trouble she had complying with the WAPF prescriptions and how she drank alcohol because the risk isn't *that* high. Hmm. The information on morning sickness is interesting though. Apparently it's a universal thing from !Kung hunter-gatherer women to modern women and is an evolutionary adaptation. Even more useful is the information on iron. Boy I wish I had known this with I was in college and had IBS. Once I had anemia and I was given an iron supplement. My stomach practically exploded! Nina points out how excessive Iron can feed bad bacteria in the gut. Many doctors give pregnant women iron supplements, but there is strong evidence that the decline in iron concentration is a natural adaptation to protect women from infection.
Her childbirth chapter goes even less well. She really really wants to have a "natural" childbirth, but ends up needing a C-section because of the unusual position of her baby. I wish she had gone into more detail about why she wanted such a natural childbirth in the first place, since so many people think the concept is woo. But there are good reasons to not want a C-section and birth where your baby is immediately taken away to a ward, one of them is that it permanently alters the gut ecosystem and another is that it can affect the release of bonding hormones, which is discussed in detail in the Continuum Concept.
BTW I think the idea that life for paleolithic woman was HORRIBLE because of pregnancy is garbage. Clearly, many many many women, almost all of our ancestors, gave birth without a problem. It was painful and some women did die, but I'm personally sick of hearing paleo detractors go on and on about it. Paleo diet is a diet and a thought paradigm, not a reenactment club. The fact that so many women gave birth in harsh environments is a testament to their health. It can unfortunately take generations of eating better to fully recover that strength in the form of better-formed pelvic bones that many of us lack these days.
The breastfeeding chapter is very interesting. Nina is a former low-fat vegetarian and presents valuable information on why that is NOT a good choice for nursing mothers. The smoking gun is the level of DHA, the important omega-3 fat, are .10% in vegans and the desirable level is .35%. So many vegans have told me "well, if things like DHA are so important, how come vegans can have babies?" Possible vs. optimal. Reminds me of this article by prominent raw vegan Shazzie:
The truth is, though I'd love to see it, I have never once seen a 100% raw 100% vegan 100% unsupplemented child past breastfeeding age who has no tooth decay and is the correct weight and height for their age. Not one. Ever. On the other hand, I have, since 2001 seen countless raw vegan unsupplemented children spanning several countries with growth, teeth and mental disorders. Now, don't ask, because I will not name names, ever. I have cried at the child who was so retarded he barely moved (he since recovered on a cooked vegetarian diet, perhaps with some fish in the early stages). My heart has sank at the tiny girl on YouTube who has hardly any top teeth due to visible decay. My heart has wept when I've received letters from mothers who "just couldn't raise their children raw vegan", no matter how much they wanted to, even though they followed the advice of "experts" to the letter. And I've been puzzled as to why the raw food community covers these issues up time and time again. "Is it just me"? I've often wondered?
I understand why. This book is good, but it also highlights the extremely difficult struggle to have healthy children in a modern urban environment. After reading this book, I vowed that if I have children I would want to have a supportive community first.
Nina tries to feed her baby healthy, but doesn't seem to want the other moms to think she is a weirdo, so she lets her baby have crackers and bread. Soon enough, that's all baby Julian wants to eat.
There are good arguments for not turning children into pariahs with "weird" diets, but you should be able to feed a non-talking baby whatever you want. If anything, this exposes a flaw in WAPF. Adults know that fermented properly prepared grains are the only healthy grains, but a baby doesn't. It doesn't matter if you are feeding your baby the best bread ever, you are still giving it a taste for bread. It's too bad, because Nina recognizes that grains are unnecessary and even detrimental for young babies. With the culture against you, I think it's important to at least get in the best possible nutrition before kids realize the social status of cake. And this will happen.
I suspect a major problem is her friends, who she mentions don't think twice before feeding their kids white flour. I hope the paleo community is big enough when I have kids, so I don't have to worry about mothers in my playgroup who think not giving your kids cupcakes on their birthday is a human rights violation. I notice wealthy NYC children noshing on crackers and pretzels all the time. Most of them frankly look sickly- dark circles, crooked teeth, and pinched poorly forced facial features. Many of them have allergies. With all the obsession with fancy strollers and birthing classes, you'd think parents would figure out that dietary quality matters.
I also have to wonder about prenatal yoga. This is SO trendy in cities like NYC and Nina participates in it. Her quest for a natural childbirth is thwarted because her baby is in a strange position and has to have a C-section. Hmmm, maybe contorting our adult bodies into unnatural positions isn't good for us. I definitely wouldn't do prenatal yoga...or any other type of yoga.
Another New York problem rears its head. Nina has to work, so she has to hire a nanny. Early humans would have relied on family members to pick up the slack, but in today's sad isolated world, grandma lives 500 miles away and you have to pay someone who isn't related to you or a permanent part of your life...yet who will have a permanent influence. I remember when I worked at a camp and some children were picked up at 5 by nannies. They would look jealously at the children picked up by their mothers and grandmothers. Many would cry. Some of these nannied children had speech difficulties because their nannies didn't speak English well. There is also the inevitable loss of tradition as children are raised by strangers. I understand that some poor women have to send their children to daycare because their work feeds their family, but Nina Planck is not poor and later in the book they buy a second home. (The Two Income Trap is a great book about why you shouldn't depend on both incomes anyway.)
There is an evolutionary reason why women live so long- because long lived women increased the odds that their children's offspring would survive by caring for them and teaching them. The children benefited the elders too- providing them with interaction and mental stimulation. How many of us have grandparents languishing in far away nursing homes instead? It's an unfortunate cycle- grandma's bad diet makes her physically unable to help, so children are instead sent to daycare where they eat junk instead of grandma's homemade food. Of course plenty of grandmas are isolated from their families not because of health, but because of our culture of age stratification that sends them to Arizona or Florida instead of integrating them in a community.
The NY trap of high rents forces women to wait for decades to have their first child and to not be able to even raise it because they have to go back to work. Paleo-minded women are going to have to buck that trend. It's not romanticization- there are clear benefits to not waiting until you are 35 and to not farming out your child's care.
Overall I think this book is a good primer, but one of these days some paleo mama will come out with a book that's even better.