This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
I want to explore the evolution of the evolutionary nutrition concept and how evolution was lost from it.
An early variant, The Stone Age Diet, by Walter L. Voegtlin, shows up in the record in 1975, but whether this carnivorous book is an ancestor of later variants is questionable, so it's hard to consider it an ancestor. A more likely candidate would be the paper written in 1985 by Dr. Boyd Eaton and Dr. Melvin Konner, Paleolithic nutrition. A consideration of its nature and current implications. While elements of the paper seem dated today, it was a pioneering collaboration between a medical doctor and a medical anthropologist.
This paper explored how evolutionary concepts could shed light on modern health problems. It was not just a paper about eating well, it was about eating well in the context of human beings having a long evolutionary history, one shared by many other species. And that the selection pressures faced during the long evolution of primitive species to humans could tell us things about diseases, particularly chronic degenerative diseases, humans face today. It was unapologetically a Darwinian paper. It has been cited 964 times.
Around this same time, in 1980, Paul Ewald, a zoologist, published Evolutionary biology and the treatment of signs and symptoms of infectious disease, which explored the implications of host-pathogen adaptations and the "potential importance of determining whether signs and symptoms are adaptations of the host, of the disease organism, both, or neither." The main focus was on acute disease. This paper is considered one of the first in Evolutionary Medicine.
Around this time, the Konner/Eaton team turned their work into a book for layman. Adding Konner's wife Marjorie Shostak to the slate of authors, in 1989 they published The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program of Diet & Exercise and a Design for Living. The book drew extensively from the fossil record of hominid evolution, as well as Konner and Shostak's own fieldwork with the !Kung, one of the last foraging societies that exists today (Shostak's books on this fieldwork are also a great read). It mentioned the word evolution 40 times. They also published a commentary together in 1989 Stone agers in the fast lane: chronic degenerative diseases in evolutionary perspective (PDF).
In 1991, evolutionary biologist George C. Williams and psychiatrist Randolph M. Nesse published a paper titled The Dawn of Darwinian Medicine, another pioneering work in Evolutionary Medicine that outlined methods for applying evolutionary biology to modern medicine, such as understanding "iron deficiency" as one of many potentially costly adaptations to a war between ancestral vertebrates and pathogens that has gone on for millions of years.
Many people seem to think that an adaptationist approach is based on the assumption that organisms are perfect. This is a misconception. It is true that the adaptionist holds the power of selection in high regard and is skeptical of explanations that take quick refuge in proposed defects in the organism. Paradoxically, however, the adaptationist is also particularly able to appreciate the adaptive compromises that are responsible for much disease. Walking upright has a price in back problems. The capacity for tissue repair has a price of cancer. The immune response has a price of immune disorders. The price of anxiety is panic disorder. In each case, natural selection has done the best it can, weighing benefits against costs. Wherever the balance point, however, there will be disease. The adaptationist does not view the body as a perfect creation, but as a bundle of compromises. By understanding them, we will better understand disease
The Eaton/Shostak/Konner team continued to refine their approach over time. The last paper they wrote together was An evolutionary perspective enhances understanding of human nutritional requirements in 1996, published after Shostak's death, along with her book recounting her last journey to visit the !Kung, Return to Nisa. 1996 also saw the publication of Nesse and Williams' book for layman about Evolutionary Medicine, Why We Get Sick (mentions evolution ~78 times).
Eaton and Konner started collaborating with exercise physiologist Loren Cordain and medical doctor Staffan Lindeberg. Cordain became particularly prolific on the subject, publishing a wide variety of academic papers and inspiring a Ray Audette's Neanderthin in 1998, which mentioned the word evolution 14 times. His own diet book, The Paleo Diet, was published in 2001 and mentions the word evolution roughly 11 times. Around this time you start to see intersection between the work originating from the Eaton/Konner paper and Evolutionary Medicine, with the original 1999 compilation Evolutionary Medicine edited by Wenda Trevathan containing Paleolithic nutrition Revisited by Konner, Eaton, and Boyd Eaton's son S. Boyd Eaton III. Nutrition was always part of both approaches and bringing them together influenced many later books and papers on the subject of evolutionary nutrition.
As you can see, the whole foundation of this was always Darwinian Evolution, the idea that humans share a common ancestor with all life forms.
Unfortunately, many Americans reject this. A recent survey found that only 39% of Americans accept evolution as fact. One of the reasons for this is in America, evolution has become politicized due to forms of powerful Evangelical Christianity that started promoting a reactionary anti-science form of Biblical Literalist Creationism (when I refer to Creationism, I refer to this) in the 1920s. Welding significant political power, they have managed to suppress the teaching of Darwinian evolution in public schools.
I have pointed out that Creationism and Creationists are harmful and incompatible with evolutionary nutrition. On Paleohacks, Karen from Paleo Periodical referred to this when she said: "I'm seeing the accusation that someone doesn't "believe" in evolution more and more, which strikes me as intolerably elitist (I say "believe" because I don't think evolution cares what you think about it)."
It's only elitist because Creationists have succeeding in making sure that most Americans are ignorant of evolution. There is no "believing" in evolution, there is accepting scientific evidence. And while you don't need to accept evolution to eat real food, evolution is the foundation of the paleolithic diet concept. So it is disturbing to see Creationists like Jimmy Moore framing debates within the paleo diet community. Over the past few years, he has moderated panels on paleolithic diet debates, published "state of the paleosphere" articles, and generally positioned himself as a person with clout in the "paleosphere." At some point he stopped just putting out podcasts with various paleo voices and instead stepped over a line into shepherding the paleo movement, which alienated many science-based paleo writers like Dr. Kurt Harris and many others, some who simply stopped describing themselves as "paleo" in lieu of a being part of a movement gutted of all meaning.
I do get hatemail for saying this and expect to get more. The latest letter said "Who cares if Jimmy Moore doesn’t believe in evolution? Truth is, there is not much to this Paleo “thing”. Exercise, eat like a caveman and reap incredible benefits." If you need a story about cavemen to tell you not to eat crap and that sprints are good exercise, I think we have a problem. There is already a "real food" movement among Christians. Go to Wise Traditions and you'll meet many of them, though a paleo dieter might have trouble convincing them of their common quasi-religious precept that grains are the devil. I think it's great when people start to eat real, whole foods. And there are many reasons to do so that have nothing to do with human evolution (even if a lot of the science behind them is based on evolutionary models).
But I also think that evolutionary models are important in biology and are the future of understanding what makes our bodies tick. It is more than about eating meat, fruit, and vegetables, it's can help us develop sophisticated treatment protocols for all kinds of diseases. It is sad for me to see that suppressed and stifled for marketing purposes. As Staffan Lindeberg said:
Why does the same thing happen to a piece of food after it has been swallowed by humans of different ethnicity? Why is the anatomy and physiology of the gut virtually identical in a Chinese and an African? Why do all human have the same endocrine system and metabolism? You know the answer: because we share an ancestor from way back when. The experts estimate that our latest shared ancestors lived around 200,000 years ago in Africa.
Before that, during millions of years of evolution, the digestion and metabolism of our primate ancestors had been fine-tuning how it uses the available food substances in the most beneficial manner possible. Nobody would doubt that the best food for the human species would be the kind of food that was available in those days, rather than those that were introduced long after the construction of our physiology. Funny that nutrition authorities never say it loud.
Our primate ancestors have been consuming fruit, vegetables, nuts and insects for 50 million years or more. Meat was successively added, with a probable increase around 2 million years ago. Underground storage organs (roots, tubers, bulbs, corms) possibly become staple foods 1-2 million years ago. The variability was large: single plant foods were rarely available in excess, which reduced the risk of adverse reactions to bioactive substances in plant foods.
I think loss of this is one of the reasons why more and more books are published on paleo that either contain nothing about evolution at all or have evolutionary narratives that seem pulled out of thin air. If the caveman stories are just stories, I suppose it doesn't matter to people much whether or not they resemble the Flintstones more than they do science. Paleo Diet guided by those who don't care about evolution is low-carb dressed up in a sexy leopard skin coat. By far, it's not Creationists who are wholly responsible for this, there is also a secular anti-intellectual slant that overemphasizes self-experimentation and scoffs at reading about science or at those who point out certain "facts" about evolution peddled by gurus are not based on anything but fiction.
The loss is ours, as the difference between caveman stories that tell us not to eat garbage and the adaptationist evolutionary approach is enormous. The former does rely on reenactment of some golden age in which humans lived according to our design. Is it any coincidence that this resembles the story of Adam and Eve? In contrast, the adaptationist approach is one in which species are constantly under pressure and must adapt. Some of these adaptations are imperfect and even costly. It is possible we can do even better by thwarting some of these adaptations through modern technology. Evolutionary medicine isn't just about eating like your ancestors, it's possibly about outrunning some of the adaptations that cause things like aging through pharmaceutical or even cybernetic augmentation. It's not regressive like some calls by various authors like Lierre Keith to give up our technology and return to the Stone Age, it's cutting edge, even daringly post-human.
We have the opportunity to be on the front lines to show that evolution is important to humans now, that evolution, by enhancing our understanding of ourselves, can improve the way we live.
Some have also accused me of discriminating against Christians. As far as I'm concerned, Jimmy is welcome to learn more about biology and join the millions of Christians who are not anti-science. I made that journey myself, having been educated in Creationism as a child, with such anti-science absurd books like It Couldn't Just Happen. I was reading the reviews for that book on Amazon and it's interesting how many other people grew up with that book, but later learned more about evolutionary biology. Some became disillusioned atheists, others realized you don't have to be a Creationist to be Christian. Christians have been fighting Creationism for a long time. A notable example is Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky, who wrote the essay Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution in 1973 response to anti-evolution Creationists:
Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts. ...the blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness.
It's funny awhile back someone recommended that I just attend some less extreme churches than the ones I grew up in, just to see what it's like to go to a church that doesn't spend time preaching against homosexuality or evolution. Because at that point, that was really the only Christianity I knew. I really enjoyed going to those churches and met a lot of wonderful people, people who generally do not take Genesis literally, people who do not reject evolutionary biology and in fact some who work as evolutionary biologists! I also have learned much about the history of Early Christianity through attending Orthodox churches and it was stunning to me to realize how divorced modern Evangelical Christianity is from those roots or understanding how the Bible was put together by humans. I also came to question many things "paleo" dieters accept almost religiously as facts. Did you know that the monks on Mount Athos live long lives free from modern disease thanks on a diet that is pretty much vegan and high in grains? It is possibly partially due to ancient Christian fasting traditions.
I think American Creationists (and people who think Christianity requires such nonsense) could use some history lessons on their religion, the Bible, and on life itself. As priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said "Is evolution a theory, a system, or a hypothesis? It is much more it is a general postulate to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems much henceforward bow and which they must satisfy in order to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light which illuminates all facts, a trajectory which all lines of though must follow this is what evolution is."
If you are interested in learning more about how human evolutionary origins shape us today, some great books for anyone to read are Your Inner Fish, Written in Stone, Why Evolution is True, Why We Get Sick, or Before the Dawn, especially if like me, you did not learn much about evolution in grade school. Talk Origins is also a good resource.
In academia, Evolutionary Medicine continues to thrive. It has a society and many different conferences. It is also too bad that so many interesting and relevant evolutionary medicine/nutrition resources are so expensive. Many books on the subject cost upwards of $100 each. Two extensive papers were just published on the subject. One is $45, thank goodness the other is free, which is very unusual. But why aren't these folks publishing writings for laymen like the original pioneers of evolutionary medicine and nutrition did? As we discover more and more about how humans evolved, books become outdated quickly, so perhaps they should consider blogging rather than books.
I'd love to see more writings for laymen by them and more writings not afraid to mention evolution and even to educate readers about it. I think such interactions would not only be beneficial for us, but for them, since I feel the online community in particular can generate hypotheses faster than in academic publishing. You can see some academic researchers, like anthropologist Miki Ben Dor, drawing on hypotheses that have primarily been pushed by the online community like the idea that larger amounts of fat might have been more important in hominid evolution than previously thought.
Edit: here is a great editorial written by Randolph Nesse and Detlev Ganten recently:
The human body is a living archive of evolution, written in our genes, cells, and organs. The line is continuous to the beginning of life on this planet, so nature is inherently conservative. Sequences that are ancient parts of our genomic heritage tend to persist. Those important for survival and reproduction change less over the eons, so genes important for basic functions are generally “old” genes. The basic mechanisms that regulate cellular metabolism, cell division, and gene duplication are fundamentally the same as those occurring in unicellular organisms at the beginning of life on earth 3.5 billion years ago. Likewise, the molecules, cellular functions, organs, complex organization of muscles, bones, sensory organs, and nerves in vertebrates derive in an unbroken line from ancestors millions of years ago. Much of modern man's biology dates back to the origins of life; a complete understanding of this biology can only be appreciated with an evolutionary perspective .
We are not "designed", we are "adapted," and adaptations can be incomplete and imperfect. It matters less what our ancestors ate, than what selective forces were at play and how we adapted to them. Such a paradigm can help us see the costs and benefits of something like getting large amounts of calories from meat, which humans are definitely not perfectly adapted to, which is possibly responsible for such diseases as hemochromotosis.
Edit: Also worth reading is evolutionary biologist Michael Rose's 55 Theses on using evolutionary biology to improve your health, particularly in understanding (and possibly beating) aging.
A few years back when I was researching the ancient MacEwan clan of Scotland, I came across an interesting anecdote. Apparently a MacEwan, Elspeth McEwan was the last witch to be executed in Scotland:
The lonesome lady lived in a house, Bogha, on the farm at Cubbox. She was not just some simpleton peasant either. It is said by her contemporaries that she was possessed of a ‘superior education’. I have not found what it was that started off the campaign against her but it seems that she became a local target to blame for all that went wrong. When eggs were hard to come by and the hens were not laying it is said that she could coax them into producing tremendous quantities for market. Perhaps she just had a way with chickens, as some can tame wild animals, but whatever benefit this had at one time it held darker power aswell. For when the hens did not do so well in the future, it was of course attributed to Elspeth’s will. It was now her fault when the area was deprived of eggs. The birds were not the only livestock she affected. If cattle fell ill or didn’t milk well this must surely be her doing as well. Not only did she cast spells on her neighbours cattle, she stole from them too! For she had in her home a peg dowelled into the kipplefoot – or part of the roof beam – which drew milk from the cows on demand!
For her crimes of being agriculturally innovative, she was strangled and burned.
What is quite facinating is that belief in witchcraft and fear of witches in incredible common across a diverse range of cultures. We are tremendouly lucky to live in an place and time where accusing people of being witches is not an acceptable way of dealing scapegoating people (though we've found new, but at least less deadly, ways).
Colin Turnbull, who wrote about the Mbuti, who are quite peaceful otherwise, left out this rather unpleasant story from his book The Forest People, but it is in his field notes and talked about on this interesting website. Apparently Sau is an older woman who some people believe is responsible for killing a child with the "evil eye" (another common superstition across many many cultures). Because of this she is harassed, beaten, and finally banished. A better fate than Elspeth's, but still quite horrible.
Sick Societies mentions several societies that are quite dysfunctional because of witch fears, such as the Gebusi:
The Gebusi of Papua New Guinea are one of many small-scale societies whose fear of witches has been maladaptive. A very small society of about 450 people in a lowland rain forest area of southcentral New Guinea, the Gebusi were still beyond the influence of missions or government officials when Bruce Knauft studied them between 1980 and 1982.They were a remarkably noncompetitive, self-effacing, mutually deferential people who actively encouraged nonviolence. Yet they believed that all illness was caused by witchcraft, and their resulting attacks against presumed witches were so violent that their homicide rate was one of the highest ever recorded. Nearly one-third of all deaths among them were homicides, and almost all of the victims were suspected witches. Keith Otterbein has suggested that their practice of executing people thought to be witches was an adaptive “group survival” strategy because it controlled the malevolence of witches; but Knauft points out that their killing can hardly be considered adaptive because the population, small to begin with, was “dying out at an exceedingly rapid rate,” and their extremely high homicide rate continues to be an important cause of their population decline.
Anthropologists have argued about whether or not witchcraft might be adaptive or whether is it a pathology:
Nevertheless, a few anthropologists have rejected this position. In the early 1960s Edward Norbeck rejected the received view of witchcraft as a benign and natural belief system with numerous socially positive functions; instead, he made much of witchcraft’s socially harmful consequences. Similarly, Melford Spiro interpreted the Burmese belief in witches as a form of psychological projection that led to cognitive distortion, and in 1974 Theodore Schwartz pointed out the dysfunctional effects of what he called the “paranoid ethos.” Schwartz speculated that a paranoid belief system was “… the bedrock psychopathology of mankind” that has persisted “over the span of human history as a substratum of potential pathology in all societies.” Schwartz believed that in Melanesian societies, especially Dobu, paranoid ideation with its extreme suspiciousness and hostility was so deeply entrenched that “… existence is at least uncomfortable, possibly highly stressful, and undoubtedly anxious.”
It is an interesting question to consider. I think that despite the fact that most of us do not believe in witches literally, that elements of it are persistant in our culture and could account for some antisocial behaviors today.
All societies are sick, but some are sicker than others…. There are some customs and social institutions in all societies that compromise human wellbeing…. For a number of reasons …many anthropologists have chosen not to write about the darker side of life in folk societies, or at least not to write very much about it... The message of this book is not that traditional beliefs and practices are never adaptive and that they never contribute to a population’s well-being; and I am not claiming that people never think rationally enough to make effective decisions about meeting the challenges posed by their environments. To do so would be absurd…what I am calling for is a moratorium on the uncritical assumption that the traditional beliefs and practices of folk populations are adaptive while those of modern societies are not and a commitment to examining the relative adaptiveness of the beliefs and practices of all societies. The goal is a better understanding of human adaptation not just in particular societies but over the course of human history.
That's from Sick Societies, by Robert B. Edgerton, which is a very interesting book. The subtitle "the myth of primitive harmony" is misleading. Not all societies in the book are stereotypically "primitive." He includes both jungle foragers and Appalachians living in hollers. Harmful maladaptations include physical mutilation, cannibalism, food and sex taboos, initiation ceremonies that make the worst Frat hazing look tame, and belief in witchcraft and divination (yes, some foraging societies persecute and sometimes kill people that they believe are witches).
The Netsilik Inuit believed that when a pregnant woman first felt labor pains, she had to be confined to a small snow house if it was winter or a tent during the summer. The woman herself was considered to be unclean, and a newborn child was thought to give off a particularly dangerous vapor at birth. Because the entire community was thought to be in great danger, no one was permitted to assist the woman in giving birth. If the birth proved to be difficult, a shaman might be summoned to drive away evil spirits, but no one was allowed to touch the woman.87 This taboo might have served as a population control measure because it probably increased infant mortality, but it also endangered the mother, and there is no evidence that the Netsilik had any desire to reduce the number of fertile and sexually attractive women in their society.
The Gebusi of Papua New Guinea are one of many small-scale societies whose fear of witches has been maladaptive. A very small society of about 450 people in a lowland rain forest area of southcentral New Guinea, the Gebusi were still beyond the influence of missions or government officials when Bruce Knauft studied them between 1980 and 1982.34 They were a remarkably noncompetitive, self-effacing, mutually deferential people who actively encouraged nonviolence. Yet they believed that all illness was caused by witchcraft, and their resulting attacks against presumed witches were so violent that their homicide rate was one of the highest ever recorded. Nearly one-third of all deaths among them were homicides, and almost all of the victims were suspected witches. Keith Otterbein has suggested that their practice of executing people thought to be witches was an adaptive “group survival” strategy because it controlled the malevolence of witches; but Knauft points out that their killing can hardly be considered adaptive because the population, small to begin with, was “dying out at an exceedingly rapid rate,” and their extremely high homicide rate continues to be an important cause of their population decline.35
For me, it is quite fascinating. Having grown up around very traditionalist people I derive a certain level of comfort from traditionalism. But at some point it's clear that I'll always be an outsider, as my parents were. When it comes to committing heart and soul to ancient traditions whether social, dietary, or religious…I baulk. In the end traditionalism fails for me because in every tradition there is maladaptive beliefs and behaviors bundled together with ancient wisdom. Members of these traditions who have grown up with them from birth are often unable to see this.
Traditional solutions and long-standing beliefs and practices tend to persist not because they are optimally beneficial but because they generally work just well enough that changes in them are not selfevidently needed. Given all that we know about the sometimes astoundingly bad judgment of “rational” planners in modern nations, it seems unlikely that people in smaller and simpler societies that lack our scientific and technological sophistication would always make optimally adaptive decisions even should they try to do so...Psychologist Donald Campbell has suggested that this may be so because people have evolved to be conservative, to respect established ways and responsible leaders; for Campbell, conservatism is a survival mechanism.43 Similarly, sociologist Joseph Lopreato was so impressed by the human predilection for conforming to rules and forcing others to do likewise that he posited a genetic need for conformity….ith the partial exception of subsistence activities, for every man or woman in a folk society who has been able to explain why something believed or done is beneficial, there have been thousands (in some societies this includes everyone) who provide no more by way of explanation than “it is our custom” or “we’ve always done it this way.”
This has happened even when I've tried to climb up the family tree into our own past. A problem here is there are lots of trees to climb. I've climbed a lot of them so far and have been pretty disappointed, so I take what I like and leave. Unfortunately this is in itself somewhat maladaptive itself as it leaves me without the community and sense of belonging that usually accompanies such traditionalism.
postpartum depression are thought to include the stress of the event for the mother and family (including fears of being an inadequate mother), individual psychological characteristics of the woman, and changes in levels of estrogen and progesterone. Yet despite the frequency and seriousness of postpartum depression in the United States, the phenomenon appears to be quite rare in non-Western societies.112 For example, when Sara Harkness asked Kipsigis women in Kenya about their emotions following child birth, they unanimously denied that they felt sad or cried during the early weeks after giving birth. In fact, they declared that such things never occurred.113 For these Kipsigis women, despite hormonal changes, postpartum depression did not exist; giving birth was a happy event, one looked forward to by women who received positive social support throughout their pregnancies and after the birth of the child. The reasons why American culture (and the cultures of Western European countries) has made giving birth a depressing event presumably have to do with psychosocial stress. The Kipsigis and other societies have not made giving birth a stressful occurrence.
I've often thought that Jewish people are lucky because they have a strong secularized diaspora. I have some Jewish blood myself, but found that even that community still seems to be based on ties of kinship that render me an outsider. Is there an equivalent for Southerners out there somewhere? Maybe in Austin or Atlanta? I'm not a big fan of hot weather unfortunately.
Does the Mediterranean Diet Even Exist? asks the NYtimes
The Mediterranean diet was always a composite. Spaniards love pork; Egyptians, as a rule, do not. In some regions, people made pesto with lard, not olive oil. “There is no such thing called the Mediterranean diet; there are Mediterranean diets,” says Rami Zurayk, an agriculture professor at the American University in Beirut. “They share some commonalities — there is a lot of fruits and vegetables, there is a lot of fresh produce in them, they are eaten in small dishes, there is less meat in them. These are common characteristics, but there are many different Mediterranean diets.”
The healthy versions of these diets do have one other thing in common: they are what the Italians called “cucina povera,” the “food of the poor.” In Ancel Keys’s day, Mediterraneans ate lentils instead of meat because they had no choice. “A lot of it is to do with poverty, not geography,” says Sami Zubaida, a leading scholar on food and culture.
Well, I agree that most low-meat diets around the world have more to do with poverty rather than health, that's not why some Greeks may have been eating lentils. The Greek Orthodox form of Christianity prescribes fasting for a little over half the year. Fasting involves eating not only less, but forgoing all animal products besides invertebrates like shellfish and insects (not many people take advantage of this). This letter to the editor from the journal of Public Health Nutrition asks why Ancel Keys didn't note that in his study.
When laymen break these fasts they don't eat lentils, that's for sure. It's a time to enjoy meat, dairy, and fish.
Had this book been written in a less academic tone, I think the Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, could have been the next Guns, Germs, and Steel. The thesis is fascinating enough that had it been enhanced by more stories, it could have been the sort of book to suffuse cultured conversations at dinner parties. But if you are willing to read what is essentially a school book, I definitely recommend this. It has changed my ideas about many things and I could easily do several posts on it.
One of the best-titled books ever, in my opinion, is Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. In the Bible, Leviathan is a gatekeeper of hell and the Book of Job portrays him as being something like a sea-dragon.
To give a very rough summary, Hobbes said that in a "state of nature" human life was "nasty, brutish, and short." To live a better life, we make a social contract with Leviathan— the state, and must endure its abuses as the price of peace.
But those who have delved into the paleo diet probably have read of evidence that shows that humans in nature did not live miserable lives, just as Jared Diamond's excellent The Worst Mistake in The History of The Human Race.
And it all-encompassing state is in fact a very recent invention. As Scott notes
Avoiding the state was, until the past few centuries, a real option. A thousand years ago most people lived outside state structures, under loose-knit empires or in situations of fragmented sovereignty." Today it is an option that is fast vanishing.
Why would people want to avoid the state? Isn't it the bringer of roads and all kinds of nice things? Well, that's debatable even now, but for most of history that state can be seen as a highly repressive extractive entity that people fled for very good reasons. When I talk of oppressive governments in this post, I'm not talking about it in the somewhat-trivial modern form of OMGWHYdoIhavetopaythisannoyingtax, but what amounted to serfdom or outright slavery. For most of the history of government, slaves were a must to support the state.
After Stephan's talk at Wise Traditions, a girl asked despondently if any group of people had ever chosen to go backwards. Actually, many tribes we consider to be primitive remnants of stone age tribes are actually descendants of people who chose to flee oppressive governments and give up settled agriculture in the process. Scott gives many examples of such tribes both in SE Asian and in the Americas. In most instances the border between settled and unsettled was blurred due to slave raids in the hills, military conscription, government expansions, and other events. These populations may not have been genetically distinct, but they chose a very different way of life.
The histories of such people have largely been lost because few of them posess writing, though Scott gives evidence that some of these tribes once did and gave it up in response to oppression. For these people writing represented something that state used to create records used to tax, indebt, and enslave people. Once they fled to the uplands, they had no need for it.
This is particularly relevant to this blog because these tribes developed an agricultural system that helped them resist the state and provided them greater health then their governed counterparts. It's interesting because when I first started studying agricultural economics, we were told how horribly backwards a "shifting cultivation" AKA slash and burn agricultural system was. We were told that agencies and governments should make an effort to replace it with settled agriculture. From an anthropological standpoint, shifting cultivation is really a form of horticulture rather than agriculture. The difference is that horticulture involves many shifting plots of varied crops rather than the land-ownership settled field monocultures that are characteristic of agriculture. There are other differences. Gene Expression recently had an excellent post on the social implications of plough vs. hoe agriculture. Horticulture generally involves hoes.
Ultimately this goes back to the foragers & farmers debate. I have argued for years that the “traditional” and “conservative” values which emerged after the rise of agriculture, and crystallized during the Axial Age, are actually cultural adaptations to existence in the Malthusian mass societies which arose as the farmers pushed up against the production frontier. As the world “filled up” there was a necessary switch from extensive to intensive agriculture, and social controls needed to be more powerful so as to keep the masses of humanity in some sort of meta-stable equilibrium. The rise of institutional religions, conscript armies, and national identities, all bubbled up as adaptations to a world where a few controlled the many, and the many persisted on the barest margin of subsistence.
I luckily had one very intelligent professor who asked his students to consider shifting cultivation in a different light. There is much evidence that it's not as detrimental to the environment as other forms of agriculture and that most of the problems blamed on it have other causes. Scott argues that horticulture allowed many tribes to resist onslaughts of the state and that this is the reason that it has been portrayed so negatively.
Horticulturalists generally enjoyed better health because their diet was more diverse, but also because permanent human settlements, particularly cities and towns, were places where human, animal, and crop disease and pestilence flourished. Greater concentration generally equaled greater disease. Cities were population sinks, where humans labor was extracted, but human death rates were high enough that many governments relied on raiding the uplands for slaves to replenish their base*. Slavery was required to keep people in agrarian states because there:
were positive reasons for preferring hill swiddening or foraging to wet-rice cultivation. So long as there was plenty of open land, as was the case until fairly recently, swiddening was generally more efficient in terms of return to labor than irrigated rice. It offered more nutritional variety in settings that were generally healthier. Finally, when combined with foraging and hunting for goods highly valued in the lowlands and in international commerce, it could provide high returns for relatively little effort. One could combine social autonomy with the advantages of commercial exchange. Going to the hills, or remaining in the hills if you were already there, was not, in most circumstances, a choice of freedom at the cost of material deprivation.
Horticultural crops favored by these people were fairly easy to plant surreptitiously and leave alone to be collected later such as sweet potatoes, cassava, and yams. At more secure sites they planted bananas, plantains, dry rice, maize, groundnuts, squash, and vegetables. Sounds a lot like the Kitavan diet right?
These crops also were perfect for resisting the state because they had staggered maturities rather than one big harvest, dispersal of cropping into small hill gardens rather than large fields, and root crops can remain in the ground for some time until harvested. This meant less vulnerability to military raiding and pillaging. Such a chaotic form of agriculture also was more difficult to keep records on and thus to tax.
In general, roots and tubers such as yams, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and cassava/manioc/yucca are nearly appropriation-proof. After they ripen, they can be safely left in the ground for up to two years and dug up piecemeal as needed. There is thus no granary to plunder. If the army or the taxmen wants your potatoes, for example, they will have to dig.
It's no coincidence that root crops have been favored by other state-resisting people outside of Asia as well, such as the Irish. The major difference was that Irish potato growing was less well-suited for the environment of Ireland and the use of field monocropping of just a single crop had serious repercussions. Other state-resistant Europeans crop up in the book as well, though cold-weather state-resistance was in the form of pastoralism rather than horticulture. The Highland Scots, the Cossacks, the Swiss, the Welsh, and Montenegrins went through many periods of resisting the encroachment of the state.
The introduction of new world crops like the potato and sweet potato/yam had a large impact in Asia as well, contributing to the flight of populations in New Guinea and the Philippines to the hills in response to colonial expansions. Cassava had an even greater impact, as it can be planted by nomadic peoples, left alone, and then harvested up to three years later. The leaves can also be eaten and it can survive even if the foliage is destroyed by fire. It earned the nickname "farina de guerra", which means "flour of war" because it was so relied on by hill guerrillas in Latin America.
Tropical horticulturalists also took advantage of the forest's fish, game, and wild plant populations. This quasi-forager lifestyle has led some to mistakenly label them hunter-gatherers or to erroneously portray them as stone age remnants.
Many of these Southeast Asia hill cultures cultures resisted state-integrated Eastern religions like Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism or they have their own unorthodox versions of these religions. But American Baptist missionaries have found many takers for their religion. Perhaps because the Baptist form of Christianity has its roots in Southern hill culture, which has its own reputation for rebellion. When I think about my own ancestors, many of them ended up in this country because they were resisting the state. I'm the descendant of deported Scottish rebels and Puritans fleeing persecution by the state-sponsored Church of England. I still have some "hill relatives" that eat mostly wild food. I always joke that if the apocalypse happened I'd survive by joining them :)
Much like my view on Sex at Dawn, I'm not sure how this history weighs on how we should live today. It does challenge many preconceptions that many of us have about history and the role of the state. And also about foragers. I talk to a lot of people who assume jungle horticulturalists are "paleolithic tribes" when a lot of them have had much influential contact with civilization and might have farmed in the past. It's clear paleo dieters can learn a lot from them, but they are still just analogues.
Their diets are very intersesting, as they are similar to what I eat and what is recommended by sites like The Perfect Health Diet.
Sadly, many of these tribes continue to be persecuted by their respective governments, particularly in Burma. It's hard to share recipes from these tribes because most of them are so busy running from troops that they don't have time to really cook. I don't really view any government as benevolent, but it's clear that in America we are somewhat lucky that ours at least pretends to be.
*cities are once again population sinks, but this time due to low fertility rather than high death rates. What are the implications?
Last night when I took off my shirt I was horrified to find a small black speck on my stomach. It was a tick, a souvenir from Virginia, feasting upon my blood. I had showered many times since returning to the city, but perhaps it had hid in my thick dark head of hair.
I had been feasting on blood myself. The blood of a fallow deer, killed for my hunting class with a perfect shot to the head that preserved her still grace in heavy lidded glassy eyes.
Many people who have never really dealt with dead animals much assume it is a bloody affair, but the reality is that unless you bungle some blood vessel, it's possible to wear your nicest suede shoes while you butcher. Each cavity is wrapped with convenient lovely translucent membranes that make the job much easier than you would expect.
Hide preservation expert Fergus was there to teach us how to get the hide off in a way that allows you to keep it for tanning without much work scraping. Later he showed us finished hides, which were warm and silky. Apparently you can tan hides quite easily with the animal's brain, which is rich is nourishing fats that led to a soft, if slightly fishy smelling buckskin. We didn't want to eat the brain anyway because of some concerns with chronic wasting disease, a relative of mad cow disease that has never been found in humans, but I suppose it's a risk not worth taking, especially considering that ghee and butter are a tastier replacement for the nutritional qualities of brain.
The next concern is the digestive system, the potential source of meat contamination. If you do it right, you should avoid being assaulted by the fermenting contents of the stomach and intestines. You "unzip" the stomach with a good sharp knife, preferably featuring a rather useful gut hook that prevents puncturing quite well. Then comes the taste of disconnecting this long path that the deer's food had been taking, so different from mine. The deer's magic stomachs have the ability to take what looks like useless leaves and other woody forage and ferment them into food. A deer is a great way to eat your salad, as they can do more with it than you ever can.
The rest is taking out the cuts of meat, neatly skinning to make a blanket for the deer to rest while you cut. From the back we ate small slivers of the ruby red meat raw. It tasted fresh and slightly chewy, like the woods that were now full of small honeysuckle flowers tempting me as a walked past them with the hot musky summers of Georgia where I grew up. At night I could hear mockingbirds sing. It had been many years since I last heard that strangely haunting sound. I could imagine myself back in the South, despite not missing the rude insects that devoured my food or the Southern Baptist churches that devoured my soul. I liked hearing" y'all" from the mouths of smiling people, I liked the humid languishing mornings cooled by lemonade from the surprisingly bustling farmer's market. I liked the idea that the hunting license allows one to take a bear, something a Virginian in my blood named William Gibson once did back in the 1700s according to some old records I once found.
But Virginia is not the South I remember, the Florida panhandle, Louisiana, Mississippi places my family now lives that are ancient swamps. Virginia is more manicured- in between the primeval of the deep South and the dark Northern cities. Perhaps like I am having been so far from the South for nearly a decade now.
We carved the body cavity through and through, leaving bare ribs skinless so the light could shin through. The digestive system we left for the vultures, as it belongs to them. I read recently about one of the earliest religious sites, Göbekli Tepe, a marvel considering that hunter-gatherers had no cities, but they bothered to build this temple carved with vultures, lions, and other predators of humans dead...and alive. Some theorize that the hunter-gatherers left their dead here to be eaten by these fierce flesh eating creatures. The word for this is "excarnate," which is very beautiful to me, the idea of sharing your body with other carnivores. I think of then as a time when none owned another, except in death when it was an honor to be consumed and melded with others. Some place has called it the "garden of Eden," since it was theorized that this was where the transition to agriculture might have happened as people gathered together in more density. It's funny how the true garden of Eden is a place of lions and vultures rather than lions lying down with the lambs. Et in Arcadia...
With John Durant, Zev
But that is just myself extrapolating based on my own experience. I would be quite happy to only consume hunted meat only though, perhaps with some cream and butter from my own cattle. Mary Strange's book Woman The Hunter has much about the philosophy of hunter-gatherers towards animals. The lines are more blurred for them- they are animals and each animal perhaps becomes other animals, and each is intelligent and cunning in its own way.
A common criticism of hunting (and, as in Carol Adam's vegetarian feminism, of meat-eating in general) is that the hunter objectifies the prey, enforcing the split between human and nonhuman nature. According to this logic, one can only kill and eat something one perceives as an inferior "other," an entity worthy of use rather than of love or mutual regard. Yet from all we know about hunter-gatherer worldviews, precisely the opposite is the case for people who rely upon hunting for a significant portion (literal or symbolic) of their sustenance. For them, they animals they hunt and the predator species that are hunters like themselves, are kindred souls, powerful and intelligent. All animals, nonhuman and human, participate together in a web of pulsating life: birthing and nurturing, pursuing and fleeing, capturing, and dying.
By contrast ...the conventional view of nature that has developed in American civilization and, arguably, has reached its quintessential expression in such movements as animal liberation and radical ecofeminism, insists upon two assumptions: that humans are not really part of nature, and that our primary way of involving ourselves with the natural world is to destroy it.
Brings to mind C.S. Lewis when he said "Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness."
Speaking of woman the hunter, our teacher Jackson Landers mentioned that women are the fastest growing group of hunters. Our class had three, including myself. I enjoyed the company of everyone on the trip immensely, but was especially heartened to see my fellow females. As I will write in a later post, it's rather unfortunate that so many men see hunting as "reclaiming manliness." I see it as reclaiming our human-ness that has nothing to do with sex. Either way, Woman the Hunter is an excellent book no matter your gender.
The deer itself? The taste was magnificent. Each piece had a different flavor and only a few were gamey. For those who requested the recipe, the heart I prepared the way I prepare every heart- in coconut with red pepper, tamarind, ginger, cilantro, and garlic. Either simmer in coconut milk or fry in coconut oil. A more locavore approach can be found in Fergus Henderson's Nose to Tail, where he recommends marinating in vinegar.
I plan to improve my shooting skills and my family has invited me to hunt deer in Wisconsin this fall. Hopefully I can get all the licenses in order...one thing I learned is that it is very hard to have a real hunting rifle in NYC. Unless you are crazy and willing to hunt with a Civil War musket, it can take up to a year and $250 to acquire the right to have a hunting rifle in the city!
I never asked for to find my twin, but there you are
And I never asked for the spools to unspin, but there they roll.
I never asked for to carve your ribs, but here I go
and I've never pleaded for a new skin as i do now
Flowers and blood
Build up a new me of flowers and blood
I'll shoot me a gun made of leaf and branch in this here town
and eat me a bowl full of secret and mud, yes, I will
if you build up a new me of flowers and blood -- say you will.