This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
Recently a friend sent me this piece on the "paleo" diet and libertarianism in The New Inquiry, which quotes me. It is well-written and thought-provoking, even worth reading if you probably disagree with the author's politics. I myself had thought of writing something similar for awhile, because at some point it's just too interesting how the diet-self-identity movements have become associated with various political leanings. My own are somewhat nebulous. To some corners of the blogsophere I am a beer-swilling Feminazi. Others seem to see me as a raw-meat eating proto-mini-Ayn Rand. Either way, I my interest in the paleo diet partially came from the very fringes of the libertarianish politic, from anarcho-primitivism, which is fairly far left-leaning and was associated with the more stereotypically leftish vegan diet until some of the leaders started suffering health problems from that diet and others figured out that the average edible plant on the market is part of the same destructive industrial complexes as the factory-farmed eggs they so assiduously avoided. Lierre Keith's The Vegetarian Myth not only made anarcho-primitivists don hunting camo on the quest for wild venison, but became a cult classic among even those outside anarcho-primitivists, as the book contains elements that appeal to standard low-carbers to people dissatisfied with vegetarianism or veganism. Unfortunately, about the time that was published, Keith and her various associates also started to advocate terrorism, a very old-fashioned anarchist solution, as a solution to the "problem" of civilization, something many readers might not be aware of. I am glad that she and other primitivist piqued my interest in anthropology, but doing that also drove me further away from primitivism as what I learned about the paleolithic and about foragers did not match the picture that primitivists painted.
At the same time I was interested in primitivism, I was also studying economics, and started reading the more moderate libertarian (though I actually think it's more correctly classical liberal, as am I) blog Marginal Revolution, which is written by economists and linked to fellow economist Art De Any's now-defunct paleo blog. One of the authors there is Tyler Cowan, and like many libertarians he seems intensely attracted to skepticism and that which questions the status quo, something I also share. I think that is where Gary Taubes got pulled in, with his articles in the press like the Big Fat Lie in the NYtimes questioning the lipid-heart disease hypothesis. Interestingly, the reaction among the moderate libertarian crowd was not always initially positive- I remember this scathing article on Taubes published in Reason. And Tyler Cowan himself isn't exactly paleo, instead a champion of hole-in-the-wall ethnic cuisine.
And then there is was a third main strain that I think contributed to making paleo the "libertarian" diet, which is that a lot of the paleo crowd embraced buying from small local farms, a crowd that tends to both lean libertarian economically (or at least professes to) and also has been legitimately harmed by inappropriate government regulation. Everything I Want to Do is Illegal by Joel Salatin, in my opinion, is a seminal tome in getting libertarians interested in food issues. And also in pulling some of the more lefty crunchy local food crowd in that direction along with the fact some of them got tied up in red tape when trying to open their green businesses.
These three basic strains I think explain some of the seemingly nonsensical juxtapositions (why butter? why bacon?) you find in the "paleo" community. The wild foods and occasional romanticism about foragers the first (though that seems to be dying out), the anti-status quo love of bacon and butter the second, the passion for raw milk and grass-fed beef the third.
Some of these strains also explain why it attracts other groups on the fringe. I remember four years ago I was part of a committee organizing an open-source web app conference and brought up having gluten-free food. Let's just say it was not received positively. These days it seems like every sci-fi, software, or other nerdy convention has gluten-free, vegan, dairy-free, and other fringe food identity fare.
Unfortunately, the such diets haves also become popular with other political groups that are skeptical of the government, but more authoritarian on the political compass. Lately there has been a kerfluffle over Dr. William Davis of Wheat Belly fame, Jimmy Moore the low-carb creationist (doesn't believe the paleolithic era existed) figure associated with paleo for $ome reason, and Dr. Doug McGuff who wrote Body by Science appearing on David Duke's podcast. Moore also included Duke's blog in a list of best new LC/Paleo/Health blogs, though he removed it when people pointed it out after a period of denial. Then he wrote a long post about how his critics were using Gestapo-like tactics (wording since removed) to persecute him They couldn't be bothered to Google Duke before going on his show, but in summary David Duke is a race-separatist, the "nicer" face of Neo-Nazism ("we don't want to kill you, we just want you non-whites to stay far far away from us"), though once he was a leader in the much more virulent KKK. Duke believes that there is a Zionist media/government conspiracy that wants to dilute the special white "race" by encouraging race-mixing.
Moore said he only agrees with Duke about nutrition and Duke is "spot-on" in this matter. Unfortunately, Duke's nutritional views are tied together with his other views. In his intro to his Wheat Belly interview he says "The Zionist media is fueled by advertising revenue of foods which are bad for you! But the huge and growing establishment Medical industry and pharmaceutical industry are also fueled by growing unhealthiness. Although I love the taste of bread and wheat products, I recognize the wheat addiction that I and millions of others have — so I avoid wheat as much as possible in my diet." I don't think anyone would say that these people interviewed share such views (though it is interesting that on the defensive they hardly criticize Duke, I guess harsh words are reserved for the evils of wheat/sugar), but it highlights the appeal of certain ideas to the darker edges of the fringe, people for whom they fit into grand paranoid conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, it fits quite well with the general trend towards demonization of specific whole foods and entire food groups that books like Wheat Belly and fundamentalist Low-Carb ideologies typify.
When I see authoritarian articles about "sugar genocides" it makes me more than a little alarmed. I've noticed the mere mention of feminism induces mouth-foaming "help help we are being silenced by the feminists who want to damn us to a politically correct hell" among certain bloggers, but actual authoritarianism doesn't seem to bother them as long as its part of their mutual admiration society. And I think is a symptom of how little ground some of this stuff, scientifically, has to stand on given its reliance on such feedback loops for propagation. And in some ways, the spottier versions of "paleo" and some of the racist theories of people like Duke have a lot in common. As The New Inquiry article points out:
Incomplete or flawed interpretations of our biology have long been used to marginalize women, racial groups, even entire civilizations, and nutrition may well become the next variant in this pattern of discrimination.
Duke, with this theories about the superiority of the "white race," is a good reminder that bad science should not be taken lightly and unfortunately as some Creationist websites point out, various evolutionary theories have a long history of association with such hateful authoritarianism. That's why I'll keep criticizing it here, even though I get letters that say that criticism is unproductive.
So understanding the political background of the "paleo" diet gives many insights to some absurdities and troglodyte-like behavior encountered among that community and various orbiting communities associated with diet. And why it appeals to certain people. I have sometimes mused on the fact I have been treated more viciously (called a "cunt" in a vicious manner in response to an argument about science for example) based on my sex in this sphere than anywhere else, primarily by the anarchist blogger Richard Nikoley, which is surprising considering I work in a male-dominated industry not known for friendliness to women. It has not made me particularly interested in participating in "paleo" or what it has devolved into, especially given certain people in the community's willingness to turn a blind eye as long as the person in question is a member of their mutual admiration society. If anyone wonders why paleo, much like libertarianism, fails to attract a large number of female contributors, there it is.
Oops I wasn't done with this post and I hit publish, probably shouldn't have been up at 1 AM (thanks after-dinner coffee :/ ), so the comments from earlier on 1/3 are from only the first paragraph.