Today I got a spate of seemingly random animal rights trolls. Fly by night nonsense? Nope, apparently I was featured on the Freakonomics blog. Normally this would be an honor, since I was a fan of Freakonomics when I was an economics major in college, but nope, they let James McWilliams write another animal rights nonsense piece on their blog, one that references a post I made over a year ago. What does that have to do with economics? Hilariously enough, one of the major objections I have to magazines and blogs billing McWilliams as an agricultural writer is that he doesn't seem to know anything about agricultural economics. He is a historian who ruffles feathers because he condemns the locavore movement. Some troglo-free marketers only see the latter and are just happy to have someone pulling the hippies down to Earth, while forgetting that animals play an essential and irreplaceable role in our agricultural economy. When I saw McWilliams speak on a panel with real farmers, I saw him ignoring what they said, cherry picking quotes to rationalize his fantasy-future utopia of magic robot vegetable farms where they is no death (hilariously, growing mechanization of agriculture often leads to more deaths).
According to McWilliams, I am rationalizing unnecessary death. This is untrue. There is no way to rationalize any kind of death. The idea that some deaths are necessary and others are not is a quasi-religious way to look at the world. I was thrilled to see an animal rights philosopher, Joel Marks, admit that in the New York Times a few weeks ago:
In my case the plight of nonhuman animals at human hands became the great preoccupation. I could think of no greater atrocity than the confinement and slaughter of untold billions of innocent creatures for sustenance that can be provided through other, more humane diets.
In my most recent published book, I defended a particular moral theory – my own version of deontological ethics – and then “applied” that theory to defend a particular moral claim: that other animals have an inherent right not to be eaten or otherwise used by humans. Oddly enough, it was as I crossed the final “t” and dotted the final “i” of that monograph, that I underwent what I call my anti-epiphany.
A friend had been explaining to me the nature of her belief in God. At one point she likened divinity to the beauty of a sunset: the quality lay not in the sunset but in her relation to the sunset. I thought to myself: “Ah, if that is what she means, then I could believe in that kind of God. For when I think about the universe, I am filled with awe and wonder; if that feeling is God, then I am a believer.”
But then it hit me: is not morality like this God? In other words, could I believe that, say, the wrongness of a lie was any more intrinsic to an intentionally deceptive utterance than beauty was to a sunset or wonderfulness to the universe? Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast, that they are the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities?
So someone else might respond completely differently from me, such that for him or her, the lie was permissible, the sunset banal, the universe nothing but atoms and the void. Yet that prospect was so alien to my conception of morality that it was tantamount to there being no morality at all. For essential to morality is that its norms apply with equal legitimacy to everyone; moral relativism, it has always seemed to me, is an oxymoron. Hence I saw no escape from moral nihilism.
The dominoes continued to fall. I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for doing what He wanted.
Unfortunately, complete moral relativism is just as silly as believing that it's immoral to kill animals. Morality does come from somewhere, and the evidence is that it comes our ancient tribal past where we evolved a moral sense in order to be able to cooperate with other humans beings as a community. Morality is about making our lives together better.
James McWilliams totally misses the point I was making in that post and in later posts that animal husbandry is something we have a tough time with because it's not part of our evolutionary heritage. I've been watching Human Planet, the gorgeous documentary about diverse human lifeways around the globe, and one of the most striking scenes is of a South American Indian woman breastfeeding a baby monkey. They ate that monkey's mother for dinner, but this baby monkey is a treasured pet. They don't eat the animals they raise, those animals are part of their tribe. The idea that eating meat is wrong because eating babies (argument from marginal cases) and our pet dogs is wrong is the kind of idea that only someone totally detached from innate human morals would put forth. We don't ban eating/killing babies because babies are sentient!
I was also making a point in that post that I didn't agree with how that farm was raising their animals, since they were perpetuating a breed that doesn't even have a sense of life and would die young even if you brought them to some kind of farm sanctuary. That's an industrial system dressed up in free-range clothing.
I never considered myself part of the "compassionate carnivore" movement. There is nothing special about my engagement with my food. My desire to slaughter my own animals doesn't have to do with reducing harm, but achieving independence from a dying industrial food system. And yes, that means using and eating animals. Fertilizers based on mining un-renewable resources aren't going to last forever.
If you are a visitor interested in learning more why I gave up veganism and debating animal rights, I suggest you head over to let them eat meat, a truly excellent site on the subject.
After reading James McWilliam's idiotic piece on backyard slaughter, I found myself immersed in reading more about Oakland's effort to allow backyard slaughter. For those of us who are thinking in the long run, towards an economy with greater scarcity of natural resources, being able to have food independence is truly important. True food independence involves both plants and animals. The animals provide the plants with valuable fertilizer, among other things.
Unfortunately, bleeding hearts have hi-jacked the movement and turned it into some kind of plant fetishism, dedicated to growing plants that can provide only a trivial contribution to the diet of a healthy normal human. Sure, spinach is great, but it doesn't have very many calories, you cannot survive on spinach. I've written on this delusion before, in my post The Produce Delusion. Focusing on trivial plant gardening is not food independence and I wonder if the lip service in the government towards it serves to distract people from real issues. Michelle Obama is growing some tomatoes in her back yard, maybe she hopes it will help us forget the massive amounts of subsidies that go towards unhealthy food.
This image from the Oakland anti-slaughter group, was so hilarious I couldn't resist posting it. It's the perfect example of the triviality of most urban gardening. The idea that animals aren't part of any type agriculture is really quite strange. They can't just admit that they don't like the idea of animals getting killed. It's about controlling other people in order to make them comply with their personal preferences.
From the outset, the Planning Department has had its heart set on bundling animal breeding and backyard slaughter into its urban agriculture policy. Its eagerness to be in the limelight alongside bestselling locovore authors singularly obsessed with “knowing their meat” has blinded it to the mandate that Oakland set forth for creating food policy.
To provide low-income people in food deserts with the foods that they most lack access to, which are — according to luminaries such as Michelle Obama and public health advocates the world over — healthful fruits and vegetables.
Unfortuantely, as I outlined in my original Produce Delusion post, giving people access to fruits and vegetables DOES NOT have an impact on preventing obesity. It sure does seem nice though. But I hope the decision makers of Oakland realize that you shouldn't get agriculture advice from people who run animal sanctuaries.
And it's highly amusing that they are using the argument that meat is for the elite.
The people profiled are not continuing the family farm out of economic necessity. Nor are they killing animals because they lack protein in their diet. They are educated, published and politically connected, and they choose to slaughter and eat their backyard animals because of a personal preference to consume a culinary delicacy: locally raised organic meat. Food empowerment this is not.
Um, it's for the elite partially because regulations make it expensive! NYC has slaughterhouses in the city and I'll tell you it's not rich bankers who use them, it's immigrants, many of them low-income. Furthermore, many people in those communities already possess the skills to slaughter animals well. I've often thought of organizing a workshop where immigrants who grew up slaughtering animals could help teach backyard farmers about how to do it right.
Someone commenting on the McWilliams article said it had something to do with serving delicacies in fancy restaurants. Haha, you are not allowed to serve home-slaughtered animals in restaurants.
Anyone know any pro-slaughter groups? I'd love to feature them here. I admire people willing to put up with the crazy urban weirdos in their effort to achieve food independence. Me? I'm heading to the country.
I honestly don't like any of the gluten-free beers that I've tried, they taste kind of boring to me and still make me feel somewhat sick. I'm not a big wine person because it gets me drunk almost immediately. Cider is usually too sweet. But recently my roommates told me about Crispin cider with made with stout yeast and molasses. It has the dark rich character I loved in beer and I feel fine after drinking it. Definitely recommended.
What's your fav paleo party indulgence?
I've written before about the animal rights-locavore cold war. In some people's eyes, they are two types of liberal food movements, but the truth is that the locavore movement has its true roots in conservatism, as exemplified by the agrarian pillars of the movement such as Wendell Berry and Joel Salatin. Animal rights is just plain radical modernism, a pathology of alienation from nature. Being so different in core philosophy, it makes sense that animal rights would want to make life difficult for agrarians, who use integrated systems of plants and domesticated animals on their farms.
Believe it or not, there's a food issue lurking out there beyond food rights and food safety. Joel Salatin, the Virginia farmer-author-activist is worried that that next issue is animal rights.
He's already seeing evidence of it at Polyface Farm, his own farm in the Shenandoah foothills. During a tour of his farm Saturday for 150 attendees as part of a fundraiser for the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, Salatin said he's been reported to his local animal control officials by area residents who have had concerns about the treatment of his cattle.
In one case, someone reported him because one of his steers was limping. In another case, he was reported because his cattle were "mobbing"--hanging out close to each other as a herd in a new pasture.
In each instance, "We had to spend two days with local vets explaining what we do"...and he was off the hook.
His view of animal rights as an emerging issue for owners of sustainable farms rates a chapter in his upcoming book, Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World. It's due out in early October.
During the Saturday farm tour, Salatin wondered aloud what other problems the animal rights people might find at his farm. He pointed out how, during recent heavy rains, the chickens (who stay outside in mobile structures) got pretty wet, which isn't unusual. "We have days when our chickens are out here in the rain and cold and shivering. I know there are people who would like to go out and buy them L.L. Bean dog pillows."
Might the animal rights folks be better off focusing their attention more on CAFO's and other factory farm practices? They already have, of course, but Salatin speaks to a more ideological tendency.
The problem is a theme of his book: "We live in extremely abnormal times..." And one expression: "In our communities, we have more and more animal rightists."
Of course the animal rightists love regulation, the better to make it tough enough that the small farmers get out of business, just leaving the industrial CAFOs, which are easier to malign in the public's eye. Animal rights mouthpiece Jame McWililams consistently is on the side of big government. Sorry Philpott, they aren't on our side.
When it rains here the windows of the buildings behind mine look like they are crying. The raindrops make dark trails in the wet cement. I want to open my window and hear the rain, but I only have one window and it is taken up by the air conditioning unit. I'm not sure whether to take it out or not. I seems like autumn comes so slowly here and one day it's 60 and the next day it's 85 again. I try not to do so much here because I know I am leaving. I've known that for a long time, but I haven't had the strength to do it before, but this time I've set the date and given notice at work and with my roommates. I have to go through with it this time.
It was set up for failure from the beginning. Moving from a place I truly loved, New York just couldn't compare. I tried to make it here. I remember when the plane touched down they pilot said "Congratulations, you've arrived in the greatest city on Earth." Yesterday I sat on the tall grey rocks on Central Park and looked up at the buildings on Central Park South. I imagined that it might be the greatest place on Earth if you lived on one of those beautifully terraced penthouses. But for me it's been a constant struggle. It's been utterly humbling.
I think living abroad had given me a false since of independence. I really did think I could make it anywhere. And in some ways I have made it. My income has increased from minimum wage and more than quadrupled. I have a job. I have an apartment. But I don't have very much else. I don't know why I couldn't fit in here. I don't know if it's something wrong with me or the place, but in the end after a long day of work and two hours on the subway, I do withdraw. Unfortunately that's how I deal with stress, but I never understood the mechanics of this place anyway. Everyone lives so far away from each other and they are always so busy anyway.
I find myself always looking at Uppsala on Google Streetview. Whatever day they chose to take their pictures, it was a perfect day. The sun is shining and the colors of the buildings, a muted yellow and Falun copper red, contrast perfectly against the blue sky. I play a game where I start in the city center and then make my way home to Ultuna, right outside the city, a cluster of red houses among the forests and green fields of late-summer grain. Perhaps it's August, like it was when I first came there. I had trouble dealing with the loss of that place, with the loss of my boyfriend from there. In the dissolution I drove many of my old friends away and failed to make new ones.
But at least something came of it. I took my first biological anthropology class and met Dr. Ralph Holloway, who told me on no uncertain terms that it would be a waste if I didn't do a PhD in something. It had been some time since I had received that kind of academic encouragement. When his class ended and he went on sabbatical I was very sad and realized how much I missed some things about academia.
Last year when I fainted and ended up in the hospital because of my low blood pressure, I lay there alone and realized my life would be a lot better off if I were near my family. My family doesn't live in New York, they live in Illinois. My father has a farm now in Wisconsin. I'll study for the GRE, learn how to drive, hopefully learn how to farm, and because the Midwest is cheaper and I'll have more social capital, I'll actually try to achieve my dreams rather than having to focus on making ends meet. No, Chris won't be coming with me. I'll be leaving behind some wonderful memories of us, but it was an issue of the wrong place at the wrong time. I've been torn about how much to write about stuff like this here, but I writing about my own life has always been part of my blog.
I've learned a lot here, but it's time for a new journey to begin.
Counting miles before we set
Fall in love and fall apart
Things will end before they start
Since a diet a raw vegan of only raw fruits, vegetables, and nuts is not an appropriate diet for our species, many people suffer from health problems on such diets. When I get comments from healthy long-term raw vegans here, I take it with a grain of salt since I know that people are so attached to the "purity" of raw vegan that they will engage in denialism before they admit they have a problem.
A questionnaire study of raw vegan diets found that many women on them suffer from amnorrhea, which means they stop having their monthly periods. They concluded that "Since many raw food dieters exhibited underweight and amenorrhea, a very strict raw food diet cannot be recommended on a long-term basis." (note the study did not include raw foodists who include animal products in their diets).
Unfortunately, instead of admitting their diet was deficient, many have written articles about how periods are bad anyway, because it's not something wild animals or our primate relatives have and it's a sign that we have "toxins" on our bodies. Here is one from Debbie Took (who later confessed on Letthemeatmeat that she was considering adding raw dairy into her diet and has since stopped posting on her blog, though I hear she is fruitarian now):
To many feminists, the idea of the menstrual blood as being 'impure' is heresy, but...'The toxicity of menstrual blood has been well substantiated. Mach and Lubin (Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapy 22:413 (1924)) showed that the blood plasma, milk, sweat and saliva of menstruating women contains a substance that is highly toxic to protoplasm of living plants. This toxic substance is not present during the intermenstrual periods.' Even the sweat and saliva! And these toxins are not present when not menstruating. It's as if the body is 'gathering together' toxins in the period preceding menstruation, prior to expulsion at menstruation, to get the body all nice and clean again for possible impregnation the following month. But, sure, the study's old, and if anyone knows whether any subsequent studies have refuted it, let me know.
I thought of this post because Dr. Kate Clancy, a physical anthropologist, just posted about it in her blog:
Dr. Bela Schick, a doctor in the 1920s, was a very popular doctor and received flowers from his patients all the time. One day he received one of his usual bouquets from a patient. The way the story goes, he asked one of his nurses to put the bouquet in some water. The nurse politely declined. Dr. Schick asked the nurse again, and again she refused to handle the flowers. When Dr. Schick questioned his nurse why she would not put the flowers in water, she explained that she had her period. When he asked why that mattered, she confessed that when she menstruated, she made flowers wilt at her touch...Dr. Schick decided there was something nasty in the sweat of menstruating women. Others took up the cause. Soon, people were injecting menstrual blood into rodents, and those rodents were dying (Pickles 1979). Others were growing plants in venous blood from menstruating women to determine phytotoxicity; the sooner the plants died, the higher the quantity of menotoxin assumed in the sample.
It reminds me of elementary school science fairs and of the people who claim vegetables are toxic because of some study that put something ridiculous like purifiedcapsaicin on a cell culture and...no surprise the cells died! As if that is like eating peppers. These experiements were badly done and produced invalid results, the modern scientific understanding of periods is that they don't have to do with toxins:
Thankfully, the most accepted idea is that menstruation did not evolve at all, but is a byproduct of the evolution of terminal differentiation of endometrial cells (Finn 1996; Finn 1998). That is, endometrial cells must proliferate and then differentiate, and once they differentiate, they have an expiration date. Ovulation and endometrial receptivity are fairly tightly timed, to the point that the vast majority of implantations occur within a three-day window (Wilcox et al. 1999). So it’s not that menstruation expels dangerous menotoxins, but rather that menstruation happens because the endometrium needs to start over, and humans in particular have thick enough endometria that we can’t just resorb all that blood and tissue.
Guess what? Plants didn't evolve to grow in menstrual blood, just like we didn't evolved to eat uncooked animal-free food. The essential factors of cooking or eating animal fat is that they are appropriately calorically dense for our small digestive systems and giant hungry brains. Physical anthropologist Dr. Richard Wrangham discusses his book Catching Fire here:
I think we can probably digest them—this is guesswork because we don't really know—but the point is they're very full of indigestible fiber. So the average human diet has, even in the more fibrous hunter-gatherer types, 5 to 10 percent, say, indigestible fiber. With our chimp studies, they eat 32 percent indigestible fiber. So that is something that the human body is not designed to handle. And the reason we can say that is that we have small colons and small stomachs which are adapted to food that has high caloric density. And food the chimps eat has low caloric density.
Anthroologists will continue to argue about which is more important- animal foods or cooking, but either way, a raw vegan diet doesn't fit our anatomy.
This lovely little piece of woo makes the claim that healthy humans eating a "natural" diet don't have periods.
The majority of women in modern cultures however, experience instead a copious disabling monthly bleeding - that neither their wild primate cousins nor humans living close to nature do (2:30; 15:232). Insightful doctors have long been aware that nature did not intend the ovulation cycle to be accompanied by cramping, nervous tension, or any of the long list of symptoms we've come to associate with "having a period" - let alone by the days of bloody flow we now accept as "normal", but which they rightly call a hemorrhage:
That's also nonsense. It's not discussed often enough in ethnographies, but it's clearly there. The biography of Nisa, a !Kung woman, discusses it. And I doubt that if it were unnoticeable and rare that some Melanesian societies would have taboos about it.
That said, if your period is disabling, that might have to do with a modern diet. I've definitely had shorter, lighter, and less painful periods since I started eating whole unprocessed real foods, but I would be very alarmed if I didn't have a period. If you aren't getting one, you do need to see a doctor, and if you are paleo you need ton consider whether or not you are eating enough calorie-dense foods.
If you do not want to eat animal-based foods, consider following Wranghams example and eating some cooked food. I think a lot of vegans initially benefit from raw veganism because so many vegan foods are so horribly processed (and it is an excellent weight-loss diet). Some of them succeed because they are able to eat massive amounts of fruit or tons of calorically dense nut concoctions, though many eventually succumb to nutrient rather than calorie issues (or they are post-menopausal and telling young women that not having a period is normal, which just boggles my mind). When I think of what unhealthy veganism means, I not only think of raw veganism, I think of Foodswings in Williamsburg, which serves up such unhealthy delicacies as breaded fried processed soy-meat. There are plenty of alternatives to both diets, such as steamed root vegetables, soaked or sprouted lentils, or fermented buckwheat.
I suppose I haven't posted any music lately. I've been listening to a lot of stuff though, here are some things on repeat:
Sapmi by Torgeir Vassvik is an amazing album, though it's throat singing of sorts, so it's a bit of an acquired taste. Torgeir is from Finland and is Sami, the indigenous people of the Scandinavian high arctic. He combines overtone singing and joiking, which is a traditional Sami technique meant to capture the the essence of a person, place, thing, animal, or phenomenon. I own quite a bit of arctic music and this one really brings me back to the Arctic more than any other. I can feel the sighting of the bear in the pine-wood forest in the song Bjørnen / Máddu or the sound of rushing water in a mountain brook in Water Song / Siiggát.
Here is more music I suppose is an acquired taste...bagpipes:
The bagpipes are not just Scottish, you can find them in a great many countries from the Middle East to Estonia. Unfortunately, the art of bagpiping has died out in Norway, but Elisabeth Vatn has resurrected them admirable, combining them with some interesting jazz and country influences on her album Piper On The Roof.
I am a huge fan of Martyn Bennet and have been for some time. Sadly, he died quite young of cancer a few years ago. I had some of his other stuff, but just acquired this album recently. Glen Lyon remixes songs sung by his grandfather and mother in Scots Gaelic, a language I know a little of, but even if you don't you can enjoy this album. One of my favorite songs is "Cave of gold":
An ancient Hebridean legend tells of a famous piper who goes into a cave to find out why it claims so many lives. From deep within, his pipe music echoes out, telling those listening that a green fairy-demon is attacking him. This surreal song imitates the pipes and begins "It's a pity I didn't have three hands, two for the pipes and one for the sword." The chorus repeats his promise to return.
In more contemporary pop music, I've been enjoying Making Mirrors, by Australian artist Gotye
It's quite an eclectic album, but I really love the videos that have come out so far for the album, such as Bronte, which is about the loss of a beloved pet, but the video takes it to a whole other level of lush gorgeousness and wistfulness...
Speaking of wistfulness rediscovered this animated gem recently in my old Youtube favorites. It was done by Italian animator Bruno Bozzeto and is set to Sibelius' Valse Triste from Kuolema for orchestra (Op 44). It is quite a haunting reflection on the inevitability of losing things:
Last month someone posted saying asking if I might have issues with anxiety/depression that might really be at the root of my stomach problems rather than diet. It's interesting because I once thought that to be the case, but if it was I seem to have de-coupled the issues. When I first started getting healthy, my main goal was to be stable enough health-wise to study abroad, a goal I met and indeed I did study for a year in Uppsala. But even there when I was stressed I would get stomach issues.
The past few weeks have been rough personally, but the amazing thing is that my problems have not been compounded by severe stomach issues like they were in the past. I think that while I have had other troubles, I am thrilled to have a achieved a degree of resiliency that I didn't think was possible for myself. I think the things that have gotten me through this time are utilizing simple gentle cooking methods. I told myself that it's OK to not eat perfectly, but that's not an excuse to survive on ice cream.
I was very grateful that I have a bag of Haiga rice. It is more expensive that normal rice, but it is more nutritious that white or brown rice. It has more of the rice germ, but not the hull. So it's digestible without being soaked.
In my experience I need very little of this to be full. I make it in my handy rice cooker. I first learned about rice cookers when I lived in grad student housing that provided me with a large private room...but no kitchen. Most of the other people there were exchange students from Taiwan, China, and Korea. They all had rice cookers. You can cook great meals with just an electrical outlet at your disposal. It's important to get one with a steamer to make your meal complete. In the past when I was grain-free I boiled roots in the rice container, but now I just put in some haiga rice. In the steamer you can put all kinds of things. Most roots and vegetables steam well. You can also steam sausage, fish, and Korean egg custard (I just put the custard in a dish and put the dish in the middle of the steamer). I love steaming sausage because it usually bursts a little and drips on top of the rice. I have also made a few other random things in the steamer like bucket dumplings and idlis.
I can't give you a recipe for a buckwheat dumplings, because I made mine up. I first had such a thing when I was at Himalayan Yak. They told me not to order the buckwheat thing (maybe it wasn't even a dumpling) because it was not something Westerners liked, but I don't know what they were talking about because it was delicious. They served it with TONS of butter and a stew of some sort made with goat liver and heart. If anyone knows what this is called I would be grateful :) It's not on their normal menu. Either way, if you can make it into a ball, you can steam it. I usually soak the locally grown buckwheat flour overnight in some water and it works OK. The butter is required :) I'm fascinated by the diversity of cuisines in Nepal...seems like there are at least five different regional cuisines.
I just put the stuff in, flip the switch, and go do other things. When I'm done I mix it all together and add random stuff like pickled vegetables, chutney, sambal oelek, seaweed, and raw egg yolks.
Also, of course I use my slow cooker. I find that Korean recipes work really well in a slow cooker and I get a lot of ideas at local Korean places. They are some of the few restaurants in the city where they still make bone stocks and cook meat on the bone. I've had old Bulgarian ladies tell me their MSG-laden bouillon is "traditional," but the Koreans know better. You can't make something like Seolleongtang without real bone stock. It's made with ox bones that are boiled for hours and hours. Properly, they should be boiled for days.
While I am not going to live in NYC much longer, I'm very grateful for the diversity and how it has inspired me to learn and develop ways of eating that are as resilient as the cultures they came from. Thanks to the internet, I really don't need to live here to enjoy such food anyway....
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.
I usually don't like to watch people speak about stuff. Maybe that's why I almost never went to lectures in college. I prefer to read things. As Data from Star Trek might say, I find it to be the most efficient form of assimilating information. So you can watch my talk on Vimeo thanks to AHS, but if you read much faster (or you are hearing impaired), you can read the transcript below, which was donated by Averbach Transcription, which is run by a paleo enthusiast and you should consider hiring him if you need a transcript:
[applause] So, hi everyone. I was at Mat Lalonde's talk this morning, and I was thinking, "How am I going to introduce myself, what are my credentials?" And I don’t really have any. I have a degree in agriculture and I study anthropology currently at Columbia University, but I'm not in the Ph.D. program.
But I have had the pleasure to study with Professor Ralph Holloway, who's a really excellent physical anthropologist, and he inspired a lot of this presentation. And I have a website, it's called huntgatherlove.com, and you can visit it, and I have also a lot of the stuff from this presentation is there, and a lot of the references to the papers, if you want to read the original ones.
And yeah, I'm not a core scientist, but my boyfriend Chris is, and I try to study, you know, remind myself that chemistry and biology are really important even in anthropology, and I think a good physical anthropologist tries to really incorporate that into their studies.
What is so special about the human gut? Why do we care about it? Why don't we just eat like this nice ape in this picture on the left and just eat some healthy, high-fiber diet, which is low in fat? Just eat like a salad, because everyone knows that salad is really really healthy.
Well, the problem is we are not like gorillas; we're great apes, we have a shared history with gorillas, but we have our own unique niche. And I think when I'm reading a lot of the literature on evolutionary health, I'm seeing these different viewpoints. One I'm going to call statics, and it has an emphasis on what has been conserved from our evolutionary past from some time period, often which is defined somewhat arbitrarily.
And it also focuses on primate relatives such as gorillas. You know, we're great apes, they're great apes, we should eat like them maybe. And I think of course they have very interesting lessons, but I'm going to emphasize more the dynamic view of evolution, the emphasis on unique adaptations that humans have to their own niche, and our continuing evolution even now.
We're evolving as we speak.
So the static viewpoint is that the ancient human diet of some timespan, you know, Precambrian, Upper Paleolithic, was the optimal human diet. And there was a great deal of emphasis on the fossil record. Professor Holloway always likes to say, "When you look at the fossil record, sample size equals two, because there's not that many fossils from certain periods."
You know, we have part of a cranium and that's it of some periods. So it's pretty hard to abstract from the fossil record. And also emphasize related species that we share a common ancestor with. And a lot of times some of this research comes to the conclusion that a high-fiber diet consisting primarily of plants is optimal, and that everybody, every human being should be able to eat this way and be healthy.
There's a lot of Paleolithic Diet papers, but why not the Cambrian Diet? I mean that was a really long timespan, it was 52 million years versus like two and a half, and these creatures look perfectly healthy to me, and they seem way healthier than I am.
Here's a quote from Stephen Jay Gould that, I was a fan of Stephen Jay Gould for a long time, and I still admire him, but I don't agree with this quote, that, "There's been no biological change in humans for the past 40,000 or 50,000 years. Everything we call culture or civilization we built with the same body and brain."
And I thought Stephen Jay Gould was just this nice guy who talked about dinosaurs, but actually Professor Holloway told me that he has some questionable stuff in his research, and that idea that humans haven't changed for a long time is one of those. Another one is that he denies modern human variation quite strongly.
He has this idea that we're mostly the same, which in some ways is true; in some ways it's not true. And I think it denies the fact that we can gain a lot from looking at continuing evolution. And the dynamic view, which I'm going to talk more about, is humans are unique among the great apes, and recent human evolution has led to important changes, especially in digestion.
And besides our own genetics, we have the bacterial microbiome, and our evolution in that has been even more rapid, because bacteria have many more generations, they reproduce faster than we do. And there's high variation among modern humans, particularly with a growing population and introduction into new environments.
So there's probably high variability in [their optimal diet]. And a book that's been a big influence to me is "10,000-Year Explosion" by Gregory Cochrane and Henry Harpending, and it's, "How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution." And it has pretty convincing evidence that human evolution not only didn't stop 10,000 years ago at the end of the Paleolithic; it's continued to accelerate greater and greater because of all this new environments and greater populations, and also the changes in culture and technology that have happened since then, which have been very rapid.
And in dynamism we have these four keystones I like to think about. One of them is our unique anatomy. Another one is our unique cultural behaviors. Another is our unique bacterial microbiome, which isn't shared with any other primate, and each person has a unique one. But also just in general a very high variability among humans.
And a lot of this is relatively unexplored because it's very controversial. It's hard to get funding. I've met people who do studies on human variability who can't publish them because they're so controversial.
And especially very important in unique cultural behaviors is a shift towards exogenous food processing. So in humans, in our evolutionary past, we processed food inside of ourselves, but in modern humans and in our evolution towards modern humans we have a shift towards processing food outside the body with cooking and grinding and soaking and all these other processes.
So when we're thinking about human evolution, we have to think of—this is an estimate of cells in the human body, and that there's maybe 10 trillion human cells and 100 trillion bacterial cells. And these bacteria are evolving faster than we are. And they're very very important.
They process nutrients, they produce nutrients, they fight off infections, are an important part of our immune system. They have a role in nearly every disease, even diseases you might not even expect, such as heart disease. There's a new paper that shows that metabolites produced by certain gut bacteria that some people have and some people don't have, in response to certain foods, can produce things that are implicated in heart disease.
And also, behavior. I mean, we can't do many of these studies in humans because they're unethical, but in fruit flies if you change the gut bacteria, you can change their sexual orientation. And you can understand why we can't do that experiment with humans; that wouldn't be good.
So there's several factors with these bacteria, and we have to think about interspecific competition—competition between different species, which is driving a lot of this evolution, intra-specific competition—so within even one species, you have tons of strains that are very different, and they're competing with each other, often in one person.
You can have several strains of one bacteria within you at one time. The host function, our own unique anatomy and genetics; our host fitness, which is quite important nowadays, now that a lot of people aren't as healthy as they once were. Particularly in the gut, there's a lot of people with dysfunctional gut permeability, which really affects the bacterial population.
You have food ingested by the host, and you have the metabolites themselves in microbiota, which is tons of different chemicals and fatty acids. And quite important for humans but not unique to humans is culture and technology. These can affect the gut microbiota too.
And there's a bunch of papers that are quite interesting that have more of a static view, and static's this view that we're going to look at other great apes and see what we should eat today. And I think a lot of this research is very admirable, but I think sometimes they come to conclusions that don't make sense in the light of our own unique anatomy.
One of them is Nutritional characteristics of wild primate foods: do the diets of our closest living relatives have lessons for us by talented primatologist Katharine Milton. Then you have this paper, "The Western Lowland Gorilla Diet, are there implications for health of humans. "
And here's a sample sentence from a paper like this, this paper is called "Case Closed: Diverculitis, Epidemiology and Fiber." It says, "The western lowland gorilla, whose diet may approximate a Paleolithic human diet, has an estimated intake of nearly 60% of its calories through the colon," and the second part of this sentence really puts a question mark on the first part:
You can see that this is quite interesting about gorillas. You know, they eat a diet very high in fiber, and it's all plants, pretty much, and they're getting a lot of carbohydrates in the diet, ingesting in their mouth. But then their colon, the bacteria in the colon is this giant bio-reactor. It's turning this carbohydrate, this fiber, this otherwise indigestible fiber into something called short-chain fatty acids.
And short-chain fatty acids are providing over 60% of calories for the gorilla. So the gorilla is eating a high-fat diet, actually; it's just not eating the fat directly. It's turning the carbohydrates that it's eating into fat, fatty acids.
And humans are quite different from other great apes. Here's a famous paper called "The Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis" by Aiello and Wheeler. You can see they did some linear regressions that looked at, based on other primates that we have data for, what should human organ weights look like?
And here's the expected human organ weights, and here's the observed. And what is different? Look how big our brain is and how small our gut is. But even within our gut, there's reorganization, and the reorganization, the driver of this is this food quality. And when I talk about food quality, I'm not talking about [Hardee's] versus Whole Foods; I'm talking about caloric density.
And with this high caloric density, there's less need for this processing equipment that's internal, these internal organs. And so energy is freed up for other organs, such as the brain, in this expensive-tissue hypothesis.
In this gut-brain tradeoff, you have higher diet quality, increased energy availability, and so larger brain. The small gut with the higher diet quality also frees up energy; larger brain. And more complex foraging behaviors, which keep enable… It's driving like a feedback cycle. You know, the more energy we're getting for our brain, the better—the bigger our brain is and the smaller our gut can get.
And you can see that the organization of the gut too, versus other primates—you have all these great apes here, and you have humans here, and look at the human small intestine; look how much bigger that is compared to the other great apes. And the colon is so much smaller. And you can see this in this chart from the Beyond Veg site, which is a great site.
You can see the chimpanzee has a quite long, well-developed colon. The orangutan does as well. But look at the human colon—it's very under-developed and small compared to these other apes. And we're not sure when this change happened in our evolutionary history. It's not like you can find frozen Paleolithic apes very easily.
But we do have this gut—in the post-cranial anatomy you have some indicators that might correspond to a smaller gut or a larger gut. And here is a chimpanzee here, a modern human here, and Australopithecus afarensis, living around maybe 2-3 million years ago, perhaps one of our ancestors.
And you can see this funnel shape in the ribcage, and a large pelvis, which could accommodate a bigger gut. And humans have this defined waist, which we also find very attractive in humans, and a smaller pelvis. And here's some of these apes stripped down, where you can see this giant gut in the gorilla, and the chimpanzee has a pretty bit gut, and an orangutan does.
Humans and gibbons do not. Gibbons are frugivores, so they eat a higher-quality diet than even the more leafy, kind of sticks and stuff that these other apes eat. And here's a human waist—very small compared to the other great apes, except for the gibbon.
And so in humans, how much do we get from short-chain fatty acids? How much do we get from the colon? The colon's smaller. And the human current maximum estimate is maybe nine percent from short-chain fatty acids. So if we go and eat a gorilla diet, we're not going to get as much out of it as the gorilla does.
We'll probably die if we just eat leaves because we can't turn it into short-chain fatty acids with the efficiency that a gorilla does. We don't have the equipment. But I must add a caveat to that. Most of these studies have been done in Westerners, and there's this new hypothesis floating around in papers, this idea that Westerners are the weirdest people in the world—and we are.
Our culture is totally different from most other cultures, and very unique in the history of the world. And so when we're taking data from Westerners, we have to be cautious, and we need more data from other cultures. Because as I say, humans have high variability. Maybe there are people who can get more short-chain fatty acids from fiber than the average Westerner.
And there's very few papers on this, but I found one from South Africa, and they look at autopsies of humans, and they found that some humans have different-shaped colons than other humans, and divided them up into three different kind of morphological types. Here is a short pelvic sigmoid colon, the so-called "classic type", and the long, narrow type.
And different people had different colons. And certain people, like Africans were more likely to have this colon type, and Indians and whites were more likely to have this smaller colon type. And whether or not this has implications for digestion, I don't know. And I think we really need to explore this, because if this colon is so much bigger, what kind of implications does this have?
Can this person get more energy from short-chain fatty acids? Is this person better adapted to a high-fiber diet? And you can see why this sort of research is controversial, because it also has data about different races. But it's very interesting to me. A lot of papers on this subject are not published in English journals at all; you have to read like Czech or something, so it's hard to track down. But it is out there.
What about the evidence that we see in some papers on the Paleolithic Diet, that Paleolithic humans ate 150 grams of fiber a day? I don't know anyone who eats that much fiber, and there's no known modern human culture that eats that much fiber. And most of those estimates are based on [coprolites], and the method for estimating that is quite questionable to me.
We also have to consider the cultural context. There are some good coprolites from hunter-gatherers in the Pecos Basin. But when you look at those coprolites
and the skulls they're associated with, not all Paleolithic or Stone Age or foraging humans are healthy. The Pecos Basin hunter-gatherers have high amounts of tooth decay.
And some anthropologists who study these skeletons say that these are caused by [tooth wear], but this Ota tribesman, he has extensive tooth wear, which is purposeful in this culture. They wear the teeth down to make them look like that, because it's considered beautiful, and they don't have high rates of tooth decay.
If you look at the Pecos Basin skulls, you'll find that they have really high rates of tooth decay. We need to look at whether or not there's impairment of calcium and vitamin D metabolism, and there's a lot of studies that show that really high-fiber diets can impair these. And unfortunately, some of these studies have come about because in places where the macrobiotic diet is popular—the macrobiotic diet, it idolizes high-fiber, particularly brown rice—and in England, in some communities that eat this macrobiotic diet, they're seeing a return of a disease that is associated with developing countries, which is rickets.
And it's infants on macrobiotic diets that have this. And I think there's an upper limit to fiber consumption that's way below some of these so-called Paleolithic accidents. But there's data you can see in some older papers, in particular data from modern hunter-gatherers, foraging people, like this bushman or the Hanza, and they see that these people eat a very high-fiber diet.
But if you look at the later papers, you really have to look at those because they realized that their method for measuring fiber was incorrect. And you can see, this is a very interesting thing. Here's from one of the papers where they're regretting that it was incorrect. And this is inedible material recovered after these Hanza tribe members were eating wild tubers.
They were sending, when they were doing the original fiber assay, they just sent the wild tubers to the lab and they were like, "Estimate the fiber of this," but as you can see here, these people don't eat all the fiber; they're chewing these tubers and spitting out this part of it. So just like you don't eat the tops of your bell peppers, I hope, or the peels of your bananas—although I did meet a raw vegan who was eating banana peels, [laughs]
So cultural evolution is important, and culture isn't even uniquely human. You can see this primate here, this chimpanzee, it's hard to see, but he's taking a leaf and chewing it, and then putting it in this tree that has a hole filled with water and then pulling it out and chewing on it again, and he's doing that to get water.
Humans have even more elaborate techniques. And one of these, of course, is cooking. And we don't know how old cooking is. I mean, you can ask every different anthropologist and they'll give you a different answer. But here we have sago palm starch processing—sego palm is, you know, they're eating a tree. It's not very edible.
Once you cook it, you pound it, and it's quite delicious. I mean it's bland, but it's good to eat; it provides starch for these people, which is very valuable to them. But we also should think about how is food being changed by cooking? It's increasing the food quality, it's increasing the amount of calories you can get from each amount of food.
But it's also really changing some of the nature, the chemical nature of the fibers. Different types of fiber feed different bacteria different ways. So that's very important. And you can look at markers for this. Here's a different kind of culture that a lot of people don’t think about—literal culture, cultured foods.
Fermented foods are universal in nearly every culture. And fermentation increases the bioavailability of protein and several micronutrients. It preserves food. It is a source of short-chain fatty acids. Perhaps it provides us with essential bacteria. Sadly, some fermented foods are in danger of dying out.
And here's an interesting chart—it's comparing the colonic fermentation, this inner fermentation, with exogenous fermentation in fermented foods. And fermented foods can play many of the same roles as colonic fermentation. And perhaps in our evolution as we're shifting towards eating more fermented foods, this was replacing, this exogenous processing was replacing some of the role of colonic fermentation and cooking provides all kinds of different micro-substrates, short chain fatty acids, bacteria, all kinds of metabolites, which also colonic bacteria provide…
They both modulate the system, actually, and there are studies that show fermented food has all kinds of strange effects that you wouldn't expect if it didn't have all these different weird bacteria in it and stuff—to help people lose weight and the way that non-cultured milk would, yogurt is very interesting.
And in terms of metabolites, here's a really interesting one: Butyric acid. It is produced by fiber. Research has focused on just the bulking properties of the fiber. So a lot of early people who wrote about fiber, they were going to Africa and seeing that a lot of different people who ate a very high-fiber diet didn't have the digestive diseases that Americans have.
And they were saying, "No, because it's because fiber is a bulking agent and it increases transit time, keeps toxins from spending a lot of time in the body." But after they were studying more, they found that there were people in Africa who didn't have these digestive disorders who weren't eating a lot of fiber. But what they were eating were other fermentable carbohydrates.
And so now research has shifted away from just fiber as bulking agent, and into seeing fiber more as food for bacteria, whether bad or good. Unfortunately, a lot of research in this area has focused more on fiber being a universal good, when actually it can also feed pathogenic bacteria.
And butyric acid is an interesting byproduct of some of these bacteria. People with colitis, Crohn's Disease, have low amounts of this butyric acid, and butyric acid is very important for modulating inflammation and all kinds of other processes too. They fed these mice the same diet, and the ones that had butyrate didn't gain weight, and the ones that did, that were fed butyrate gained weight. So, pretty interesting.
But you know, when you're thinking of fiber, often your doctors tell you eat more fiber, but different fiber has different effects. And now that we're thinking of fiber more as food for bacteria, you don't need to just think about fiber. And scientists are looking at more of these like resistant starch, for example, and other different complex polysaccharides and carbohydrates. You can see some types of resistant starch are produced by cooking.
Like if you cook potatoes and you leave them in the fridge, then that's resistant starch, and it's very good at producing butyrate. Some of these other fibers aren't so good at making butyrate. A lot of these fibers, a lot of doctors recommend, for example, wheat bran, and that's not even very good at increasing butyrate.
And I'm very sad that there's not a lot of research that is using a lot of these fibers that traditional foraging or horticultural societies eating. A lot of research uses synthetic fibers that's never been eaten before. And they're interesting, but I'd like to see more research on natural fibers.
But also, as humans have developed culture, we have exogenous butyric acid. A lot of people don't know this, but butyric is in the dairy fats and some of the fat under the skin of some animals, particularly cows, goats, sheep. There's a little in elephants too. And there's some in some fermented foods.
Like this is Ogi, it's a pretty delicious fermented food, although it's an acquired taste a bit. But it has some butyric acid. Most Western fermented foods don't have butyric acid because Westerners don't like the taste. If you have tasted skunked beer, you know the taste and you know why we don't like it.
So, it's incrappy traditional foods, you know, foods we don't really like from around the world. But there is one food that you will eat that has butyric acid, and that is butter. The butter is delicious and it has butyric acid. But we don't know whether or not this butyric acid has the same effect as butyric acid produced by colonic fermentation, there's not a lot of research on it.
This presentation's more about hunting hypotheses than presenting research. I'd love to see research on this; maybe I'll do it when I enroll in a program.
But also, not only do humans have all these differences from primates in terms of anatomy and our culture; we have different microbiomes in the gut. And this is a really great study because it looked at the gut biota of wild primates. Most of the other studies have been primates in labs. And you can see, even among these chimpanzees here, these chimpanzees are, some of them are quite geographically isolated from each other.
They have very different branches in the microbiota. They have different gut bacteria. Humans are here. But you can see, we need more data, especially since a lot of these unique cultures are dying out. We should try to collect gut bacteria from them before that, because, so we can get a real accurate reflection of human biodiversity.
And if you think about gut bacteria, it's very complicated because gut bacteria interact with each other, they interact with the metabolites of each other. You have all kinds of diversity among people. Like some people are methane excreters, and some people are not methane excreters. And scientists aren't sure why that is—if that's something that people acquire at a very young age, or if it's something that can be changed.
Methane excreters are quite unfortunate because when they have this bacteria, when it excretes methane, it smells quite bad. So if you're a smelly person, it's probably because you're a methane excreter. But there's just so many questions about why some people are like this and why some people aren't.
And there's so many different sources of gut variation: Cooking and food prep techniques, microbes in food, types of fiber in food, total fiber consumption. Most of us get most of our gut bacteria actually from our mothers, and when we're born, going through the birth canal, we're colonized.
But a lot of us didn't go through the birth canal. I was born by C-section, and C-section babies have different gut microbiota than non-C-section babies, and what is the impact of this? There's some preliminary evidence that C-section babies are more susceptible to certain digestive disorders.
Antibiotic use:antibiotics, if you take them, they can affect your gut microbiota for years. And there's some interactions with genes too. The real question is how plastic is our gut? How much can we change? As adults right now, if we eat differently now, can we really change our gut? Big question.
Here's a really interesting study. This is children in Burkina Faso; this is children in the EU. You can see, you have all these different species, and they differ between these two populations, in different amounts and different species. There are species here that you don't see here. It's interesting because they followed these children when they were breastfeeding, and they had kind of the same gut bacteria when they were breastfeeding.
But when they started eating solid food, their gut bacteria really differentiated. When does this plasticity end? Is it when a child eats its first food? Is that going to really affect the future of that microbiota? Can an adult do this? We suspect they're already there, but in smaller amounts when the infant was breastfeeding.
And then when the solid food was eaten, did it really differentiate based on the food or because of the population seeds planted at birth? We really need to do these studies while different cultures exist because all our multinational corporations are expanding into the developing world, and soon everybody's going to eat the same crappy diet, pretty much, and we won't have this diversity.
And here's the traditional diet of Burkina Faso, a lot of really high-fiber fermented grains. And the environment is very dry. Also, an interesting thing about gut bacteria: Genetic engineering's very controversial, but bacteria have been genetically engineering stuff for ages; it's called horizontal transfer.
A very interesting study looked at Japanese gut bacteria, and they found that some Japanese gut bacteria had species, they had some genes that the gut bacteria had taken from bacteria that live on seaweed, and these bacteria used to digest carbohydrates in seaweed. So these gut bacteria were able to steal these genes and digest these seaweed carbohydrates.
And only Japanese individuals have them, and even breastfed infants have them. So they've probably been in this population for a while. But it really brings it to highlight that our co-evolution with plants, how long have we been doing this? How many genes do we have that are from plant bacteria, for example?
What about the future? Now that we're genetically engineering plants, are we going to acquire some of that bacteria?
And we can use gut bacteria to track human migraation such as h. pylori. H. pylori's considered a pest in the United States because it's associated with some cancers, but actually in Africa, the African strain is not as pathogenic, it's not associated with these things. So these strains are diverse, and you can use their DNA, changes in the DNA to track h. pylori and human colonization of the world.
H. pylori's been with us for 100,000 years, they think. And right now, and most of us don't have it anymore because we tried to eradicate it. What is that doing to us? Did it have positive effects on us that now we've gotten rid of it? There's a lot of variation with it. And also h. pylori has—there's a lot of epigenetic switches that it turns on and off in response to diet.
And a lot of Westerners who do have h. pylori have two strains: They have the non-pathogenic strain and the pathogenic strain. And it's possible that diet can effect an overgrowth in this pathogenic strain. And perhaps the Western diet is taking this h. pylori and turning it into a monster.
But you know, when I'm looking at these different studies, what I said before about Westerners being weird, you really have to question what is normal. There's a hypothesis in anthropology that humans got their first meat and their first high-quality food from scavenging carcasses. It's controversial, though, because most of us don't have the equipment to process rotten meat, although I have met people in the Paleolithic community that are eating rotten meat, and they say they feel fine.
So, you know, that really begs the question if it's normal. And stomach acid, they is genetic variation in stomach acid, but also it's affected by h. pylori—different kinds of h. pylori can affect stomach acid in different ways. Your diet can affect stomach acid. Inflammation. Actually, we associate gastric cancers with the developed world, but actually there are certain types of cancer that are more common in developing nations, such as squamous cell carcinoma, and this is very common in Africa communities that just adopted corn as a staple crop.
And the theory is that, you know, this corn, this omega-6 excess in the diet increases prostaglandin E-2 and it increases inflammation, and that decreases the acidity of the stomach, and leads to heartburn, which is not treated in these developing nations, and then that leads to cancer. There's also an issue I realized studying carrion scavenging, that humans have high transit time variation.
You can feed two people the exact same diet and it'll go through their stomach in different times. And transit time, if you eat carrion, you want a high transit time, and that just varies between humans. An interesting [disease] that I found out about is called [pig bel], and it's people who are in Papua, New Guinea, many who are cultural foraging people, and they eat mainly a very low-protein diet.
They eat primarily tubers, like sweet potatoes and yams. And occasionally they get a pig, and they're very excited about this pig. So they eat it all really quickly. And they get this thing called clostridial necrotizing enteritis. And if I ate this meat, I wouldn't get this, but because they don't eat meat very much, they have low amounts of protease in their gut, so they can't destroy the toxins made by this and can't digest this meat properly.
And it kills some children in these cultures. So, you know, what you eat can affect the different enzymes in your gut too.
And also, the also case of this in a Western individual was a vegetarian who was living in Samoa, and they ate some fish because they were training for a marathon, and they got this disease.
So the point of my talk is that humans are truly unique, and we're not really sure how we got this way, so I'm hunting hypotheses. And within our population diversity is waiting to be discovered. And I'm really worried about loss of biodiversity in cultural adaptations, and what the implications for this are when we're trying to study and trying to flesh out our human history.
When we don't have very much biodiversity to work with, it'll be harder, I think.
And you know, I think the key is balance. I very much admire some of these models that are looking towards the past, and looking at our primate relatives. But also I'm really excited about plant adaptations, new technology and new mutations in human and microbiota DNA.
I think we have to look at both of these things when we're looking at, you know, looking for the best diet for humans. But it also, you know, we often wonder—I have an uncle who's been a vegan for a long time and he's very healthy, and he says, "I've been a vegan for 30 years," and I was a vegan for only a short time and I felt awful.
And we're related to each other, but there's probably some difference in our microbiota or our genes that make him better adapted to this diet than I was. So it gives a new viewpoint on why do some people do better on one diet or another?
So I'd like to thank Ralph Holloway, Chris Masterjohn, Stephan Guyenet and John Speth. They've really helped out. So thank you.
Male Voice: So you would say that your main point is that the diversity of humans is under-appreciated and the difference between people is under-appreciated? Is that fair?
Melissa: Yeah. That people are very different from each other, and will thrive on different diets.
Male Voice: I was struck by a thing you said about most of the gut bacteria comes from your mother when you're born. I was wondering what the implications are for celiac, whether that can spread celiac disease.
Melissa: Yeah. I think a lot of celiac research has focused maybe too much on our own genome, what we share, that there's genes that make us susceptible to celiac. But there's also probably gut bacteria that make us susceptible to celiac, and genes within our gut bacteria. So I think that'll be a future avenue of research in the future.
Male Voice: I was wondering about [unintelligible] research on doctor [unintelligible] work? He looked at the microbiota and found that people have different communities, three communities of microbiota.
Melissa: Oh yeah, I saw that. But they're not sure what the implications of that are. They couldn't connect it with anything, like obesity or any diseases yet. But it's very interesting. They found that some people have very specific—that they divide Westerners, at least, into three specific groups of dominant bacterias. And it was fascinating, but I'm really excited to see what that doctor comes up with.