Friday, June 3, 2011

Half-cooked musings on meat, human evolution, and economic development

For starters, let me just say that I eat meat, and I like it. Any ambivalence I have about being an omnivore emerges from my understanding of the conditions in which food is produced. So, I agree with NYT food writer and now op-ed columnist Mark Bittman when he writes in his June 2 piece ("Meat: Why Bother?"):

In limited quantities, meat is just fine, especially sustainably raised meat (and wild game), locally and ethically produced dairy and eggs, the remaining wild or decently cultivated fish.

No matter where we live, if we focused on those — none of which are in abundant supply, which is exactly the point — and used them to augment the kind of diet we’re made to eat, one based on plants as a staple, with these other things as treats, we’d all be better off. We can’t afford to wait to evolve.

In explaining the modern taste for meat, however, Bittman calls upon The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse: "When you add 'It’s what’s for dinner' to the equation, you have a powerful combination: biology, economics and propaganda all pushing us in the same direction."

As an anthropologist, I take issue with Bittman's use of the idea of human evolution - and of human "nature":

Once, we had to combine hunting skills and luck to eat meat, which could supply then-rare nutrients in large quantities. This progressed — or at least moved on — to a stage where a family could raise an annual pig and maybe keep a cow and some chickens. Quite suddenly (this development is no more than 50 years old, even in America), we can drive to our nearest burger shop and scarf down a patty — or two! — at will.

Because evolution is a slow process, this revolutionary change has had zero impact on the primal urge that screams, “Listen, dummy, if you can find meat you’d better eat it, because who knows when you’ll eat it again!” At some point our bodies may adapt to consuming unlimited quantities of meat or — a better alternative — our minds will crave less. Right now, primal urge and modern availability form a deadly combo.

There is, in fact, a literature in medical anthropology suggesting that modern health problems like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes result from a mismatch between hunter-gatherer bodies and industrial diets - which S. Boyd Eaton, Melvin Konner, and Marjorie Shostak described in their 1988 article, "Stone Agers in the Fast Lane: Chronic Degenerative Diseases in Evolutionary Perspective."

This has become the basis of popular advice on diet and nutrition, including books like The Paleolithic Prescription and NeanderThin.

"The Caveman Diet," as it has come to be called*, is an example of what some anthropologists might call "paleofantasies."

*The term "Paleo Diet" seems to be preferred among advice mongers, apparently seeking to scientize their regimens.

It is pretty to think that "hunter-gatherers" - a gloss for "natural" humans - were not only closer to nature, but healthier and happier to boot.

I also take issue with Bittman's evolutionism in connection with economic development:

As better-educated citizens of wealthier nations change direction, however, those whose opportunities and privileges have been delayed until now have every intention of catching up, not only by buying cars and TVs but by “enriching” their diet. Remember, it’s our nature.

There is no instinct to buy cars and TVs. Not to mention that the "enrichment" of local diets is as much driven by the supply of the developers (i.e., the wealthier nations) as the demand of the developed.

It is not so much that I want to pick on Bittman, but the half-cooked ideas that he uses to present an otherwise reasonable proposition about eating less in terms of quantity and better in terms of quality.

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