This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
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.
I'd like to point the compass to an excellent new blog that I've been reading called Evolutionary Psychiatry. The hot topics in paleo health are diseases like heart disease or diabetes. While this are alarmingly common, the elephant in the room is that mental disorders are just as much of a threat to modern human health. The World Health organization estimates that in twenty years depression will be the world's biggest health burden. Unfortunately, depression has more of a stigma than most other diseases of civilization and...that's saying a lot considering the hatred directed towards people who have more fat on them. Treatment and causes also remain somewhat of a mystery, with many patients opting for expensive methods that remain acceptable despite lack of scientific evidence for their effectiveness. And depression only one of many serious mental health problems that are on the rise.
Dr. Emily Deans of Evolutionary Psychiatry explores these problems with an eye towards evolutionary solutions. The posts are rich with fascinating questions and scientific data, so I definitely recommend checking it out.
My own perspective is that I definitely think that depression is a disease of civilization caused by at least partially by poor social ties, miserable and un-engaging working and living environments, lack of movement, and a highly inflammatory diet. Unfortunately, the paleo diet can only fix the dietary causes, but that can definitely provide a boost. During high school and early on in college there were days when I struggled to rouse myself from bed or shut myself in my room crying. This no longer happens. It stopped happening around the time I got control of my stomach issues and there is a definitely connection between some stomach disorders and depression. I'm often reluctant to blog about problems like this because unlike, let's say GERD, having such a problem tends to warp people's view of you as a person no matter how common those problems are.
Diet might not solve them completely, but it's a little worrying that most mental health professionals either don't address diet at all or advocate a low-fat diet. It's low-hanging fruit that can make a huge difference. Another good blog about food and depression is Rebuild from Depression.
I'm grateful for my process, but would definitely would still like to improve my mood and ability to be resilient, but unfortunately I have found that grass-fed lamb tenderloin doesn't fix broken relationships*, especially if just reminds me of how that used to be his favorite meal and how our food choices had once melded with another's in seamless unbroken domesticity that seemed so permanent at the time. But then I remember that I made that same exact meal for the boyfriend before that and it makes the whole thing a little less romantic, but at least that means perhaps there will be more to enjoy roasted rosemary lamb with black pepper yogurt sauce.
*Ice cream might, but further studies need to be done. It seems like the effect is more about a sugar-induced mirage of happiness than actually mending relationships.
The paleo diet is primarily about applying evolutionary principles to nutrition. But nutrition is certainly not the only subject evolutionary science can lend its wisdom to. Long before I had heard of the paleo diet, I had a keen interest in the controversial science of evolutionary psychology. In high school, Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate fueled plenty of arguments with my family and in classes.
Here is another evolutionary psychology book that seems to be designed to start arguments, since it’s about something nearly everyone seems to have an opinion about. Sex at Dawn, written by psychologist Christopher Ryan and psychiatrist Cacilda Jethá, is snarky and perhaps intentionally provocative, but no matter your opinion, it will probably make you rethink some long-held assumptions about sex.
I come from a culture where growing up, I was preached that the ideal was that you would only have sex with one person and they would only have sex with you. As an adolescent I was assaulted with books extolling the evils of animal-like promiscuity. Surely it caused ye to be dishonored and blighted with syphilis and live destitute with 14 children in a trailer. Having one true love was ordained by God and temptations otherwise were certainly of the Devil. It’s kind of a miracle that I’ve been able to move on and have normal relationships, but intrinsic human desire tends to win out when confronted with freedom.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that humans have a tough time following such a doctrine. A pastor in my own church growing up was one of those who struggled and his divorce almost broke up the congregation.
It’s no wonder we have such a tough time— evolutionary speaking, we are a hypersexual species with marked physical adaptations for promiscuity. Sex at Dawn presents some interesting evidence for this, as well as a romp through human history. Paleo dieters will be familiar with the idea that hunter-gatherers were healthy and happy, which gets several chapters here. I did learn one new fact, which is that one of the techniques used to estimate age of bones, dental eruption, only says that the person was over 35, but some idiotic studies have underestimated lifespan because they took these studies and recorded 35 as the age of death.
But back to sex, since that’s probably what you were thinking about anyway. There has certainly been ample speculation about Paleolithic sex, with the general narrative being that women have always sought to procure a stable man to help with children and bring home wooly mammoth kabobs, while hooking up with the hot jerk on the side. Meanwhile men have always just tried to knock up as many women as possible while trying valiantly to only provide meat to their own offspring. Jethá and Ryan dismantle this frankly stupid just-so story well. It just doesn’t make sense in light of anatomy or how hunter-gatherers actually live. It requires that every culture be organized around marriage, fathers provide mainly for their own children, that sex is connected to paternity and that men are somehow able to discern paternity, and that hunters could refuse to share their meat with others. In reality, while sex habits seem to vary, hunter-gatherers almost always share meat (and raise children) communally and several cultures do not even recognize paternity in the modern sense of the word.
Unfortunately, numerous evolutionary scientists have operated under this errant view and it remains fairly mainstream.
So where is the evidence otherwise? The authors look at comparative anatomy with other apes. Our closest true-monogamous relatives are gibbons, which share very little in common with humans otherwise. Our closest living relatives are bonobos, who are hypersexual and promiscuous, but as I’ve pointed out in nutritional anthropology posts, they aren’t that close (though it’s interesting that even they hunt for and prize meat). One interesting thing we have in common with bonobos is a repetitive microsatellite important to the release of oxytocin, which is absent in chimps and important for pro-social feelings like love and eroticism. Bonobos also share the unusual habit of copulating throughout the menstrual cycle, lactation, and pregnancy. Like us, their vulva is oriented towards the front of the body, rather than the rear as in chimps.
Next the authors examine studied hunter-gatherers. There are certainly no tribes practicing the ideal of one lifetime sexual partner. In face, most seem to enjoy lots of sex with many people— “Anthropologist Thomas Gregor reported eighty-right ongoing affairs among the thirty-seven adults in the Mehinaku village he studied in Brazil.” They also take down the ideal of the “nuclear family”- which no hunter-gatherer culture practices either. In tribal cultures the extended family (which is often the entire village) is where children are raised.
But as post-agrarian hunter-gatherers are an imperfect reflection of the Stone Age, so the anatomy information is even more interesting. In terms of several important anatomical markers, humans show evidence that we engage primarily in sperm competition, which has huge implications. Some men I know seem to think men evolved to be promicious, but women didn’t, which would make us similar to gorillas. These giant herbivorous apes engage in battles over harems. However, our sex organs and our body size dimorphism (the sex difference between males and females) are nothing like gorillas and women’s bodies seem to have evolved as a sperm battleground. Instead of mostly competing via physical strength contests like gorilla males, our sperm is made for a race that involves competing against other sperm from other men and the human vagina is apparently a formidible racetrack able to store and sort sperm to some degree.
Unfortunately the legacy of the agricultural revolution has been STDs, pregnancies woman can’t support, lower sperm counts, and sexual repression. Condoms and birth control have solved some problems, but there is evidence that people who have sex without condoms are happier (I sometimes wonder if people promoting condoms as a solution to the world’s sexual ills have actually used them, but the authors also cite research that shows that women can aborb chemicals from sperm and get a mental boost from them) and that birth control affects woman’s ability to chose biologically compatible partners (and there is evidence that the children from these poor biological matches have reduced birth weight and impaired immune function). As far as abstinence education, data seems to show that expression of adolescent sexuality is associated with lower levels of violence. Paleos may also be familiar with the association between vegetarian grain-pushers like John Kellogg and sexual repression, but I was surprised to learn how he openly mutilated children to “protect” them from masturbating.
Gee? I wonder why high-fiber low-fat whole grain diets are so popular considering that many were developed to lower libido…unfortunately Ryan and Jethá don’t seem to get that part of the picture and repeatedly mention our ancestor’s healthy “low fat” diet. They also keep harping on a study that showed men eating massive amounts of beef have lower sperm counts, when that study was on the effect of eating feedlot beef pumped with hormones. To their credit, they also mention the ball-busting effects of soy, which are present no matter how it’s grown.
The book also point to some evidence that humans have adapted to deal with civilization’s demands on our sexuality. While it may seem laughable, apparently there is some truth to err… ethnic differences in penis and testes size for example, which they hypothesize might be related to cultural practices, though they admit this hasn’t been studied very well.
As for women’s sexuality being lesser than men’s, an idea that has been popular among evolutionary scientists since Darwin, with his own frigid wife, wrote “the female…with the rarest exception, is less eager than the male…” As a woman, you don’t have to convince me that this is untrue, but there remains a legion of men welded (and perhaps even attracted to) the idea of the chaste woman and, unsurprisingly, unable to locate the part of a woman’s body that would persuade them otherwise. If women are so uninterested in sex, why did physicians of yore devote so much time trying to stamp out the evil of female masturbation, even in the US resorting to female genital mutilation up until the 20th century. Luckily, some doctors changed tactics and the vibrator was born, but not as a cure for female dissatisfaction, but as a medical device to cure “hysteria.”
So what do humans want out of sex? It seems like we do enjoy intense pair bonds with other individuals…that eventually wane. The bane of marriage seems to be that sexual novelty is immensely exciting for humans. Ryan and Jethá seem to imply that swinging clubs might be a good solution for having an emotionally satisfying pair bond AND fulfilling sexuality. I suppose, but it underlines the difficult fact that humans have Paleolithic sexual desires in a world where children are expensive, women expressing themselves sexually are called “sluts,” and gonorrhea and other worse STDs are a real risk. The picture of modern sexuality painted in the book is a bleak one- of sexless marriages between men popping sperm-deforming antidepressants and hooked on internet porn paired with women with frustratingly low libidos struggling to juggle their career and children. Such marriages are not only bad for people's health because of the psychological effects; apparently sex with a new woman is one of the few tried and true ways to boost middle aged men's flagging testosterone. Fun.
I personally wonder how much low libido is connected with the inadequate diet and physical activity levels of modern humans. Evolutionary health aims to ask how we can use such science to make life better. In terms of sex I think our sex lives would certainly better if we would eat well, exercise, and be realistic about human nature. The authors don't really offer a solution and on their FAQ they say:
6. So you’re recommending the everyone should have an open marriage or not get married at all?
Definitely not. We’re not recommending anything other than knowledge, introspection, and honesty. In fact, as we say in the book, we’re not really sure what to do with this information ourselves. We hope Sex at Dawn advances the conversation about human sexuality so people can focus more on the realities of what human beings are and a bit less on the religious and cultural mythologies concerning what we should be and should feel. What individuals or couples do with this information (if anything) is up to them.
This book, while an excellent tour of human lustful behavior, is lacking on the murkier matter of love. But I definitely recommend reading it. It’s certainly fascinating, if anything.
Most of them are silent. We don't really hear their stories or talk about them. They create a blogspot blog called "My Paleo Journey" or "Paleo Cookin' Today." They write a few enthusiastic posts and then...nothing. Their inactive blogs disappear into the internet graveyard.
But their silence speaks volumes. For the vast majority of Americans who struggle with food-related issues, diet do not represent salvation. And even though paleo is not a typical diet, since it's a lifelong commitment to good health, not a crash weight loss diet- it still requires a major change. Some of these people pick up a copy of The Paleo Diet or The Primal Blueprint. And they struggle. They give up. Not everyone sticks with the paleo diet. We don't usually hear from these people.
I guess it's time for me to come out of the closet: I am a binge eater. I have not binged in over a year, I'm asymptomatic, but that doesn't make me a former binge eater. Binge eating is like alcoholism. You can be dry for decades, but you are still an alcoholic. You just have managed it.
The science of addiction shows that it's about brain chemistry, brain chemistry that doesn't just change by eating a strict diet. Eating paleo improved my health and moods immensely, but it's a tool for recovery, not a panacea. I could eat all the grassfed beef in the world and it wouldn't change my difficult upbringing and my essential addictive personality. While eating well can help improve some markers of brain well-being, the adult brain can only change so much.
In my experience with managing binge eating, seeing a professional therapist or participating in a support group is important. You have to hit eating disorders with two punches- psychological and physical. The first involves exploring the root of your disorder and learning strategies for dealing with it. The second involves simply nourishing yourself so that cravings can be lessened.
I say nourish and not restrict, because the latter can lead you down the path to other eating disorders. Don't think about giving up M&Ms, think about replacing them with pancetta.
I was feeling kind of low last week and I admittedly bought some peanut m&ms. I used to eat them by the bag and then eat a couple of bags of Doritos, and then wash it back with some Coke. I once ate a whole cheesecake. I ate meals of fries topped with nacho "cheese" sauce and root beer floats with mint soft serve. I still have my food diary from back then, a sad attempt to manage my problem. I would sometimes just give up listing the foods I ate and just write "pile of total crap." That's what it was. I had no idea why I ate that way. It made me feel good for a short time, then bloated, guilty, and sick.
The problem really didn't abate until I stopped thinking about losing weight and started thinking about tackling my real problems- GERD, IBS, and asthma. I also saw a cognitive behavioral therapist.
The M&Ms last week....I couldn't finish them. They tasted disgusting. But in moments like that I realize that the capacity is still within me and it's important that I don't forget.
I looked in the mirror with dismay. Right on my left eyeball was a blood vessel that had swelled to the size of a small red lightening blot. I knew I had been spending too much time on the computer, working on server migrations and slogging though the process of learning PhP. The effects were written all over my poor eye.
I write this because this morning I read an article featuring Ray Mears, an expert on primitivist skills, chiding paleo dieters for "pigging out on meat and pretending to have hunted it." One of my goals in this site and in my actions as a co-organizer of the Eating Paleo in NYC meetup group is to get people beyond this. So many paleo dieters think of it as just a way to lose weight and end up eating a bunch of chicken breasts, steak, and coconut milk ice cream. They not only miss out on nutrients, but on the overall holistic benefits of thinking evolutionarily and rewilding not only the self, but the world around you. I want to exhort people to think harder about where their food comes from, how much is out there that we should be eating and we aren't even thinking about whether its sheeps eyes or wild nettles, and how they can be involved in actual hunting and gathering.