Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Problems of Animals Governing Ourselves: Paleo-Diets and Paleo-Politics

"A color-coded map of American personal indebtedness could be laid on top of the Centers for Disease Control's color-coded map that illustrates the fantastic rise in rates of obesity across the United States since 1985 without disturbing the general pattern."

-Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair, November 2011

The idea behind the paleo diet is simple: many health problems (especially obesity) are linked to the consumption of foods which were not available, or not available in unlimited quantity, to our distant ancestors. Our bodies greedily store salt, because it was in limiting supply until the last few centuries, but evolution didn't anticipate McDonalds. Our bodies drive us to constantly seek sweets because for thousands of centuries, our ancestors would be thrilled to find one ripe fruit per week, as opposed to a rack of candy bars at every gas station. There was no reason to develop discipline, because nature did that for us. Salt and sugar weren't "bad stuff" because there wasn't very much of it around, so it was good to constantly crave it. Now that we've solved these scarcities and it's everywhere, our lack of an off-switch for these things damages us, and to avoid this, some people have consciously chosen a return to hunter-gatherer food sources.

But think about this for very long, and you quickly realize that our diet and diet-related health are just one example of the neurological mismatch that we Westerners, and in particular we Americans, have developed with our man-made environment. It generalizes to other aspects of our behavior, and so it may be that several challenges in modern American culture have a unifying diagnosis. Culture and economics are results of the aggregate activity of human nervous systems. It shouldn't be surprising that an animal which wandered out of its home continent fifty thousand years ago has not suddenly become uber-rational and infinitely malleable in its behavior, although many of these animals have assumed themselves to have achieved this. This is to say, our behavior has limited plasticity. The irony is that our cultural environment has so rapidly changed the physical environment we now inhabit - we've truly remade our world in our image - that it's not just diet where we're mismatched with the terrarium we've built for ourselves. Potato chips may actually be the least of our worries.

The dramatic change which is also the best candidate for unifying diagnosis is instant gratification, made most commonplace in the most consumer-driven society so far in history. What consumerism really means is that of any civilization in history, ours is most specialized in giving each other what we want right now, and this has not surprisingly changed our behavior. (If you've ever seen the sad spectacle at the zoo of lions, one of the most fearsome apex predators the planet has produced, patiently and docilely waiting to be fed, you start to understand this concern.) The obstacle-free rewards-for-nothing to which we've become accustomed have damaged us in at least three realms: diet and all the attendant health problems of obesity and heart disease; belief systems and epistemological closure; and the politics of taxation.

The problem with the politics of taxation need little exposition; people demand more services and refuse to pay for them, and somehow avoid seeing the disconnect; a certain unattributed quote about people in democracies voting themselves the contents of the treasuries comes to mind, all the more frightening because it's hard to make an argument as to why it's not correct. As for consumerism's role in epistemological closure: although confirmation bias is certainly not new, that so many of us maintain patently false beliefs despite a crush of information does seem to be something new - because we know what it makes us feel good to believe, and it hurts a little to change your mind, so nothing else matters. (It may be no mistake that dopamine, our main reward-anticipation compound, is elevated in psychotic people who often have delusional beliefs; you connect everything you see to the conspiracy you believe in, because you already thought it was true and feels good.)

Having been discussing this with people for a while, it was with understandable interest that I read the Vanity Fair article about municipal budget woes and California in particular, in which the journalist interviews a UCLA neuroscientist. This lengthy excerpt will end the post, because there's nothing more to say.

Dr. Peter Whybrow, a British neuroscientist at U.C.L.A. with a theory about American life. He thinks the dysfunction in America's society is a by-product of America's success. In academic papers and a popular book, American Mania, Whybrow argues, in effect, that human beings are neurologically ill-designed to be modern Americans. The human brain evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in an environment defined by scarcity. It was not designed, at least originally, for an environment of extreme abundance. "Human beings are wandering around with brains that are fabulously limited," he says cheerfully. "We've got the core of the average lizard." Wrapped around this reptilian core, he explains, is a mammalian layer (associated with maternal concern and social interaction), and around that is wrapped a third layer, which enables feats of memory and the capacity for abstract thought. "The only problem," he says, "is our passions are still driven by the lizard core. We are set up to acquire as much as we can of things we perceive as scarce, particularly sex, safety, and food." Even a person on a diet who sensibly avoids coming face-to-face with a piece of chocolate cake will find it hard to control himself if the chocolate cake somehow finds him. Every pastry chef in America understands this, and now neuroscience does, too. "When faced with abundance, the brain's ancient reward pathways are difficult to suppress," says Whybrow. "In that moment the value of eating the chocolate cake exceeds the value of the diet. We cannot think down the road when we are faced with the chocolate cake."

The richest society the world has ever seen has grown rich by devising better and better ways to give people what they want. The effect on the brain of lots of instant gratification is something like the effect on the right hand of cutting off the left: the more the lizard core is used the more dominant it becomes. "What we're doing is minimizing the use of the part of the brain that lizards don't have," says Whybrow. "We've created physiological dysfunction. We have lost the ability to self-regulate, at all levels of the society. The $5 million you get paid at Goldman Sachs if you do whatever they ask you to do—that is the chocolate cake upgraded."

...It's a problem of people taking what they can, just because they can, without regard to the larger social consequences. It's not just a coincidence that the debts of cities and states spun out of control at the same time as the debts of individual Americans. Alone in a dark room with a pile of money, Americans knew exactly what they wanted to do, from the top of the society to the bottom. They'd been conditioned to grab as much as they could, without thinking about the long-term consequences. Afterward, the people on Wall Street would privately bemoan the low morals of the American people who walked away from their subprime loans, and the American people would express outrage at the Wall Street people who paid themselves a fortune to design the bad loans.

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