Tag Archives: Elizabeth Kolbert

The incredible shrinking man mourns our dietary obsessions

Big and bigger cavemen rejoice

Big and bigger cavemen rejoice

If I were a caveman, living 30,000 years ago, I would, in all likelihood, resemble Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1970s and not Woody Allen in the 1970s. That’s because my caveman antecedent (and Arnold) ate meat, eggs, nuts, fruit and that’s about it; whereas Woody and I ate bagels.

I can’t speak for one of my favorite (if diminutive) filmmakers, but Elizabeth Kolbert can. She’s a staffer at the New Yorker magazine. She’s also a former Fulbright scholar and, recently, the author of “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History”.

So, I assume she knows what she’s talking about when she pronounces, as she does in a recent issue of her esteemed organ, “According to a study of human remains from China and Japan, the height of the average person declined by more than three inches during the millennia in which rice cultivation intensified. According to another study, of bones from Mesoamerica, women’s heights dropped by three inches and men’s by two inches as farming spread.”

Indeed, she writes, “A recent survey of more than twenty studies on this subject, published in the journal Economics and Human Biology, found that the adoption of agriculture ‘was observed to decrease stature in populations from across the entire globe,’ including in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and South America.”

And that’s not all: “Early farmers were not just shorter than hunter-gatherers; they were also more sickly. They had worse teeth – one analysis from the Near East suggests that the incidence of cavities jumped sixfold as people started relying on grain – and they suffered from increased rates of anemia and infectious disease. Many now familiar infections – measles, for instance – require high population densities to persist; thus, it wasn’t until people established towns and cities that such ‘crowd epidemic diseases’ could flourish. And, by living in close proximity to their equally crowded farm animals, early agriculturalists helped to bring into being a whole set of diseases that jumped from livestock to people.”

In fact, according to Ms. Kolbert and her expert authorities, it took thousands of years for humankind to recover its physical stature following the so-called Agricultural Revolution of the Neolithic Age.

To be clear, it took me only 27 months to get to a fighting, palaeolithic, trim weight of 150 pounds (waist size of 30 inches), from a relatively corpulent 180 pounds (waist size of. . .well, let’s just say, capable of eclipsing my view of my shoe tips). I did it by obsessively exercising daily and adjusting my diet and portion sizes.

As a result, my blood pressure is delightfully low (when, not too long ago, it was alarmingly high), my cholesterol is standing where it did when I was a callow youth of 17. I have more energy and enthusiasm for everything (which is fortunate, given that my beautiful daughters and their husbands have, in the past five years, given me four grandchildren).

I still stand only five-foot-nine and a bit on a good day (nothing I can do about that – thanks Agricultural Revolution!). But, generally, I feel pretty good for a man who’s about to matriculate into his 54th year.

But here’s the thing: The so-called paleo-diet fad has conquered the affluent corner of the western world, and to almost fascistic effect.

As Ms. Kolbert writes: “In promoting red meat and rejecting grains, the paleo diet challenges just about every precept that nutritionists have been pushing for the past fifty years. In effect, it turns the familiar food pyramid on its point. This is an increasingly common inversion, if not in academic circles or at the U.S. Department of Agriculture then on the talk-show circuit. In his wildly popular manifesto-cum-recipe book, ‘Grain Brain,’ David Perlmutter, a Naples, Florida, neurologist, maintains that sandwiches are not just hard on the digestive system; they wreak havoc on the mind. ‘Modern grains are silently destroying your brain,’ he writes. ‘Basically, I am calling what is arguably our most beloved dietary staple a terrorist group.’”

Is he joking? Does Woody Allen know about this?

Chill out, doc. The chances are that your inner caveman will appreciate the odd P-P-J on Wonder Bread, if only to prove that the species is just a tad more digestively adaptable than a young Arnold would allow.

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The secret of our success is simple. We’re crazy



Each day that passes on this third rock from an average star in the boondocks of a commonplace galaxy brings fresh evidence of the truth about our circumstances as, very likely, the only sentient creatures in this region of the universe.

Homo sapiens sapiens (us) are certifiably nuts. This, we already know. But that our derangement may very well derive directly from our intelligence is a proposition no evolutionary biologist would ever entertain. Until now.

In a marvelous review – still more marvelously titled “Consume, screw, kill” – of environment writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Harper’s writer Daniel Smith explains Swedish geneticist Svante Paabo’s determination to locate and identify the “madness gene” that makes us unique among hominins (all humans, including the extinct ones).

Mr. Smith quotes a passage from Ms. Kolbert’s work, directly:

“Archaic human like Homo erectus ‘spread like many other mammals in the Old World,’ Paabo told me. ‘They never came to Madagascar, never to Australia. Neither did Neanderthals. It’s only the fully modern humans who start this thing of venturing out on the ocean where you don’t see land. Part of that is technology, of course; you have to have ships to do it. But there is also, I like to think, some madness there. You know?’”

Indeed, who does that? Go off into the wild, blue yonder without an exit strategy? Apparently, we do. And not just that.

Writes Smith about The Sixth Extinction (for which, you may have guessed, our lunatic species is solely responsible), “Kolbert begins coyly with a kind of fairy tale. ‘Maybe two hundred thousand years ago,’ a new species emerges on Earth. Compared with other species around at the time – mammoths, mastodons, armadillos the size of Smart cars  – the members of this new species aren’t very fast or very strong. But they are shrewd or reckless or both. ‘None of the usual constraints of habitat or geography seem to check them.’”

What do they do when they finally reach what we now know as Europe? Writes Kolbert: “They encounter creatures very much like themselves (Neanderthals), but stockier and probably brawnier, who have been living in the continent far longer. They interbreed with these creatures and, by one means or another, kill them off.”

How, then, do our tendencies, singular among all animals, to wander like zombies into unfamiliar and treacherous territories only to plunder the local wildlife (and nightlife) before moving along relate to our possessing uniquely big brains?

Consider the results of separate research conducted in Israel. Scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem compared the DNA of ancient Neanderthals with that of modern humans and found them to be about 99 per cent identical, which is what they expected. But when they examined the evidence more closely, they discovered significant differences in the remaining one per cent – specifically, between those parts of the archaic and contemporary genomes that were linked to disease, especially mental disease. Suffice to say, we modern types fared rather poorly. 

“Scientists are a long way from being able to understand what this means, stressed Liran Carmel, who led the study along with Eran Meshorer and David Gokhman,” Torstar reported the other day. ‘But this raises the hypothesis that perhaps many genes in our brain have changed recently, specifically in our lineage, the lineage leading to Homo sapiens. And perhaps things like autism, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s are side-effects of these very recent changes,’ said Carmel. ‘This is an interesting suggestion, that (brain disease) is a side-effect of us being Homo sapiens and having our unique cognitive capabilities.’”

“Interesting suggestion” doesn’t even begin to cover it. 

For the first time in our lousy, rotten history, we may be at the threshold of obtaining true self-knowledge. 

Forget Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Confucius. Keep your Enlightenment thinkers to yourself. And if you think religion is going to get you out of this one, think again.

The fix was always in; the game was rigged from the get-go. To paraphrase from a tune popular during the self-obsessed “Me Decade” of the ‘70s, we’re just no good, no good, no good. . .baby, we’re no good!

Of course, this also raises a rather unsettling corollary. If cognitive capacity actually produces mental disease, does the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence amount to nothing more than a bed count at a cosmic loony bin?

Then again, at least we’ll know we’re not alone in our insanity.


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