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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

This might make you yawn, but...

I'd love to get your opinions on this exciting debate among anthropologists, it came from here:

Why we eat too much, feast, and get fat. Obesity, sometimes of morbid proportions, has become a major social problem in the contemporary United States, with a very large segment of the population now overweight. And the problem is growing continuously. It is hard to ignore the fact that this obesity is largely the result of overeating on the part of Americans, along with the more sedentary lifestyle imposed by modern work habits. Harris points out that humans not only have an innate tendency to eat, but to overeat; we have been built this way by natural selection because such traits were highly adaptive in the environments that humans lived in throughout 99 percent of their existence. In these environments, during which of course people subsisted entirely by hunting and gathering, there were always periods of time during which people went hungry for weeks or months. They ate, but they did not get enough to eat to provide proper nourishment or maintain their body weights. When these periods ended, people often stuffed themselves and held elaborate feasts, and as a result they put on weight and stored fat that could help them through the periods of scarcity that the would invariably encounter again. These periods of scarcity helped to insure that people would not get fat.

But today we live at a level of affluence unimaginable in the past. We love to eat, and to overeat, but the consequences today are different. There is so much food available all of the time that people now do get fat – many of them at least, and many of those to an extremely unhealthy extent. This, at least, is Harris’s explanation, and it seems to me eminently sensible. However, there is one point with which I would take issue. Harris correctly says that contemporary overeating “is not a character defect, a longing to return to the womb, a substitute for sex, or a compensation for poverty. Rather, it is a hereditary defect in the design of the human body, a weakness that natural selection was unable to get rid of. However, not everyone overeats and not everyone gets fat. Many people do neither. Harris correctly points out that it tends to be the poor who are most overweight and the rich who are slimmest, pointing out that the poor are less educated and thus have much less knowledge of good nutrition and diet. This is right as far as it goes, but it seems to stop short. It is true that overeating is not a defect of character, but it would seem to have a lot to do with self-discipline. Not to overeat when food is delicious and highly abundant requires a lot of self-discipline, and this trait is not randomly distributed throughout society. The upper-middle-class and the wealthy seem to have it to a much greater extent than the rest of society. Harris seems too quick to let individuals off the hook for their problems, too quick to cling to an ideology of victimization that is so common in today’s society. After all, he does say, “Too long have the victims of obesity been blamed for their affliction”. Harris seems to need somewhat more of a psychological perspective here. Individuals differ in a variety of traits, and the ability to exercise self-discipline is certainly one of these.

What I loved about this is the anthropologist/sociologist arrives at such a comonsensical place. Yes there are cultural factors at work. Yes our bodies have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to process food into fat in an amazingly efficient way, but how much obesity is a lack of self discipline? Is self discipline genetic? Is there a self discipline gene? The fact is so many of the crippling and horrible diseases that are still visited upon the American population are down to lifestyle, not genetics. Obesity, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc. I remember somebody telling me once
discipline is freedom. I think I was about fifteen at the time and hated them for it, but over the past fifteen years or so I can see how right they were. Having the self discipline to study got me through school. The discipline I applied to my job got me a career. The discipline I applied to my finances gives me the freedom to own my home and car and the discipline I apply to what goes in my mouth and what I do at the gym gives me freedom from obesity. I know this isn't always true every time, but not all of us can rely on luck to get by. Yes you can have an incredible amount of self discipline and still get fat, get poor, get a heart attack, etc., but a great deal of power in life comes from controlling what you can control. The alternative is to hope you get lucky.

1 comment:

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