Monday, January 24, 2005

scientific puritanism

Futher pondering and pontificating on our government's absurd drug policy:

The puritanism on which prohibition is based is not just derived from religious misthinking but from ill-founded scientific presumption as well, according to Colin Tudge in his astoundingly well informed and hugely important book (you've got to respect someone who gives their book a title this good, this long, and has it printed in full on the cover and the spine) So Shall We Reap: How Everyone Who Is Liable to Be Born in the Next Ten Thousand Years Could Eat Very Well Indeed; and Why, in Practice, Our Immediate Descendants Are Likely to Be in Serious Trouble.

He explains that there are many important elements in our diet apart from essential nutrients. There is a whole new sphere known as nutraceuticals, agents that we don't die or even get very ill without, but which positively benefit us. Things that are consituent parts of plants that we eat, bits that our bodies have grown used to and over time come to utilise. The example given is sterols that reduce cholesterol. Presumably, apes have always eaten plants that included sterols, and our cholesterol function evolved to semi-rely on them.

These days with our pharmacologically impoverished diet, we don't get the sterols and consequently we get high cholesterol levels. In the face of this, we invent Benecol, a sterol-enhanced margarine.

Our diet is certainly pharmacologically impoverished, as hunter-gatherers make use of up to a hundred wild plants and use all parts, whereas what looks like variety to us is actually twenty types of pasta made from exactly the same durum wheat. The benefits of a 'varied diet' are obvious, even though they are not fully understood because quite how all the various component parts interact is still not figured. What is clear is that a limited diet is not healthy. 'Unhealthy' means foods and diets that don't match the ways of eating we evolved on.

Following this through to our drug policy, Tudge writes:

We have in general a puritanical attitude to these agents. The legal case against them is not based simply on the harm that they may do. It is rooted, more deeply, in the belief that our bodies and minds ought to be free of such materials. The moral puritanism is reinforced by a kind of scientific puritanism: the deep (and necessary) belief of scientists that all explanations and descriptions of nature should be as simple as possible - according to the principle known as 'Occam's razor'.

Doctors, traditionally, tend to be both moral puritans and scientists; and putting the two together they have concluded that our bodies (and minds!) are more or less bound to function most efficiently when their chemical intake is as bland as possible; when indeed it is more or less confined to those materials that are recognised as bona fide nutrients - proteins, essential fats, unrefined carbohydrates and the approved list of vitamins. The idea that our bodies might actually function better in the presence of a weird assemblage of apparently arbitrary materials seems to run counter to those most fundamental premises.

Yet evolutionary theory explains why this might be so. Our bodies feel deprived of plant sterols, and since our modern diets are so biochemically innocent, sterols must be added. Additives in margarine are not ideal; but for the time being, in the absence of a wild diet, they are perhaps the best we can do.

Our minds, perhaps, feel and are deprived of the stimulation and the relaxation that out ancestors once derived from the berries and mushrooms around them. I am not a 'druggie' myself, incidentally, apart from a perpetual intake of tea and coffee. I need the caffeine buzz but otherwise have no stake in the drug culture. But I do feel the Western world's 'War on Drugs', which it has so obviously lost, probably does far more harm than good; and the deep reason is that it is misguided. It is rooted in the belief that it is good, in all senses, to be as biochemically innocent as possible, and that may simply be wrong. It runs against the tide of evolutionary history. Like most government policies in the modern world, in all spheres, it is rooted in bad biology.


Jim Bliss said...

Good post. Though I do feel compelled to point out that the "scientific puritanism" that Tudge talks about is due to the misapplication of Occam's Razor by ignorant scientists. Occam's Razor is a perfectly legitimate principle in sciences such as physics and astronomy.

It's just when you get fools deciding that you can take the principles of a hard science and apply it willy-nilly to all areas of research that the problems arise.

Einstein once joked, "Things should be made as simple as possible. But NO simpler!" I like to think he was alluding to this tendency towards reductionism in all things. A physicist needs to reduce things to their barest bones - that's their particular job; to express reality mathematically.

It shouldn't be a universal principle applied to all fields.

merrick said...

I think it's apparent Tudge is not dissing the use of Occam's Razor, but yeah, good to make that clear.

Elsewhere in that chapter he talks about how difficult it is to apply many ordinary scientific methods to nutrition.

For instance, you are simply not allowed to take a group of people, lock them in a laboratory and not allow exercise whilst feeding them exclusively on animal fat and sugar. That being so, too many other factors exist in people's lifestyles and diets to ever say much about nutirition with proper scientific concrete certainty.

Thus, those who would defend the fat and sugar industry claim 'but it's not been proven!' and be technically right.

scarletharlot69 said...

merry meet again Merrick

I am not personally happy with the use of the word puritan as a synonym with ahedonia.

of course, words change, viz puritan originally meant an anglican in the reign of elizabeth the first, probably with calvinist leanings at least who wished to see the church of england purified of much, if not all of it's "romish superstitions"

I would prefer later use of the word puritan, viz a belief that the beautiful is the good and the good is beautiful. we are all puritans now

merrick said...

Whilst I am happily free of Romish superstitions, I'd still not call myself a puritan. I use it in its contemporary sense, best defined by H. L. Mencken as 'the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy'.

scarletharlot69 said...

Hi Merrick

> Whilst I am happily free of Romish superstitions, I'd still not call myself a puritan.

pray why not!

> I use it in its contemporary sense, best defined by H. L. Mencken as 'the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy'.

again, since there is already a good and more accurate word here, viz ahedonia....

maybee not as one classic ahedonian was John Brown (not the alegedly sodomite erstwhile publisher of Viz but the epynonymous abolitionist hero of "John Brown's Body"), I am not sure if he was against other people enjoying himself, but he certainly seems to have lived his life without ever enjoying himself once.

I appreciate how words change over time but still wish that we could draw the distinction between puritanism and ahedonia

Blessed be