In defense of expertise

Michael Pollan writes in In Defense of Food,

[I]t does seem to me a symptom of our present confusion about food that people feel the need to consult a journalist, or for that matter a nutritionist or doctor or government food pyramid, on so basic a question about the conduct of our everyday lives as humans. I mean, what other animal needs professional help in deciding what it should eat? (2)

Pollan is, of course, correct to point out that no other species consults experts in deciding what to eat, but this is hardly the only way in which our lives are different from those of other animal species. Some differences–say, replacing candle light with incandescent and later fluorescent lighting–probably don’t heavily influence our dietary needs. Others, such as our tendency to live longer lives and spend more time sitting than our ancestors, seem more likely to factor into our nutritional needs.

That isn’t to say that experts will never give bad advice. However, the idea that Pollan hints at here — that it’s strangely unnatural to seek professional dietary advice — deserves to be placed into context. There are many things that are unnatural about our lives. I’d guess that most of us (at least, most people who are reading this) are far enough removed from nature that if we wanted to eat a “natural” diet, we’d have to consult an expert just to figure out what that even meant.

In spite of Pollan’s appeal to the rest of the animal kingdom, a few sentences later he makes it clear that he’s really lamenting the decline of food culture. This is a surprising turn, considering that so many aspects of food culture are also unique to humans. One wonders if Pollan knows of other animal species that cook their food or have the “[d]eep cultural taboos against gluttony” which Pollan mentioned in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. If not, then his appeal to nature does not seem to fit with his argument.

As for culture, I won’t deny that it can teach us a few things. But it happens that our lives are not only increasingly unnatural, but increasingly different from those of our relatively recent ancestors. It’s not obvious that the diet our ancestors ate will work for our more sedentary lifestyles. For that matter, Pollan tends (as I’ll write about soon) to overstate the extent to which traditional diets have really worked for people. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask whether we can do better, and if we’re going to ask the question, I hope the answer will be based on a careful look at the available evidence.

1 Comment »

  1. I think it is not that hard to decide what food is “natural” for humans. Put humans to their natural habitat – Tropics without anything. They will be unable to eat anything else than fruit, tender vegetation and some rotting meat. It is obvious what they will choose if there will be enough of it.

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