Monday, December 18, 2006


Once you understand what makes humans tick, it's easy to figure out why they do the things that they do.

I'm a vegetarian. It was not easy to become one, and it's not easy being one - not because I miss meat (I don't), but because I have to design a healthy diet, read labels, ask questions of the contents of whatever I'm eating, and put up with people giving me shit about it. It requires more input and more concern on my part.

But why should not being a vegetarian be easier? Humans evolved to live on the plains of Africa, in small bands of hunters and gatherers. Our noses and brains therefore evolved to concern themselves with the things we would have needed to eat to survive. Rotting meat emits two chemicals: putricine and cadaverine. Great smell if you're a fly, bad smell if you want fresh meat. And humans do, but only if it's cooked. Mmmm, charred animal flesh, doesn't that just excite your nose and make you salivate? It does? Like a dog even? Yes, because, like dogs, humans are hard-wired to crave certain foods, and to salivate in preparation for eating them. Eating (cooked!) meat was a tasty treat every now and again, certainly not as frequent as most Americans eat meat, and certainly not in such proportions. Meat contains a lot of protein, and having such a rich source of it available was a prize indeed. You had to get a little hunting group and go out and chase the animal and bring the carcass back to camp. It involved some time, effort, and planning. A well-earned meaty morsel. Today, in this age of high-density feedlots and fast food burger joints, it's real easy to get meat. It's practically coming out of people's ears (or clogged arteries). Someone like me who doesn't eat meat gets funny looks. "Where do you get your protein?" they lament. I doubt that many of them are genuinely concerned with my protein intake (it's fine, thank you); what they are really saying is "is there something wrong with you that you don't eat what you were hard-wired to like?"

After several years of being a vegetarian and reading labels, I started to notice how much of what nutrient was in each item of food I consumed. I started to notice a pattern: the crap food had a bunch of crap in it, and offered very little in the way of good nutrients. The good food, though slightly more expensive, contained far more of the nutrients I needed, and a lot less of the bad stuff that I didn't. Partially hydrogenated oils are horrible. Don't eat them. They have no place within our diets and are essentially plastic oils. Food manufacturers (!) love it because it can be altered in any way to make it different consistencies. They can put some in snack cakes to make them soft and plush for months, or in sports drinks to make sure the salt and sugar bits mix thoroughly in the water. Oh so many options, and so simple an ingredient. Such a high profit margin for these companies that are selling people waxy plastic for so damn cheap.

High fructose corn syrup, aka diabetes syrup, can also be found in many manufactured (!) foods. Back in the days of gathering, finding some tasty fruit on a tree was a great way to imbibe vitamins and nutrients. Our brains evolved to taste the fruit as sweet, because it contained something called sucrose. Sucrose is two kinds of sugars: glucose and fructose. Glucose is great stuff. Good for the brain (and thus for studying), good for making all sorts of materials your body can use. Unfortunately, glucose is not really all that sweet to our taste buds. When we taste the sucrose in fruit, we are tasting the fructose, not so much the glucose. So, it turns out that high FRUCTOSE corn syrup activates our taste buds and makes us think we need to eat the treat to get nutrients. Food manufacturers will process corn, separating the fructose from the rest of it. Fructose is dirt cheap to make in this way, and because it is relatively rare in fruits in nature, we have a great sensitivity to it. What a cruel joke that most of the crap that contains high fructose corn syrup is practically worthless besides, and offers us very little other than a higher risk of diabetes. Read some labels and you'll see the dynamic duo of partially hydrogenated oil and high fructose corn syrup in many processed food. Why do we eat these things? Several reasons. First off, snack cakes are tasty (or so we are led to believe), and having all this junk in them makes them so cheap it makes it hard for us to resist. The fructose convinces us that we've just consumed something healthy, like a fruit, and so we feel satisfied. Eating real fruit after that, which does not contain such high concentrations of fructose, pales in comparison. We'd rather have the snack cake because we are hard-wired to want what it contains. It's easy because we evolved to like some of the things in it. It's easy because we are trained growing up to spend the least amount of money to satisfy our hunger. An unhealthy tasty treat for cheap; or a more expensive, healthy-looking meal that may require some preparation. Doesn't really matter, because if you eat meat, everything else is just filler anyway.

If you don't know what memes are and how they work, don't bother reading this anymore and go look up the word on wikipedia. I need you to know what they are for this next section.

Memes of any kind can be incorporated into our minds and become part of our understanding of reality. The ones that are the most successful, though, are the ones that get the strongest emotional response. When I rant this to people in real life, I use two examples: xianity and historical materialism. Ah, religion. So comforting, so lovely, so fulfilling. Historical what? Materialism? Isn't that that atheist non-emotional tripe that explains much of how our society operates but has very little appeal to me? Pick an emotion, and you can find some story, fable, or facet of religion (especially xianity) that activates it. Love: Jesus loves me! Anger: How dare those dirty Jews/Romans kill Jesus!? Happiness: Isn't it wonderful that god is our friend and we get to be with him forever and ever when we die? You get the idea. Very little comes out of historical materialism. It is dry and boring (not to me), doesn't activate or excite our emotions. I've been reading Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted World finally, and some disturbing statistics indicate that far more people believe in silly things (aliens, Atlantis, etc) than real things (quantum mechanics, DNA, etc). Knowing what we do of humans and memes, why is this so? Because it is easy.

Two-thirds of our speech is gossip, that is, talking shit about other people. I have seen it used for its intended purpose in coops. Sitting in my friend's room at the coop, a fly on the wall (I'm normally very talkative), observing two splendid uses of gossip. A group of coopers were first talking about someone they didn't like, someone who didn't do their labour. They were ragging on him, making fun of him, dissin' him, all of it. He was lazy, smelly, dirty, messy, a moocher, a liar, etc. The group opinion of this person was definitely pushed down a notch. Another person was then discussed. This person was hard-working, friendly, shared copious amounts of marijuana (might as well be coop currency), and was generally well-liked. He did his labour and helped others do theirs. He was praised and admired and adored, even though he wasn't there. His social standing definitely went up a notch. We evolved to use gossip as a means to keep the group together and members working. If your survival was dependent on other people (it was back in the day, and still is today, despite what some "individualists" will claim), you didn't want some slack off jerk to mooch off everyone's hard labour. You'd want some way to let him know what you think of him. "Oh, boo-hoo, someone is making fun of me! Big deal." Except that may mean you don't get food, which means your ass is going to get really skinny and then die. Better cooperate and garner the trust and admiration of your peers. This was also the way to become a leader, unlike today when all you need is rich and influential parents, a C average at a pretentious university, and a teleprompter. So gossip is a useful mechanism. Except when you have print media and grocery check-out aisles. Then gossip is about people that you know, but who certainly don't know you. Famous TV and movie actors are plastered on tabloids and other silly magazines. "Did you see what she wore to the Emmies?!" Who gives a shit? Well, lots of people. We like talking about familiar people, people whom everyone knows. Everyone knows Tom Cruise, everyone knows Brittney Spears. It's EASY to talk about these people with others, even though we don't really know them personally. In fact, it's so EASY to talk about them, that we really don't need to talk about anything else. Certainly not anything useful or stimulating.

When social groups get complex, that is, when there are more and more members, it becomes increasingly difficult to make decisions democratically. An amoeba that wants to go in three hundred different directions is likely to dissociate. To keep groups of monkeys together, sometimes the captain element is needed, a strong executive that can make decisions that count for the rest of the group. We evolved to have two distinct behaviour patterns: we crave democracy, and yet long for someone to tell us what to do. As a young child, we have no clue what is going on, no grasp on reality and the world and how it all works. We must rely on older, more established adults to teach and guide us. It would not be evolutionarily advantageous to question the authority or wisdom of our elders constantly. Sure, a well-meaning "why?" or "what's that?" are welcome, but if the kid just insisted on playing with that sharp flint knife, they were likely going to get hurt. Roaming too far from camp was likely to make the little explorer a little meal for some hungry predator. At the same time, and not just as we get older, we develop the understanding that we are a vital part of the group, with our own unique desires and feelings. We feel that our experience is valuable and worthwhile. What we have to say is important, too. Small groups operate better with these two contradictory tendencies because leaders have much less control and power. The voices of the members of the group are stronger because they come into direct contact with the leader. GWB wouldn't have lasted five minutes as a leader of a hunter-gatherer group. But today, with mass communications and media, with well-established culture and language (thanks to writing), our framework for understanding our place in society is developed along the "worship the leader" lines, instead of the "voice your opinion" track. We hardly get to voice our concerns in school, very little at home or in public. Children rarely experience democracy for themselves firsthand. Instead, we get washed-down examples of it with well-meaning definitions, directed and controlled by adults who themselves probably never experienced democracy for themselves either. Almost our entire economy is composed of little units that are run like a pyramid scheme, with very little input coming from the wider base sections. But why should the tendency be towards authoritarian methods of control, as opposed to more democratic methods? Because power that is unquestioned is wielded better (more effectively) than power that is. It is easier for us to live under someone else's control than to have to make decisions on our own or as a group. Making decisions and compromises as a group, with each member participating and contributing, is very difficult. It involves learning how to operate in a group differently than we do now. Of course, the main reason is that the groups we consider units are much too big to be run effectively democratically. But this in and of itself is difficult to undo. Once a tyrant gains control, he/she is very unlikely to give it up, and using their position of power, they can wrestle and grab for more power, that is, control over more people. It is a tendency of all institutions of any kind. Given any idea or cause, over time and with enough people, a group committed to this cause will mutate and morph into something that is almost completely counter to its original tenants. The Catholic church was supposedly founded on the teachings of Jesus, which, if the Sermon on the Mount is to be believed, were somewhat agreeable. Help the poor is a worthy idea. Go to the gold-encrusted Vatican to see how far along this aspect of the mission is. Blessed are the meek, isn't that right, Mr. Pope? "Communists" in the USSR had this happen. The aggrandizing of the state to follow through with the ideas of Marx to dissolve the state. Like that makes sense. Or what about the Libertarian Party? Talk about oxymorons.

It appears at first glance that if most of this behaviour is done because it is easy or ingrained, then any other behaviour, or even just changing it, must be hard. Really, it isn't. It is no more difficult than learning a new skill or taking a class. Some time and honest effort are involved, but once we get the hang of it, it really isn't that hard. Not to mention that once we DO change our easy behaviours to become more of what we really desire, the rewards of behaving differently only spur us on. A friend of mine recently quit smoking. He says he doesn't miss feeling like shit in the morning hacking up his lungs. When I became a vegetarian, I enjoyed having regular stools and not feeling logy and cholesterol-ridden from eating meat. I am thin, fit, and active. I save money because I don't watch TV and feel the need to buy shit I don't need. I don't concern myself with the idiotic goings-on of flaky and shallow movie stars. Removing authoritarian people from my life has made me happier than ever. I've become involved with coops and am enjoying having a say in what goes on in the world around me. I'm learning how to win favour and earn respect from others, and how to gather people together to form functioning groups. I've removed a lot of the unnecessary aspects of my life and replaced them with things I find much more supporting and satisfying. Ironically, by doing these things, I've made my life simple and easy. :-)


Blogger Delta said...

Very good post. I agree that the food most of us put into our bodies is disgusting and dangerous considering our health depends very strongly on the type of food we eat. I haven't had ordinary fast food in over a year and I rarely ever eat at the so-called "nicer" restaurants such as Chili's, Red Lobster, etc. that litter most of the country. The food there seems very overpriced and of very low quality as well. So I do a lot of cooking myself, which I think is fun anyway. If I eat out, I certainly go to a place that's unique. We have an amazing worker-owned pizzeria nearby that I really enjoy. And yeah, I do enjoy the occasional steak, fish, or chicken. It's perhaps a bit strange, because I do recognize a sort of moral superiority of the vegetarian position, yet do not feel it strongly enough to change my diet. But I've changed a lot in the past few years, and maybe that'll be the next thing =)

Almost all manufactured snacks disgust me. I wouldn't eat a Twinkie if someone paid me a dollar to do so. In addition to psychological stress from knowing that I'm eating shit, I also physically feel worse. I suppose those who eat such large quantities of this type of stuff always feel worse physically and so perhaps don't realize how much it affects them.

Your discussion on gossip about celebrities is exactly along the lines of the discussion my brother and I had after we got back from Austin. I can't imagine how depressing the life of someone who subscribes to People magazine must be.

03 January, 2007 17:10  
Blogger Mookie said...

"We have an amazing worker-owned pizzeria nearby that I really enjoy."

That sounds awesome.

"I do recognize a sort of moral superiority of the vegetarian position"

Bill Hicks, a comedian, did a sketch about non-smokers, and how the only reason why he doesn't quit is because he doesn't want to be a smug and arrogant bastard like them. If you became a vegetarian, imagine the smugness and arrogance you could rightfully emanate!

"I've changed a lot in the past few years, and maybe that'll be the next thing"

If you need help or encouragement, I'm sure we can help. Although, there are certainly vegetarians on the coast that could win you over, too. ;-)

"I can't imagine how depressing the life of someone who subscribes to People magazine must be"

It hurts my head just thinking about it.

06 January, 2007 11:36  

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