Using History to Make Dietary Decisions

20 10 2017

About a decade ago, I found that I couldn’t tolerate wheat gluten. That discovery forced a change in my diet. There are many people who can’t eat wheat for medical reasons. However, I was surprised to learn that there are people who avoid eating wheat and other grains for basically political reasons that draw on our current understanding of the history of civilization. Their thinking is that since the emergence of agricultural gave rise to the State and many oppresive institutions, one should avoid consuming the grains that were at the heart of the Neolithic Revolution. For these people, avoiding grains and eating a hunter-gatherer “paleo” diet of meats and greens is a noble political act. The basic idea is that wheat and rice are slave food and we should eat what the Mongols or the pre-Contact First Nations ate. Note how a temporal marker (“paleo”) taken from the name of a historical period has become the name of a way of eating.


I find this argument against eating wheat and rice to be absurd and a misuse of historical knowledge. It would be the equivalent of saying “Hitler’s regime developed rocketry, therefore we shouldn’t use rockets.” That’s the fallacy of historical origins– what is technically known in philosophy as the genetic fallacy. [The otherwise excellent article on fallacies in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy doesn’t discuss the genetic fallacy, but you can read about it here).

I also find that the historical argument against the gluten-free diet advanced by Alesio Fasano in a recent Freaknomics broadcast to be guilty of the same error. After presenting some perfectly reasonable arguments against non-coeliacs adopting a gluten-free diet, Dr Fasanon then took brought in a historical argument:

Not only gluten is not a villain, but without gluten you and I, we still jump from one tree and another. We [would] not have build the Coliseum or the Eiffel Tower because before the agriculture and, therefore, predictability — humankind spend 90, 95 percent of activity for food procurement and 5 percent for reproduction. No time to unleash ingenuity or doing anything about it.

Without agriculture — therefore, without gluten  we would definitely be at the same level of any other species and probably would not be the dominant species. I would personally never, ever recommend a gluten-free diet to somebody that does not have the medical necessity. Myself, I eat gluten. I do this with moderation as we should do for anything.

In any event, this review of James C. Scott’s new book on grains and the rise of the State is well worth reading by anyone who thinks about food, power, and/or history.


James C. Scott, F.A. Hayek, and Organization Studies

18 07 2014



Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson have been posting a series of blog posts on the ideas of James C. Scott, the author of  Seeing Like a State and The Art of Not Being Governed. I believe that Scott is one of the most important social thinkers around today.  Scott’s paradigm blends the best of conservative and left-wing insights. Scott transcend the left-right political spectrum we use to categorize thinkers.  As Brad De Long has shown, Scott’s ideas incorporate a variety of insights from F.A. Hayek and Austrian economics.






Back in 2007, De Long wrote this about Scott’s Seeing Like a State:

 Heaven knows that I am no Austrian–I am a liberal Keynesian and a social democrat–but within economics even liberal Keynesian social democrats acknowledge that the Austrians won victory in their intellectual debate with the central planners long ago.


This book marks the final stage because it shows the spread of what every economist would see as “Austrian ideas” into political science, sociology, and anthropology as well.


No one can finish reading Scott without believing–as Austrians have argued for three-quarters of a century–that centrally-planned social-engineering is not an appropriate mechanism for building a better society.

De Long mentions that Hayekian ideas have gone mainstream in political science, sociology, and anthropology.  I’m convinced that the ideas of Scott and Hayek also offer a lot to management academics in the field of organizations studies. (I’m actually working, on and off, on a paper on that subject. I suppose I’ll present it at EGOS next year). Anyway, there are signs of growing interest in Scott’s paradigm on the part of people who study large companies. Consider this article:

James Ferguson, “Seeing like an oil company: space, security, and global capital in neoliberal Africa.” American anthropologist 107, no. 3 (2005): 377-382.

As the title suggests, the author draws on Scott’s ideas to understand not a state but another type of organization that replaces market with hierarchy, namely, a big vertically-integrated oil company.

Last year, Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein published a paper called “Hayek and Organizational Studies.” I have tremendous respect for both Foss and Klein and I liked this paper, which discussed the impact of Hayek’s ideas on people in Organization Studies. They listed Hayek’s direct and indirect influence on the field. For instance, they show that the knowledge management concept and knowledge-based view of the firm are based on Hayekian ideas. There was, in view, a serious omission from their paper in that they don’t mention Scott, who has been a conduit for the transmission of clearly Hayekian ideas to a range of scholars of organization, particularly those who are associated with the Critical Management Studies tradition.  I’ve often thought that the intellectual traditions of Austrian economics and CMS are very similar in a number of ways. I think that Scott is a bridge between these two camps.


Update: I’m including this cool video in which Scott talks about his research.