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.