Thursday, February 25, 2010

How Eating Made Us Social

I was reading an old (2006) magazine called The Sun a couple of days ago. (Great periodical, by the way.) There was an excerpt from Michael Pollan's "instant classic" The Omnivore's Dilemma. In that section, he explains the meaning of omnivore, and describes in lucid, economical language how the human diet has shaped and been shaped by what we are. He points out that we have evolved social eating in part because we are highly varied eaters. We have so many choices out there, we are also apt to make mistakes. The emergence of solitary eating is a fairly recent one in our evolution.
I got to thinking how solitary eating is not just a quirk of modern life - like multitasking or 24/7 accessibility - it is a kind of revolution in the history of the human diet. Never before have so many people thought it perfectly normal to consume food stuffs alone. Of course, many feel weird walking into a nice restaurant to sit alone, but they will eat on the run, eat at home, or eat in fast-food emporia all by their little selves - without batting an eye. In fact, all around them may be other people reading or listening to personal music devices while ingesting some of their daily nutrients (or what passes for them).
We are meant to be social creatures for many reasons: the difficulty of childbirth, the challenge of rearing children, the hazards of hunting, and so on. But something as apparently benign as eating is more dangerous than it initially appears. Kings used to employ royal tasters to ensure that whatever they ate wasn't laced with poison from their enemies. Similarly, we have always eaten together to maximize the opportunity for learning from the "tasters" around us. If brave cousin Thad ate that pretty red fruit he discovered, and then keeled over from stomach poisoning, then you knew not to eat that fruit yourself. It was never enough to depend on nature - your taste buds, nose, eyes, memory - to save you from illness or a gruesome death. We have had to use culture - cuisines (optimal food combinations), taboos, preferences, legends & lore - to instruct us what to eat, how and when. Not only did that lower the death-by-nasty-surprise rate, it raised the nutrition & enjoyment of what we consumed.
Solo dining tosses that adaptation out the window. It could be another reason for the epidemic of obesity. If you eat alone, you probably eat more - and enjoy less. Is it another reason loneliness shortens your life span?

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