Degeneracy of Type

If “evolution” is a word that comes up a lot in the late 1800s (even before Darwin,) “degenerate” is the word of the 1930s and 40s.

In Kabloona, (1941) an ethnography of the Eskimo (Inuit) of northern Canada, de Poncins speaks highly of the “pure” Eskimo, whose ancestral way of life remains unsullied by contact with European culture, and negatively of the “degenerate Eskimo,” caught in the web of international trade, his lifestyle inexorably changed by proximity and contact with the West.

In Caughey’s History of the Pacific Coast, (1933) he writes:

The Northwest Coast Indians felt the ill effects of too much contact with British, Russian, and American traders. The rum of the trading schooners was one of several factors contributing to the degeneracy of those not actually exterminated.

In Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, (1939) Dr. Price argues that modern foods are low in nutrient value and inferior to many native, ancestral diets, and that the spread of this “white man’s food” caused an epidemic of disease, tooth decay, and skeletal mal-formation, which he documents extensively. Dr. Price refers to the change in appearance from one generation to the next, coinciding with the introduction of modern foods, as “interrupted heredity.” The parents represent “pure racial type,” with strong teeth and bones, while the children, bow-legged and sick, suffer physical degeneration.

(This kind of language that Dr. Price uses sometimes confuses us moderns, because we flinch reflexively at phrases like “racial type” when in fact his argument is the inverse of the racist arguments of his day.)

From SMBC--there's something wrong with this comic. I bet you can figure out what it is.
From SMBC–there’s something wrong with this comic. I bet you can figure out what it is.

Now, there is something twee about anthropologists (and historians) who long for the preservation of other peoples’ cultures when the people within those cultures seem to prefer modernity. Igloos and teepees may seem fun and exotic to those of us who don’t live in them, but the people who do might genuinely prefer a house with central heat and a toilet. Obviously the whole anthropologist schtick involves people who really like studying cultures that are distinct from their own, and if the people in those cultures adopt Western lifestyles, then there just isn’t much to study anymore.

(Imagine if we found out tomorrow that all of what we thought were variations in human DNA turned out to be contamination errors due to local pollen, and vast swathes of this blog became moot.)

It is easy to write off such notions as just feel-good sentimentalizing by outsiders, but these are at least outsiders with more first hand knowledge of these cultures than I have, so I think we should at least consider their ideas.

The degeneracy described as a result of contact with the West is not just physical or cultural, but also moral. A culture, fully-fledged, is one of humanity’s greatest technologies, a tool for the total transmission of a group’s knowledge, morals, and behaviors. Your ancestors, facing much the same environment as yourself, and armed with similar tools, struggled to obtain food, marry, raise children, and survive just as you do. The ones who succeeded passed down the lessons of their success, and these lessons became woven into the tapestry of culture you were raised in, saving you much of the trial-and error effort of reproducing your ancestors’ struggles.

picture-144Some people claim to believe that all cultures are equally valuable and important. I don’t. I think cultures that practice things like cannibalism, animal sacrifice, and child rape are bad and I don’t cry for their disappearance. But virtually every culture has at least some good features, or else it wouldn’t have come about in the first place.

Cultural lessons stem from the practical–“Ice the runners of your sled to make it run more smoothly”–to the moral–“Share your belongings in common with the tribe”–to the inscrutable–“don’t eat the totem animal.” (Some of these beliefs may be more important than others.) Throughout all of recorded human history, most of us have passed on bodies of moral teachings under the name of “religion,” whether we believe in the literal truth of mythic stories or not.

Rapid cultural change–not the gentle sort that percolates slowly across generations, but massive variety precipitated by an industrial revolution or the sudden introduction of a few thousand years’ worth of technological advancement to a long-isolated people–outstrips a society’s ability to provide meaningful moral or practical guidance. Simply put: people don’t know what to do.

Take alcohol. People have probably been producing fermented beverages for at least 10,000 years, or for about as long as we’ve been trying to store pots of grain and fruit. The French have wine, Mongolians have fermented horse milk, the Vikings fermented honey and the Founding Fathers drank a lot of apple cider.

Alcohol has beneficial effects–few pathogens survive the fermentation process–and obviously harmful effects. Societies that traditionally produced large quantities of alcohol have evolved social norms and institutions to help people enjoy the beneficial effects and avoid the bad ones. France, for example, which in 2014 produce 4.5 billion liters of wine and consumed 2.8 billion liters of the same, is not a nation of violent, wife-beating, car-crashing drunkards. French social norms emphasize moderate wine consumption accompanied by food, friends, and family.

By contrast, in societies where alcohol was suddenly introduced via contact with whites, people don’t have these norms, and the results–like rampant alcoholism on Native American reservations–have been disastrous. These societies can–and likely will–learn to handle alcohol, but it takes time.

chart_of_gonorrhea_infection_rates_usa_1941-2007Our own society is undergoing its own series of rapid changes–industrialization, urbanization, post-industrialization, the rise of the internet, etc. Andean cultures have been cultivating coca leaves for at least 3,000 years, apparently without much trouble, while the introduction of crack/cocaine to the US has been rather like dropping bombs on all of our major cities.

The invention of fairly reliable contraception and the counter-culture of the ’60s and ’70s led to the spread of “free love,” which in turn triggered skyrocketing gonorrhea rates. Luckily gonorrhea can be treated with antibiotics (at least until it becomes antibiotic resistant,) but it’s still a nasty disease–one internet acquaintance of mine caught gonorrhea, took antibiotics and thought he was in the clear, but then doctors discovered that the inside of his penis was full of scar tissue that was dangerously closing off his bladder. They had basically cut him a new urethra once they were done removing all of the scar tissue, and he spent the next few months in constant, horrible pain, even while on medication.

latestAnd to add insult to injury, everyone in his social circle just thought he was bitter, jealous, and trying to make his ex-girlfriend look bad when he tried to warn them that they shouldn’t sleep with her because she gave him gonorrhea.

Of course, gonorrhea is just the tip of the horrifying iceberg.

By contrast, the Amish look pretty darn healthy.

Degeneracy isn’t just a sickness of the body; it’s a falling apart of all of the morals and customs that hold society together and give people meaning and direction in their lives. You don’t have to waste years trying to “find yourself” when you already have a purpose, but when you have no purpose but to feed yourself, it’s easy to become lost.

I should note that Dr. Price didn’t just examine the teeth of Eskimo and Aborigines, but also of Scots, Swiss, and Americans. His conclusion–nutritional degeneracy due to contact with modern foods–was the same regardless of culture. (Note: nutrition and food production have changed since 1939.) Or as Scott Alexander recently put it:

I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as western civilization. I think it involved things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point Thor might have been involved. That civilization is dead. It summoned an alien entity from beyond the void which devoured its summoner and is proceeding to eat the rest of the world.

Well, that sounds a fair bit more dire than Dr. Price’s assessment. Let’s assume Scott is being poetic and perhaps exaggerating for effect. Still: massive cultural changes can sweep the normative rug out from beneath your feet and leave you injured and confused. It will take time–perhaps centuries–for society to fully adjust to the technological changes of the past hundred years. Right now, everyone is still muddling through, trying to figure out what will kill us and what will save us.

Kabloona Friday

(Part of a series on de Poncins’s Kabloona, an ethnography of the Eskimo/Inuit.)

How’s winter treating you?

Up near the North Pole, I hear it gets really cold. Like, really cold:

That journey homeward in darkness was an unrelieved agony. I was cold; I was freezing; not only in the flesh, but my soul was frozen. As I sat on the swaying and creaking sled the cold became an obsession, almost an hallucination, and soon I was in a delirium of cold. … My brain had shrunk to the dimensions of a dried raisin. Stubbornly, painfully, almost maliciously, it clung to a single thought, made room for no other image: “I am cold!” I was not cold as people Outside are cold. I was not shivering. I was in the cold, dipped into a trough where the temperature was thirty degrees below zero…

During this same journey across the frozen polar sea, the Eskimo, dressed in the same clothes and just as many layers, experienced no such hypothermic delusions. Undoubtedly this is at least in part due to evolutionary adaptations that help them withstand the cold, but a few pages earlier, de Poncins had vividly (and unknowingly) described another reason the Eskimos were much warmer than he:

I do not know what the hour was, but I who had dozed off woke up. Under my eye were the three Eskimos, three silhouettes lit up from behind by the uncertain glow of a candle that threw on the walls of the igloo a mural of fantastically magnified shadows. All three men were down on the floor in the same posture… They were eating, and whether it was that the smell of the seal had been irresistible, or that the idea of the hunt had stimulated their appetites, they had embarked upon a feast. Each had a huge chunk of meat in his hands and mouth, and by the soundless flitting of their arms made immeasurably long in the shadows on the wall, I could see that even before one piece had been wholly gobbled their hands were fumbling in the basin for the next quarter. The smell in the igloo was of seal and of savages hot and gulping. …

I have seen astonishing things, in remote places and not merely in circuses. In the New Hebrides, for example, I have unpacked my own meat in a circle of cannibals and have seen in their eyes a gleam that was perhaps more intense than comforting. Here, in this igloo, all that I had seen before was now surpassed. There were three men, and there must have been fifty pounds of meat. The three men attacked that meat with the rumbling and growling of animals warning their kind away from their private prey. They ground their teeth and their jaws cracked as they ate, and they belched… The walls of the igloo were horrid with the ruddy dripping of bloody spittle and still they ate on, and still they put out simian arms and turned over with indescribable hands morsels in the beginning disdained and now become dainties greedily swallowed. And till, like beats, they picked up chunks and flung them almost instantly down again in order to put their teeth into other and perhaps more succulent bits. They had long since stopped cutting the meat with their circular knives: their teeth sufficed, and the very bones of the seal cracked and splintered in their faces. What those teeth could do, I already knew. When the cover of a gasoline drum could not be pried off with the fingers, an Eskimo would take it between his teeth and it would come easily away. When a strap made of seal skin freezes hard–and I know nothing tougher than seal skin–an Eskimo will put it in his mouth and chew it soft again. And those teeth were hardly to be called teeth. Worn down to the gums, they were sunken and unbreakable stumps of bone. If I were to fight with an Eskimo, my greatest fear would be lest he crack my skull with his teeth.

But on this evening their hands were even more fantastic than their teeth. … Their capacity of itself was fascinating to observe, and it was clear that like animals they were capable of absorbing amazing quantities of food, quite ready to take their chances with hunger a few days later.

The traditional Eskimo diet contains little to no vegetable matter, because very few plants grow up near the North Pole, especially in winter. It consists primarily of fish, seal, polar bear, foxes, and other meats, but by calorie, it is mostly fat. (This is because you can’t actually survive on a majority-protein diet.)

To run through the dietary science quickly, de Poncins has throughout the book been generally eating white-man’s food, which includes things like bread and beans. This is not to say that he disdained fish and seals–he does not make much mention of whether he ate those, but he does talk about bread, potatoes, beans, etc. So de Poncins is eating what you’d call a “normal” diet that makes use of glucose to transform food into energy. The Eskimo, by contrast, are eating the “Atkins” diet, making use of the ketogenic cycle.

No plants = no carbs; no carbs = no glucose.

But the brain cannot run without glucose, so luckily your body can make it out of protein.

Interestingly, you will die without proteins and fats in your diet, but you can survive without carbs.

Anyway, one of the side effects of a high-protein, ketogenic diet is (at least occasionally,) increased body heat:

Karst H, Steiniger J, Noack R, Steglich HD: Diet-induced thermogenesis in man: thermic effects of single proteins, carbohydrates and fats depending on their energy amount. Ann Nutr Metab 1984, 28(4):245-252.

Abstract: The diet-induced thermogenesis of 12 healthy males of normal body weight was measured by means of indirect calorimetry over 6 h after test meals of 1, 2 or 4 MJ protein (white egg, gelatin, casein), carbohydrate (starch, hydrolyzed starch) or fat (sunflower oil, butter). The effect of 1 MJ protein was at least three times as large as that of an isocaloric carbohydrate supply. [bold mine]

(isocaloric = having similar caloric values)

In other words, the Inuits’ low-carb diet probably increased their internal body temperature, keeping them warmer than our author.

I have attempted a low-carb diet, (solely for health reasons–I have never wanted to lose weight,) and one of the things I remember about it is that I would suddenly feel completely, ravenously hungry. There were times that, had I not been able to get food, I would not have begun devouring anything even remotely chewable. Of course, that may have just been a personal digestive quirk.

I feel compelled to note that this post is not advocating any particular diet; you are most likely not an Eskimo and there is no particular reason to believe, a priori, that you are better adapted to their diet than to the diet of your ancestors (whatever that happens to be.)

Unfortunately, this also holds true for the Eskimo, who probably are adapted to their ancestral diet and not adapted to the white man’s foods, which explains why diabetes and obesity are becoming epidemic among them:

Age-standardized rates of T2D show 17.2% prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes among First Nations individuals living on reserves, compared to 5.0% in the non-Aboriginal population; … First Nations women in particular suffer from diabetes, especially between ages 20–49. They have a 4 times higher incidence of diabetes than non-first nation women[3] as well as experiencing higher rates of gestational diabetes than non-Aboriginal females, 8-18% compared to 2-4%.[1]

“First nations” is Canadian for “Indian”.

In Greenland (majority Inuit):

The age-standardized prevalences of diabetes and IGT were 10.8 and 9.4% among men and 8.8 and 14.1% among women, respectively.

I am reminded here of the chapter in Dr. Price’s Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (copyright 1939) on the Eskimo (which is, alas, too long to quote in full):

During the rise and fall of historic and prehistoric cultures that have often left their monuments and arts following each other in succession in the same location, one culture, the Eskimo, living on until today, bring us a robust sample of the Stone Age people. … The Eskimo face has remained true to ancestral type to give us a living demonstration of what Nature can do in the building of a race competent to withstand for thousands of years the rigors of an Arctic climate. Like the Indian, the Eskimo thrived as long as he was not blighted by the touch of modern civilization, but with it, like all primitives, he withers and dies.

In his primitive state he has provided an example of physical excellence and dental perfection such as has seldom been excelled by any race in the past or present. … It is a sad commentary that with the coming of the white man the Eskimos and Indians are rapidly reduced both in numbers and physical excellence by the white man’s diseases. …

Bethel is the largest settlement on the Kuskokwim, and contains in addition to the white residents many visiting Eskimos from the nearby Tundra country surrounding it.

From this population, Dr. Price noted:

88 Eskimos and mixed-race people, with 2,490 teeth.

27 lived on the traditional Eskimo diet. Of their 796 teeth, one had a cavity.

21 lived on a mixed Eskimo/white diet. Of their 600 teeth, 38–6.3%–had cavities.

40 lived on imported white foods. Of their 1,094 teeth, 252–or 21.1%–had cavities.

In another location, 28 people eating a traditional Eskimo diet had one cavity.

13 people on traditional Eskimo diet: 0 cavities.

72 people on Eskimo diet: 2 cavities.

81 people eating white foods: 394 cavities.

20 people eating white foods: 175 cavities.

(Yes, Dr. Price is a dentist.)

It is a common belief around the world that childbearing makes women lose teeth (my own grandmother lost two teeth while pregnant;) Dr. Price notes the case of an Eskimo woman who had borne 20 children without losing a single tooth or developing any cavities.

One does not get a conception of the magnificent dental development of the more primitive Eskimos simply by learning that they have freedom from dental carries [cavities]. The size and strength of the mandible, the breadth of the face and the strength of the muscles of mastication all reach a degree of excellence that is seldom seen in other races. …

Much has been reported in the literature of the excessive wear of the Eskimo’s teeth, which in the case of the women has been ascribed to the chewing of the leather in the process of tanning. [de Poncins also makes note of the frequent chewing of hides–evX.] It is of interest that while many of the teeth studied gave evidence of excessive wear involving the crowns down to a depth that in many individuals would have exposed the pulps, there was in no case an open pulp chamber. They were always filled with secondary dentin.