DNA Double Helix
Image courtesy of dream designs / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There is a lot of talk in the “paleosphere” about which foods “want” to be eaten, and which foods “don’t want to be eaten”.

Most notably, I’d recommend checking out the thoughts of Chris Masterjohn and Ned Knock on fruit if you haven’t done so already.

When writing about evolution and natural selection, it is easy, convenient and sometimes even useful to anthropomorphise plants and animals, by talking about what they do and don’t want. Indeed, I have done so myself in the past when I’ve told people that “grains do not want to be eaten” whilst trying to persuade them to give up wheat (Something that I no longer think is necessary for the vast majority of people!)

Take for instance the fruit and grain example. It is quick and easy to explain to someone that “the fruit wants to be eaten in order to spread its seeds, whereas the grain will be destroyed, preventing it from replicating, therefore it contains defence mechanisms to ward off predators”.

This analogy is, however, as Angelo Coppola points out in this great post, complete nonsense (As Knock and Masterjohn are also well aware I must add).

Neither a plum-tree, nor a corn-stalk actually “want” anything. Neither of them think, plan or design. There is no agency involved in the production of their fruits and seeds.

Wanting, thinking, doing and planning are all human attributes which we have evolved over millions of years, and seem to have served us pretty well. We consider ourselves the pinnacle of evolution, masters of the planet.

If corn had evolved reasoning, however, it may beg to disagree.

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins puts forward the case for a gene-centred view of evolution. In the gene-centric theory of evolution, all organisms are simply vehicles through which genes are able to survive and replicate. Gene combinations which help the organism to survive and reproduce in turn improve the genes own chances of being replicated and passed on.

Although many gene combinations prove of great benefit to the individual organism, such as defence against predators etc, this is not always necessarily the case. Spiders that get eaten after copulation, worker ants that live a life of servitude yet never pass on their own individual DNA, and even altruistic humans that give their own lives to save others can all be seen as examples of this. Though the individuals themselves may suffer, die and never themselves personally reproduce, the genes their respective species carry go on to be replicated and multiply, therefore the characteristics coded for by the genes persist.

There is no doubt, that the genes that are carried by human beings have done very well. The genes that have coded for our opposable thumbs, and big brains and small stomachs. There are a lot of them around, and they don’t seem to be showing any signs that their replication will be slowing down any time soon.

That said, the genes that are carried in corn don’t seem to be doing too badly either.

Corn (or Maize as it is generally referred to outside of the UK) is perhaps the most successful plant organism on the planet, with over 800 million tonnes being produced in 2009.

Corn is closely followed by rice, wheat and soy to make up the 4 most successful crops on the planet, or as I like to term them, the 4 mono-crops of the apocalypse.

Why have 3 grains and a legume – Plants that “do not want to be eaten”, become the most successful plant species on the planet? Because human beings began to eat them…

Most people would argue that the development of agriculture was perhaps the most significant development in human history. (If you’ve not read it before, I’d strongly recommend reading Jared Diamond’s essay “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”)

Undoubtedly our DNA has benefited enormously from the advent of agriculture. It allowed the human population to explode rapidly, thus ensuring a much greater replication of DNA into the future. The fact that humans began to suffer much greater degrees of physical degeneration and disease post reproduction is of little consequence to DNA.

Human DNA was not the only beneficiary of the agricultural revolution, however, with the replication of the DNA of corn, rice, wheat and soy soaring through the stratosphere.

Believing ourselves to be the centre of the universe, we typically view the development of agriculture as our dominance over the natural world, bending and shaping our environment to our will and our needs. But is this really the case?

Prior to agriculture, corn, rice, wheat and soy were not big players in the plant kingdom. They had to rely on random small-scale seed scattering by birds and wind dispersal. Those few grains that were lucky enough to fall on fertile ground then had to compete with other plants that could grow faster and taller, taking much-needed nutrients from the soil and blocking sunlight. They were also constantly at risk of being eaten by insects and mammals which would not spread their seeds far and wide.

Now we’ve already established that plants don’t want anything, nor do they plan, or have any control over their “design”. It can, however, be fun to anthropomophise them, so let’s do so again, but this time from the perspective that grains DO want to be eaten.

Imagine a meeting between corn, rice, wheat and soy. They’re unhappy because all the bigger plants keep outgrowing them and stealing their sunlight, and pests and rodents keep eating them before they’ve had a chance to reproduce.

Corn has an idea – “We need an ally to help us proliferate, let’s form an alliance with the humans to help us become the most successful plant species on the planet. The humans can do all the hard work for us – They can clear huge areas of land, annihilating all other plant life as far as the eye can see, then they can carefully plant our seeds, and only our seeds. They can wipe out all the insects and other animals that want to eat us, and keep us fed by making fertilizers out of oil buried deep under ground. When that land is stripped bare of any life, they can simply move on to another patch and start over again!”

“Great idea,” replies rice, “But how are we going to persuade them to do that, all this farming is going to be back-breaking work, they currently spend most of their days lazing around and playing! Should we make ourselves super nutritious and wholesome so they’ll be more inclined to eat us?”

“Nah,” says Wheat, “Other species are already doing that with limited success. Let’s just make ourselves super tasty and highly productive. We want the humans to get hooked on us, so they’ll keep working for us regardless of the consequences!”

“Ok, sounds a good plan,” concedes Rice, “but we should at least disarm our defences so they don’t get sick?”

“No way!” retorts Soy, “what if the plan fails and we’re left helpless? Better to keep our defences intact. As long as we’re tasty enough, addictive even, they’ll keep eating us regardless.”

And so began the monocrop enslavement of the human race to their own evil agenda of plant supremacy…

Perhaps rather than telling people “Grains don’t want to be eaten” Paleo dieters would be better to say “Grains really want you to eat them, but it’s an evil plan of world domination and enslavement, so don’t do it!”?

Of course, all this is total fantasy. There were no meetings or agendas or plans. It’s not about what plants want, as they don’t want anything, it’s not even about what humans want, as that holds little significance in the evolutionary scale of things.

Evolution is simply about DNA, and how the characteristics for which it codes affect its ongoing replication.

Though it can be interesting, and sometimes useful to look at diet from an evolutionary perspective to make sense of why certain foods may affect us in specific ways, one cannot make judgements on whether a food should or should not be eaten based solely upon how many generations of our species have or haven’t consumed it.

The only knowledge that you can really glean from the fact that a food has been consumed by humans for multiple generations, is that it will sustain you long enough to reproduce!

There have never been any true vegan societies, the reason being that the lack of vital nutrients not only leads to ill-health for the human eating it, but also to reduced fertility and libido, thereby hindering the replication of DNA. Other than this however, as far as successful human DNA replication is concerned, pretty much any omnivorous diet goes – Seafood and berries, cattle blood and root vegetables, beetle grubs and wood pulp, cheese and rye bread, crustaceans and coconuts, and burgers and fries are all diets on which humans have subsisted on for multiple generations.

Within the paleo community, there is a widespread belief that there is some kind of optimum diet which we are evolved to consume, and that by eating modern processed foods we are somehow going against our DNA which in turn is making us ill. This is simply not the case.

Evolution did not stop 10,000 years ago, it is an ever ongoing process. The truth is that we have evolved to eat highly processed, energy dense foods. At present this is the optimum diet for the proliferation of human DNA – evidenced by the ever growing numbers of our population, due to hit 7 billion by July 2012!

Contrary to what some people may believe, there have been physical adaptations to the neolithic diet – The continued production of lactase in order to digest dairy, and amylase for starch digestion are just a couple of examples. The majority of adaptations, however, have been cultural and technological.

Physical attributes such as health, vitality and longevity are no longer critical to the successful replication of our DNA. Although on some deep instinctual Primal level, a healthy, athletic individual may still be more attractive to the opposite sex, their physical prowess no longer provides them with a significantly greater chance of passing on their DNA than any other member of the human race!

Personally however, I am not concerned with the overall success of human DNA reproduction on a global level (on the contrary, I think there is probably far too much of it already!), but rather with the health and happiness of the humans carrying that DNA.

I choose to eat the foods I eat based upon the physical effects that they will have on my body. I base my diet around naturally reared meat and wild caught fish plus plenty of organically grown vegetables and fruit, as these foods provide my body with the necessary proteins, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals my body needs to be fit, strong and healthy.

I choose to avoid too much refined sugar, industrially produced seed oils, refined grains and processed foods due to the detrimental effects they would have on my physical well-being, mental health and longevity.

During Paleolithic times the health, vitality and longevity of the human host was still vital to the successful forwarding of its DNA into the future. It is for this reason that the majority of the food that I eat tends to be similar to that eaten by my Paleolithic ancestors.

I do not eat these foods simply because my ancestors ate them, but eat them for the same reasons that my ancestors ate them.

In modern society, I really have no need for any of these characteristics, I could choose to simply exist, spending my life on my backside eating junk food and still father several children to do the same, but perhaps unfortunately for my DNA, this life really does not appeal to me!

UPDATE 13.03.2014 – Since originally writing this post, I’ve become a bit more moderate on my thoughts on grains and their place in the diet. Here are some links to more recent articles on the topic:

Are Porridge Oats Healthy?

Wheat, Gluten and Health

The Sushi Solution

8 thoughts on “Know Your Enemy – Selfish Genes: Is your DNA out to get you?”

  1. Great article as always and lots of points cleared up that the paleo community gets wrong.

    “Although on some deep instinctual Primal level, a healthy, athletic individual may still be more attractive to the opposite sex, their physical prowess no longer provides them with a significantly greater chance of passing on their DNA than any other member of the human race!”

    Just want to highlight this part. Their physical prowess no longer provides athletic individuals an advantage in passing on their DNA from a survival of the fittest advantage, as we aren’t hunting for food or having to fight off other tribes to the death and we can live long enough to reproduce with terrible nutrition but as you said physical prowess is still perceived as instinctual attractive and sexual selection also influences evolution. Peacocks tails have no survival advantages yet have continually grown because of this sexual preference. With sexual selection directing evolution for humans athletic humans will have a greater chance at passing on their DNA because of this perceived attractiveness.

    Say a talented musician. Humans perceive that as an attractive trait and even though it offers us no survival benefits through sexual selection those genes will be more reproduced and then populated and the population trend will lean towards that. The Mating Mind – Geoffrey Miller thinks it’s this part of evolution that accounts for rapid increase in brain size.

    1. Hi Evol,

      I see where you’re coming from with this argument, but unfortunately I don’t think sexual selection is taking us in the direction of becoming a species of beautiful, intelligent, athletic, talented individuals!

      Though it is possible that a more athletic individual may have more sexual encounters/partners than a less attractive individual (though I am not sure even this is necessarily the case, based purely on observation – not sure what the actual science says), the invention of contraception means that this does not necessarily equate to more of their DNA being passed on.

      Again, based purely on observations when out and about in the UK I have not noticed a trend for athletic, attractive parents to have larger numbers of children than overweight, unfit parents. If anything, I’d say the opposite tends to be true.

      There may well be some truth in the musician theory though – I wonder what % of the population have some Rolling Stones DNA…

  2. “Although on some deep instinctual Primal level, a healthy, athletic individual may still be more attractive to the opposite sex, their physical prowess no longer provides them with a significantly greater chance of passing on their DNA than any other member of the human race!”

    That’s very true – as long as the status quo is maintained. Humans are very dependent on their electricity and enmeshed networks that support everything from everyday basic needs to luxuries and leisure. But it’s like a house of cards. A huge, complicated, beautiful – one could say – structure, but it only needs a single blow to collapse into total chaos. We live on a sort of brink, which some people don’t realise, some do, and others worry too much about (e.g. the people who think armageddon will come in 2012). And if something happens that all these crutches we’ve made for ourselves go away, it will indeed be the survival of the fittest. Let’s just hope it doesn’t happen before the sun implodes in a few tens of million years…

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