People thought that the discovery of the human genome by Watson and Crick would lead to a revolution in our understanding of health, leading to panaceas for human diseases of all kinds. Nearly a century later, we are still waiting on these cures. Genomic treatments of disease are still a promise rather than a reality. Why did genetics offer such false promise? To understand our health, we are better off thinking of it as culturally, rather than genetically determined.
Culture is a word with important meanings to our health. In Middle English, culture means, “place tilled” – the ground where we grow our food. The term “cult,” derived from the same Latin word, can be defined as, “a group having a sacred ideology and set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.” Defined by E.B. Tylor, culture is, “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”
When we culture microbes, we grow them. We grow microbes all the time. They’re part of us – we have more bacterial cells in our bodies than our own cells (the microbial cells are just much, much smaller). Bacterial cultures create yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut – some of our healthiest foods. Spoiled food is of course an unintentional culture of microbes. These microbes powerfully shape our health, for better or for worse. They do so directly and quantifiably.
Human health changes dramatically over time. A hundred years ago, Americans were fit, athletic, and wracked with infectious diseases from hookworm to tuberculosis. A hundred years later, Americans are obese, debilitated, and rates of allergic, autoimmune, psychiatric, and many other types of illnesses are skyrocketing. America is just a convenient example – similarly vast shifts in health could be found almost anywhere in the world at different periods in history. Yet American genetics haven’t changed meaningfully in a hundred years – significant genetic changes take place over generations, not decades or even a century – what has changed is American culture.
Most people think of the greatest change in American health as having to do with the American diet (although that’s only a small part of this shift). The American diet has abandoned traditional foods and ways of eating. In this sense, it has abdicated perhaps the most important part of its culture. This abandonment, however, extends to so much more than just food, and that is why it’s truly an abandonment of culture and not just a change in what’s coming home in American shopping carts. It’s important to come to grips with just how complex the interactions are between not only what we eat, but how we raise, prepare, and share it. Only then can we understand how American food created a culture that has, for a long time, been a symbol of freedom and hope for the entire world.
American food used to be local, organic, and diverse. The average person ate a wide range of fruits, vegetables, and animal products, including organ meats. They ate seasonally and their food was fresh. They prepared foods for themselves, often sharing these responsibilities. The result was that they ate a diet high in fiber, free of food additives, pesticides, and low in heavy metals, from foods that were bred to thrive in the wild, rather than just deliver the greatest yield to harvest. They hunted their own wild game that was lean and healthy. They sat down together and gave thanks before breaking bread. The high fiber content gave them healthy microbiomes. Their exposures to everything from farm animals to microbes in their well-water were integral to suppressing allergies and autoimmune diseases. The richness of healthy fats, minerals (like magnesium, selenium, and zinc), and phytonutrients in their diets kept their bodies and minds strong. They ate together, forming strong social bonds to rely on in times of need. They gave thanks, which numerous studies confirm the health benefits of. We can only begin to guess at the burden of disease that pesticides, petrochemicals, and heavy metals have brought to their modern descendants. We can only guess at how these changes have led to the epidemics of disease – allergic, autoimmune, and psychiatric – that their descendants face, but it is clear that all are implicated. One thing is certain – America didn’t descend into its modern plagues spontaneously and without clear inciting factors.
Social pundits always decry the decline of civilizations as being some kind of social malady, whether they are complaining about ungrateful, entitled youth or the rise of mindless demagogues. This decline has its roots in the fruits of the places we till, and that means more than just our food, it means our whole culture. Make no mistake, humanity’s health has its roots in the natural world, from the soil beneath our feet to the air we draw into our bodies to the thoughts we think as we sit down to table.