You Are What You Eat

There’s an article over at New Scientist on how crops farmed may have affected cultural and maybe even genetically mediated cognitive development:

It is a cliché to say that East Asians think in terms of the group, while Westerners think in terms of the individual. But there is some truth to it, and part of the explanation may lie in what our ancestors ate. Rice farming seems to have fostered collective thinking while wheat farming favoured individualism.

The popular image of Americans and Europeans as individualist and innovative, versus Asians as collectivist and conforming, is partly true. People from the West and Far East can and do think in both ways, but these peoples’ cognitive styles divide broadly along those lines.

Researchers have proposed many possible explanations for these cultural habits, including differences in prosperity and rates of infectious disease.

Thomas Talhelm of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville wondered if a region’s long-term way of life is what matters: specifically, whether its people grow rice or wheat. “The rice-growing regions of East Asia are less individualistic than the Western world or northern China, even with their wealth and modernisation,” says Talhelm.

I think that’s right but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Different crops have differing nutritional payoffs. You can support more people per hectare growing rice and soy beans than you can growing wheat, oats, rye, and barley but in turn it takes more people working more intensively to accomplish it. Paddy rice culture both encourages and requires more people.

However, you can support even more people growing maize and beans with a lot less work. Why didn’t Central America develop the huge populations that China and Europe did? I think the answer is that corn is very hard on the soil and Central America doesn’t have enormous amounts of arable land. That discouraged the long-term stable occupation of the land required to develop those populations. The people of Central America, consequently, developed a different strategy than those of Europe and Asia did.

As usual Africa drew the short straw. The problem in sub-Saharan Africa has always been protein.

In a nutshell that’s the way I see that human civilization developed. The crops you cultivated, the requirements for their cultivation, and the land you lived in all contributed to genetic and cultural development.

4 comments… add one

  • PD Shaw

    I think its usually a good idea to start with the land in understanding cultural differences. In the OTB posts on regional America:

    The South is a warm, coastal plain with flooding rivers;
    The Midwest is an inland prairie with controlled rivers;
    The Northeast is the Appalachian highlands and natural harbors;
    The West is beyond the 100th meridian, where water is scarce;

    The land informs the agriculture and settlement patterns, which inform the social and political institutions that are formed. But technology and urbanization is overriding many of the propensities.

  • mike shupp

    I got this far into the article and bounced:

    For instance, students from all-wheat areas were 56 per cent more likely to think analytically than students from all-rice areas. For example, when asked to match the two closest of sheep, dog and grass, they grouped sheep and dog, which appear most similar. Students from rice-growing areas grouped sheep and grass, as these have the closest relationship to each other in real life, and to them this relationship mattered more than physical resemblance.

    So what’s wrong? People have been giving this kind of test for quite a long while actually, and not just in East Asia. About 1900 or so, most rural American’s asked to find “two closest” of a triplet such as {Chihuahua, collie, rabbit} would pick the collie and the bunny, because you want a bigger dog when you go hunting. That both Chihuahuas and collies happen to be dogs wouldn’t have struck any reasonably intelligent person as important.

    In other words, our wheat-growing ancestors reasoned like rice-growing Chinese, and this just totally proves that thousands of years of growing one type of crop determines the nature of our intelligence.

    Barf!

  • About 1900 or so, most rural American’s asked to find “two closest” of a triplet such as {Chihuahua, collie, rabbit} would pick the collie and the bunny, because you want a bigger dog when you go hunting. That both Chihuahuas and collies happen to be dogs wouldn’t have struck any reasonably intelligent person as important.

    That’s been studied—it’s something I’ve mentioned before around here under the subject heading of “Visualcy”.

    What you’re describing is the difference between reasoning by primary oral as opposed to primary literate individuals. Primary oral people tend to think operationally. Primary literate people tend to think in abstractions. The transition to visual modes of communication IMO more closely resembles pre-literacy.

  • Andy

    This post reminds me of a Bob Newhart episode where someone (I forget who) tells Bob “you are what you eat” and Bob replies, ” you had to tell me that right as I pour a bowl of fruit loops.” Or something to that effect. Strangely, I can’t find any videos of that show.

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