Cool story, bro. NPR tells us about an unfortunate gentleman who decided to live naked and on a natural food — a single natural food — on an idyllic tropical island in the remote Pacific. The last part sounds nice, but the rest is a bit loony, especially his diet, which consisted exclusively of coconuts, and it led to slow death by malnutrition and disease of the man and his followers (he had followers!).
What particularly struck me, though, is the logic of his choices. Guess who is blamed?
Born in Nuremberg in 1875, August Engelhardt was among the disaffected youngsters drawn to the back-to-nature Lebensreform (Life Reform) movement sweeping through Germany and Switzerland at the time. Its proponents yearned after an unspoiled Eden where people ate vegetables and raw food.
Engelhardt was especially taken by Gustav Schlickeysen’s 1877 dietary treatise, Fruit and Bread: A Scientific Diet. Influenced by Darwinism, the book claimed that since the natural food of apes was uncooked food and grain, that was also “the proper food for man.”
Poor old Chuck. Racism, capitalism, libertarianism, and now coconut diets are all his fault.
There is a faint hint of validity to Engelhardt’s ideas, though. We certainly are adapted to our environments as a consequence of our past history, and it would have some explanatory power and would possibly be helpful to consider what our ancestors lived on. There are at least two problems here, though.
Too often, people make unsupported assumptions about that history, and base their decision not on the actual evolution and biology of the species, but on some bizarre fantasy. I rather doubt that ancient humans were subsisting on a coconut diet which conferred resistance to malaria on them…that part was entirely made up by Engelhardt.
We have to recognize that many of us are living in radically novel conditions now. We did not evolve to live to the age of 50 and older — I am an unnatural creature. My ancestors didn’t die of atherosclerosis, because they could wolf down all the BBQ mammoth they wanted, without increasing their natural rates of mortality, which were largely caused by infectious disease and injury.
I feel the same way every time I hear nonsense about the Paleo Diet, or whatever other pseudo-scientific fad sweeping the country. These tend to be diets contrived by people who know nothing about paleolithic peoples or environments, and even if they were genuinely based on real information, might be excellent for people who are expected to die before they hit 30.