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Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.
With over 350,000 monthly readers and more than 88,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
(This post is the second in a two-part series on the work of Judith Rich Harris. See the first part here.)
As we concluded Part 1 of our exploration of Judith Rich Harris’s work on human personality, we had begun sketching out her theory by delving into the first of three systems that she believes carry the heavy lifting in determining how our adult personalities are formed.
The first system was the Relationship System, the “people information lexicon” we automatically begin building at birth to recall the details of the people we encounter throughout our lives. This mental Rolodex carries a lot of freight, but it’s only one cog in a larger system. The workings of the Relationship System start to impact us in a broader way as we begin computing statistics about all the people in our lexicon.
This leads us to start developing a second system: the Socialization System, which we use to figure out how we need to act to fit into the groups we’ll need to be a part of to become a member of society.
Recall from Part 1 the definition of Socialization: “Acquiring the social behaviors, customs, language, accent, attitudes, and morals deemed appropriate in a particular society.”
When Harris says “particular society,” she also means “particular group” — we do not, of course, act the same around our parents as we do around our friends, our co-workers, our neighbors, or our own children. Each group has its norms, and we must learn them. Unless we are autistic or otherwise severely mentally challenged, we do just that! We do it by automatically using the information we’ve gathered, which is called implicit knowledge.
As Harris discusses in the book, even patients with severe dementia, Parkinson’s, or amnesia can recall all kinds of implicit or categorical knowledge. She refers to an amnesiac patient named Frederick who couldn’t remember that he’d played golf recently, but nonetheless didn’t forget anything about playing golf in general: He recalled all the mechanical knowledge, the lingo, the customs, and the rules. Just not his last round:
All memories are not alike; nor are all memory disorders. What Frederick had lost was his ability to form new memories of a sort called “episodic” — explicit memories of actual events, which can be consciously recalled and put into words. What he had retained was his semantic memories (factual knowledge, like the meaning of birdie) and his implicit or procedural memories (how to play golf). You may have episodic memories of being taught to play golf by your father, but your knowledge of how to play golf is procedural. Sad to say, you may lose your explicit memories of your father sooner than your implicit memories of how to play golf.
An Alzheimer’s patient may not remember meeting any specific man, but ask him what a man is, and he can describe one just fine. As we’ll see below, the systems are distinct from one another.
Thus, our collection of implicit social knowledge, what many people would call stereotypes but what are simply averages of our experience, end up being extremely useful to us. At an unconscious level, these averages give us the fodder for our “self-socialization” — our maturation into socially functioning individuals.
As we begin developing our categories by averaging out a large amount of information collected by our social intelligence systems, we become eager to figure out which categories we’re in and begin acting appropriately to become a part of that group. The term “peer pressure” is a misnomer — peers needn’t pressure us at all for us to want to become a part of their group. (Harris shows in The Nurture Assumption that even a little girl who only sees other little girls from afar, and does not interact with them, will start acting as they do in hopes of becoming more “little girl-ish.”)
Other species are capable of averaging out information about groups and creating categories, but humans have a unique problem: We all belong to many different categories. We touched on this above — we are at turns many different things — boy, male, student, child, etc. We must learn to navigate each of them uniquely, and we do:
Self-categorizations are exquisitely sensitive to social context and can change at the drop of a hat. Girls and boys in a school lunchroom or playground ordinarily categorize themselves as girls and boys, but the presence of a mean or bossy teacher can cause them to unite in a common cause and to classify themselves simply as children. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011, Democrats and Republicans classified themselves, for a while, simply as Americans.
As that last example illustrates, humans can identify even with groups (such as Democrats and Republicans) composed chiefly of strangers. They can identify with groups even if they don’t know who is in them. The social psychologist Henri Tajfel told some boys, supposedly on the basis of a test, that they were “overestimators” and others that they were “underestimators.” That’s all it took to evoke what Tajfel called “groupness” in the boys. When they were given the opportunity to award monetary payments to other members of the overestimator and underestimator groups (identified by group but not by name), they not only awarded more of the members of their own group: they also made sure to underpay the members of the other group. The boys who participated in this study all went to the same school, but none of them knew which of their classmates were overestimators and which were underestimators. There was no opportunity for the relationship system to put in its two cents.
Social categorization operates independently of the relationship system, just as the system for generating the past tense of a regular verb acts independently of the system for retrieving the past tense of an irregular verb.
As a group-adapted species, like chimpanzees or ants, humans must successfully figure out how to “get along,” and evolution has given us the automatic ability to do so. That’s why the vast majority of people end up similar to the people they grew up around: Those are the people we had to become similar to in order to socialize successfully. As we grow up, we acquire the customs, habits, language, accent, types of goals and aspirations, and lots of other traits of the culture around us, and it continues on as we age, although less dramatically over time.
But of course, we aren’t all brainless zombies, mindlessly mimicking our friends and peers. Human beings are far more complex than that, and this is why we all turn out differently, besides our differing genetics.
The socialization system explains why we become similar to those around us. What explains why we remain quite different? Harris calls it the Status System, and it’s the final piece of the puzzle.
The most speculative, and perhaps controversial, aspect of Harris’s theories might be her thoughts on how we compete for status within our self-identified groups. She believes, and the evidence she corrals does support, a theory that this competition for superiority is a major long-term modifier of human personality:
The purpose of this system is the baby’s Job 3: to compete successfully. I’m talking now about competition within the group, classic Darwinian competition. To compete with one’s groupmates is to strive for status; the goal is to be better than one’s groupmates. “Humans everywhere pursue status.” observed the evolutionary psychologist Donald Symons, and for good Darwinian reasons: higher-status individuals have access to more of the world’s goodies.
But in humans, striving for status is a complicated matter. There are no straightforward rules for how to go about it; no single set of tactics is going to work for everyone. The status system’s assignment is to work out a long-term strategy of behavior that is tailor-made for the individual in whose head it resides.
Mental organs are specialized collectors of data; each is tuned to respond selectively to certain kinds of cues. The relationship system and the socialization system both collect information about other people. The status system has a more difficult job: it specializes in collecting information about the self. One of the important things that children have to learn while they are growing up is what sort of people they are. Are they big or small, strong or weak, pretty or plain? Without this information they would have no basis for deciding whether to try to dominate others or yield without a fight, to make suggestions or follow the suggestions of others, to turn down potential mates in hopes of doing better or take whatever comes along.
During childhood and adolescence, young humans collect information on how they compare with the others who will be their rivals in adulthood. Armed with this information, they make long-term modifications in their behavior. It is the status system that enables them to do this.
Again, these systems are often at odds with each other. We can, at the same time, feel well-accepted by a group in general and feel we have little status within it, and those things may affect us in different ways. A bully who has little group acceptance can nonetheless have perfectly healthy self-esteem due to their status.
We develop our sense of self slowly over a very long gestation period. We figure out if we’re strong compared to most, smart compared to most, funny, quick, good-looking, suave, tall, or svelte, or perhaps the reverse. And we begin tailoring our behavior in a way that plays to our strengths, as a way to compete successfully for attention and status.
One economic study explored the idea, for example, that height had an impact on income for adult males. But once the economists sussed it all out, they figured out that it wasn’t simply tall adults who were better paid: What mattered was their height when they were adolescents. If you became tall late, you weren’t making more money than average.
Cross referencing this with another study on adolescent height and personality traits, Harris figures that because height (and other related traits like strength and athleticism) generally affords some status when you’re young, they can have long-term effects on your personality, including self-assurance and leadership ability. As it is with height, so it goes with other traits — height and income are simply the easiest to measure.
So as we collect information about other specific people and other types of people to feed into our first two engines, the Relationship System and the Socialization System, we also collect information on the way we’re seen by the “generalized other,” which goes into System 3: the Status System. The use of that system enables us to design a personality that fits our particular situation.
This talk of “design” makes it sound more deliberate than it really is. All of this is happening with very little input from the “Head Honcho” upstairs. We can involve our slower, more deliberate “System 2” in the process, but the effect is dwarfed by what’s happening on its own.
Here’s how Harris thinks this whole Status System thing works its magic:
The status system, designed to collect and store information about the self, makes clever use of the features of the relationship system (the system designed to collect information about other people). The activities of the two systems dovetail like this: while your relationship system is gathering information about me and storing it on the page assigned to me in your people-information lexicon, my status system is trying to figure out what you’ve got recorded on that page. You keep the information you’ve learned about me separate–you don’t mix it together with information about other people–but I take that information I’ve gotten about myself from my page in your lexicon and put it together with similar information I’ve gotten from other people’s lexicons. What I need is a picture of myself from the point of view of the “generalized other.”
Unfortunately, this system doesn’t work perfectly–the picture is blurry…The reason we can’t read the page as accurately as we would like (or as accurately as we think we would like) is that the mind in which that page resides doesn’t want us to. It is to my advantage to know that you are thinking about me, but it may be to your advantage to keep me from knowing it.
The picture may be blurry but it’s nuanced and multidimensional. The status system uses this information to work out a long-term strategy of behavior tailored specifically for its owner. Using data collected in childhood and adolesence–How many people can beat me up? How often do other people look at me? Do people trust me to give good advice? — the system shapes and modifies personality in a way that takes account of the individual’s preexisting characteristics and the opportunities afforded by the environment.
From an evolutionary standpoint, this tendency for experience to modify long-term behavioral patterns, the tendency to use the self-knowledge obtained through the “mind-reading mechanism,” has increased the behavioral diversity among humans within our groups. While we do indeed seek to be part of a group, and will sacrifice for the success of that group, we also have deep self-interest. (Some of the most interesting worldly results come when those things are at odds with one another; see suicide bombers and kamikaze warriors.)
This drive to compete successfully and specialize as individuals makes us extremely well suited to live in large groups, something our species does uniquely well. In fact, Harris believes the modification of personality by way of social experience to be a unique human trait.
So that’s it. As human beings develop, they collect vast amounts of social information and use it to form specific relationships and understand the specific details of the people around them, but also average out that information to create categories and groups, and to understand how to act to become part of the groups we think we belong in. We also seek to pursue our self-interest and, by figuring out what other people think about us relative to what they think about everyone else, we select strategies that we think will help us get ahead relative to the other members of our group or category.
The answer to the nature/nurture question is, of course, that both are hugely influential. Our genetics provide the blueprint by which we will interact with the world, and from there the specific course of our interactions and experiences with other people will determine how we turn out.
Harris admits that her theory needs rigorous testing to figure out whether she’s nailed it exactly or more refinement is needed. She suspects the latter will be true. As we dig into the details over time, we’ll figure out more specifically how these systems work and interact, where the lines blur between them, and how their relative effects take a toll on our long-term personality.
Regardless of the work that remains to be done, Harris’s work provides us with tremendous insight into what makes us who we are.
“My solution to the mystery is that three perpetrators are involved:
three mental systems that go about their business in different ways.
Together, these three can answer the hows, whys, whens, and wheres of personality development.”
Judith Rich Harris
What makes us…us? What makes one person open, honest, and enthusiastic, and another ornery and closed-minded? Why do some of us love risk-taking and some not? What causes us to be so alike…and yet so different?
The “nature versus nurture” debate is probably as old as modern humanity. There’s something related to our consciousness which makes us wonder whether our personality is pre-determined or perhaps whether our parents, peers, culture, nation, or experiences are the determining factor.
We still wonder, but thanks to Darwin and all that came after him, we don’t have to speculate as much as we once did. The modern study of behavioral genetics has shown us that the answer is, unequivocally, both. Our genes play an enormous role in how we turn out as children and full-grown adults, and the evidence is unmistakable.
In fact, oddly enough, we can see through carefully done research that about half of personality variation can be explained genetically. Take two identical twins and their personalities will be similar to the extent of their identical genes. This surprises no one.
The surprise is that two identical twins are so damn different! Think about it: They share all of their genetics, they probably grew up in the same house with the same set of parents, with the same books on the wall and the same TV watching habits, went to the same schools at the same time, had similar groups of friends…and yet two completely separate personalities emerge. How?
Judith Rich Harris may have the best answer, and it’s in her book No Two Alike, an amazing contribution to modern thought. What Harris — a former author of child development textbooks turned super-synthesizing social scientist — wanted to know was: Why do we all turn out with unique personalities? What really drives the differences?
She had begun to answer this in her deeply controversial 1998 book The Nurture Assumption. That book proposed her group socialization theory, the idea that children are mostly socialized by their peers, not their parents. By socialized, we mean — how do children learn the way to behave and operate within their culture? How to speak the right way, act the right way, play the right way, say the right things, and so on? The idea that parents had the primary influence had become fashionable in the 20th century Western world, thanks to Freud.
But contrary to popular belief, Harris explained, whether identical siblings were raised by the same set of parents or by two different sets, years of research proved they’d be no more or less alike than their genetic connection would predict. Likewise, two siblings put up for adoption end up no less alike, on average, than if they’d been raised in the same home. Identical twins are more alike than regular siblings in general, but the reason is ultra simple: They share more genes!
This meant, Harris explained, that parenting doesn’t have an effect on adult personality which isn’t already explained by genetic factors, any more than Chinese parents can give their child a Chinese accent if they raise him or her in Minnesota. It’s a bit hard to see on the surface, but many traits we think are due to parenting are simply due to the genetics shared between parent and child. Before behavioral genetics showed the genetic component, the two were regularly confounded, making much of the “research” on development worthless.
What does have an effect, besides genetics, is the peer group and culture children the child was raised in. And so besides genetics, it is the group, neighborhood, social group, and subculture of the child that matters, not whether their parents were kind or scolding, attentive or inattentive, soft or hard, or any other style of parent. Just like the child of Chinese immigrants would take on the Minnesota accent, they’d also take on the social behavior of their peers as well. Harris showed that people simply do not depend on direct input from their parents to become successful adults, as hard as it is to believe. (Although parents can have indirect influence in a number of ways, most obviously by moving the child to different areas and cultures.)
For this revelation and investigation into human development, the debunking of what Harris called the Nurture Assumption — that parents can mold the personalities of their children — Charlie Munger said that Ms. Harris “has not lived in vain.”
But that still left a big question: Since group socialization tends to make people more similar to others in their identified group, what accounts for personality differences, even among identical twins hanging in the same social circle? How do we end up with a group of “conforming individualists,” as Harris calls us? Why are some people trustworthy, and some not? Why are some more law-abiding and some less so? Why are some friendly and some mean?
The difficulty in figuring out the answer is illustrated by a story Harris tells about a pair of identical twins:
Conrad and Perry McKinney, age fifty-six, were featured in an article in the Boston Globe titled “Two Lives, Two Paths.” Born and reared in New Hampshire, the twins did everything together in their earlier years. They attended the same schools, sat in the same classrooms. Academically they were average students, but they were troublemakers. Eventually their teachers got fed up with their shenanigans and the twins were separated: Perry was held back in fifth grade, Conrad was promoted to sixth. That, according to the Globe reporter, was where their paths diverged. Conrad went on to graduate from high school; Perry dropped out in eleventh grade. Today, Conrad is a successful businessman–as it happens, he runs a private detective agency. Perry…well, Perry is a homeless alcoholic “who sleeps amid trash under a bridge,” by the Piscataqua River in New Hampshire.
Small changes in circumstance, many of which are random, can have dramatic effects on one’s life, making many experiments totally unethical. We can’t just sort out twins and send some of them to the ghetto and some to Palo Alto and see what happens — we’re reliant on what we can observe in natural experiments.
In No Two Alike, Harris does this by corralling information from a wide variety of sources including developmental psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, and genetics, dispatching a number of popular red herrings in the search for a theory of why human personality turns out the way it does. By elimination and investigation, the theory she lands on seems not only plausible, but probable.
Her theory derives from what modern evolutionary psychologists have come to call the “modular mind” — the idea that the mind is made up of specific, useful, mechanisms to carry out a variety of functions, all put there through a long process of natural selection. Our mental tools allow us to see, hear, taste, feel, learn, speak, and do lots of other things that we need to survive and thrive. Some of these are present in other species and some are not: It depends how highly developed they are. (For example, ants can certainly see and taste, although crudely, but cannot speak or learn non-programmed behavior.)
As Harris sees it, from the perspective of human personality development, it doesn’t all happen in one simple way. Our modular minds have at least three separate but interrelated systems, working at turns separately and together to produce social success — one of the prime goals of a human being. (We are, after all, a highly social species.)
One passage illustrates why this is so important:
“Why,” asked the psychologist William James in 1890, “are we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend?” Why do we shrug when we hear of hundreds of people killed in an earthquake but weep when we see a photo of one injured child? Why is it that getting to know and like someone doesn’t necessarily causes us to think well of the group to which he or she belongs–a disjunction revealed by the ineffectiveness of the protest, “Some of my best friends are Jews?”
The answer is that there are multiple systems in the mind for processing information. We have, I propose, two different mental mechanisms designed to process and store information about people. One collects data on individuals, the other on groups or social categories–types or classes of people. Criminal justice and law enforcement are (or should be) based on information processed by the first mechanism; war and bigotry are outcomes of the second. These mechanisms belong to different mental systems.
Besides the two systems that help us learn about others, we have a uniquely human third: A system that helps us learn about ourselves. Let’s take each in turn and see what we can learn and why they matter in the development of unique human personalities.
Harris calls the Relationship System our “people information lexicon”. It’s how we know how to identify and deal with specific people. As humans, we need to know not just that girls at school tend to be mean if we don’t wear makeup, but that Jane will say something particularly nasty and that Sally will say something particularly nice. The mental system for categorizing the “girls our age at school” isn’t the same as the one that knows the difference between Jane and Sally.
We have a number of “modules” that roll up into a Relationship System: Our ability to recognize faces, voices, and scents; our ability to know what’s a familiar face — one that belongs to someone we know; the ability to put specific names to people and things and recall them, and hundreds more.
Harris uses the analogy of a Rolodex:
We have thousands and thousands of mental storage sites for people-information. Each is associated with a particular individual; each contains (or is linked to) other information we have about that individual. Picture a mental lexicon with a page for each individual you know, with slots for the face, name, and whether he or she is a close relative; plus other information such as occupation, plus memories of the experiences you’ve had with him or her.
There may also be an emotional marker, indicating how you feel about this person. The contents of some slots may be hard to read; other slots may never have been filled in. A page can be set up in the lexicon even if you’ve never set eyes (or ears) on the individual it refers to. You collect and store information on characters you read about in novels or hear about from other people. Folks you’ve never met may have a page in their lexicon for you!
This “lexicon” of information, constantly updated, gives us what we need to deal with individual people and figure out how to interact with them. Although we generalize and categorize people we don’t know, once we do get to know them specifically (even at a distance) we start filling in details and set up a page in the lexicon. We don’t have to be motivated to do this for a specific reason — we just do it automatically.
The evolutionary purpose of the people lexicon is as clear as the evolutionary purpose of pair-bonding: to enable us to behave appropriately toward different individuals, depending on what we have learned about them. To enable us to tailor our behavior to the nature of the relationship we have with each. The baby lifts up its arms to its mother but not to the stranger, even if the stranger is the right age and sex. The child learns to avoid the bully but to seek out other kids in the neighborhood. People stop doing favors for people who never pay them back, unless they are close relatives.
So the relationship system contains many intricately connected parts. There’s a people-information acquisition device that constructs and stores a lexicon of people and provides the motivation to collect the information. There are regulatory mechanisms that make use of the information stored in the lexicon to guide behavior in different domains of social life and that provide their own motivations, the sex drive being an obvious example. Other specialized modules deliver input to the relationship system: they include the face-recognition module, a device that assesses kinship, and the mindreading mechanisms I described in the previous chapter. Whatever you are considering doing with another person–help them, mate with them, engage in trade with them, pick a fight with them–it is extremely useful to have an idea of what their intentions are and what they are thinking about you.
And so it goes. From birth, our lexicon is ready to go, ready to be filled in. We spend a lifetime gossiping, learning, thinking, interacting with, and watching others so that we can have successful relationships with them.
But we also begin to categorize fairly early, based on a deeper analysis of our lexicon. We start putting people into groups — adults, children, teenagers, girls, boys, teachers, students, and a million others, depending on context. Importantly, we also begin to categorize ourselves, and this is where the socialization process occurs.
Why is it that children “hive off” into groups and seek to differentiate themselves from other groups? The usual high school groups are not uncommon all around the world — they may differ in makeup and interests, but all young (and old) people form some group or another, if given the opportunity. During this grouping process, the child is socialized:
In the old days, a human’s life, too, depended on remaining a member of the group. But because human groups differ in culture, the behaviors necessary for group membership couldn’t all be built in–much had to be learned. The baby’s Job 2, therefore, is to learn how to behave in a way that is acceptable to the other members of his or her society. This is the process that developmentalists call “socialization.” It consists of acquiring the social behaviors, customs, language, accent, attitudes, and morals deemed appropriate in a particular society.
Socialization makes children more alike–more similar in behavior to others of their age and gender. Therefore, socialization cannot solve the central mystery of this book: why people (even identical twins reared together) differ in personality and social behavior. But the socialization system is an essential part of the solution, because one of the things I have to explain is why children become both more alike and less alike while they are growing up. The ways in which they become more alike do not consist solely of language and customs. There is evidence that children become more alike even in the sorts of things that are measured on personality tests.
This process must happen as a child grows up — they must prepare for adulthood outside the home. And to do that, the child must learn what is acceptable in the groups they are a part of, and they will be part of many. A young boy from Texas will be at times a boy, a male, a student, an employee, an American, a Southerner, an athlete, and a child, among many more. These all require somewhat different actions and behaviors. So we start categorizing as best as we can:
The first step for the child is to figure out the social categories that exist in his or her society. This task is equivalent to that of learning other kinds of categories: for example, chairs and fish. Like chairs and fish, categories of people have fuzzy boundaries. Is a three-legged stool a chair? Is a seahorse a fish? Is this person a boy or a man? Traditional societies often provide rites of passage to sharpen the boundaries between age categories, but industrialized societies seem to manage pretty well without them. What we haven’t gotten used to yet is the blurring of the boundary between male and female.
An interesting thing about fuzzy mental categories is that, although they tend to be hazy around the edges, they’re clear at the center. We have an image of what the ideal or prototypical member of each category should be, and it’s somewhere in the middle. When I say “man,” you don’t think of an eighteen-year old or an eighty-year old and you probably don’t picture him wearing a dress. When I say “bird,” you think of a robin or a sparrow, not an ostrich or vulture. The prototypical chair has four legs, a seat, and a back.
We build up all kinds of implicit knowledge about the world, and we do it like the relationship system — automatically and without thought. We categorize people the same way we categorize chairs and birds, though the idea of stereotyping is certainly unpopular. Until we actually have a sheet set up in the lexicon for an individual person, all we can do is categorize them. Once we do start to learn about them specifically, the two systems begin interacting. Let’s say we meet a woman named Susan. At first, we might classify her as “White, middle-aged woman who looks like a mother.” (Again, not purposely — it happens instantly and automatically.)
Once we go on a date with her though, Susan becomes no longer just a member of a category: She becomes Susan. And although we don’t immediately remove the categories, we let her entry in the lexicon begin to develop and dominate our thoughts about her. Sometimes the two systems conflict. (I don’t usually like white middle-aged women, but that Susan is alright!)
Let’s leave it there for now. In Part 2, next week, we’ll explore the rest of Harris’s theory, and tie it all together to try to understand the mystery of human personality.
Last year, the wonderful Gary Taubes, whose ideas about nutrition we have written about before, gave a commencement address to the students of the Schmid College of Science and Technology at Chapman University in California.
The address is near and dear to our way of thinking, because Taubes raises a difficult and correct truth: In order to pursue new knowledge of the world, we must be confident that our ideas are correct, but because we are very susceptible to fooling ourselves, this tendency will lead us to believe lots of untruth as well. He calls it a tightrope walk: The thin line between being confident in an unpopular or yet unknown piece of knowledge and being a fool who buys into his cherished untruths.
Part of the speech is reprinted below, but be sure to check the whole thing out.
The idea is we’re always going to try to fool ourselves – that’s how our brains are wired — but here’s a way of thinking that will help us minimize the tendency. Another great philosopher of Science, Robert Merton, in the 1960s, put it this way: he said that Aristotle was right when he said “all men by nature desire to know” but then he added, what makes scientists different is they “desire to know that what they know is really so.”
Now here’s the catch: In science, as in life, you have to have faith in yourself and your ideas. You have to make decisions about what you’ll pursue, what you’ll continue pursuing despite times getting very tough, who you’ll do it with, who you’ll stay doing it with even after times get tough, where you’ll do it; why other people should do it with you and keep doing it with you through the tough times. You’ll make these decisions based on the assumption that what you believe is true really is. Without this belief we don’t do anything; it’s what drives us forward and allows us to act decisively. But if we fool ourselves, and we’re the easiest person to fool, we’ll make the wrong decisions – as individuals, as a society.
From this perspective, life becomes a tightrope walk in which you never actually see the rope. But it’s there. And, in all honesty, there’s almost invariably a net, too, so our missteps are rarely as damaging as we fear they’ll be while they’re happening. On this rope, we have to find the balance, time and again, between this need to think critically and skeptically about what we believe, and the need to have faith that what we’re doing and what we believe is right. Faith moves us forward; skeptical critical thinking keeps us balanced.
In this brief video, Michael Pollan, the author of perhaps the best food book I’ve ever read, argues that the answer is surprisingly simple and it has nothing to do with calories or nutrients.
When I started learning about nutrition, about which, by the way, much less is known than you might think, I learned that what mattered most about one’s health was not necessarily the nutrients, good or bad, that you were consuming, or staying away from, or even the calorie counts, but what predicted a healthy diet more than anything else is the fact that it was being cooked by a human being and not a corporation. Corporations cook very differently than people do.
As a follow up to the Michael Pollan food as culture post (on his new book Cooked), a reader passed along a link to this video on Pollan’s 2006 classic The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma was deservedly called one of the most important food politics books of all time. In the video below, Pollan and other prominent chefs and foodies weigh in on the current state of the American food industry.
The Omnivores’s Dilemma came from Pollan’s realization that Americans didn’t know where their food came from. Pollan wanted to do “a kind of detective story following the food back to the source.” The book explores the state of food in America by examining three different food chains: corn, grass, and the forest.
This book, along with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, changed my relationship with food.
We’re cooking less and buying more prepared meals.
Since the mid-sixties, the amount of time spent preparing meals has fallen by half. While the global trend is the same, Americans lead the way, spending less time cooking than any other country.
One thing we do more of, however, is talk about cooking.
Celebrity chefs are everywhere with books and television shows. The sad reality is that we spend more time watching food shows than we do thinking about and preparing our own meals.
Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, explores “how cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships: with plants and animals, the soil, farmers, our history and culture, and, of course, the people our cooking nourishes and delights. Cooking, above all, connects us.”
Pollan argues that taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the food system healthier and more sustainable.
Corporations cook very differently from how people do (which is why we usually call what they do “food processing” instead of cooking). They tend to use much more sugar, fat, and salt than people cooking for people do; they also deploy novel chemical ingredients seldom found in pantries in order to make their food last longer and look fresher than it really is. So it will come as no surprise that the decline in home cooking closely tracks the rise in obesity and all the chronic diseases linked to diet.
The shared meal is no small thing. It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending. What have been called the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” — its tendency to undermine the stabilizing social forms it depends on — are on vivid display today at the modern American dinner table, along with all the brightly colored packages that the food industry has managed to plant there.
What constitutes “cooking” takes place along a spectrum, as indeed it has for at least a century, when packaged foods first entered the kitchen and the definition of “scratch cooking” began to drift. (Thereby allowing me to regard my packaged ravioli with sage-butter sauce as a culinary achievement.) Most of us over the course of a week find ourselves all over that spectrum. What is new, however, is the great number of people now spending most nights at the far end of it, relying for the preponderance of their meals on an industry willing to do everything for them save the heating and the eating.
This is a problem—for the health of our bodies, our families, our communities, and our land, but also for our sense of how our eating connects us to the world. Our growing distance from any direct, physical engagement with the processes by which the raw stuff of nature gets transformed into a cooked meal is changing our understanding of what food is. Indeed, the idea that food has any connection to nature or human work or imagination is hard to credit when it arrives in a neat package, fully formed. Food becomes just another commodity, an abstraction. And as soon as that happens we become easy prey for corporations selling synthetic versions of the real thing—what I call edible foodlike substances. We end up trying to nourish ourselves on images.
Cooking changes your relationship to food. Instead of consuming something, now you’re making it. Meals become achievements, expressions, discovery, and relationships.
I discovered there was much to learn from attempting, even if only just once, … more ambitious and time-consuming forms of cookery, knowledge that might not at first seem terribly useful but in fact changes everything about one’s relationship to food and what is possible in the kitchen. … By itself, this added increment of eating and drinking pleasure would have been enough to justify all the so-called work.
Of course, we never have time to cook. We reason that cooking, let alone baking bread or fermenting something, is probably not the best use of our time. We are so easily convinced that we’re better off staying at the office late and picking something up on the way home. This, after all, lets us do what we do best and lets other people do what they do best.
Here in a nutshell is the classic argument for the division of labor, which, as Adam Smith and countless others have pointed out, has given us many of the blessings of civilization. It is what allows me to make a living sitting at this screen writing, while others grow my food, sew my clothes, and supply the energy that lights and heats my house. I can probably earn more in an hour of writing or even teaching than I could save in a whole week of cooking. Specialization is undeniably a powerful social and economic force. And yet it is also debilitating. It breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance and, eventually, it undermines any sense of responsibility.
Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: We’re producers of one thing at work, consumers of a great many other things all the rest of the time, and then, once a year or so, we take on the temporary role of citizen and cast a vote. Virtually all our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another—our meals to the food industry, our health to the medical profession, entertainment to Hollywood and the media, mental health to the therapist or the drug company, caring for nature to the environmentalist, political action to the politician, and on and on it goes. Before long it becomes hard to imagine doing much of anything for ourselves—anything, that is, except the work we do “to make a living.” For everything else, we feel like we’ve lost the skills, or that there’s someone who can do it better. (I recently heard about an agency that will dispatch a sympathetic someone to visit your elderly parents if you can’t spare the time to do it yourself.) It seems as though we can no longer imagine anyone but a professional or an institution or a product supplying our daily needs or solving our problems. This learned helplessness is, of course, much to the advantage of the corporations eager to step forward and do all this work for us.
Dividing labour up in this economic way “obscures the lines of connection, and therefore of responsibility, between our everyday acts and their real-world consequences.”
When connections are not visible they are easy to forget.
Where were your clothes made? Where did your coffee beans come from? What conditions did the chicken you’re about to eat for supper enjoy? Most of these are hidden from us.
To butcher a pork shoulder is to be forcibly reminded that this is the shoulder of a large mammal, made up of distinct groups of muscles with a purpose quite apart from feeding me. The work itself gives me a keener interest in the story of the hog: where it came from and how it found its way to my kitchen. In my hands its flesh feels a little less like the product of industry than of nature; indeed, less like a product at all. Likewise, to grow the greens I’m serving with this pork, greens that in late spring seem to grow back almost as fast as I can cut them, is a daily reminder of nature’s abundance, the everyday miracle by which photons of light are turned into delicious things to eat.
Handling these plants and animals, taking back the production and the preparation of even just some part of our food, has the salutary effect of making visible again many of the lines of connection that the supermarket and the “home-meal replacement” have succeeded in obscuring, yet of course never actually eliminated. To do so is to take back a measure of responsibility, too, to become, at the very least, a little less glib in one’s pronouncements.
Pollan warns that within another generation or so, it’s possible that “cooking a meal from scratch will seem as exotic and ambitious— as “extreme”— as most of us today regard brewing beer or baking a loaf of bread or putting up a crock of sauerkraut.”
In the video below, the NYT brought together Pollan and Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, to talk about home cooking, the food industry, and navigating a typical supermarket.
Michael Pollan and Michael Moss visit a typical supermarket and talk about cooking and the food industry.
Cooked reminds us that food is so much more than what we read on the label.