Should you trust your senses? An essay on Descartes’ Meditations.

Movies_Films_I_Inception_023533_Yes, we should trust our senses. That is the only way how we live and communicate with the world outside us and even inside our bodies. Descartes in his “Meditations” just pretends that he does not trust his senses to get a new insight in his mind, to make a switch in his custom form of thinking, to look at the world from the new perspective. Even though Descartes says he rejects everything he knew before, he conveniently retains memories of Classical and Medieval philosophy, which he periodically refers to.

Descartes thinks he accumulated a lot of questionable and dubious ideas through his life. He makes a conclusion that all those ideas come from senses which are not trustworthy. It is easy to doubt credibility of our senses when they work on the edge of their sensitivity. For example, recognition of small or far away objects. It is much harder to doubt bigger chunk of our senses especially if they work in their confidence interval because their correctness could be proved by experience. If we are going to insist that some of our senses are wrong, we risk being considered as mad. However, it is much easier to reject our senses as a whole. For example, in a dream we perceive all weird events of the dream as normal and real, but we can recognize the strangeness of the dream only outside of the dream “reality” when we wake up. That is why Descartes decides to question the reliability of the whole world of senses.

If we accept an idea that our real world, given to us through senses, is just another dream of a higher rank, we may want to find criteria which would allow us to find imperfections of the dreams (especially of the lower rank) comparing to the really real world. Importance of these criteria is stressed, for example, in the motion picture Inception. For a moment Descartes follows this path, suggesting that the human fantasy is impaired by its scantiness: fantastical creatures that the humans make up are just a combination of parts of real animals, or images in dreams are like bleak paintings of real things. Descartes implies that if we dream a dream impressed on us by some “Architect” (in terms of the Inception), we can use “simple and universal” invariants of the really real world (like mathematical concepts) as landmarks for detecting a dream. But Descartes quickly withdraws from this path, suggesting that the “Architect” may be an omnipotent God capable of creating a deceptive dream for us, which is as perfect as the really real world (i.e. “totem” from Inception would not work).

Descartes meets possible counter-arguments that God could be non-omnipotent or could not be possibly deceptive because deception is manifestation of imperfectness, by saying that he has no answers to these objections. Descartes started doubting senses for he wanted to leave only certain and distinct ideas in his understanding of the world, therefore he is willing to build it suitable for the worst case scenario that God’s task is to deceive Descartes with all his might. If Descartes is still able to infer anything about the world even in conditions of omnipotent deception, those inferences would be quite certain and unshakable.

Descartes is able to identify at least one thing which omnipotent evil deceiver cannot possibly trick him about. He cannot make Descartes believe that he does not exist, therefore the statement “I am, I exist” cannot be taken away from him. Descartes finds other certain qualities of his “I”, which is a “thinking thing”, and which exists only while he thinks. His “I” also has senses, which does not mean that these senses are somehow real, and, strictly speaking, sensing is a type of thinking. “I” can have mental images, which are modifications of thought as well.

Another classification of thought is aimed at identifying what type of thought is prone to errors. Descartes divides thoughts into three categories. Two of them, which are simple ideas (even unreal and imaginary) and emotions, cannot be judged as true or false. We can make an error only if we have thoughts of third category named judgments.

Descartes tries to analyze how the human mind works. He takes the example of the wax. Even when wax in a usual for human environment may appear to our senses in different states of matter, we perceive it as the same substance. He concludes that our mind does not comprehend things with senses, which give us information about appearance of substances, but our mind understands substances by essence. It is similar to Plato’s Forms. This conclusion is encouraging, because, to proceed further, Descartes has to take on the question of God’ existence. Because God could not be comprehended by senses, one must think about him in terms of the world of Forms.
Descartes attempts to find out which ideas could have originated from him and which could not. Based on the idea that the cause should be greater than the effect, he concludes that idea of the omnipotent, omniscient and perfect God may be originated only from the omnipotent, omniscient and perfect God himself. This proof effectively repeats after Aquinas’s proofs of God’s existence.

However, there are contradictions in Descartes syllogisms. He says that idea of physical objects, which are not intelligent and extended things, was created by him as opposition of the idea of a thinking and not-extended himself. Using the same logic, an idea of omnipotent and perfect God could have appeared in Descartes’ mind as an opposition to non-omnipotent and imperfect himself. On the other hand, using concept of the greater cause than its effect, Descartes could have said that it is not only impossible for an idea of God to originate from himself, but an idea of physical objects needs a greater cause in a form of the objective reality. In both cases: the personal dream world of Descartes whose ideas come only from himself, or an objective world created by perfect God, he could trust his senses, because they are either only his and not impressed by a foreign “Architect”, or are caused by the objective reality.

Perhaps feeling deficiency in his arguments Descartes makes a second attempt to justify the existence of God by asking the question whether he could be created by somebody else but God. His answer is “No”, based on the same medieval reasoning of necessity of the cause to be greater than the effect, but he introduces a new twist to this reasoning. Descartes says his continuous existence is of the same nature as his creation. Thus, his world, instead of being created once (long-long time ago and maybe left by God on its own), becomes a dream of God which requires God’s constant attention in actively redreaming it in the whole fullness every next moment.

Having proven the existence of the perfect God, Descartes proceeds to analyze a question where errors come from. He says that human’s free will is as great as God’s. Following Augustine’s thinking, he says his ability to understand is as good as God’s qualitatively, but quantitatively is less. When free will of judgment exceeds scope of understanding, an error appears. By his own standards Descartes’ will to question his senses and desire to prove God’s existence exceeded capacities of his contradictory understanding and made subsequent conclusions about credibility of senses shaky.

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“Eating Our Way Toward Civilization: How food processing shaped human body, mind and cultures” book announcement

Eating Our Way Toward Civilization: How food processing shaped human body, mind and cultures in paperback and $0.99 e-book:
for Kindles on Amazon
for iPad/iPhone/iPod on iTunes
for Android devices on GooglePlay
for Nook on Barnes&Noble

In the series of short essays the author overviews works of anthropologists, archeologists, cultural sociologists, historians and gastronomists who argue that the cooking played a significant role in human evolution and history, and sometimes even whole Empires “were built not by the sword but by the spoon”. The ancient and modern cuisines bear a deep imprint of the civilizations they appeared and were developing in. One can get a real insight on the cultures, often long gone, by trying recipes created then and there. This maxim did not cease to be true nowadays. Contemporary cultures as well could be judged by their cuisines. Verdict issued by this criteria, when applied to the American diet, may appear shocking. The American culture is the childish, young adolescent one. As a special treat an essay about the everyday life in the Soviet Union, People Waiting in Line, is included.

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Did Socrates deserve the death sentence?

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David

In his dialogue, “Apology”, Plato describes how Socrates responds to the charges against him. Socrates’ speech is an excellent example of rhetoric, rich with arguments, stories, analogies, questions, answers, and conclusions. He defends himself so as to be right and he thinks is necessary. He asserts that he says only the truth, however, sometimes it seems questionable. By analyzing the “Apology” and keeping in mind the historical context of Socrates time, I will show that it cannot be said certainly whether Socrates deserves or does not deserve the death sentence.

When Socrates was brought to the Athenian court there were two types of accusations that he was faced with. The first type was based on rumors, which had been circulating in Athens for a long time. We do not know exactly, but from Socrates’ words, he was accused of practicing natural philosophy or natural science, in making the worst theories appear like the best ones, and in teaching those concepts to others (Apology 18b).

Socrates does a bad job defending himself. He bases his defense on the strategy of plain denial. He says that he knows nothing about natural philosophy (Apology 19c). He implies he could have neither the worst nor the best ideas because he does not have his own ideas at all, he just examines the ideas of others (Apology 21d-22e). He asserts that he does not have pupils because he does not charge any fee from anyone, and that young people who mimic him do this by their own initiatives (Apology 19e-20c, 23c).

Were his claims true and how helpful are they in defending him? First, because he did practice the natural sciences early in his life, and the Athenian people remembered this fact, this statement by Socrates sounds like a false one.

On the second point, Socrates makes a claim that he does not have his own positive ideas. However, in the second part of the “Apology”, he presents an abundance of positive concepts, such as that man has to choose not between life or death, but between right or wrong (Apology 28b-d). He himself confesses also that his ideas are very important, so he must teach Athenians how to live a moral, pious, fair life (Apology 30b-c). The latter example also contradicts his assertion that he is not a teacher.

His argument that he does not have students, as long as he does not take a fee, sounds illogical because he could teach without money. His denial of those people who follow his methods looks not quite ethical, or like a betrayal.

Socrates’ arguments in defense were not only weak but also arrogant and provocative. When he tells his story about the Oracle, he caused a public disturbance at least twice (Apology 20e, 21a). That is not a smart defensive tactic.

If the charges mentioned above played a role in his conviction, to some degree Socrates deserves the verdict. But we cannot expect that as wise a man as Socrates would act so absurdly. Plato gives us a hint why Socrates chooses such a strange means of composition for his speech. In Plato’s dialogue “Euthyphro”, Socrates tells his friend that he realizes that process against him is not an isolated incident, but Meletus plans to launch a widespread campaign in Athens of prosecuting philosophers and other people who think like Socrates (Euthyphro 3a). In Crito, Socrates does not follow Crito’s advice, in part because he does not want to put his friends in danger (Crito 45a). It is quite logical to suppose that Socrates deliberately cut his ties with his pupils and friends in his speech to save them from prosecution by association.

The second type of accusation was made by Meletus. They are that Socrates does evil by corrupting the youth; and he doesn’t believe in Athenian gods but in new ones (Apology 24b). Socrates builds his defense for the first part of the Meletus’ charges on the logical reasoning, such as: one naturally doesn’t want to be hurt, but, if he corrupts his neighbor with evil intention, he will be eventually hurt by his corrupted neighbor, which could not be his desire (Apology 25c-e). He also offers the horse breeding analogy to show that if morals get corrupted it is not from conspiracy of the few, but from the influence of the many (Apology 24e-25b). Socrates shows magnificent orator skills (Apology 24d-26a), when in the beginning of the “Apology” he denies that he is an accomplished orator (Apology 17a-b).

In his defense against the second part of the Meletus’ accusation, Socrates traps Meletus by provoking him to hastily change his charge that Socrates believes in new gods into the statement that Socrates is an atheist (Apology 26b-c). But Socrates argues that all his deeds are committed in the name and by the will of god. However, he evades a direct answer in what divine source he believes (Apology 27c-28a). Thus, Socrates is trying to protect the rights of philosophers of free views on religious issues. According to him, philosophers had great social significance in the life of Athens. In contrary to persuasion, which was a tool of politicians to pursue their self-interests, philosophers care about rational social organization and bring benefits to the ordinary citizens.

In the end of the “Apology”, when the verdict was announced, Socrates plays a fool, saying that he deserved a dinner in Prytaneum or he could pay one mina of silver for his penalty (Apology 36d-37s, 38b). Again, it seems like he was trying to provoke an emotional response from the jury for a worse sentence. This shows, without a doubt, that he cares not for himself but for other philosophers, his pupils, friends and citizens of Athens, so for their sake he needs to achieve either total acquittal or cruel punishment to make his accusers feel guilty afterwards (Apology 38c). If the jury decided on a minor penalty, the citizens of Athens would not feel remorse and continue to chase the philosophers in the future. Socrates got what he aimed for. He got a death sentence and the Athenians regretted their decision; they stopped persecuting other philosophers and artisans.

So it can be said that Socrates in some sense deserves the death sentence, but in another he does not. According to the point of view of a person of modern time the Socrates’ death sentence was totally unjust, because he did not rob or kill anyone. He just questioned people and had free beliefs and his own opinion, which was different from others. From the point of view of the Athenian citizens of that period of time, he might deserve death for not believing in Athenian gods, which was considered a major crime and a betrayal of the social order, especially since Socrates defended himself badly or even not at all. However, his death played a significant role in the history of Athens. Athenians regretted what they did. There was not any case of persecution on philosopher after that. With a sense of Latin etymology of the word ‘deserve,’ which means ‘to devote oneself to,’ he devoted his life to the well-being of Athenians.

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People Waiting in Line

It happens when you must buy or receive some goods you need, or you have to get some services, or you just want to visit a popular place, and there are many people with the same purpose like yours, in the same particular time.

From my experience I know very well, what it is like. It was a normal occurrence in the times of the Soviet Union to stand in lines for many different objectives: food, clothes, footwear, any domestic goods, furniture, cars or even apartments (but it was like virtual lines). It’s amazing! People (mostly women) spent almost 1/3 of their day to go shopping in spite of work, studying and family.

The longest lines, I remember, were those for bananas or oranges from Africa, Indian Black Tea from India, footwear from Italy or Germany, parkas from Sweden, and so on…It was rarely less than an hour. Usually it took a couple, three, or even more hours. One day I spent 8 hours standing in line to buy an imported fur coat for my daughter. But don’t think I had been spending all that time in the queue. Not at all! The main thing here is to remember very accurately a few people standing around you in the line, because almost everybody left the line and then returned to their spots. You would just tell them that you will be back and ask them insistently to remember your face, your clothing, or something else notable. Often when a line was large, folks wrote a number on their palms for accuracy. You may go home, or return to work, or take a seat at nearest park with a newspaper, or a book to read. It was a good idea to queue in few more lines at the same time, so you could get many deficits at once.

Some extraverted people love to make acquaintances in lines or somebody may meet her or his future spouse there. People were trying to relax in queues, otherwise it would be a very boring and an annoying pastime. You would probably become very tied, particularly your legs, back, or even neck, especially if you are on high hills. Try not to stand in line on high hills! It’s terrible and dreadful!

But let’s leave the Soviets lines alone. We can observe some others. For example, you go traveling. The first queues, you will see, are those in an Airport for registration or security purposes.  When you arrive to your destination, you probably will need to stand in a Passport Control line. On the next day, when you go to see the great attractions of a city you visit, be prepared for lining up to reach your destination. For The Louvre it may take a couple hours, an hour, for The British Museum, and three more, for Lenin’s Mausoleum. It’s ok if you have a lot of time, and you are probably looking forward to see an attraction with anticipation.

And the last, but not least, some examples I would like to share are: the gas lines, when the gas suddenly rose in price here in Georgia few years ago, and the car lines to KSU parking lots, especially on Mondays.

It can’t be the modern life without queues. It’s impossible!

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Cooking Organic Local Food Is Good for You and for Your Planet

I never had a doubt that the closer to nature your food is, the healthier you will be. What else could bring you closer to nature than cooking from fresh ingredients picked from a garden or a forest? When living in Russia 12 years ago, I remember we didn’t have the advanced industry of food processing. As a result we ate mostly whole foods. There is a common practice to have a garden and grow your own fruits and vegetables in Russia. Another practice is to harvest wild growing food such as berries and mushrooms. When my family came to the U.S. more than a decade ago, we were amazed by how different the American diet is from the Russian one. I noticed every time I went to the supermarket that most of the Americans primarily bought lots of white bread like substance, chips, sodas, ground meat, donuts, ice-cream, and so on. We also had a chance to witness how Americans are addicted to junk food. When we had our American friends visit Russia, they quickly became bored of the traditional Russian meals and tried to find soda at every place where we accompanied them.

Let’s look at what the cheap American food consists of. Common ingredients of junk food are corn syrup, white flour, soy by-products, hydrogenised oils, and artificial colors and flavors. These products are high in trans fat, free radicals and acrilamide (potent cancer-causing chemical). Michael Pollan, the American author, journalist and professor of Journalism at Berkeley, said in his interview with Bill Moyers, the presenter of the public television, “five crops we subsidize are corn, wheat, soy, rice, and cotton… And that our farm policy for many years has been designed to increase production of those crops [the junk food is made of] and keep the prices low”. There is common knowledge and scientifically proven that such a diet leads to food-related diseases as type-2 diabetes, obesities, heart disease, and some cancers. Pollan mentions following data:

…this generation just being born now is expected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents, one in three Americans born in the year 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control, will have type 2 diabetes, which is a really serious sentence (Pollan, Interview).

Adoption of the governmental Agricultural policies, which led to this explosion of chronic diseases, did not come as a response to natural disaster or an outbreak of hunger. Somebody benefits from promoting this diet. That is the large Agricultural business whose goal is to rip off big profits from cheap produce. Governmental policies are taken hostage by Agricultural conglomerates. Michael Pollan gives an example of how it is done:

…the World Health Organization recommends that no more than 10 percent of daily calories come from added sugar, a benchmark that the U.S. sugar lobby has worked furiously to dismantle. In 2004 it enlisted the Bush State Department is a campaign to get the recommendation changed and has threatened to lobby Congress to cut WHO funding unless the organization recants (Pollan, In Defense 25).

In addition to negative impact on public health those monsters of Agriculture pollute the environment using fertilizers and pesticides, cause climate instability by producing greenhouse gases, and excessively consume fossil fuel (Pollan, Interview). The oligarchs of Agriculture play on the naïve and greedy human nature to feed people junk food:

…notice that the stark message to “eat less”… had been deep-sixed [i.e. thrown overboard]; don’t look for it ever again in any official U.S. government dietary pronouncement. …you are not allowed officially to tell people to eat less of it [a particular food] or the industry in question will have you for lunch. …it was easy for the take-home message of the 1977 and 1982 dietary guidelines to be simplified as follows: Eat more low-fat foods. And that is precisely what we did (Pollan, In Defence 24, 51).

Why should common people be kept on the rich man’s leash? Is it possible to use common sense and make such a domestic revolution in the name of their health and health of the next generation? “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”- one can read this on the front cover of Michael Pollan’s bestseller In Defense of Food: an Eaters Manifesto. The author believes that even a common man might make a difference by gardening, cooking, and buying local and organic food (Pollan, Interview).

In nowadays, the local food movement becomes more and more popular. What does it mean to eat locally?

According to the definition adopted by the U.S. Congress in the 2008 Food, Conservation, and Energy Act (2008 Farm Act), the total distance that a product can be transported and still be considered a ‘locally or regionally produced agricultural food product’ is less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the State in which it is produced (United States, Department of Agriculture iii).

However, the definition is not exact and differs dependably of zone, farmers and consumers (United States, Department of Agriculture iii). The USDA documentation discusses the advantages of local food systems that had empirical evidence. They “include economic development impacts, health and nutrition benefits, impacts on food security, and effects on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions” (United States, Department of Agriculture 42). For example, people will benefit by eating local produce because it is fresher, nutritious, and less processed; growing crops on community lands will increase food availability; reducing the distance of food delivery saves fossil fuel.

The best way to grow local food is to grow it organically. Here in the US it is not easy. As soils are not fertile enough and the climate is friendly for pests and diseases in many states, farmers have to use fertilizers and pesticides. My family used to have a garden in Russia. We continue to cultivate organic produce here. Because we can not find enough information about garden plants that vegetate well in Georgia we experiment by planting different varieties of fruit trees and bushes, berries, and vegetables. The best practice is to plant those species that may grow in this area without special efforts. Fig trees, blueberries, raspberries, kiwis, pears, tomatoes, cucumbers, Jerusalem artichokes, mustards, peas, radishes, asparagus, herbs, all of that we grow organically on our modest piece of land and enjoy it all year around.

However, “local” is not a panacea. Different cultures behave differently depending on the climate zone. Pamela Cuthbert, the editor of a journal for Slow Food Canada, in her article “Local Food Is Not Always The Best Choice” gives a demonstrative example why in some cases non-local produce is more preferable than local. Growing apples in the wet Ontario climate is challenging because of numerous pests and fungus while in dry regions farmers do not have to spray apples so intensively because pests do not tolerate arid conditions (Cuthbert 26,27). Thus buying organic produce brought from farther places may be better for the health, than buying local ones that are not well acclimated to the local climate and soil (Cuthbert 26,27). Trying to cultivate cultures, that are not sustainable in the local climate, farmers have to use the industrial schema of agriculture with the harmful impacts such as “environment destroying fertilizers and sprayed with pesticides” (Cuthbert 25). As a conclusion the author quotes “Lori Stahlbrand, head of the organization Local Food Plus” who defines local as a complex of such characteristics as “sustainability, animal welfare, labor practices, biodiversity and energy use” (as qtd in Cuthbert 28). Stahlbrand “pairs the words ‘local and sustainable’ as essential co-factors” (Cuthbert 28). If we compare definition of the local food mentioned above with the definition given by United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), we can see now the latter appears formal and incorrect, while the one described by Stahlbrand is more thought-through. Defining the local produce only in terms of the mileage does not guaranty the desired benefits for what local food movement stands for, and leaves the back door for questionable practices of the big agricultural business.

Do the gardening and you will have fresh healthy produce on your table, exercise and intimate contact with nature. If you cannot do this for any reason, buy more organic and local products in your supermarket or farmer’s market, it will support the development of local food producers and undermine the production of junk food.

One more way to follow a healthy diet is to cook your own meals. Pollan encourages: “Cook. Simply by starting to cook again, you declare your independence from the culture of fast food” (Pollan, Interview). Indeed, for cooking you will need whole produce, better oils, and less salt and sugar. You can be creative and add to your recipe any desired ingredient. When you eat a donut in the rush you don’t pay much attention to the list of ingredients. However, when you make your own cookies you know what you put in a dough: butter, eggs, flour, sugar, but not that long, long list of chemicals.

If we look back at our ancestors, we would see they ate simple local whole food, they cooked. We have evolutionary adapted to such meals for tens or hundreds of thousand years. Our bodies and genes don’t know what to do with the new ‘Western’ diet. Turn your head back and gain the wisdom from your grand-grants! Think about the next generation. It is all in your hands!

Works Cited

Cuthbert, Pamela. “Local Food Is Not Always the Best Choice.” The Local Food Movement. Ed. Amy Francis. Farmington Hills: Greenhaven Press, 2010. 24-30. Print.

Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: an Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 2008. Print.

Pollan, Michael. Interview. Bill Moyers Journal. PBS, 28 Nov. 2008.Web. 15 March 2012.

United States. Department of Agriculture. Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues. Washington: May 2010.

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A Look at Cuisine Through the Cultures

Why are Italians used to eating pasta but not sushi or tempura? Why are Mexicans accustomed to eating tortillas but not foie gras? To answer these kinds of questions we have to delve into the history of cultures. “Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, eighteen-century gastronomist, drew a useful distinction between the alimentary activity of animals, which ‘feed,’ and humans who eat or dine, a practice he suggested that owes as much to culture as it does to biology” (Pollan 7). We can try unusual exotic food and say: “That is delicious!” However, more than likely we will not eat that meal on an everyday basis because we are used to eating our traditional food based on our culture and nationality. What can we learn by looking onto a plate of food about the people who created and consume the dish?

The world cultures are as varied as the cuisines. There might be a broad culinary diversity even in one country, especially, if it is geographically extensive. Nowadays, you can find most recipes of interest merely by browsing the Internet. However, it would be difficult to find a recipe from an ancient extinct civilization. French historian Jean Bottero writes in his article “The Cuisine of Ancient Mesopotamia” that except for Rome the ancient diets still have not been studied enough (36). Fortunately, there is some archeological evidence about food culture in ancient Mesopotamia (Bottero 36). The knowledge of the cuisine is impressive. The Mesopotamian written tablets contain “about 800 entries which are but a representative selection of all food and drink known to the Babylonians” (Bottero 38). Some artifacts indicate that the people made 18 to 20 varied sorts of cheese and over 100 kinds of soup, “300 kinds of bread, each with a different combination of ingredients” (Bottero 38). It is amazing how rich and developed the Babylonian civilization was, is it not? Bottero exclaims: “Is it too much to credit these extraordinary people with the earliest form of sausage?” (37) As opposed to the Babylonians, the Bedouins that inhabited the western desert had a completely different diet. We can read the Sumerian point of view on Bedouin diet: “These people, they said, did not know what civilized life was. They ate their food raw. If you gave them flour, eggs, and honey for a cake, they would not know what to do with them” (Limet 137).

The Inka had a no less complex culture and cuisine than the Babylonians. The more complicated, with more preparation time that the recipe was, the more value the dish had. Inka utilized their best and most tasty dishes for their politics of Empire building. They conquered new territories not by sword but by spoon. Professor of archeology Tamara Bray in her article about Inka pottery points out that “the labor services owed the state by local communities, which could range from cultivating fields to massive public works projects, were typically couched in terms of the reciprocal obligations of chiefly generosity” (4).

Of course, culinary traditions depend on the geographic conditions and the resources of flora and fauna of the region. Nevertheless, even in neighboring European countries the recipes of national cuisines are different. In this context French cuisine stands out from all others. Cultural sociologist Priscilla Ferguson in her article “Is Paris France?” points out that Frenchness is represented by “cuisine, acknowledged everywhere as a vital characteristic of what it means to be French” (1053). She continues that “French foodways are predicated on the belief in the superiority of food in France, the deep conviction that cuisine involves much more than food and cooking far more than the obvious material changes that take place in the process” (1053). As well as French cuisine, French clothing, furniture, perfume, and other consumer goods are distinguished by luxury, elegance, originality, and sophistication; they are valued by experts all over the world.

It is, therefore, not surprising that historians have long underscored the particular importance of luxury products to the French economy and balance of trade. It is, however, only more recently that scholars have sought to determine their role in the making of French national identity.

(Auslander 233)

When the French borrow foreign culinary or any other ideas, they do it very selectively, quickly, and without doubts judging what elements of the foreign culture apt to be named French. Ferguson accents that “the dominant linguistic and culinary codes integrate the foreign element to indigenous tastes … the French readily, and authoritatively, articulate their understandings of what is appropriate and what is not, of what is truly French and what is not” (1061).

It is not only the French cuisine that is an important part of national identity. When my family traveled across France to Barcelona last year, from all the different dishes that we tried the most impressive and memorable was the Duck Casserole that we had in the French province of Languedoc-Roussillon. We immediately concluded that this rich in proteins and fats hot dish is well suited for mountain people, who live in a mostly cold and windy mountain climate. Later I learned that this province is part of borderland Catalonia, which another part runs through the North of Spain and is crossed by Pyrenees. Catalan nationalists, named themselves as mountain people, along with language and religion, consider “traditional Catalan cuisine Mar i Muntanya, which combines game with seafood, …as a central constituent of the Catalan identity” (Hakli 115).

I asked two of my friends, Mohini from India and Ai from Vietnam, who attend English class with me, to answer a question: “What could they say about the culture of their nationality on the basis of their national cuisine?” Mohini said that she believes that native recipes have relation to local culture. Gujarati (her homeland) people believe in Ahimsa, who proclaims nonviolence to any living thing, and their belief is reflected in their food culture, thus most of the Gujarati’s are vegetarian. Ai told me that Vietnamese put a high value on cooking. They use the freshest, finest ingredients; their recipes are complex and time consuming, it is the most important that the dish should be prepared with a positive mood and love. They try to make a dine enjoyable and memorable. Hospitality is a main quality of the Vietnamese national identity.

I cannot keep silent about Russian cuisine as I am Russian and prefer Russian food. In ancient times Russian territories were inhabited by various peoples with different cultures. So the country became more and more like a melting pot of nationalities. The same story is with the Russian cuisine. It is a mixture of borrowed dishes from the cultures that influenced Russia the most. German Vinaigrette, Belgium Olivier, French cake Napoleon, the names say that all.

One can argue that cuisine is not related to the culture, proving it with the fact that fast food has spread across the world, especially in France which “is known to take deep cultural pride in its ‘patrimoine culinaire,’… a central part of the national identity since the early nineteenth century” (Fantasia 202). Even the French Ministry of Culture became concerned of fast food penetrating the country. The government created a program for “protecting the culinary patrimony” (Fantasia 203). Actually, the spreading of fast food stands for my thesis instead of opposing it. People go to McDonald’s not for the meal but to experience American culture and atmosphere. As the professor of anthropology from Canada, Peter Stephenson, observed, “there is a kind of instant emigration that occurs the moment one walks through the doors [of McDonald’s]” (Fantasia 221). In France the majority of visitors of fast food restaurants are adolescents. When they were interviewed for the point why the fast food restaurants attract them, they answered: “You really feel the American atmosphere – the noise, the bright colors, the dress of the staff….you can talk loud and nobody minds” and so on (Fantasia 223). The youth describe their experience in “the fast-food outlet as a childlike world of playfulness, untroubled by the rules governing the adult world of the traditional restaurant” (Fantasia 223). Based on these findings and on assumption that cuisine parallels culture, it might be concluded that American culture has childish and immature nature.

It is easy to slip on oversimplification, generalization, and creation stereotypes on this topic. But eventually it can give us surprising, deep insight into cultures, as understanding different civilizations not logically but mostly intuitively, even through the sensual feelings. That is why gastronomic tourism became so popular today. It is not necessary to be an anthropological scientist to learn about local culture. Without knowing of anthropological slang and advanced sociological theories any amateur can literally get taste of foreign cultures by visiting authentic local restaurants.

Works Cited

Auslander, Leora. “Kolleen Guy. When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity.” The American Historical Review 110.1 (2005): 232-233. Web. 5 Apr. 2012. Leora Auslander, the historian from University of Chicago, reviews the book of Kolleen Guy, where the author demonstrates how champagne became a national French treasure. The reviewer shows how French affection to luxury in the cuisine related their affection to luxury in general culture.

Bottero, Jean. “The cuisine of Ancient Mesopotamia.” The Biblical Archaeologist 48.1 (1985): 36-47. Web. 5 Apr. 2012. In this article French historian Jean Bottero tells about numerous archaeological findings in ancient Near East. They included many written artifacts about Mesopotamian diet, cuisine, and cooking techniques. His article helps understand culture of ancient Near East civilizations by learning about their cuisine.

Bray, Tamara L. “Inka Pottery as Culinary Equipment: Food, Feasting, and Gender in Imperial State Design.” Latin American Antiquity 14.1 (2003): 3-28. Web. 5 Apr. 2012. In this article professor archeology from New York Tamara Bray demonstrates how Incas built their Empire by reciprocity and generosity. She tells about cuisine of ancient Incas, their ceramic vessels, and other utensils. The article helps to show the relationship between cuisine and culture in ancient Andes.

Dao, Ai. Personal Communication. 5 Apr. 2012.

Fantasia, Rick. “Fast Food in France.” Theory and Society 24.2 (1995): 201-243. Web. 5 Apr. 2012. In this article American professor of sociology Rick Fantasia discusses a paradox of spreading fast food outlets in France. He finds out that this popularity of the fast food restaurants grows due to interest of European adolescents in American culture, but not in food itself. It supports the thesis about relationship between culture and cuisine.

Ferguson, Priscilla Parkhurst. “Is Paris France?” The French Review 73.6 (2000): 1052-1064. Web. 8 Apr. 2012. In her article professor of cultural sociology Priscilla Ferguson shows how Paris integrated local cultures in one common French culture.

Hakli, Jouni. “The politics of Belonging: Complexities of Identity in the Catalan Borderlands.” Human Geography 83.3 (2001): 111-119. Web. 5 Apr. 2012. Finnish scholar Jouni Hakli in this article considers aspects of the national identity of Catalonia, a borderland between France and Spain. One of the aspects is Catalan cuisine that helps support my thesis.

Limet, Henri. “The cuisine of Ancient Sumer.” The Biblical Archaeologist 50.3 (1987): 132-147. Web. 8 Apr. 2012. In this article French assyriologist Henri Limet presents data of archeological sites about the Sumer cuisine. Comparisons between Sumer and Bedouin cultures support opinion about the connection cuisine to the culture.

Patel, Mohini. Personal Communication. 4 Apr. 2012.

Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 2008. Print. Michael Pollan, the American journalist and professor of Journalism at Berkeley, in his book criticizes a modern nutritionism as a substitution of real food that ate our ancestors. Rather than pay attention on nutritions he proposes ecological, traditional, and cultural approach what supports the thesis of the essay.

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From Roast Beef to Intellect

Isn’t it fascinating that the simplest routine of every day life like cooking brought intelligence to our ancestors? Most of us have never even thought about it. Me neither, until I recently had a chance to watch that BBC video “Did Cooking Made Us Human?” Before that I didn’t know much about human evolution except generally known theories like the Charles Darwin “Theory of Evolution” and the facts that our ancestors lived in caves, made fire and got their food from hunting and gathering. Нow could it happen that our predecessors received big brains because they started to cook food? Do scientists have enough evidence to make the conclusions?

The film shows several experiments including observations of raw eaters-volunteers, study of African tribes, feeding tests with mice and snakes, some archeological facts. The evidence was persuasive, but when I read a book of the founder of the theory, Richard Wrangham, Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, I was convinced even more. In his controversial book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human, he examines the positive influence of the invention of cooking on human evolution. Wrangham postulates that whenever Homo Ergaster happened to start preparing his food on fire, the human digestive tract shrank and the brain grew. More free time became available for human development.

Nutritionist Carina Koebnick and her colleagues in Germany used questionnaires to study 513 raw foodists who ate 70-100% of their diet raw (Wrangham 17). The research showed that when diet is changing from cooked to raw, significant weight loss, energy deficiency, bad digestion and reduced reproductive function are revealed (Wrangham 17-20). But despite those negative effects, raw food diet is a popular tendency nowadays. Supporters of this practice are assured of health benefits and have philosophical ground for their beliefs. However, our ancestors didn’t have a supermarket across the street, so they couldn’t survive and reproduce without high-energy cooked food (Wrangham 36).

Wrangham asserts when the prehistoric people started to eat cooked food, their bodies began to change gradually (40). Adjusted to cooked food humans acquired “small mouths, weak jaws, small teeth, small stomach, small guts overall” (Wrangham 40). Those small features “fit well with the softness, high caloric density, low fiber content, and high digestibility of cooked food” (Wrangham 44). Due to adaptation to cooked food, we became unprotected from the bacteria that are present in raw meat (Wrangham 53). Moreover, cooked food is many times more energetic than raw food due to the fact that “cooking gelatinizes starch, denatures protein, and softens everything” (Wrangham 57). Experiments on chimpanzees and other animals demonstrated that the more energy we obtain from the food “the greater competitive ability, better survival and longer lives” we have (Wrangham 81).

In 1995 anthropologists Leslie Aiello and Peter Wheeler created a remarkable theory about a dependency between brain and guts sizes. In their article “The Expensive Tissue Hypothesis: The Brain and the Digestive System in Human and Primate Evolution”, the authors pointed out that animals with bigger brains have smaller guts (206). Smaller guts are possible due to eating higher caloric food (Aiello and Wheeler 207). The scientists realized that our brains are especially eager for energy. Although brain takes up only 2.5 percent of human body weight, it needs 20 percent of our energy supply when we are relaxed (Wrangham 109). As archeological artifacts show, two main steps of increasing brain size took place in the development of prehistoric people (Aiello and Wheeler 208). First, it was around two million years ago, from plant-eater Australopithecus to carnivorous Homo erectus (Aiello and Wheeler 208). The second was a little more than half a million years ago when Homo erectus evolved into Homo heidelbergensis who controlled the fire and cooked his meal (Aiello and Wheeler 208). By contrast, Wrenthan shows there were other intermediate stages of the evolutionally increase of brain size (114). They were caused by the use of more advanced techniques to process raw meat by habilines and innovative cooking processes by Homo heidelbergensis and Homo sapiens (Wrenthan 114-127).

The process of cooking also allowed our ancestors to have free time. Instead of chewing tough raw food for hours to obtain enough energy, they now could spend their time on gathering, labor, house keeping and thinking (Wrangham 130). Additionally, the author beliefs “that cooking has made possible one of the most distinctive features of human society: the modern form of sexual division of labor” (130).

Supported by numerous scientific proofs the Wrangham’s logic is convincing, and it’s hard to counter his arguments. French cultural anthropologist and ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss did not support the biological impact of cooking on human evolution; however, he pointed out that this step from raw to cooked was a manifestation of passage from nature to culture and demonstrates the difference between animals and people. In his influential 1960s book The Raw and the Cooked, where he explores the myths of Brazilian tribes, he writes, “the raw/cooked axis is characteristic of culture; the fresh/decayed one of nature, since cooking brings about the cultural transformation of the raw, just as putrefaction is its natural transformation“(Levi-Strauss 142).

There are a number of human evolution hypotheses. The prevailed one is Man the Hunter. Originators of the theory assumed that the main impact on the human development took place when our ancestors changed their diet from plants to meat. University of Utah biologist Dennis Bramble and Harvard University anthropologist Daniel Lieberman offered another less known hypothesis in which they proposed that running made us human. In their research “Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo” the scientists argue, “quadrupedal cursors easily sprint faster than humans over short distances, but sustainable ER [endurance running] speeds of humans are surprisingly comparable to specialized mammalian cursors such as dogs and horses…” (Bramble and Lieberman 345). As additional benefit, the human “metabolic cost of transport” is flat over the wide range of speeds (Bramble and Lieberman 346). “Like another group of cursorial bipeds, kangaroos and wallabies, humans are thus able to adjust running speed continuously without change of gait or metabolic penalty over a wide range of speeds”, while horses and dogs have distinct narrow optimal speeds (Bramble and Lieberman 346). The scientists theorize that endurance running caused specific skeletal, thermoregulation and respiration adaptations (Bramble and Lieberman 351). Moreover, “the hypothesis that ER evolved in Homo for scavenging or even hunting therefore suggests that ER may have made possible a diet rich in fats and proteins thought to account for the unique human combination of large bodies, small guts, big brains and small teeth” (Bramble and Lieberman 351).

We love to eat cooked food because it’s tasty, soft and warms up our body and soul. We love to cook, because we are inspired to make the feast pleasurable for ourselves, our loved ones or our friends. We love to be creative when we invent a new dish. We have to cook for our safety. Sitting by the open fire somewhere in the woods, we can imagine finding ourselves in those distant past places where our ancestors for the first time intuitively put their prey on a fire. They became delighted by mouthwatering aroma, heavenly taste, softness and flavor of the meal. They couldn’t resist and continued to roast every meal and the habit made them stronger. Besides, the fire, warmness and good food sure enough were romantic. No doubt it was a great engine!

Works cited.

Aiello, L., Wheeler, P.(1995). The expensive Tissue Hypothesis: The Brain and the Digestive System in Human and Primate Evolution. Current Anthropology, 36(2), 199-221.

Bramble, D., Lieberman, D. (2004). Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo. Nature, 432(7015), 345-52.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Raw and the Cooked. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. Print.

Wrangham, Richard. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human. New York: Basic Books, 2009. Print.

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