The battle of the bulge

I gave a talk a couple of weeks ago at the weekly Behavior, Evolution, and Culture seminar at UCLA. There wasn’t really much substance to what I had to say: I was merely inviting the members of the group, mostly anthropologists and psychologists with a Darwinian slant, to think about the application of their work to public policy analysis.

My claim was that evolutionary theory constitutes the only approach to understanding human behavior that has a sweep and a scientific status that make it competitive with the rational-actor model of economics, and that evolutionary psychology might provide a useful antidote to what I think is over-reliance on (sometimes implicit) rational-actor analysis in current policy and policy discussions. [Of course, while the rational-actor model provides prescription as well as description, Darwinian models are only useful descriptively: thinking otherwise was the mistake made by the Social Darwinists and by some over-enthusiastic sociobiologists.]

My examples were retirement security, crime, and obesity. The third of these provoked what I thought was the most interesting discussion. Obviously, it’s not hard to account for an increased incidence of overweight in evolutionary terms: a species adapted to life on the Malthusian margin now confronts, in the developed world, food at the lowest prices (measured in hours of work to earn 1000 calories) in history, along with less physically demanding jobs. The evolutionarily-designed mechanisms that store food as fat against the risk of famine therefore have lots of room to operate.

One of those present pointed out, though, that so far the obesity epidemic seems to be largely confined to the US. (I wonder whether, in obesity as in crime, Western Europe might not just be lagging us by a generation.) And he recounted what I thought was a fascinating ethnographic study looking at American and French families as they taught their children about food.

According to this study (as I remember my colleague’s description of it) American parents concentrate on the nutritional value of food, and negotiate with their kids about their diet: the question is roughly how much broccoli you need to eat to earn your ice cream. By contrast, French families talk to their children largely in terms of the food’s aesthetic properties: See how crisp this loaf is? Notice how nice that casserole smells? Doesn’t that touch of garlic perfectly set off those carrots? The French families — of course, I have no idea which French families, by region or by social class, or how typical they were — presented feeling “full” as an awful thing, a bad end to a good meal, to be avoided by limiting one’s portions.

Again, I’m not certain that this report is correct or representative, or how tightly the phenomenon it describes is linked to the well-known slenderness of the surrender monkeys despite all that fattening cheese. But it’s a tantalizing thought that good nutrition, like happiness, might be best sought as a side-product of something else. Perhaps Americans tend to over-eat in part because our food tends to be so low in aesthetic value per calorie that we need to take in a lot of calories to get a reasonable amount of gustatory pleasure.

As it happens, I’m also supervising a master’s paper on childhood obesity and what to do about it at the community level. One thing that came out of the authors’ literature review was the observation that food choice among American families eat is increasingly driven by the preferences of the children rather than those of the adults, and the paper considers ways of encouraging parents to regain the initiative. But reflecting on the French case, as described above, led me to a different thought.

If nutrition is treated as the interest of the parent, while taste is treated as the interest of the child, and children grow up negotiating the broccoli-to-ice-cream terms of trade, we’re preparing them very poorly to be good makers of their own nutritional decisions when they become adults. Helping parents “win” the tug-of-war about how often to eat at McDonald’s may be a Pyrrhic victory unless they can somehow convince their children to enjoy food in healthy combinations and proportions.

Assuming this is true, I’m at a loss for policy prescriptions. So I thought I’d ask a few hundred of my closest friends what they think.

Correction: A helpful reader points me to this collection of studies on obesity rates by country, which suggests that the US is worse than many places but by no means alone.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: