Friday, October 26, 2012

Religion vs. Science, the Vast Gulf Part Four: You Are What You Eat

I continue the series of posts about the many ways religion, especially Christianity, differs from science. The first entry was about the scientific method. The second was about the sky. I posted part two before I had heard about Bill Nye and the creationists in 2006. Bill was giving a lecture in Waco, Texas, in which he mentioned that the moon does not create its own light, but reflects the light of the sun. Some creationists walked out, since Genesis describes the moon as “the lesser light,” which to them meant that it emits its own light. My guess is that this viewpoint does not represent most creationists.

In the previous essay, I wrote about how carbon-based life forms cannot be made from the dust of the Earth, taken literally. But there is a temporal dimension to this also. Your atoms are in a state of continual turnover. You are losing some, and gaining some, from the food that you eat, which is carbon-based. There is a reason Captain Kirk did not share a sandwich with the silicon-based Horta.

Which brings up the important subject of what we should eat. While Jesus considered it to be of secondary importance (It is what comes out of a man, not what goes into a man, which defiles him, he said), there are nevertheless laws of food and health. And the Biblical dietary laws contrast with the scientific dietary laws. The U.S. government guidelines for nutrition look pretty different from Leviticus 11.

The Old Testament Jews were very concerned about clean vs. unclean foods. Leviticus has quite a list of unclean foods. Many of them seem arbitrary. But modern scientists have figured out some likely reasons for some of these laws. For example, why did Jews hate pigs so much? And they have hated pigs for a long time. Archaeologist Israel Finkelstein has unearthed evidence that the Jews were not very different from surrounding tribes even during the heyday of Solomon, and that Jerusalem of Solomon was not the glorious city that the Old Testament describes. But even in the sites of their earliest villages was the remarkable absence of pig bones. We all know pigs are dirty. Of course, the reason they are dirty is we keep them dirty. Wild pigs are no dirtier than other wild animals. Pigs spread parasites, but so do cows. Smallpox apparently evolved from cowpox early in human village life.

One possible reason that the Jews proscribed pork is one I heard from José Lutzenberger, former Secretary of the Environment in Brazil. He spoke at the Prairie Festival at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. (He didn’t keep his job too long. As someone pointed out, he was serious about environmentalism, and appointing “Lutz” as Secretary of the Environment in Brazil was like appointing Wes Jackson as Secretary of Agriculture in the USA.) He said that cows, horses, sheep, and goats did not compete with humans for food; they ate grass and other things that humans cannot digest. But pigs eat some of the same things we do, and therefore may compete with humans for food. A rich man could fatten his pigs while poor people starve in the ancient, or not so ancient, world. Pigs were, to Lutz, a symbol of poor environmental stewardship in ancient times. I’m not sure if he had any scientific evidence, but his statement has stayed with me for many years.

The Old Testament laws also proscribe shellfish. The reason was obvious: spoiled shellfish can make you very sick. They knew this back in ancient times. There was a good chance that any shellfish, by the time it reached the hills of central Judah, would be spoiled. A more recent custom is to eat shellfish that have been harvested only in the months with the letter R in them (that is, not May, June, July, or August). Today we know that shellfish that have fed upon dinoflagellates (“red tide”) can have neurotoxin. So this made sense.

But the modern view of nutrition is totally unlike that of the Old Testament (and New). We can eat fat foods, but only a little bit, and most of our fats should be unsaturated, e.g. from olives and nuts. We need to eat a lot of vegetables and fruits, and get lots of exercise during the ordinary course of a day. This was not so important in the old days when food was often scarce, and when people walked everywhere—there was no stair-vs.-elevator decision for them to make. Their laws worked for them, imperfectly, and our laws work for us. (I’m about to eat some chicken thigh meat, because my cravings are prehistoric in origin.)

This may seem like a small matter, and Biblical literalists do not, to my knowledge, attack nutritionists. I have not heard creationists say, while engulfing fat steaks, “God guarantees my health because I avoid pork and shellfish.” But modern nutrition science does show, just as clearly as modern evolutionary science, that our scriptures were the products of their time, reflecting the best understanding that people had back then, rather than inspired and infallible scientific truths.

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