Friday, November 9, 2012

Caloric Intake and Civilization

You would too, if you were in their shoes.

People revert to an animal-like status when they are starved for calories.   We would like to think we are civilized people.   But if you went two or three days without food, your basic personality would change dramatically.  What you think you know about your own behavior and self-determination is probably all wrong.  And if your caloric intake goes low, your behavior will change accordingly.

Back in the 1970's, a group of soccer players were stranded in the Andes when their plane crashed.   They managed to survive by eating the flesh of their dead comrades and the pilot and co-pilot.   Some refused to do it.  They died.

The transition from happy-go-lucky soccer player to starving cannibal did not happen overnight.  But as the days wore on, and the hope of being rescued diminished, and as they slowly starved to death, the unthinkable became reality.

We all would like to think we are above that, or would not revert to an animalistic or feral condition.   But each of us is just a few meals away from being a primitive or savage.

One of the interesting passages in the book about the soccer team, was the reaction of one of the survivors after he escaped.  He climbed the high mountains nearby and then sledded down the other side on an open Samsonite suitcase.  Once he found civilization and real food, he ate greedily.  And then he buried the human flesh he had carried with him on his trip - and had carefully hoarded.  What was once a lifeline for survival became a disgusting taboo, within a few minutes of restoring his caloric intake.

In a matter of minutes the author shifted his mental perspective from one extreme to another.

Here in the United States, the biggest health problem is obesity and its related illnesses.  The poor are the most subject to this - ironically.   We are well fed and we eat well.   We are never short of calories, and in fact, make ourselves sick with our staggering blood-sugar levels.  We are fat, we are content, and we think we deserve it all - and screw those other people, buddy!

And perhaps being overfed has its own effect on the human psyche, I do not know.

But the point is (and I did have one) is that we tend to look at people from other countries, particularly very poor countries, and talk about them as though they were less than human. We laugh at their behavior and believe them to be primitives or savages.  No wonder they are starving, we think, they are so primitive and stupid.

But perhaps that is putting the cart before the horse.  Folks who are not getting their caloric intake for the day behave differently than those who are.   The human mind quickly reverts to a survival mode, and suddenly, the niceties of civilization - fair play and all that - go out the door, particularly when bags of UN Rice show up and the person who is most aggressive is the one who gets fed.

And while we would like to think we are above all that, and that "those people" are somehow different than us, if you were in their shoes, chances are, you would do the same thing.   Your mind would revert to its lizard brain - survival mode - and you would become a less-civilized or uncivilized human being.

We like to think that human civilization is a great achievement.   But it is really an achievement that is based on wealth.   Before a race can be civilized, it has to be well-fed.

A few hundred calories a day is all that separates us from the "savages".....