Gordon: Darwin’s pyramid

I memorized the Food Pyramid in middle school. I studied it on cereal boxes, tater-tot packets and Wonder Bread wrappers. It told me to eat six to 11 servings of starch a day. It told me to make fruits, vegetables, dairy and protein part of any balanced diet. USE SPARINGLY, it warned, that titillating, forbidden zenith of fats, oils and sweets.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture created the Food Pyramid in 1991. Some physicians protested that meat, dairy and grain were dubious food groups. The USDA ignored them. Some animal product lobbyists complained that the Food Pyramid would hurt sales. The USDA listened. The Food Pyramid was finally released — a year late — with 33 alterations.

The public eventually became suspicious of the pyramidal wisdom. Should we trust dietary guidelines that caused a spike in the baked goods industry? Why is the “protein” trapezoid such a motley ensemble of fat-rich beef and dry beans? Regardless, the Food Pyramid fit nicely into our diet mythologies. Two to three servings of dairy a day, why of course! It builds strong bones! Is it strange that humans are the only species to drink milk past infancy and milk from another animal at all? Possibly. Is it worrying that dairy is linked to heart disease and cancer? The National Dairy Council doesn’t think so.

Thanks to the Cattle Herder’s Association, meat became an official part of a balance-sheet diet in the iconic ’90s graphic. U.S. prosperity in the last half-century has caused meat consumption to double. So has diabetes and obesity.

But we are, and have always been, meat eaters. We savored prime flank on princely platters. We roasted fresh catch on savanna campfires. We worship Man the Hunter of our species prehistory: a courageous and rugged warrior, bringing bloody bounty back to his adoring female and grateful brood. But the archaeological remains of campsites and stone tools date from one million years after the appearance of hominids. Our large plant-grinding teeth take up most of our mouths. Most evolutionary biologists now agree that early humans never subsisted primarily off red meat, but rather plants and small animals — the woman’s catch of the day.

Women were not only a major economic force in hunter-gatherer societies, but also the dominant mate selectors, because pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding were high costs for a casual lay. Darwin observed this in the animal kingdom: “The females are most excited by, or prefer pairing with, the more ornamented males.” For humans, however, the story is a little different: “Man is more powerful in body and mind than woman, and in the savage state he keeps her in a far more abject state of bondage than does the male of any other animal.”

The Darwinian disciple J.H. Crook claimed young women’s “hairlessness, voice tone, complexion and girlish behavior all have a childlike character.” Women were seductive, pretty, passive objects, according to most 19th- and 20th-century biologists, and this was their primary evolutionary role. It’s a strange consensus, given that women, as the choosier sex, determined the gene flow. Darwin also fails to mention that women constituted the social core of the community. Because of the intimacy between mother and child, it was the woman who passed on behaviors to the next generation, as we see today in our closest primate relatives and in our own human complexes of guilt and self-loathing.

These facts evaded the anthropologist Robin Fox in 1972: “It is the role of women as labor and as objects of exchange that is important. This control of women by the older, dominant males is probably the clue to all human kinship systems.”

The themes of male dominance and female passivity in our reconstructions of the past conveniently complement society now. Darwin’s Victorian readership never questioned that their cultural biases could possibly pervade everything — from literature to history to science. Maybe, they never thought, their image of the past is just a backwards projection of their own cultural reality.

No wonder scientists struggle today to explain the phenomenon of female casual sex. “Crap,” these evolutionary theorists say in my mind, “our male and female ancestors must have had sex an equal number of times. But why would women evolve such a drive?” The raging male libido and the chaste, beckoning woman were reasonable sketches of early man in the eyes of male scientists, as they attempted to understand, explain and justify the unequal world they occupied.

The Food Pyramid, like institutional inequality, has crumbled, but its myths persist. So maybe we should opt for dry beans over meat more often. Clinging to steak as a staple of the American diet is deluded, if not dangerous.

Claire Gordon is a junior in Saybrook College.

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