The Scientific Approach of Weston Price, Part 4: Was Price’s Approach an “Evolutionary Approach”?

This is the fourth installment in a series of posts in which I am laying out the most salient points from my 2012 Real Food Summit talk, “Weston Price on Primitive Wisdom.” See these links for part 1, part 2, and part 3.

At the first annual Ancestral Health Symposium in 2011, I had the great honor of meeting “Paleo” contributor Loren Cordain. Dr. Cordain told me that he considered Weston Price “the grandfather of the Paleo movement,” and said the only thing Price lacked was an “evolutionary approach.” In fact Price did retrospectively offer an “evolutionary approach” in the 1945 edition of Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, which many would have missed if they read the free online version of the book, but this approach is very different from that generally invoked by the Paleo movement and is absent from the 1939 edition, where Price laid out the intentions behind his study design. In this post, I will explore these approaches.

As described in the first post in this series, Price studied isolated hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, pastoralists, and agriculturalists for two reasons: so they could provide standards of excellence and scientific controls. By the former, I believe Price meant that if we take for granted the level of health we see in our own society, we can break the hold of this presumption and establish that a greater level of health is possible simply by finding others who have obtained it. By the latter, Price laid out his intention to compare isolated and modernized subgroups of various “racial stocks” to control for confounders such as heredity, culture, climate, altitude, and latitude, and hoped to include disease-free populations that could be compared to populations ravaged by disease.

Nowhere in Nutrition and Physical Degeneration do we find the idea that modern hunter-gatherers provide windows into our evolutionary past or the idea that our “evolutionary diet” (or diets) should be the optimal diet (or diets) for supporting excellent health.

We do, however, find Price writing about the importance of understanding biological evolution in the 1945 edition of the book, in the chapter entitled “How Mother Nature Made Us.” This chapter is not included in the free online version of the book. The online version includes the first 21 chapters published in the first edition, but excludes chapters 22 through 28, which were added to the second edition. It thus excludes Price’s “evolutionary approach” as well as the chapter on “activator X” that provided the foundation for my 2007 article on vitamin K2, a contribution by the soil scientist William Albrecht, a chapter on fluoride, and several others. The print versions of the book include all of these chapters.

In “How Mother Nature Made Us,” Price wrote the following (p. 460-1):

It is exceedingly important that if we are to stem the tide of modernized self-destruction, that we come to know the nature of and origin of both our physical being and our personalities, in order to ascertain what we have lost and how the loss may be prevented.

As an approach to this it is important that we review and visualize our origin. The current teachings of the three R’s and simpler sciences and most of our religious and social philosophies have failed to relate us correctly to our past which so largely controls our physical behaviour and mental attitudes.

Price then spent two paragraphs making the case that all “forms of life have a similar origin” and that humans and apes “have developed from a common progenitor.” Directly following this, he lamented that “much of modern thinking and teaching has failed to recognize as common the origin of man with many animal forms and its significance for understanding his form and behaviour.”

Price’s justification for this view had nothing to do with species-specific evolutionary diets or using surviving hunter-gatherers as windows into an evolutionary past. Rather, he justified the importance of recognizing our common origin with animal life by emphasizing that we and all other animal life must obey the same laws of nature in order to thrive.

Price first described how humans differ from “simpler forms of life” by relying not only on instructive instincts, but also willful behavior. This is potentially problematic because our willpower and intelligence is highly variable, so willful behavior opens the opportunity to make mistakes.

He then described in detail the life and reproduction of a tent caterpillar, and concluded that it is all made possible by chemicals “synthesized from the minerals, acids, bases, hormones and vitamins furnished by the rapidly growing green cherry leaves, plus sunshine and atmosphere.” But what if the caterpillar had a will to develop technical savvy, like us?

Suppose the caterpillar had learned to rob the plant juice of its carotene, then the vitamin A could not form and no eyes could be made or many of the other structures; or if only starches and sugars were eaten, no body could be built or capacity to reproduce and continue the race. Its safety is provided in both its ignorance and the rigidity of Mother Nature’s laws. . . .

We humans have the same rigid restrictions regarding food selection as the simpler forms of life when foods are evaluated from their chemical basis. Our greater complicity however, introduces new behavior patterns due to injuries to the structure and therefore the functions of the forebrain. All primitive races that have lived on for long periods have done so by obeying Nature’s rigid laws.

Price’s ultimate conclusion from this is found in the closing words of the book: “life in all its fullness is this Mother Nature obeyed.”

His point that we and the tent caterpillar must both comply with the laws of nature to thrive is compelling, but his comparatively minor contention that this somehow depends on recognizing our common ancestry with the tent caterpillar seems at odds with large chunks of his own observations.

As John Durant pointed out in his 2011 AHS talk, the plights of civilized humans and the animals they hold captive have tended to go hand in hand through history. Price presented observations consistent with this. For example, on page 322 he discussed how until recently before the chapter was written, lions, tigers, leopards and other captive felines were not reproducing efficiently. When animal specialists observed African lions taking the organ meats as first choice from slain zebras, human captors began feeding their captive felines organ meats. Lo and behold, they began reproducing. It would seem from this that humans were not consuming poor diets because they considered themselves uniquely exempt among all animal life from the laws of nature. It would rather seem that humans were feeding both themselves and many other animals deficient diets because they didn’t understand the laws of nature.

Conversely, many if not all of the healthy “primitive” groups Price studied were creationists, and generally supported their obedience to the laws of nature with cultural justifications that had nothing to do with a recognition of common ancestry with animal life.

About a year ago Rami Nagel sent me the following quote from a paper Price had published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1936, which supports this point:

In the studies of Indians of the far north of Canada, I asked an old Indian how they obtained their wonderful wisdom regarding foods and the art of living. He told me that a great Power taught the Indians to watch the animals to see what they ate.

They imitated other animal life not because they recognized common ancestry with this life, but because “a great Power” taught them to do so.

The Tongans Price studied didn’t even acknowledge common ancestry with the white man. Price reported (p. 136) that they “acknowledge that they are the greatest warriors, and indeed the greatest people of the world. They will not step aside to let anyone pass since they say that when the world was created and populated they were the first to be made, next was the pig, and last the white man.”

The Neur tribe near the Nile in the Sudan (p. 148) ate liver not because they recognized common ancestry with other animals that eat liver, but because “they have a belief which to them is their religion, namely, that every man and woman has a soul which resides in the liver and that a man’s character and physical growth depend on how well he feeds that soul be eating the livers of animals.”

The Swiss consumed the nutrient-rich June butter not because they recognized common ancestry with animals but because they considered it a life-giving gift of God (p. 26):

They recognize the presence of Divinity in the life-giving qualities of the butter made in June when the cows have arrived for pasturage near the glaciers. [The priest] gathers the people together to thank the kind Father for the evidence of his Being in the life-giving qualities of butter and cheese made when the cows eat the grass near the snow line. This worshipful program includes the lighting of a wick in a bowl of the first butter made after the cows have reached the luscious summer pasturage. This wick is permitted to burn in a special sanctuary built for the purpose. The natives of the valley are able to recognize the superior quality of their June butter, and without knowing exactly why, pay it due homage.

It would seem to be modern Europeans and Americans who developed a scientific understanding of biological evolution and simultaneously developed a way to make foods that stimulate the pleasure centers in our brains without providing any nutrition.

Many people are led to study Price’s work because of their appreciation of biological evolution, and many are led to study Price’s work for entirely other reasons. In this particular sense, Price’s point that appreciating our common ancestry with other animal life may lead us to appreciate the necessity of obeying Mother Nature’s laws has some support. But it is only one possible path to this understanding. It is clear from Price’s work that a great diversity of views about human origins can support the willful and humble obedience to nature’s laws that allow the human being to thrive.

Read more about the author, Chris Masterjohn, here.

© 2015 The Weston A. Price Foundation for Wise Traditions in Food, Farming, and the Healing Arts.