This is the sixth 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, part 3, part 4, and part 5. This post will cover Price’s support for what we could call “real food,” and why he considered alternative approaches to be based on the accumulation of knowledge at the expense of wisdom.
Price expressed his support for “real food” most concisely in the following statement (NAPD, p. 294):
Great harm is done, in my judgment, by the sale and use of substitutes for natural foods.
Price made this statement after discussing the poor absorption of minerals in the form of “inorganic chemicals” rather than as part of foods rich in liberal quantities of fat-soluble vitamins. In general, though, Price’s sentiment derived from a recognition that our knowledge is limited. The following quote illustrates this principle (p. 258):
I do not use the term “vitamins” exclusively because as yet little is known about the whole group of organic catalysts, although we have considerable knowledge of the limited number which are designated by the first half dozen letters of the alphabet.
Of course we know a lot more about vitamins now than we did in Price’s day, but what is our knowledge in relation to the total pool of truth? My guess, as I’ve written about before, is that it looks something like this:
Most of what is true probably isn’t known, the bulk of which is likely untestable or unimaginable. The main defect in this diagram is that it fails to show that some unknown portion of what is “known” is probably wrong. In any case, I think Price had at least some sense of this principle and would have retained his humility even in the face of a doubling or tripling of his knowledge.
Although Price attributed the immunity to disease seen among the non-modernized groups he studied to their accumulated wisdom, he contrasted their approach with the pursuit of accumulated knowledge alone that was characteristic of much of the science of his time (p. 301):
There are two programs now available for meeting the dental caries problem. One is to know first in detail all the physical and chemical factors involved and then proceed. The other is to know how to prevent the disease as the primitives have shown and then proceed. The former is largely the practice of the moderns. The latter is the program suggested by these investigations.
Price was not against learning “in detail all the physical and chemical factors involved,” and in fact he devoted considerable effort to learning about these factors. His opposition here is to insisting on completing this knowledge first, before proceeding to address the problem of modern degeneration by tapping into the solutions found among the successful “primitive” groups he studied.
Price observed the backward steps that modern society kept taking with each new piece of knowledge it obtained. With a little knowledge, it first removed the vitamins from its bread, and with more, it supplemented isolated vitamins. Price cited a study showing that isolated vitamin D2 caused placental calcification and fetal kidney stones when given to pregnant women, whereas cod liver oil did not. That isolated vitamin D2 did not have the same properties as his combination of high-vitamin cod liver oil and concentrated butter oil was among the first observations that led him to postulate the existence of an “activator X.” After seeing the tooth decay that resulted from white flour and sugar and the soft tissue calcification that resulted from pure vitamin D, how could Price be anything but discouraged by the track record that the progress of knowledge generated?
The problem was that many, once they obtained some new knowledge, were tempted to sacrifice the wisdom of previous generations rather than using their knowledge to further enrich the pool of accumulated wisdom. Price was humble enough to learn from the Swiss, who “recognize the superior quality of their June butter, and without knowing exactly why, pay it due homage.” Others would simply discard this recognition because it wasn’t rooted in the superior epistemology of modern science, considering it perhaps even worthless precisely because the Swiss paid this homage “without knowing exactly why.”
Of course it would be just as problematic to discard the scientific method and blindly accept every human tradition. It would be similarly problematic to discard our own experience in deference to either of these sources of knowledge. How are we to respect and embrace the wisdom of our ancestors, while using science and our personal experience to refine and enrich the pool of accumulated wisdom? In the next and final post of this series, I will address these questions as I attempt to set Price’s work within the context of other forms and sources of evidence.
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