A noisy optimum

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Reading The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815, and something reminded me of my post The Persistence of Bad Habits:

…To put the statistic another way, the net calorific value of the potato is 3.6 times that of grain….

The potato was also less vulnerable to adverse weather than most other staple foodstuffs…A community that could fall back on potatoes when this happened was a community that had freed itself from the thread of famine…governments were keen to promote its cultivation. For reasons that are still not clear, their efforts bore least fruit in France…In Tolouse, for example, Robert Forster found that peasants would not even feed potatoes to their pigs, for fear that their meat would be contaminated…The French were not, of course, alone in their prejudices. In 1770 famine-afflicted Neapolitans refused to touch a boatload of potatoes sent as a gift; burghers of Kolberg in Prussia told Frederick the Great, ‘the things have neither smell nor tatse, not even dogs will eat them, so what are they to us?’; and Russian peasants distrused the potato because it was not mentioned in the Bible….

The author notes that potatoes were brought back from the New World in the 16th century, but there was still strong resistance across most of Europe with the exception of the British Isles (especially Ireland) to their cultivation as late as the 18th century! In part this seems due to the structural biases in the way the peasants of Europe made their agriculture decisions and controlled their land. Communal consensus was critical and traditionalists could in practice veto innovation. In places like Russia the peasants were invariably on the margins already and so were especially suspicious of change, and they distrusted their overlords for whom they tilled the land only grudgingly. If there was such resistance to change in early modern Europe, one can not be surprised that agriculture took 4,000 years to spread across the continent!

Nevertheless in the long view peasant resistance to change was probably not totally irrational. As I noted above there was a particularly strong fixation upon custom and tradition in the marginal lands of Russia where communities were extremely risk averse. And Ireland is to some extent an illustration of the “Malthusian Trap” that Greg Clark pointed to in A Farewell to Alms, their acceptance of a productive new crop resulted a population increase which subsequently was subject to a famine of more massive scope in the 19th century when the potato crop did fail. Clark’s point that innovation for most of human history did not result in anything more than transitory gains in quality of life; more production was invariably consumed by natural increase in population after several generations. This explains how farming became the dominant lifestyle of human beings when the preponderance of evidence suggests that it is, for the typical human, inferior in quality of life measures (leisure, nutritional balance, etc.) to that of the hunter-gatherer. For farming communities on the expanding frontier life was invariably one of health & wealth, perhaps exemplified in our recent past by the fecundity and robustness of the typical American. The United States is such a young country that just as our frontier closed and the Malthusian Trap should have sprung an economic revolution in human history had already swept that inevitability aside; productivity kept increasing and fertility started dropping.

But the psychology of the 18th century is in some ways still operative today. We are a species subject to fad and fashion, but when it comes to food old habits are often the last to die. And so they should be, what we put in our bodies is one of the most important set of decisions we make over our lifetimes. The aversion to GMOed foodstuffs and a preference to “authentic” and “organic” crops have many causes, but one of them is simply a romantic attachment to the ways of our ancestors (or at least what we perceive those ways to be!). Of course the consumer society is different from a peasant society, and so some elasticity in preference exists which might not have been found in the past simply because the craving for the exotic and novel loom much larger in the minds of humans who don’t live on the margins of famine.

A bigger question is to what extent societies are functionally adapted to their local ecologies as opposed to a flux of partly arbitrary norms which serve as the primary environment for individual fitness. Consider the idea that consumption of beef, and meat in general, in South Asia was an adaptation to local ecological conditions. Cattle were critical as producers of milk and draft animals. Meat is subject to spoilage in tropical conditions. So the ban on beef and vegetarianism are local adaptations. The problem with this idea is that it seems that both these practices were concentrated in the elite reaches of Indian culture until relatively recently, with adoption of non-consumption of beef being a hallmark of tribal assimilation into Hindu society and vegetarianism as indicative of Sanskritization on the part of lower castes attempting to move up the ladder of status & purity. In other words, if particular customs were adaptations to local ecological constraints, it is surprising that the groups which were least subject to these constraints propagated the practices. Wealthy families after all could afford wastefulness and conspicuous consumption to signal their attainment of material security. Rather, some have suggested that in fact the socially marginal consumed beef because their options were so few, while only the wealthy should afford a relatively well rounded vegetarian diet which substituted for the density of meat and did not result in nutritional deficiency.1

This is not to say that all functional arguments are irrelevant. Spiciness of cuisine correlates strongly with local climatic conditions after all. But many more local idiosyncrasies may simply be particular norms & values which serve as totems for elites, and which spread downward via emulation. The fact that baby names tend to drift like neutral genes illustrates that important and socially significant culture products can be relatively unconstrained by anything except for fashion. Of course one must add a layer of historical context to these models; the correlation between Old Testament names and Puritan religious beliefs in 17th century England and America is no coincidence. But in this case it illustrates that different social groups may have different norms, and to optimize individual fitness and increase social acceptability within the group one selects or is born into one must adhere to the norms of the group. Ecology is secondary to sociology.

In evolutionary biology processes such as runaway sexual selection are subject to constraint due to the decrement in fitness that they imply at the boundaries. The most extreme case is a population which simply goes extinct due to the extremity of their preferences. Consider a sequence of generations subject to runaway sexual selection concurrent with years of ecological productivity. Subject to weak fitness constraints one can imagine a population shifting in phenotypic value so as to be extremely maladapted when the environment regime becomes less favorable. Nature corrects. And so does human culture; sects which are celibate, such as the Shakers, often have short histories. During times of religious ferment they may draw upon a large base of recruits, but when society wide fervor declines they may find that their cultural strategy is just unsustainable. But the sample space of strategies which humans can engage in is enormous even if you remove the ones which are relatively sensitive fluctuations in the environment. One can still leave room for functional constraint upon cultural forms and still adhere to the hypothesis that most cultural variation serves the role of horizontal group demarcation

Addendum: The Pursuit of Glory is a very good book by the way. It is a good balance of social and narrative history, with a bias toward the former.

1 – Note that being a non-vegetarian does not imply meat consumption every day in the pre-modern peasant societies of Asia. Rather, it means that on occasion one may consume meat, but it is a rare luxury.



  1. Among the Ache hunter-foragers in South America, men forgo all sorts of foodstuffs that would increase their mean rate of energy intake. They prefer to hunt larger, more dangerous stuff that will be shared among the entire group. One hypothesis about this is that it increases the status of good hunters: they take something of a nutritional hit to have a better chance with the ladies. 
    Is there something status-related like that going on in early modern Europe, as far as potatoes go? If Ireland and France went in different directions, looks like it could’ve been a small difference in initial conditions. All it takes is for the whim of a few “opinion leaders” in France who declare that no real man would grow potatoes. The Russian peasant example sounds closer, but I don’t know if that’s status-related rather than not trying to upset your community.

  2. All it takes is for the whim of a few “opinion leaders” in France who declare that no real man would grow potatoes 
    no, the text makes it clear that french gov. and elites tried to convince the peasants to grow potatoes (theory that it would increase their rents and reduce risk of famine). the royal family made a big show of eating potatoes and being painted with potato plants and weird shit like that. it was the people who had to do the actual farming who balked.

  3. Don’t forget that potatoes are a nightshade, most of which are deadly poison. If we hadn’t grown up eating them we might balk too. Tomatoes are another nightshade, and there was deep suspicion against them in the US in early days for that reason. 
    Those peasants might not be as dumb as you think. They had little reason to think that their betters had best interests in mind. Maybe a thinning of the population?

  4. My guess is that in India meat consumption was a luxury of the prosperous non-Brahmans. Incidental meat could be a dietary supplement for the poor, but except on arid grasslands (and except for waste eaters like pigs and chickens) I don’t think that animal husbandry is ever a productive use of land in terms of calories-protein per acre. (I haven’t read Blanning, but I think that his 3.6 figure for potatoes is calories per acre. (Incidental meat: one tribal people contracts to catch rats, gophers, etc. in farmers’ fields and eats them). 
    By and large I think that beef eating can only be supplemental in any poor country, though, classifiable as incidental since it’s usually the consumption of worn out draft animals (just as chicken eating is usually the consumption of superfluous roosters and old tired hens). In Taiwan many will eat pork but not beef, because water buffalo are primarily draft animals and end up with a dog/horse-like semi-human personal status. (Only a small proportion of Chinese are devout Buddhists, though the great majority dabble. Cofucian anti-Buddhism was characteristic of some elite groups, I think). 
    I have also been told that it’s been a long time since Brahmans were either especially rich or especially powerful. They seem to be a cultural elite. According to Dumont (Homo Hierarchus, recommended) the many ascetic teaching which accept non-Brahmans mimic the Brahmans in many way, e.g. vegetarianism, becoming super-Brahmans (reborn?) purer than the born Brahmans. Dumont describes the caste / subcaste system as a hierarchy of purity, with adjacent sub-castes jockeying for primacy on the ladder (and willing to intermarry.) In India and SE Asia status seems to be very closely tied to hygiene and smell, with the dietary rules as much hygienic as moral (onions and garlic are also forbidden in Chinese Buddhism). 
    In China meat (or even eggs)was a rare treat day-to-day among most of the peasantry, but meat feasts were a standard sign of even minimal prosperity and respectability.

  5. I don’t know the schedule, but potatoes became dominant in northern continental Europe including Russia and Poland at some point.  
    In China potatoes made an enormous population increase possible around 1700-1800 but are always though of as a rice replacement, a poverty food or a famine food. One Taiwan student of mine loved it in Germany except for the fact that potatos were the staple.

  6. The doctrine of the similiarity of forms was still widespread among the common people. Potatoes look vaguely like they have a horrible skin disease, and reportedly people though they caused leprosy – for the same reason they thought lungwort could cure lung ailments. 
    Supposedly, Catherine the Great came up with a clever way to get the peasants to accept the new food source, after they had refused to grow and eat them. She arranged for the potatoes to be planted in large, fenced fields, with signs declaring the contents to be the property of the nobles and threatening dire consequences for theft. A short while later enough people had experienced the illicit tubers that potato was considered a national dish.

  7. Numbers… What do you mean potatoes have more calorific value than grain? kCal/kg?  
    The advantage of potato is that it is possible to grow it where cereal will not, cold and wet climates. And needs almost no cultivation – some hoeing and thats all.  
    I think you are giving too much weight to subjective reasons, people are avid experimenters everywhere and adopt good crops and feedstuffs in no time.  
    Agricultural extension (invented in the USA) has been suspended all over the world because of needless.

  8. Potatoes are not described in the Bible, and I thought I read somewhere that it was the reason for the slow spread of this and other crops from the New World. Religion was treated as a cumulative knowledge base that helped people successfully navigate life’s challenges. Eating healthful, non-poisonous foods was important and the unknown potatoes were suspect.

  9. Don’t forget that potatoes are a nightshade, most of which are deadly poison. 
    Yep- the popular explanation to initial potato-avoidance in Europe is that many peasants did try them, but tried to eat the fruit and/or leaves by mistake and got sick. I don’t know whether there are good sources for this or if this is an explanation tacked on afterwards, but I guess it might have seemed more sensible to eat the fruit than the weird root-bulbs. 
    In Finland, potatoes did not replace grain as a staple as much as a kind of small turnip, which was definitely a good trade in terms of energy content. And potatoes were better for making booze…

  10. They seem to be a cultural elite. According to Dumont  
    be careful about overemphasizing dumont. some scholars point out that brahmins were tops in the system in part because they were the elites that the british generally sought. but some of the ethnographic data suggests that the elite to emulate is contingent upon local circumstances. in places where hindu military elites still dominated lower castes often had myths they were fallen kshatriyas, not brahmins. in places where banias were ascendant (usually gujarat) they were emulated. in much of india right before the british came the ashraf muslims had marginalized the kshatriyas so that brahmins were the tops in the hindu hierarchy (the marthas were themselves only recently kshatriyaized so they weren’t suitable candidates for emulation since they were themselves new elites).

  11. also, let me be totally frank, several scholars accuse of dumont of creating a brahmin-centric narrative because he relied mostly in the literature which brahmins provided him! see interrogating caste or castes of mind.

  12. and yes, it was the terror about nightshade.

  13. Similarly with Confucians in China. The military, legalist, and other realistic schools of China are only now beginning to be appreciated. 
    I came away from Dumont thinking that the Brahmans were much less important than I had thought — they were neither very wealthy nor very powerful after approximately the Mughal conquest, and a lot of the ascetic sects were caste-independent rather than Brahman. Dumont was probably more sympathetic to the Brahmans than he should have been, but I don’t think that he overestimated them. 
    The civil-military war-peace split and the wealth-culture split are found in all advanced societies, differently conformed. Before the modern age the trade / capitalist class was always ranked low, but it always had an importance beyond its rank. The low rank given them was more suppressive than descriptive.

  14. they were neither very wealthy nor very powerful after approximately the Mughal conquest, and a lot of the ascetic sects were caste-independent rather than Brahman 
    hm. well, compared to the typical indian they were relatively well off. i have read that dumont emphasized their spiritual status as opposed to their material, but most brahmins were already engaged in secular enterprises by the mughal period.

  15. We’re at the point where some empiricism is needed. I certainly don’t know about this. I don’t think that they had the status of, e.g., hereditary nobility in Europe or landowners in China.

  16. hereditary nobility in Europe or landowners in China. 
    no. but gentry in many cases. in south india hindu kings gave large land grants to brahmins. in bengal hindu brahmins were the zamindars, absentee landlords.

  17. I’m far beyond what I know. What proportion of landowners were Brahmans, what proportion of Brahmans were wealthy, and what proportion of the whole population were Brahmans? I’m not being rhetorical or snarky, this is an interesting question I’ve never thought about much.

  18. What proportion of landowners were Brahmans, what proportion of Brahmans were wealthy, and what proportion of the whole population were Brahmans?  
    from wiki 
    In 1931 (the last Indian census to record caste), Brahmins accounted for 4.32% of the total population. Brahmins even in Uttar Pradesh, where they were most numerous, constituted just 9% of the recorded population. In Tamil Nadu they formed less than 3% and in Andhra Pradesh, less than 2%. 
    there is variation state by state. in kerala the brahmins had a lot of land given to them by the rulers but the british ended up expropriating a lot of it.  
    it is probably fair to say that most wealthy people were not brahmins (e.g., banias, chettiars and marwaris are all more focused on wealth). but a disproportionate number of the gentry were definitely brahmins (the rentier class if you will), and later the lucrative professions. but there is variation region by region.

  19. To John Emmerson, 
    I have to disagree with your comment ‘I don’t think that animal husbandry is ever a productive use of land in terms of calories-protein per acre.’ 
    I worked some years in the third world in animal agriculture. Whenever given the opportunity small scale farmers will integrate animals into their farms. Animals increase efficiency in several ways, recycling inedible materials, providing essential raw materials, and through necessary nutrients in the diet.  
    These people are not stupid. They know that without animals they are so many steps closer to starvation, to say nothing of malnutrition.

  20. Tom Bri: yeah, in a very limited sense in terms of eating stuff inedible for humans, serving as draft animals, and providing leather, sinew, bone, wool, etc.  
    Animal food isn’t necessary for nutrition though, except for a small amount for vitamin B12. Meateaters are bigger and stronger because they are more likely to be people who can afford to eat as much as they want. 
    In calories / protein per acre, as far as I know vegetable production is always better than pastoral production except when vergetable production is very difficult (arid areas and mountains). That was my primary point.

  21. The legend we were served up at school is that the french peasants (distinguished by writers since they were still “gauls” for their robust good sense) had to be tricked into thieving the wretched things from heavily guarded Govt. trial plots, all previous attempts to coerce them having run afoul of the hard french heads of these “scum”. 
    They are unchancy to store, heavy, have to be kept basically at ground level, in a countryside absolutely heaving with pigs and human pilferers. Grain can be kept in deep hidden silos or up in the roofspace, dry, for many years, should (as happens, like this summer and the last, by us) the growing season be a drought, or nastier than actual winter. And you had better get them chitted and in the lazybeds by Lady Day, or you’ve lost every single one. Nothing, nada, not a sausage, left unsprouted. And if you’ve not had the shaws away and lifted them by moonlight, they’ll poison you anyway. Light-shot. What a carry-on. 
    Barley, the staff of life since we took up this farming lark round here, is hardy well beyond wheat, won’t be cast down by heavy rain, gives you a roof as well as a bannock. And so what if the year’s so wet, it starts to rot in the ear before it ripens (I’ve seen this many times). Why, we shall ding it down anyway, sack it, let it sprout , and dry it with heat, for the sun never shines, so as it shall keep a lifetime, if it don’t go ‘steely’. 
    As the romans were puzzled to find us doing. 
    Then, even if it’s raining (and how likely is that, now?) we can do this. 
    Hobbits keep narsty taters. We likes it, strong and tasty.

  22. Hello John Emmerson, 
    The experience of several thousand years and the choices of farmers throughout that period suggest that animal agriculture adds, not subtracts calories. 
    I believe you are making an unrealistic comparison, between pure animal ag and pure vegetable. That almost never occurs. Both are integrated and add to the efficiency of the other. As an example, on our family farm we grow no animals, but every year part of the land is planted in forage crops which are sold to neighbors who raise cows.  
    Crop rotation is part of basic land management to insure fertile soil and to help control weeds and insects. Without a market for the forage this practice would be uneconomic and fewer farmers would do it, leading to higher chemical pest control and gradual loss of land fertility. 
    I hope I am not coming across as too argumentative here, but this issue touches one of my sore points. There is a lot of propaganda against animal agriculture that is simply based on lack of knowledge of farming, or on vegetarian propaganda.

  23. We aren’t in a Malthusian subsistence situation now, not even globally, so agriculture doesn’t have to be conducted on a maximum-nutrition-per-acre basis. What I’ve said is only relevant to that point. (The “Diet for a Small Planet” people exaggerated the degree to which our situation is Malthusian now.) 
    As far as I know, however, from that point of view animal husbandry is only productive when utilizing unproductive land and when salvaging inedible vegetable products. By and large, in Malthusian circumstances agriculture is mixed, but with a very heavy imbalance toward vegetable foods. Animals raised are often draft animals (and an incidental source of food), and meat tends to be reserved for the rich or for festival occasions.

  24. They are unchancy to store, heavy, have to be kept basically at ground level, in a countryside absolutely heaving with pigs and human pilferers. Grain can be kept in deep hidden silos or up in the roofspace, dry, for many years 
    But you don’t need to dry and thresh the potatoes first…

  25. But you don’t need to dry and thresh the potatoes first…Ooh arr. The usual way was to rick it on staddles in just the same condition as it came off the field (ie damp in any reasonable person’s estimation) with the yummy ears to the middle. And hope it didn’t spontaneously combust after it was thatched. Then bit by bit bring it in, often just the ears, to dry out in the (relatively) warm dry and surprisingly large space above the circulation level of the house (ie the mud) as only the direst paupers would let the fire go out, even in “summer”. Or in hot-tub sized kilns dug into a bank. Which are a bit good at accidentally turning wet grain, which just sprouts regardless, into malt. 
    I’m on about their actual food here, the chunk exacted by the master was carted off and dealt with in a semi-industrialised manner, granaries, mills, coerced labour threshing it and all that. The proper feudal areas had to do the lot that way as it were agin the law to do yer own. But they weren’t about to start growing potatoes, as the landlord was growing grain for profit, (and probably still is). It’s in more marginal areas with crap (or no!) soil that the tenants get spuds shoved up them. That was the irish disaster. All the cornland was taken up by cashcrop and the labourers’ own subsistence holdings crammed onto basically useless land and told to get on with it. 
    And just one botched growing season = game over when you’re keeping potatoes, they’ve got a rubbish shelf-life, and can’t even be turned into biscuity things and kept. *mooches over to kitchen and extracts 5-year-old oatcake to nibble*