A glance at the scientific history of the saying “you are what you eat” via Steven Shapin

I attended a full-house talk last night by Harvard historian Steven Shapin. Shapin is one of the world’s most highly-regarded historians of science, and his talk focused on the old adage “you are what you eat.”

He began by noting that the saying is often limited to a cultural inference, via Brillat-Savarin, but that Feuerbach’s similar Der Mensch ist, was er ißt might be thought a materialist counterbalance. Shapin thus set out to consider how the “ethos” of this saying did not begin with Brillat-Savarin, but has indeed been central to humans’ relationship to food since at least the Roman era if not before.

Shapin stepped quickly backward from Feuerbach to the Romans, taking us through a survey of Galen’s extensive medical (and philosophical) notes on the topic. The Romans’ analogous depiction of food and human (hot pepper, hot temper et.) was explored historically, with hints at the discursive: how identity is constructed through labels (the Buddhists would say “mere name”). In the case of Galen, it was fascinating to see how the words used to “construct” food were inseparable from the words used to “construct” a person’s physical & emotional identity. Personally, I found this discursive element worth pursuing in depth, but we all attend these talks with disciplinary biases and Shapin is a historian, after all. Shapin surveyed how food and human have not only been “depicted” together, but quite possibly “constituted” together, as part of one overarching scientific/belief system or world fabric. For the Romans, to think of them separately would have seemed ludicrous. Of course, other civilizations had already developed what–today–could be described as strikingly resonant philosophies of medicine, nutrition and wellbeing (think Chinese, Ayurvedic, etc.), but Shapin stuck mostly to Western history.

Shapin also, I suppose, introduced Galen of Pergamon to Galen Weston, highlighting (to my ear, at least) a certain ontological affinity between the ancient and modern–tying the Romans’ analogous relationship of food/body to modern calorimetry (what in practice, for most of us, I would call “label-gazing”). How? Why? Well food for us today may indeed have many angles, but the ground of its “being” as it were, has been (at least for the past fifty years) widely accepted as a set of chemicals & chemical reactions. This is the set default for food “being” and “behaving.” Therefore, because food is for us today the product of a scientific vernacular, so are our bodies and dispositions. Apparently.

Yet in his situated science terms, Shapin was never as reductive as I am being, and amusingly & often gracefully drifted away from these terms in emphasizing that food (like a body) also has a social/cultural composition.

That said, when Shapin’s talk strayed into the realm of the cultural, one got the sense that he was a bit of a newcomer to food studies and happy to take relative stabs in the dark, which might have annoyed others more closely involved with food topics. For example, that the Atkins’ diet took hold because it was about losing mass while eating meat, yet meat equates to luxury, and this in general typifies the 90s and at the same time can explain its success. There is nothing wrong with stuff like that–and I quite enjoyed the dialogue–but what I craved were a few more pauses, then a return to a more detailed historical/scientific analysis of just one or two more aspects of the periods he suveyed .

In the end, Shapin finished by noting that with the exponential globalization of countless local understandings of food (both on the nutritive and cultural planes) , we in fact are moving out of the certain era of calorimetry into something quite uncertain, a breaking period of difficult & tasty contradictions following one of rigorous diagnosis. I won’t get into the interplay between local and global, to which I thought he was not quite precise enough, and I do not fully agree. Shapin is awesome, though, and was riveting to watch in fielding a diverse and unfiltered set of questions. He once even joked “when I don’t feel comfortable answering a question, I usually say it is a dialectic”. So okay, dialectics a-given, are we entering another gastronomical Middle Ages? I sure as hell hope not. But as a transitional period, it is much like that early-19th century époque of Brillat-Savarin & Feuerbach themselves, a most provocative time to utter to your neighbour,Dis moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai qui tu es.

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