Imagine yourself a primitive member of the species Homo sapiens: standing upright, nearly hairless, with limited ability to navigate trees like chimpanzees and other apes. You are virtually helpless against the vicious predators of the savannah—no claws, but fingernails; diminutive canines and incisors. You can run, but not as fast as some of the larger predators. You are unable to tear the throat of an antelope with your hands or teeth, nor can you rip open the abdomen of a gazelle. You can’t fly and have only limited capacity to navigate water.
But you’re hungry, experiencing an intensity of hunger you and I have never felt. This is when instinct kicks in. You WILL find food. It might be found in an insect mound, or a wounded or aged animal, nuts cracked open with the hard shell with a rock, the roots of plants dug out with a stick. Hunger drives instinctive behavior, an innate knowledge of what to do, what to eat, in order to survive.
We have lost that connection to instinctive knowledge. Wouldn’t it be great if, upon meeting a dietitian to counsel you on diet, she simply said, “Well, follow your instincts: Then you’ll know what to do!” It doesn’t work that way in a modern world where we are divorced from our internal wisdom.
I had a beautiful little Boston Terrier, Sophie. She was loving, throwing herself on her back in that unique way dogs show submission, hoping for a tummy rub. She was raised her entire life on (grain-free) kibble that I purchased from the pet store. I never showed her how to hunt or kill. Yet, when I let her out into the backyard, this lovable, submissive creature reverted back to a killer carnivore, stalking squirrels, rabbits, and birds. And she’s been successful, tearing the throat of a rabbit, for instance, then consuming the flesh and organs.
Why do animals maintain the instinctive knowledge of what represents “food” while we lose this capacity? How is it that we are so influenced by such non-instinctive factors as slick marketing, even if the product can be classified as “food” only in a very loose way? (Think Twinkies or synthetic baby formula.) Is abundance the driver of this separation? Is it due to the presence of artificial enhancers of appetite that fool us, such as those in wheat flour and cornstarch, or the sugars in sweets?
We have somehow been separated from our own internal natural knowledge—it’s there, to be sure—of what is food. We spent several million years since our transition from Australopithecines exercising our internal script in finding food. Between 4000 and 12,000 years ago (differing in the various parts of the world and with different grains) we began to view grasses, plants inedible in their native state, as food: wheat (einkorn and emmer), rices, maize, oats, sorghum, millet, barley. Until that relatively recent time, no member of Homo sapiens stumbled on a wild field of grass and declared “We eat well tonight!”
Grasses: ubiquitous, hardy, populating virtually every corner of the earth, from tropics to tundra. We learned that, by processing the seeds or other parts of the grass, we could eat these ubiquitous and often non-perishable items and survive another day. It was not part of our evolutionary programming, it was not something immediately evident as food. Grasses were something, like poisonous tiger blowfish or deadly toadstools, that we managed to incorporate into diet through various manipulations.
But what if you and your family were starving, deprived of food for the last two weeks. Enter a forest or jungle, would you recognize what constitutes food? Desperate and hungry, I believe you would. You would promptly kill an animal with a makeshift spear or trap, net some fish, gather shellfish, gather edible berries and nuts, decide which plants were edible. That knowledge is there, just clouded by convenience, the amped-up tastes of modern food, and the awful dietary information passed off as U.S. Dietary Guidelines.