Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Life and Death of Memes: Vegan Vs. Macrobiotic

This 2009 book by Lierre Keith is a fascinating reflection on how ideology permeates people's eating habits. Ideology, then, is based on memes and that's a new and developing field of science. 

John Michael Greer (the Archdruid) tells the whole story of the great cycle of the macrobiotic and vegan diets. The macrobiotic movement started in the 1970 and peaked sometimes in the 1980-1990s. Greer himself tried to follow the rules of the macrobiotic diet and he reports an experience similar to that told by Lierre Keith in her book "The Vegetarian Myth" with a Vegan diet. Both Greer and Keith suffered serious health problems with these diets until they finally decided to abandon them - and then felt much better!

The question of diets can be utilized to illustrate how memes propagate in the global mindsphere. Data from "Google Ngrams" provide the number of times that a word is used in books. It can be used to quantify Greer's claim that Veganism somehow supplanted Macrobioticism in a memetic cycle that covered a few decades. It is true: here are the data:

You can see how the "macrobiotic" meme went through a classic memetic trajectory, virally infecting the consciousness space of a fraction of humankind. Then, it lost potency and started fading. These data are up to 2008, if you use Google Trends to measure how many times the term "macrobiotic" was searched for in the Web, you see that it is in terminal decline from 2004.

If "macrobiotic" is a dying meme, that's not true for "vegan" which is still showing growth in both Google Ngrams and Google Trends, the latter showing the number of times that a term is searched for in the Web. Here are the Google Trends data:

So, veganism is still alive and kicking, but it is hard to say for how long. Most likely, it will follow the same cycle of the macrobiotic meme, peaking and declining in the coming decades. This is not so much related to whether one diet is better than another, or whether either or both diets bring benefits to the people following them. It is the hard law of memes - they have a life of their own and a limited existence time (*).

Still, the fact that there is so much interest in diets tells us something. What we eat is not just a question of survival - even though in Italy we have a saying that goes as "what doesn't kill you, fattens you." (**). Rather, what we eat is a cultural, political, and religious statement. Not for nothing, most of the world's religions tell to their followers that God worries about the details of what His sons and daughters eat or do not eat.

Today, many people perceive that the world's food industry is operating on the basis of a new kind of religion: the religion of growth. Granted, the growth of food production has been successful in eliminating the major famines that plagued the world up to a few decades ago. But the food industry's approach to feeding the world is, literally, a "scorched earth" strategy. It destroys the soil, kills everything, razes forests, destroys the fisheries, fills the planet with chemicals and more. In the West, the result is the obesity epidemics and plenty of health problem.

So, following a diet such as the Vegan one is mainly a political - perhaps religious - statement. A statement that many people feel like they need to make in order to fight the way they are treated by the food powers that be. We'll see more of this in the future and it wouldn't be surprising if a new diet-based religion will arise one day.

In the end, food and diets illustrate how difficult it is for humans to understand (let alone manage) complex systems. The human metabolic system is hugely complex and it becomes coupled to the chemistry and the biological activity of food, just as it is interlaced with political and economic questions about the opportunity of using more and more precious resources in order to produce certain kinds of food. The result is a giant confusion of different opinions that may veer all the way to physical attacking people who don't share the same way of thinking about diets. It happened during the 1st century AD and in more recent times it happened to Lierre Keith, attacked by vegan fanatics.

Memetics doesn' tell us how to manage complex systems, but it allows us to have some idea of how memes diffuse and fight each other in the human memesphere. So far, we can at least say that dieting memes grow and die as virtual viral entities, apparently independently of whether they are beneficial to people or not. Maybe one day we'll learn how to do better. 

(*) We (myself, Ilaria Perissi, and Sara Falsini) have a paper that provides a theoretical assessment of these cycles. It is accepted for publication on "Kybernetes". If you like to have a preprint, write to me or to Ilaria at ilariaperissi(thingeything) or Sara Falsini (sara.falsini(thingery)

(**) Quello che non ammazza, ingrassa


  1. In my experience, most vegetarians or vegans are ideologically opposed to eating animals. I don't think that position can stand up to any very serious analysis for a number of reasons. First, a cow left without human care would quickly succumb to predators. So failing to eat the cow does not protect the cow from death....unless you adopt it as a very expensive pet. Second, many scientists as well as lay people involved in climate change blame cows for heat trapping gasses. While that may be true in a narrow sense, the sequestration of carbon in grasslands and the rebuilding of soil fertility are dependent on grazing animals. One scientist labeled cows 'the ideal disturbance mechanism for building soil carbon and soil health'.

    All of which has nothing to do with defending Confined Animal Feeding Operations...which are proof that the Devil is still active in the affairs of Men.

    Then we turn to the science of health. My Exhibit 1 here is this relatively short video featuring Stanley Hazen, at the world renowned Cleveland Clinic:

    So eating red meat feeds some gut microbes which make TMAO which will contribute to your death from heart disease. Yet there is hope. Perhaps Mr. Hazen can facilitate the development of a drug which will kill or at least reduce the microbial culprits so you can continue to enjoy your steak. And we see Mr. Hazen flanked by billboards from drug companies.

    If you search on TMAO in PubMed, you can find a lot of different ideas about TMAO, from those identifying it as deadly to those who remain skeptical.

    If you want an example of disputes over non-meat products, look up Glutathione. The articles range from 'dangerous because it interferes with anti-cancer medications' to 'wonderful because it kills cancer.

    The diet most often endorsed by doctors who are not peddling anything in particular is the 'Mediterranean Diet', and particularly what the people on Crete were eating around 1960....lots of veggies and fruits and a little meat. No dairy, as I recall. Plenty of exercise with little stress.

    But we now have a flurry of excitement in the United States because some doctor has written a book claiming that lots of different veggies will poison you.

    What is a sane person supposed to make of all this? Most of the people I know no longer want to listen to doctors or scientists talk about diets. And macrobiotics was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

    Don Stewart

    1. Eat food.
      Not to much.
      Mostly plants.

    2. Michael Pollen's book - yes. Lots of common sense, absolutely worth reading

  2. Can we please please talk about plain old vegetarianism. I'm tired ot hearing
    condemnations from vegans. They think people who stop eating meat aren't "good enough" and we might as well go back to red meat. So stupid, demanding perfection according to a narrow deiinition. Self-righteous condemnations of moderates are guaranteed to put us in the hands of opposite extremists, who have no scruples about taking advantage of circular firing squad guilt-tripping.

    1. Agreed. The worst advertisements for veganism are vegans. Another of Greer's posts which may be relevant is the 'one drop fallacy' - and for vegans, you're either 100% in or you are the evil incarnation of eeeeeevillll.

      Another of Greer's posts mentions 'defector syndrome' - a situation where the cult members argue in such away that they only appeal to members of their group, but repel or disgust everyone else.

      I'd regard a person who eats vegetarian 5 days out of 7 to be better for the environment than one who eats meat 7 days a week, but that equation appears to be beyond vegans.

      I've had to unfollow a couple of vegan friends on FB, and completely defriend another who combined her veganism with a particularly nasty stripe of radical feminism (all men are evil). As though being a member of one faction wasn't enough.

    "Both Greer and Keith suffered serious health problems with these diets until they finally decided to abandon them - and then felt much better!"

  4. It's obvious you want to say something. However, I didn't get it. Speaking more directly would make it clearer and understandable.

    1. Probably you are right. Complexity is complex and it involves many things. Let me try to add something to make things clearer....

  5. Religion, politics, and now diet are on the list of things people are incapable thinking clearly about.

  6. More Dietary Science

    The study which led to butter making the cover of Time Magazine compared butter to an equivalent amount of sugar. Science is almost always about comparing Choice A to Choice B. But suppose we reframe the question:
    Where should I get the fat my body needs?

    Then the answers change. Sugar, widely regarded as being a toxin, is now out of the picture. And it turns out that the worst choice is partially hydrogenated oil, next worst is saturated fat, then come avocados and their kin, and the healthiest in terms of life expectancy is vegetable oils.

    The Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio argument has been around for at least 20 years, and may go on for some time. It is possible to imagine an experiment which focused on the choice between Omega 6 and Omega 3. But the best natural source of Omega 3 is fish, and fish have become highly contaminated. So do you allow Omega 3 from algae into your study? And so forth and so on.

    From the Public's perspective, someone is lying to them. Was Time Magazine lying? Is the European study lying? Is Cowboy Coffee in Santa Monica a hoax? Does anybody actually know?

    Don Stewart

  7. Reading this post I felt that you were less objective than normal. I can not address why people choose their diets.

    As a scientist I believe I chose mine for health reasons. I did not check out Data from "Google Ngrams” nor how much animals suffered. Nor did I follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. But a diet that could be described as a subset of these as a reasonable approximation.

    After my second bypass heart surgery my efforts to improve my health led me to my present diet. I have follow what is often called a whole food plant based diet except I also do not eat any food with any added oil. Since being on this diet since about 2010 I have lost weight, reduced my meds, and feel fine.

    My diet is based on the work of T. Colin Campbell and is described in his book Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition and Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn book Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease

    These two authors have sound scientific or medical back grounds.

    T. Colin Campbell is an American biochemist who specializes in the effects of nutrition on long-term health. He is the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University, the author of over 300 research papers.

    Dr. Esselstyn presently directs the cardiovascular prevention and reversal program at The Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. As you may know the Cleveland Clinic is one of the very best heart hospital in the world.

  8. no myth here... i'm a 90% vegan, plant based, low glycemic vegetarian since 1977 and am in excellent, outstanding health. plus its a low carbon diet that did not involving torturing/ killing any other animals to eat their flesh.

  9. My mother is from Firenza. Eggplant parmigiana, rigatoni, focaccia, bufala mozzarella caprese with crostini and agnello were staples... If I have a food religion, it is her cooking!

  10. The comments prove your point, Dr Bardi. "Fad" is not a strong enuf word for folks' fascination, gullibility, and awesome range of passionate beliefs. And I'd tend to believe that the vast majority of purveyors of the various diets are not snake oil salespersons but passionate believers themselves.

    When he was a kid, my Dad was fascinated by prestidigitation, a.k.a. "magic" and his idol was Howard Thurston. He met Thurston by chance on the streets of Grand Rapids, Michigan and spoke briefly TO the great master. The great master carried forth with passion carried on for quite a while about his dietary beliefs. With particular passion he spoke of how important it was to avoid mixing potatoes with meat.

    My religion is pretty much limited to Christianity, of the High Church Episcopal variety. I take Jesus at His word (Matt 15:18), that it's not what goes into your mouth but what comes out of your mouth that befouls you, and I doubt much that he was talking about a puking drunk.

    That said, my wife has a violent allergy to anything of the Astericiæ family and to peanuts; seeing her on a gurney in emergency wards is gut-wrenching. I am allergic to far too many uncooked vegetables; I do not enjoy tubes crammed down my throat to prevent asphyxiation, altho the intubation is preferable to asphyxiation.

    But my wife's pork chops cooked with raspberries and a range of condiments, served with baked potatoes and broccoli (cooked!), along with some Barolo (or other) is healthy, nutritious and as delightfully close to Ambrosia as a mortal can aspire to.

  11. I suspect Ugo has something up his sleeve... wait till the end of May :-)

  12. A brief comment on the use of Google's Ngram application: try a search for 'resource depletion' and look at the citations to the books themselves, as well as the distribution. And combine this with a search of Google Books. It's a terrific discovery tool. Searching a string of words like 'energy resources money economics' in Google Books is also revealing. Makes one wonder: what do we know, collectively, and when do we know it? What do we pay attention to, and when?

    This blog post from the other day raises the question of the 'missing term'. How Did America Go Bankrupt? Slowly, At First, Then All At Once!!! ( The author looks at population demographics and a selection of financial measures. We have people (mouths to feed) and money (class power and lots of obfuscation) but nothing material, like resources or energy, and no mention of depletion. The Limits to Growth model is too cognitively dissonant to gain traction in our collective understanding.

    I wonder if future generations will have the opportunity to look back at our Ngrams and memes, and scratch their heads?



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)