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Overeating & Sex

A very thoughtful friend of mine, who is a man of the left, does me the honor of engaging with me in an on-going e-mail conversation about various public-policy issues. We agree on a surprising number of issues (for example, that free trade is desirable and that the minimum wage is not).

In a recent e-mail he suggested that some government intervention might be appropriate to reduce Americans’ consumption of fatty, non-nutritious foods. He pointed out (correctly) that we are genetically evolved to eat a lot of fatty foods when such foods are available. This genetic disposition served us well in our evolutionary past when food was seldom abundant. But because in the industrialized west today food is always abundant, our genes propel many of us to eat in ways that threaten our long-term health prospects — that is, to overeat and become obese.

My friend is seriously aware of the serious problems such government intervention would entail, but he remains open to the possibility that our genetic make-up might justify some such intervention.

I disagree with him here, strongly.

Here’s what I told him: “Our genes being evolved to deal with conditions quite different from those of a super-prosperous, bourgeois society does indeed cause our choices in modern society sometimes to be less-than-ideal. But be careful: if evolutionary psychology and biology are used to justify government regulation of people’s eating habits or smoking habits, watch out when conservatives get an even stronger hold on the state’s regulatory levers. I can hear them now: ‘You know, our friends on the left are fond of evolutionary biology. We should respect that fondness. After all, the theory of natural selection says that men are evolved to maximize the number of sexual partners each enjoys. Such a preference for multiple partners made sense in our evolutionary past. But in today’s bourgeois world, where stable families (the data show!) provide greater economic prospects for their members than do broken families, we must crack down on pre-marital sex, adultery, and divorce.’”