Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

I’m in the process of writing a post, but came across this paper that is too good not to share. In 1912, the Scottish anthropologist and anatomist Arthur Keith published the paper The Functional Nature of the Caecum and Appendix in the British Medical Journal (full text available to all- nerds and medical historians rejoice!).  This article discusses some intricacies of the cecum and appendix, but his conclusions will sound familiar to anyone familiar with the paleo approach.

The author points out that there was a growing opinion (in the early 1900s) that the large intestine had become (at least in humans) useless and dangerous! Indeed, in the popular 1903 book The Nature of Man, the author claims “It is no longer rash to say that not only the rudimentary appendix and the caecum, but the whole of the large intestine are superfluous, and that their removal would be attended with happy results”. Part of the argument of this time was that the modern diet no longer needed bacterial action for full digestion, making the large bowel superfluous.  Not only was the large intestine useless, but it was also possibly dangerous (being termed by one surgeon a “cesspool”).

Arthur Keith, however, offered another approach: “in place of appealing to surgery to adapt our digestive tract to our present dietary, it seems possible that we may discover a diet which is suited to our present digestive tract”.

The concluding paragraphs ring true 100 years after they were written:

When we think of how the diet of highly civilized races has changed-in quality, quantity, and character-in comparatively recent times, one must marvel that our organization, which was evolved to deal with a more primitive and more precarious supply of food, has accommodated itself to modern conditions so well as it has. We know that beyond the neolithic period, when cereals began to be cultivated, some six thousand years ago, there lies a vast hinterland of rude human existence, when man must have lived on the natural products of the country. With the discovery of fire and of the artificial preparation of food (we know that man had discovered the use of fire before the end of the Pleistocene period) the task of the alimentary system must have been greatly altered. The greatest changes, however, are those of more recent centuries- the concentrated nature of food, its plentiful supply, its highly artificial character. When we come to realize how slowly evolutionary processes have affected man’s body in past times, we can hardly expect our internal digestive system to adapt itself to the rapid pace demanded by the ever-accumulating resources of civilization.

Thus an impartial survey of the evidence at present at the disposal of the anatomists indicates very plainly that we cannot hope to prevent or cure the ailments to which the great bowel is liable so long as we regard it as a hopelessly injurious or useless structure. On the other hand, if we regard it as having all the anatomical appearances of a useful structure, our outlook becomes hopeful if we can only discover what its uses are. If we only knew how to keep it suitably and profitably employed by altering our diet to meet its requirements, it will, we have every reason to think, serve us and future generations just as well as it answered the digestive needs of primitive and successful races in the past.

Yeah- what he said!


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