Bad Habits

This is the outline text of Peter Marsh's lecture to the Institute for Cultural Research at the King's Fund, London, November 17 2001.



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In Praise of Bad Habits – Part 3

ICR Lecture – November 17th 2001

Let me now just return to the issue of risk, before I work towards the final theme of this lecture.

At the core of all healthism is a concern to eradicate risk in people's lives. On the surface this appears to be a liberal, caring aim and is robustly defended by those in the health education and promotion fields. Risk, however, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas and others have pointed out, is now both a politicised and a moralised concept. Risk is now the secular equivalent of sin. In this sense exposing oneself to risk, when other options are available, is to act in a sinful manner.

But there is a further issue here, and that is to do with the (often arbitrary) definition of risk. Which particular aspects of lifestyle are to be defined as risky/sinful, and to which segments of society will 'persuasion' be applied for the 'good of society as a whole'? These are not abstract questions for they raise yet another insidious component of healthism – its culturally divisive nature. Risk determination is undertaken by a relatively small, white, middle class elite group in Western society – scientists and health professionals. These are people who, in the main, do not smoke, drink to excess or engage in promiscuous sexual activities. They have low-fat and low-sodium diets and tend to be over-represented in the gymnasium and aerobic exercise groups. (They might, to some people, also appear phenomenally dull.)

Engaging in risk – smoking, drinking, creating the possibility of sexually transmitted diseases, eating fat, sugar, salt and avoiding too much exercise – is characteristic of a different strata of society – the poor and marginalised, the working classes, ethnic minorities and 'deviant' groups. When the proponents of healthism are urging changes in lifestyle in order to achieve, in their terms, 'well-being', they are advocating changes for others much more often than they are for themselves. In this sense they are essentially moralists seeking to stigmatise specific members of society.

Charles Rosenberg, Professor of the History of Science at Harvard, emphasises this point crisply:

"Cultural values and social location have always provided the materials for self-serving constructions of epidemiological risk. The poor, the alien, the sinner have all served as convenient objects for such stigmatising speculations."

The point about healthists is that they have what Mary Douglas calls a "sense of individual control over social forces." Because of their relatively privileged positions they feel that they have a personal stake in the culture to which they belong, and therefore wish to adopt lifestyles to maximise such benefits. But, as the writer David Shaw points out in his book The Pleasure Police, in a somewhat less academic manner than Douglas and her colleagues:

"… poor people – the starving, the jobless and the homeless, whether here or abroad, with children or without – are not the ones demanding bans on smoking, silicone breast implants or oily popcorn in the local movie theater … No, the alarmists – the Cassandras who see death where'er they look – tend to be people with higher than average education and socio-economic status … who want to be absolutely sure they live long enough to enjoy it, except that they're so busy worrying that they don't have the time, energy and appetite to enjoy anything – and, in the process of trying turn their personal anxiety into public policy, they are also depriving the rest of us of much pleasure we should be able to take from life."

The demonising of risk-takers has identifiable social and cultural functions which, in my view, run quite counter to positive forces which lie at the very roots of our evolution. We have attained the benefits of a safe and civilised world precisely because our ancestors were risk-takers. From an evolutionary psychology perspective the cognitive structures which shape our reasoning and our relationship with our environments – our natural competences – have been moulded not by our development in the mere 200 years of industrialised living but over the millions of years since the arrival of the early hominids. Our modern skulls, suggest, Leda Cosmides and many others in the 'Evo Psy' field, house stone age minds – brains not yet adapted for the rapid transition from hunter-gatherer communities to the technological sophistication of the 21st century. Natural selection is a very slow process – there have not been enough generations for it to reorder our neural circuits to come to terms fully with our progress.

I am aware of the limitations of evolutionary perspectives, and I reject the notion that by identifying what has existed in our past we can determine what ought to be pursued in the present and in the future. Such shallow and untenable reasoning lies at the heart of many sexist, racist and elitist dogmas. It is, however, unlikely that we have been able simply to cast off what might loosely be described as 'in our nature' over the mere 1% of our evolution which has been characterised by organised agriculture and so-called 'civilised' living. And there is ample evidence, I would argue, that the desire to take risks, and experience the frisson of excitement which accompanies such activity, is still 'wired in' to the cortical structures which direct our lives. We can seek to regulate risk-taking, in the way that we regulate equally natural desires for sex, dominance and pleasure. But I do not think that we can sustain a 'safe' society – one in which risk is the equivalent of sin – for very long.

When our society becomes too safe, we feel compelled to put risks back into our lives. Consider for a moment bungee jumping. Only in the context of recent shifts in contemporary living could such a mindless activity come to be considered attractive – something which people will pay to do – leaping off bridges and towers to be rescued from the inevitable fate of gravity by an elastic cord! What we have here is a clear example principle of risk homeostasis – in times of objective safety, we act more recklessly – a phenomenon also quite apparent in more humdrum aspects of our daily lives. We make cars 'safer' with seat belts, air bags and automatic braking systems. As a result people, and men in particular, drive them faster and with less regard for potential mortality. And all of this is based, in my view, on our evolutionary heritage – achieving a comfortable balance between the enervating experience of complete safety and the heart-stopping fear of one risk too many – a level of physiological and psychological arousal which first tempted early man out of his cave to find food, and thus to feed his family and ensure the survival of his genes, but inhibited acts of sheer hubris in front of a sabre-toothed tiger.

It is this sense of balance – the essential ingredient of our success as a species, and one which is so often expressed in what are now defined as 'bad habits' – that we are now in serious danger of losing. We need some bad habits, I suggest, in order to retain our subscription to the human race.

There is, of course, another sense in which our pursuit of health, as defined in terms of longevity, might prove to be unsustainable. It is already becoming apparent that having a large sector of society in 'retirement' – past the stage of productive input into the economy – has its drawbacks. The notion of the state providing financially for its elderly, for example, is fast disappearing. The scale of the pension swindles conducted by recent governments makes Robert Maxwell seem quite amateurish. We simply can't pay people to live out their extended lives with any degree of dignity without a radical re-shaping of state fiscal policies. And that, given the converged political world in which we now live, is unlikely to be achieved. Talk begins again of voluntary euthanasia, assisted suicide … but let's not go down this depressing road again.

Maybe the way we resolve the dilemma is to redefine morality – for morality, after all, is always founded on expediency and adaptation. Could smokers become admired because of the selfless way in which they shorten their lives? Could the English breakfast – the heart attack on a plate – be re-cast as the food of saintly people who will, if we are to believe all the current health dogmas, quickly and economically drop down dead from a surfeit of cholesterol. Who knows?

Let me finish with something from my old chum Desmond Morris, who turns out to be an even longer-standing friend of Pat Williams [chair]. Over a leisurely and congenial lunch in Oxford, which involved rather more than the recommended 3 units per day of alcohol, we persuaded him to write an article for publication on our web site to do with food and eating from a zoologist's perspective. We thought he would dash off a witty and interesting piece about lions and their taste for wildebeest, or something like that. Instead, what he sent me was a moving account of his mother's death, which had occurred a short time before. The title was 'A little bit of what you fancy'. In it he said:

"It was a meal to make a food faddist swoon away in horror. My mother was piling her plate high with a greasy, fatty, fry-up of a mixed grill and tucking in with gusto. When I say 'with gusto', I mean she was eating with the urgent pleasure of a predator at a kill. Although she was born during the reign of Queen Victoria, she was more in tune with the robust food pleasures of the eighteenth century, when a feast was a feast, and nobody had heard about health foods, diet regimes, or table etiquette that demanded you chew each mouthful 32 times before swallowing.

Watching her in action and trying my best to match her appetite, I glibly remarked that if she kept ignoring the words of wisdom of the health gurus and diet experts, she would die young. This may sound like a cruel thing for a son to have said to his mother, but the fact that she was in her 99th year at the time of the meal in question, helps to put my remark into perspective."

After some eloquent attacks on the pontificators and what he terms the 'diet fascists', and after calling attention to Man's omnivorous nature, Desmond returns to the story of his mother:

"When my mother was dying (just in time to avoid putting the Queen to the trouble of sending her a telegram, as she expressed it) I asked her if there was anything she wanted, 'A gin and tonic' she whispered. I had to feed it to her through a straw. 'If you've got to go, you might as well go with a swing' she said. And where food and drink is concerned, you might as well stay with a swing."

That, for me, is more than sufficient reason argue that bad habits are, indeed, of value – that they make us human.

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