Confession: I have a tendency to think there is ‘One Right Answer’ to life’s big questions, and surprisingly enough (!), I often feel like I have that answer. However, I also know that it is utterly preposterous to think I actually have the answers to everything. On the contrary, I only know a tiny smidgen of all that’s to be known and understood in the universe, and things in life are rarely black-and-white. So, my ‘know-it-all’ self and my ‘I-don’t-know-jack-crap’ self are in constant battle. Sometimes it’s a bit exhausting to be arguing with one’s self all the time, but then again, it keeps me from getting bored!
So, that’s confession time out of the way. Now on to the more interesting stuff.
Recently I came across an amazing article about the evolution of adult milk drinking. Yeah, doesn’t sound that amazing probably, but trust me, it is. In a nutshell, for most of human history (or perhaps I should say pre-history) adults of our species could not really digest dairy, but somewhere around modern-day Hungary, perhaps about 11,000 years ago, there was a genetic mutation that kept that childhood milk-digesting ability working into adulthood, and that mutation was so advantageous for those who inherited it, that it spread like wildfire!
Still, about two-thirds of people currently living on the planet don’t handle milk so well… as in, drinking milk causes diarrhea and unpleasantness like that. However, the other one-third (roughly) can digest milk and it provides a valuable source of energy and nutrition. In some places, particularly in northern Europe, the percentage of adults who can digest dairy is up to around 99%! So, that’s a very brief run-down of the idea, but I highly suggest you check out this great article that explains it much better than I just did: Archaeology:The Milk Revolution (from nature.com).
The first reason I think this is so fascinating, is that it is an example of evolution in action. While this particular evolutionary change may have happened around 11,000 years ago, that is practically yesterday in terms of life on this planet. And of course, our ability to change and adapt didn’t stop then. That’s just a dramatic example of a process at work all around us, all the time. Change is nature. Change is reality. Change is unavoidable. Evolution is just one of those topics that I find mind-blowingly cool.
But my personal interest in evolution isn’t the point of this post really. It’s more about the fact that the more information you have and the more you know about the world, the more difficult it becomes to cling to dogmatic opinions.
I have seen many debates and heard many people discuss the idea that milk is terrible for you. Of course, just as many people, if not more, will say milk is perfectly fine and sure, haven’t we all been drinking it for ages and doing well enough, etc. As with many diet- and health-related issues, there are constantly medical experts making opposite claims. And then, every person who’s read an article or seen a meme on Facebook feels like they are an expert on the issue too, and feels justified in telling everyone else what they should or shouldn’t do. It’s enough to make one’s head spin! (I will admit that I’ve fallen into this ‘false-expert’ trap numerous times. Apologies to all the people I’ve annoyed!).
It’s funny how conversations on things as simple as ‘to drink or not to drink milk’ can become angry, emotionally-charged intellectual battles, with each side making absolute claims about the issue. I’ve even seen on parenting websites people arguing rather aggressively that it’s better to give a toddler artificial formula rather than cow’s milk because ‘cow’s milk is for baby cows, not baby humans’ (even though lots of infant formula is made from cow’s milk proteins, etc). I’m not sure about the science of that claim really, but I digress.
I’m no scientist. I’m not here to tell you what you or your child should drink or eat. That’s up to you. You can do the research and decide what’s best and healthiest for you as an individual. Unfortunately, the attitude I’ve often seen in these kinds of online debates and heard in some real-life conversations with people, is that there’s Only One Right Decision about these types of things!
Reading this article about the milk revolution makes me think otherwise.
Maybe cow’s milk is best left to the baby cow’s. And yes, some people feel really horrible when they drink milk. Maybe milk in some countries is full of hormones and other junk (but not in all dairy-consuming countries! Besides, that’s a whole other can of worms I’m not here to open right now!). Maybe milk is destroying your health… or not. OR maybe milk is a wonder food, full of good nutrition and protein and calcium, etc. Reading this article though made me realise that it’s a bit more complicated than any of those individual arguments.
In fact, it seems some people developed a remarkable, even revolutionary, ability to utilize a new food source, one that they could take with them wherever they travelled, one that could sustain then in harsh climates where crops were more limited or during famines where crops failed, one that provides extremely valuable nutrients and a pretty efficient and renewable form of protein. As a dairy lover of northern European extraction, I think that’s all pretty great. I also know that milk is not an ideal food for many people and it is perfectly possible to be healthy and well nourished without it.
So why on earth am I rambling on and on about this milk thing anyway? I’ll tell you why!
It’s just one rather small-scale example of how easy it is to think our opinions are absolutely right. It is the easiest thing in the world to think that our personal experience and knowledge encapsulate the Real Truth, and everyone else is living in various levels of ignorance and disinformation and sometimes even malicious stupidity! And all the while, those ‘wilfully ignorant’ people are probably labelling us with those very same personality flaws!
Maybe the key things to remember are that there is very likely at least a tiny grain of truth in everyone’s opinions, and it is always conceivable that we could, at least partially, be wrong. The universe is a complex place and as we go through life we are constantly gathering new information. There’s not one Truth but many. Maybe, in those moments of annoyance and feeling superior, we can take a deep breath, find our sense of humour and just try to find a little space between the solidity of our thoughts for a new way of thinking. Maybe, when we are so certain we are right and someone else is wrong, we can remind ourselves, perhaps it’s all just a bit more complicated than that.