Christmas is a time for sharing, and with that in mind, it’s been a holiday tradition for me to share with you my obsession with all things shellfish. My gift to you is this essay wherein I hope to make some sense of the current state of the world in the context of our shared shellfish heritage. Weird, you might say. Well, maybe. Let me explain.
First, let me try to self-diagnose my obsession with shellfish. For that, I need to bring up the research of my hero, the good Dr. Curtis Marean, a professor of anthropology at Arizona State University who in a 2007 paper in Nature made the case for his theory that shellfish played a crucial role in making us human. About 164,000 years ago, on the coast of South Africa, a small population of our human ancestors, fleeing the cold and arid conditions of the African interior brought about by climate change, made their way to the coast and began eating seafood and shellfish for the first time. Archaeological evidence unearthed by Marean and his research team supports his theory that this was the birthplace of humanity, as we know it.
Not only did shellfish keep this remnant population alive. Conditions at the site nurtured developments in their primitive brains that led to the first evidence of symbolic thought, the essence of what makes us human. Further, genetic studies suggest that this progenitor human population may have been as small as 700 individuals. If all this is true, we need to look closely at this small population to understand what makes us tick. Our hard-wired genetic heritage was created then and there.
As evidence, professor Marean points to the human dietary requirement for omega-three fatty acids, found most abundantly in seafood. Although this nutrient is required for human health, the human body does not produce it, because it was readily available in the diet of our earliest ancestors. So, rest assured, your cravings for oysters on the half shell and my obsession with all things shellfish are probably hard-wired and perfectly normal.
Now, in the insanity of 2012, we can make some sense of it in light of what we now know about our earliest past.
What’s with all the obsession with crises and apocalyptic prophecies? The end of the Mayan calendar, the fiscal cliff, the end of Twinkies. It seems we can’t get enough of it. It makes you wonder whether our becoming human in a time of great crisis has anything to do with it. Fear and insecurity appear to be at the very core of our psyche. These are the scourge of our human condition and likely trace their roots to that progenitor population on the brink of disaster. On the bright side for us, they persevered, adapted and survived. This ability to survive, and even thrive, under pressure has also been passed down to us and is a part of our genetic and cultural heritage. It has been said that we are at our best when the times get tough. It takes the devastation of a superstorm Sandy to bring out the best in us. If professor Marean is correct, the human spirit was forged in crisis. For better or worse we are hard-wired for crisis management. Fear and insecurity are our greatest motivation. We need the fear of falling off a cliff, fiscal or otherwise, to move forward. After all, that’s what made us human in the first place.
Our challenge is to control and direct these primal instincts and, most important, to separate the real crises from the imagined, the scientific from the superstitious. As it was 164,000 years ago, earth’s climate has a big impact on our survival. The scientific evidence is overwhelming that the planet is getting warmer and our living high on the hog and burning carbon fuels is largely the cause. Our population has increased 10 million times to seven billion so, and unlike our first ancestors, the impacts of our collective actions have global implications. The drought in the Midwest and superstorm Sandy are signs of the end times of the climate, as we know it. Prudent Homo sapiens need to tune into their ancestral psyches and be motivated to change their ways.
This brings us back to shellfish. They fed us back then and they can again. Adopt a paleolithic diet closer to our ancient ancestors, and you can get your required omega threes and help save the planet at the same time. Shellfish are low on the food chain and likely the most efficient sources of animal protein available. If you source them locally, the carbon footprint for your meal is negligible. If we all replaced several meals of beef/pork/lamb/chicken with shellfish every week, we would begin to be part of the solution rather than the problem. Of all forms of food production, only potatoes have been shown to have a lesser negative impact on the environment. So do the planet a favor and have some clam chowder.
Curiously, the oyster shares with us a similar traumatic developmental scenario. The recent sequencing of the Pacific oyster genome has revealed an extensive set of genes associated with responding to stress. Oysters developed in the intertidal zone, subjected to numerous environmental extremes, and like us are built to handle abuse. I guess in some ways we can be considered kindred spirits. However, being brainless, the oyster’s adaptation to stress is limited to genetic responses and they suffer none of the emotional repercussions associated with human symbolic thought mechanisms.
Finally, to bring this full circle, I need to confess that my motivation for this literary ditty is rooted in that pesky innate human fear and insecurity. The Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group has faced its own fiscal cliff annually for many years. This year we need to raise about $50,000 to make our budget. In our hatchery we produce millions of seed shellfish to ensure that you can satisfy your primal cravings. Please search your psyches, harness the fear and insecurity you have about not being able to access enough edible shellfish, and let it motivate you to send us a tax-deductible contribution. Thank you.
Richard C. Karney is director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group. Donations may be sent to the shellfish group at P.O. Box 1552 Oak Bluffs, MA 02557.