'We Have Evolved to Need Coercion'

Writing in The New York Times, Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman defends Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed 16-ounce restriction on soft drink servings, arguing that "we have evolved to need coercion":

Since sugar is a basic form of energy in food, a sweet tooth was adaptive in ancient times, when food was limited....

Humans evolved to crave sugar, store it and then use it. For millions of years, our cravings and digestive systems were exquisitely balanced because sugar was rare....

The food industry has made a fortune because we retain Stone Age bodies that crave sugar but live in a Space Age world in which sugar is cheap and plentiful. Sip by sip and nibble by nibble, more of us gain weight because we can’t control normal, deeply rooted urges for a valuable, tasty and once limited resource. 

Lieberman deserves credit for candidly acknowledging that Bloomberg's "paternalistic plan" relies on "coercion." The mayor, by contrast, wants to have it both ways, getting credit for doing something about obesity while denying that he is limiting freedom in any meaningful way. On Friday he told NBC's Matt Lauer:

We're not banning you from getting the stuff. It's just if you want 32 ounces, the restaurant has to serve it in two glasses. That’s not exactly taking away your freedoms. It’s not something the Founding Fathers fought for.

As I said last week, Bloomberg's restrictions cannot possibly work unless the inconvenience they impose leads people to consume less soda than they otherwise would. By insisting that his restrictions will have no real effect on consumers, he is admitting his plan is doomed to fail.

Writing in Slate, Daniel Engbe asks what science tells us about the pint-sized plan's prospects. The focus on soft drinks, he explains, starts with the premise that liquid calories are less filling and that people therefore are less likely to compensate for them by cutting back elsewhere in their diets. While there is some evidence to support that idea, it is not clear that sugar-sweetened beverages are disproportionately responsible for rising obesity rates: Bloomberg may be convinced they are, but the research on that point is equivocal. Even if he is right, that does not mean his plan will have a measurable impact on New Yorkers' waistlines. As Engbe notes, the city unrealistically assumes that 100 fewer soda calories mean a net dietary reduction of 100 calories, ignoring the question of whether and to what extent people will compensate with calories from other sources. It is doubtful that Bloomberg's regulations can even reduce total liquid calories, especially given all the exceptions: for refills and additional containers, for fruit juices and milk-based drinks (which typically have more calories per ounce than soda), and for beverages sold in supermarkets and convenience stores—including 7-Eleven's Big Gulp, the very epitome of the sweet, bubbly excess that Bloomberg decries.

Lieberman, for his part, does not address the issue of whether Bloomberg's plan can accomplish its ostensible goal (a question that some boosters dismiss as irrelevant). If anything, Lieberman suggests that the mayor's pop policy goes too far, saying, "I think we should focus paternalistic laws on children." Still, he writes, "Adults need help, too, and we should do more to regulate companies that exploit our deeply rooted appetites for sugar and other unhealthy foods." Here Lieberman indulges in some Bloombergian dishonesty, since protecting adults from Big Food's sinister plot to sell them food they like actually means protecting them from their own choices—for example, "by imposing taxes on soda and junk food." In short: paternalism, which Lieberman has just said should be limited to children.

Lieberman's justification for treating adults like children has breathtakingly broad implications, since it is self-evident that humans have evolved to enjoy not just sugar but all of the things they like. Hence every pleasure can legitimately be taxed, regulated, restricted, or banned to prevent people from overindulging in it. By arguing that "an evolutionary perspective" shows governments must restrain people's choices for their own good, Lieberman tries to put a modern scientific veneer on an ancient moral argument. Evolutionary pressures clearly gave humans a taste not only for sweets but also for meddling in other people's lives. 

More on Bloomberg's campaign against big sodas here.

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  • ||

    some kinds of coercive action are not only necessary but also consistent with how we used to live.

    Violence solves everything.

  • Apparently a 'statist'||

    Yes it does.

    In the same sense that pulling the plug on Deep Blue is the same thing as beating it in chess.

    I wonder though, are you libertarians willing to pay for the inevitable treatments the responsible adults will sometimes need to *survive* after getting catastrophically 'over-sweetened'? Not all of the costs will be picked up on their own tab, y'know.

  • fish||

    .....are you libertarians willing to pay for the inevitable treatments the responsible adults will sometimes need to *survive* after getting catastrophically 'over-sweetened'?

    No Mary I'm not. Shouldn't you be out getting more BOTOX injections?

  • Pip||

    I eat whatever I want, whenever I want and I never get fat. So go fuck yourself.

  • sarcasmic||

    Youth is wasted on the young.

  • R C Dean||

    I wonder though, are you libertarians willing to pay for the inevitable treatments the responsible adults will sometimes need to *survive* after getting catastrophically 'over-sweetened'?

    Nope, because this is a subset of the health care costs that we libertarians don't think anyone should be coerced to pay.

  • T||

    are you libertarians willing to pay for the inevitable treatments the responsible adults will sometimes need to *survive* after getting catastrophically 'over-sweetened'?

    No. If they were responsible adults, they would have handled this shit themselves. If they aren't adults, then it's a problem for their parents. If they aren't responsible, well, life sucks. Maybe in their next turn around the wheel they'll make better choices.

  • ||

    No. That's why we argue against taxpayers picking up the tab for these things. So that the market regulates activity and not government.

  • ||

    "I wonder though, are you libertarians willing to pay for the inevitable treatments the responsible adults will sometimes need to *survive* after getting catastrophically 'over-sweetened'?"
    I'm willing to let people die that want to kill themselves, yes.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    "Apparently", you don't get your own handle.

  • JW||

    True, but only when they violence us.

    Us, violencing them, not so much.

  • Bee Tagger||

    True. And it's safe to conclude that Politicians evolved to crave power, store it and then use it.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Win

  • Apparently a 'statist'||

    Every human wants more power. This whole dilettantish villainization of faceless 'politicians' is a really pubescent trait among libertarians.

  • R C Dean||

    Every human wants more power has violent urges. This whole dilettantish villainization of faceless 'politician' 'criminals' is a really pubescent trait among libertarians.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Nice troll.

    So change the politicians back to humans. Does it make a difference? In fact, it makes for an even stronger argument for limiting the power of the state so that the majority cannot abuse the minority.

  • ||

    If you think politicians are just swell, then you ARE a statist. No apparently needed.

  • ||

    Politicians are politicians because they've mastered the trait of making themselves NOT faceless, idiot. And, no, some of us do not crave power over others; only ourselves.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    "Apparently", you can't run your own life, and need a full-time nanny to fill your sippy cup and wipe your ass.

  • Apparently a 'statist'||

    I don't believe bans like this will lead to an Orwellian dystopia (I am not as excitable as others) and I think drinking gallons of sugary water to the point where you develop a disease *is* a childish rather than adult trait. But the ban is unworkable and stupid.

    I would rather see a limit to the amount of sugar or calorie per oz. that can be served commercially, or at least markings on cups (not just cans and bottles) telling these responsible adults how many sugar cubes they are pouring into their responsible, adult stomachs.

  • Bee Tagger||

    I think drinking gallons of sugary water to the point where you develop a disease *is* a childish rather than adult trait.

    Can you provide a link that shows that a certain level of consumption of sugary water directly causes this disease?

  • sarcasmic||

    I agree that it is childish.
    Adults add yeast to their sugary water to make alcohol.

  • JW||

    Don't feed it, people.

    It thrives on your outrage.

  • ||

    BUT IT HAS REEL GOOD IDEAS AND I WNT TO HEER ITS GOOD IDESA

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Shouldn't you be waxing your pecs instead?

  • ||

    The moustache gets waxed, the pecs get oiled. Don't you know anything?

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Not according to my wife

  • T||

    Doesn't that makes the dreadlocks oily?

  • ||

    Duh.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    I would rather see a limit to the amount of outrage that can be served commercially, or at least markings on the blogs telling these responsible trolls how much outrage they are pouring into their responsible, troll spleens.

  • Romulus Augustus||

    Why do you hate the millions who will die because you are only willing to be an "incrementalist" on this issue?
    Let's go right to maximum daily calorie ration cards and start saving everyone who over indulges??

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    It's We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Coming soon, doing things not perceived to be the most beneficial to your own personal well-being will be illegal.

  • Apparently a 'statist'||

    Yes, I agree that nuance is impossible. Let us disband the police and military - that means no taxes.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    Third-tier office clerks still get to keep their jobs, though, right?

  • R C Dean||

    Ration cards? What are you, some kind of radical individualist, allowing people to pick and choose what their ration consists of?

    No, if you want to cut to the chase, all food will be distributed by the government directly, in the form of prepackaged meal units.

  • ||

    and fed intravenously

  • Mr. FIFY||

    But only Soylent Green. Soylent in any other color might encourage people to eat more of it.

  • sarcasmic||

    Cadbury Egg units?

    http://xkcd.com/1035/

  • Pound. Head. On. Desk.||

    I had that as my wallpaper for weeks.

  • ||

    What you think other people should do is irrelevant. Worry about yourself.

  • Killazontherun||

    Oh, she does. That is why she wants you to pick up the tab for her crazy pills. They cost a fortune.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    "Apparently", you're a dumbshit.

  • sarcasmic||

    For millions of years, our cravings and digestive systems were exquisitely balanced because sugar was rare....

    I wasn't aware that we've been around for millions of years.

    Hence every pleasure can legitimately be taxed, regulated, restricted, or banned to prevent people from overindulging in it.

    Can you say Drug War?

  • Pound. Head. On. Desk.||

    I wasn't aware that we've been around for millions of years.

    Lucy was about 3 mya. Ardi, about 4.5 mya.

    For millions of years, our cravings and digestive systems were exquisitely balanced because sugar was rare....

    And it has been freely available for, what, a century? Why has it only been a problem for the last 30 years or so? And does he really think our systems are only balanced for one exact set of food conditions?

  • Bee Tagger||

    It's always nice when your own theory makes you out to be a super human, since Lieberman, from the picture, appears to have fended off the indefatigable need we all have to pour sugar down our gullets by the shovelful.

  • sarcasmic||

    He's a demolition style hell American freak, yeah!

    www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUndTL1g458

  • gaijin||

    Some evolutionary biologist we have here. He seems to have answers, when I thought science was about questions. For instance...Explain why my biology allows me to consume all manner of sugar and not gain a pound? Or why my biology evolved to make me want to run long distances (and thus use lots of energy)? Just another psuedo-scientific rationale for those who know what's best for us...like phrenology.

  • Pound. Head. On. Desk.||

    Explain why my biology allows me to consume all manner of sugar and not gain a pound?

    You don't over-produce insulin, for one.

    Or why my biology evolved to make me want to run long distances (and thus use lots of energy)?

    Same thing, well-balanced insulin production, actually.

    Over-production (or late production) of insulin causes cravings and craches.

  • JW||

    We're not banning you from getting the stuff. It's just if you want 32 ounces, the restaurant has to serve it in two glasses. That’s not exactly taking away your freedoms. It’s not something the Founding Fathers fought for.

    Hey you ignorant screwheads! The Founding Fathers didn't fight against you being forced to stand on your head once per day. So get with the fucking headstands already, unless you want to hear my BOOMstick again!

  • JW||

    OT: Oh, this could get good.

    "Following a significant resurgence in opposition to the NYPD's controversial "Stop-and-Frisk" practices, the New York Civil Liberties Union has released Stop Frisk Watch, a free app which streamlines the process of documenting police misconduct."

  • gaijin||

    Lieberman's justification for treating adults like children has breathtakingly broad implications, since it is self-evident that humans have evolved to enjoy not just sugar but all of the things they like

    Which, for some, includes trying to tell others how to live so as to enjoy the feeling of self-righteousness and superiority it brings.

  • Killazontherun||

    There should be a ban on that gene. It has proved to be the most destructive force in modern human history.

  • Broseph of Invention||

    I liked it back when being fat was an embarrassment. Now it's "normal" to want to eat sugar all the time. I would much rather stigma do the coercing than government.

    I think Sullom's last paragraph hits it right on. As a kid I told myself that, once I had a job and money, I would eat fast food all the time and play video games the minute I was done with work. Guess what? I have those same cravings, but they're outweighed (get it?) by my fear of obesity and a cheapness even too great for the dollar menu and GameStop. Restraints don't have to come through restricting access; they can come from other things just becoming more important. Like, say, holding people accountable for healthcare.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    As they say, you can lose weight. But I'm guessing you can't lose Daniel Liebermanesque levels of stupid.

  • Broseph of Invention||

    *Sullum. And for all we hear about girls being traumatized by fashion magazines for not being skinny enough, it must not be bad enough to stop eating. I'm looking at you, co-ed softball teammates getting thrown out at first from the left center fielder.

  • ||

    But we have to be taken to task with all those non-adult adults who can't control their impulses. Some twat upthread said so.

  • wef||

    Will some Miss Manners or David Brooks or some other prissy know-it-all please, please tell me - and I am being very serious - if it is appropriate to use the word fascist here to refer to this buttinski, this self-righteous control freak.

    Really. When is fascist the mot juste?

    (Or have I evolved into needing Zyklon B supplements?)

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Prissy know-it-all coming right up.

    Fascist is not quite appropriate. Authoritarian paternalist is just about right.

    Fascism is generally in reference to a single-party state with ultranationalist leanings. In a fascist state, the crime of abusing yourself would be interpreted as a crime against the state and would be treated as such. We aren't to the purges quite yet, either.

  • R C Dean||

    I would have gone with "nannying know-it-all buttinski", myself.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    "Smug little fucker" works too

  • CE||

    David Frum supports Bloomberg's idea. Case closed.

  • BoscoH||

    So what you're saying is that if we staged the First Semi-Annual Douche-Off(TM) and invited Lieberman and Bloomberg to a Douche To The Death(TM), your money is on Bloomberg. Mine is on this Lieberman guy. It is one things to be a douche, but an entirely different level of douchieness to try to offer a scientific explanation to justify it.

  • Iamtheeviltwin||

    I have no real issues with fields like Evolutionary Biology except when they are used to justify restrictive (or coercive) actions to control "evolutionary" behavior patterns.

    As interesting as the studies that are produced tend to be, their use as justification for bad behavior by the state makes me wary of the true value (or nature) of the studies produced.

  • sarcasmic||

    It kinda makes you wonder if the funding for the study is based upon the results of the study justifying legislation proposed by the same government douche-bags who provide the funding.

  • Loki||

    We have evolved to need coercion.

    "Kneel before me. I said... KNEEL! Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It's the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life's joy in a mad scramble for power. For identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel."

    Yes, from the Avengers. So sue me, it fits too well in this context.

  • CE||

    Isn't Loki already on these message boards?

  • ||

    Disney's lawyers will be in touch for your use of this quote and the use of one of their subsidiaries characters without due compensation.

  • Paul.||

    "we have evolved to need coercion"

    I have to confess, I like this new breed of liberal. They've completely removed the fig leaf and now tell you that your obedience is required.

    Much easier to argue against someone who's being honest.

  • CE||

    Not something the Founding Fathers fought for? Did he forget this line, complaining of another tyrant?

    He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

  • Paul.||

    "I think we should focus paternalistic laws on children."

    I think that maybe you should keep your grubby, chester-the-molester hands off my kid. How 'bout that, Daniel "Sandusky" Lieberman?

  • Brett L||

    Hey, I've got an idea, let's apply this same reasoning to rejustify eugenics. After all, some people need to be coerced not to breed for the good of society.

    (Note: In case the sarcasm doesn't come through, I am not in any way in favor of eugenics.)

  • Paul.||

    Note: In case the sarcasm doesn't come through, I am not in any way in favor of eugenics.)

    Libertarianism = Eugenics.

    QED

  • mad libertarian guy||

    By insisting that his restrictions will have no real effect on consumers, he is admitting his plan is doomed to fail.

    Hogwash.

    The only dishonesty going on is maintaining the lie that hte ban is in an effort to deal with obesity. It isn't.

    It's a measure to bring in more tax revenues. And at that, this legislation will pass with flying colors. People will continue to drink larger amounts of soda, especially at places like movie theaters and ball games, and they will be forced to buy more cups of it so they needn't get up every 10 minutes for a new one, which will bring in more tax revenue.

    It's nothing more than a tax stunt framed as a public health issue.

    It should be seen no differently than a cigarette tax.

  • ||

    How many NYT stories could be summed up as "Authoritarian from Harvard demands more government action"?

  • some guy||

    Does an increased risk of coronary artery disease, stroke and diabetus count as coercion? Why do we need a political law to discourage fatties when physics has already got that shit covered?

  • Shawn Levasseur||

    Insert Loki's "You were born to be ruled" speech from the Avengers here.

  • JD the elder||

    Fuck this asshole. He may be a great evolutionary biologist, but he's a shit philosopher and not much of a historian either.

    "Apart from honey, most of the foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate were no sweeter than a carrot."

    Apparently he's unaware of the rare and mysterious thing called "ripe fruit".

    "Until recently, all humans had no choice but to eat a healthy diet with modest portions of food that were low in sugar, saturated fat and salt, but high in fiber. They also had no choice but to walk and sometimes run an average of 5 to 10 miles a day. Mr. Bloomberg’s paternalistic plan is not an aberrant form of coercion but a very small step toward restoring a natural part of our environment."

    Ah, the blessed natural environment...you know, the one where Dr. Lieberman would probably be dead by the age of 35, if he hadn't already died of an easily preventable disease. He also seems bizarrely unaware that plenty of our ancestors did not eat a very balanced diet, and often suffered as a result, unless he thinks kwashiorkor and beriberi are a great part of the natural environment. (I also think the assertion that it was within the "average" for humans to run ten miles a day every day is cuckoo for sugar-laden Cocoa Puffs.) But hey! no matter! anything is acceptable as long as it's for your own good - he is within a hair's breadth of saying that forcing everyone to walk miles per day would be acceptable too.

  • Brian from Texas||

    I bet this guy jerks off to a photo of Lenin. Oh wait, he's a Harvard professor! They all jerk off to photos of Lenin!

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