Homo Consumericus

The nature and nurture of consumption

Food Prohibitions: God’s Will or “Earthly” Cultural Adaptations?

No clams for you (think "Soup Nazi" on Seinfeld)!

In two earlier posts, I discussed the fact that throughout history humans have followed a bewildering number of distinct religions, and Gods, each of which imposes some rather unique and at times contradictory prohibitions regarding a wide range of human behaviors (see here and here).

In today’s post, I’d like to discuss religious-based food taboos, a topic that I briefly cover in my recently released trade book The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature (p. 47-48). God’s edicts regarding which foods one is allowed to eat vary greatly depending on one’s faith (a rather suspect reality). For example, pork is either a ubiquitously delicious protein option or an affront to God. If I am born to a Catholic family in Brazil, God allows me to eat pork but if I am born into a Jewish or Muslim family, well, pork is deeply offensive to God. Given that there are 10,000 documented religions and an equal if not greater number of Gods, it might be difficult to absolutely know for sure which foods one can or cannot eat.

In The Consuming Instinct (see my TED talk here), I propose that many religious food prohibitions are cultural adaptations to “earthly” biological challenges (e.g., food pathogens). However, in the context in which the problem might have arisen (e.g., the Bronze Age), individuals did not have the requisite knowledge to offer causal explanations rooted in science so they turned to God’s Will as a means of regulating the ingesting of potentially hazardous foods. Two quick examples: (1) Food pathogens are much more likely to be prevalent in a wide range of animals as opposed to say fruits or vegetables. It is not surprising then that Kosher laws largely deal with animal-based food sources (fruits and vegetables are Kosher). (2) Crustaceans and mollusks are not Kosher. Clams and oysters can contain highly dangerous biotoxins that can kill a human (upon ingestion) within thirty minutes (e.g., paralytic shellfish poisoning). These biotoxins do not possess any antidotes. Furthermore, it is impossible to establish visually which animals are contaminated, or to gauge the likelihood of contamination by the quality and clarity of the water wherein the animal resides. That some animals consume contaminated organisms from a local niche does not imply that these are safe for human consumption. In other words, if one sees marine birds feasting on clams without suffering any ill effects, this does not translate into the clams being safe for human eating. To add to the challenge, the biotoxins cannot be neutralized or removed by cooking the contaminated animals. Finally, there is a positive correlation between ambient temperature and the spoilage rate of these animals (think of the ambient temperature in the Middle East coupled with the lack of refrigeration options during the Bronze Age).

In light of the latter, try to imagine the reality of an individual living in the Middle East during the Bronze Age. No knowledge of biotoxins; inability to visually predict which animals might be contaminated; inability to predict which type of water might yield greater contamination; inability to reduce the risk of contamination via cooking. All that such individuals could establish without any statistical regularity is that some people would suddenly die from ingesting these animals whereas many others survived. Since observational learning could not occur (and hence the requisite “earthly” knowledge could not be transmitted intergenerationally), only one possibility remained…attribute the apparent “randomness” and uncertainty of this ecological reality to God’s Will. Not surprisingly, a religious edict is then passed whereby the food prohibition becomes part of God’s edicts. Of note, a few days ago, I came across a recently published paper by Joe Henrich and his colleagues wherein they demonstrated that Fijian food taboos serve as cultural adaptations to marine toxins.

Bottom line: I propose that some religious edicts are much more likely to be cultural adaptations that yield survival benefits, as opposed to being the whimsical will of an omnipotent and omniscient deity. Of course, religious folks might argue that God’s “revealed” food edicts are precisely due to the fact that He seeks to protect us from these dangerous toxins, a perfect manifestation of His infinite benevolence!


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Gad Saad is Professor of Marketing at Concordia University and author of The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption and The Consuming Instinct.


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