Sunday, June 12, 2011

Understanding Weston Price on Primitive Wisdom -- Ancient Doesn't Cut It

by Chris Masterjohn

New post over at Mother Nature Obeyed:


Read more about the author, Chris Masterjohn, PhD, here.


  1. Mind you the way Tonga play football it might be hard to tell the difference between it and warfare. Ask the Welsh RFU.

    But seriously ... Weston Price had so many interesting observations to make that it's a shame the WAPF doesn't publish a selection of his writings. All most of us know, I should think, is Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.

    I think the notion of "wise traditions" in food collection and preparation is an interesting one. It seems to me that there might sometimes be more than one way to understand Weston Price's comments on this. First, there's a straightforward way that's reminiscent of arguments made by social and political philosophers of a conservative bent from Burke and Hume through to Oakeshott. But I think there are hints of something else which I'll come to in a minute.

    First then, I think one can argue persuasively that it's possible to act with understanding without having understanding. That's to say, if I act within a tradition, say observe mourning customs (known in most societies other than ours), then that might be a wise thing for my emotional life, but I don't need a social theory that might satisfactorily explain that. (Conversely, I might decide, in a burst of Enlightenment rationalism that when someone's dead they're dead, and they might as well go on the town rubbish tip were it not for the health issue). I think one of the things that most concerned Burke about the Jacobins was their willingness to sweep something away if they couldn't immediately see the point of it.

    So can we see anything like that in the examples cited? I think we probably can. I'm not convinced by all of them. An example there might be the Maasai and knowing of the "protective effect of malaria against syphilis". AFAICT, "everyone" seems to have known about that (Henry Hobhouse, Seeds of Change). Some of these read a bit to me like a note that the people studied have noticed something (why wouldn't they?) or that they know their own environment (again, not surprising). But I definitely think there are some good examples. The story of how the Canadian Indian saved the surveyor's eyesight seems a good one. The Indian didn't know about vitamin A, but he did know what to eat and where to get it.

    But secondly, it seems to me that there's a hint of mysticism in Price. That very word "obeyed" probably carried biblical overtones for Price's contemporaries. I shan't try to show this from quotation: suffice to say, I think it's there. I don't know about Price's personal beliefs, but I'd not be surprised to find out he was a deeply religious man. I also think it interesting that the WAPF doctor writes extensively about Rudolf Steiner in his book (also mentioned by S F in Nourishing Traditions). I think Price's attractions are manifold, and this may be one of them.

    Were the modernised Swiss "not so wise"? It seems more likely to me that the problem was that they had nothing to compare their lives and health against. They'd probably come to see tooth decay as part of normal life; and since they didn't know Price and his work, had no reason to think he had an answer for them. The people who had a full awareness of the problems civilisation brought in its wake seem to have been those living on the cusp of change. In even one more generation people may have been much less aware. Maybe given enough time and some persuasive photographs (presumably not always in his travelling kit) Price could have carried his point with the modernised Swiss.

  2. Hi Mike,

    I agree with most of what you said, and I don't think it differs much from the points I made. I attributed the accumulation of wisdom to the observation of errors and the collective memory of those experiences in some form, and also noted the effect of circumstance and opportunity in addition to differential wisdom. That some may have accumulated wisdom that better prepared them for facing modernization compared to others doesn't indicate any kind of mystical state of spiritual advancement; it just indicates that because of their specific experiences and the way they had collectively reacted to them, they were relatively more or less prepared to react to the problem then current.

    I agree that Price sometimes engages in mystical, romantic, and poetic expressions. I know he was a Methodist and Sunday school teacher at one point, but it is difficult for me to believe that he hadn't abandoned Christianity by the time he wrote NAPD, since he makes some explicit statements indicating that religion was a social construct that had fundamentally misunderstood the origins of man.


  3. Thanks. That's very interesting. I had wondered if Price had thought that people living more simply and more in-touch with the rest of Nature were more attuned to the cosmos (not that he'd have put it quite like that). But perhaps what seems to indicate that is only poetic expression.

    On another note, I think it's kind of interesting that back in the 60s/70s there were, apparently, quite a few Fijians in Britain's SAS Regiment.

    (Although British administrators almost certainly did believe in peace, somehow colonial peoples could get entangled in Britain's wars. You could find parallels to this in Colonial America.)

    At that time the SAS was perhaps the most capable and highly trained special forces unit in the world and not easy to get into. And yet here were a number of men from one tiny island serving in it—and apparently outstanding even by SAS standards:

    "Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba made a run for the 25 Pounder Artillery Piece which was positioned next to a smaller fort ... Talaiasi Labalaba managed to operate the weapon, which is a three-man job, himself and fire a round a minute at the approaching Adoo ..."

    That probably says something about both the physique and the military traditions of the Fijians.

    I have to wonder about the role of war in selecting out the strongest, fastest and and best-coordinated among Pacific islanders. It's an uncomfortable thought, and I'm sure would have been for Price even if he had abandoned Christianity by that time. But if Price described the Maori as "the most physically perfect race living on the face of the earth” might that be some of the reason? The same might apply to aspects of their culture. What were the callisthenics for?

  4. Hi Chris,

    I love your blog! Do cavities always directly correlate with nutritional deficiencies? I always wondered why there were still a few people in nearly every native group who still possessed cavities even though they were all consuming the same diet.

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  6. Wow, awesome discussion. Chris, can you quote the instances when Price says "explicit statements indicating that religion was a social construct that had fundamentally misunderstood the origins of man". I have already read the book, but I believe didn't catch those, and it's really surprising. Also, is the more data pointing to Price's philosophical-religius beliefs?

  7. Price is indeed the man, I'm about half way through his book right now and loving it. He was so far ahead of his time it is ridiculous. I am also of the belief that science will never surpass the nutrition provided by natural foods. And I feel attempts to recreate the foods we evolved to eat via natural selection is pointless, and to believe it can be done to perfection is arrogant. This is why I feel it is a better use of my time to mimic those who've been successful for hundreds or even thousands of years using natures foods and cures. Great article as always, balance is definitely key.

  8. I agree as well. There have been links to teeth cavities with nutritional deficiencies according to the dentist where lack of calcium and vitamin D are attributed.

  9. Hmm, I've research a bit more on what Daniel Bryan wrote and found an article about it here. What's very dreadful about is is what a study showed- "A recent authoritative review showed a clear association between cavities and heart diseases." Scary indeed.

    dentist kansas city

  10. Why is the word “obesity” not to be found in the entire writings of “Nutritional & Physical Degeneration”. Did Dr Price fail to notice because he was too interested in the mouth? Or, was there no noticeable effect to observe?

  11. For the comment above, I guess Dr. Price focused his study on finding correlations between dental health and physical degeneration in his research.

  12. Very well written. The section on The Natural Selection of Wisdom is wonderful. Excellent Post!

  13. I agree as well. There have been links to teeth cavities with nutritional deficiencies according to the dentist where lack of calcium and vitamin D are attributed.

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  15. One precept I can discuss is how the food industry is affecting the dental state of the American population. Saturated fat and sweet products build up plaque faster than normal. While sweets with artificial flavors speeds up tooth decay.