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I read Michael Pollan’s book excerpt “The Anxiety of Eating” [May 2006] with a mixture of admiration and embarrassment: admiration that he could largely succeed in explaining biology to the average Joe and Jane; embarrassment that he fell into the trap of dumbing down the theory of evolution.
In the first paragraph Pollan states that “our stomachs produce an enzyme specifically designed to break down elastin, a type of protein found in meat and nowhere else.” Now, I get his point: that we are omnivores who evolved to eat meat, and that this enzyme is evidence. But the enzyme was not “designed.” It was probably a byproduct of some other biochemical process and just happened to help digestion.
In the third paragraph Pollan talks about big brains and big guts as two “strategies” for dealing with food selection. These are not “strategies.” Animals did not sit down in a war room and discuss how to evolve.
Later Pollan talks about plants and animals not wanting to be eaten and so evolving “defenses to keep themselves whole.” Evolution doesn’t happen for a purpose. There is only mutation and a result, either beneficial or not.
I know Pollan understands how evolution really works. My gripe is that he thinks he has to anthropomorphize plants and animals and enzymes and DNA so the layperson won’t feel daunted. He does science a great disservice by dumbing it down this way. Rational thinkers have a hard enough time fighting superstition without giving ammunition to the science-is-bad crowd.