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Cracker Barrel: Just because we can doesn't mean we should

Just because we’re able to do something doesn’t automatically mean we should.

Some choices the human family has made along the way were wrong ones. If a path leads us toward ill health or diminished compassion or increasing inequality, common sense suggests we ought to stop proceeding and change direction. But some of those missteps take a long time coming to light.

For example, a growing body of medical evidence points clearly to the fact that our vaunted agricultural progress, including recent innovations such as the so-called Green Revolution, may have resulted in as much grief as gain; or, more accurately, gain of an unwanted kind, as in girth around the waist.

Some contemporary researchers posit the idea that human evolution might well have peaked 10,000 years ago, at which point members of our species attained their highest point of bodily as well as mental strength and fitness, driven by the unceasing pressures of finding adequate meals while avoiding becoming the food of stronger, more fearsome, predators.

Measurements of the skeletal remains of our early forbears indicate a generally larger cranial capacity and a more sturdily constructed and bigger bone structure than our own.

Once humans managed to kill off the worst of other threatening species, and to domesticate various mammals and plants to provide ourselves with dependable stocks of nutrition, we began to lose our evolutionary edge and commenced to morph toward being overweight and under-muscled, as well as far more sedentary and less challenged to stay mentally alert.

Today, it appears, those tendencies have reached flood stage, and our species seems faced with the clear imperative to change its ways or reap the consequences. We need to wean ourselves from an overdependence on machinery, recover a rightful delight in nurturing our bodies through stepped-up movement and the consumption of healthier foods, and work at guiding our young to establish habits that will lead them to lifelong health and fitness.

One of the harshest ironies of life in modern America is that today’s citizens are more apt to die from overeating than from starvation. The enormous success we’ve had in tweaking nature to provide ourselves with a cornucopia of edible meats and grains has begun to prove hazardous to our wellbeing.

Whether the problems stem from genetic modification of crops, lacing cattle feed with antibiotics, the wholesale use of herb-and-pesticides, the rampant addition of sugars to virtually all processed foods, grossly overcrowded feeding pens or other as-yet-unknown sources, we’ve become victims of our own inventiveness.

How do we change direction? Probably via a combination of things. We can start by eating less and getting more exercise. A growing contingent of fitness gurus points toward walking as the single best all-around way to retain or regain desirable shape.

We might also pay more attention to eating healthier food. The more processed and packaged and advertised the item, the less nutritious and wholesome it probably is. As to exactly what foods are best is a topic of endless contention, though more and more people are waking to the advantages of items that are grown close to home and don’t require long periods of transportation and chemical fixatives to keep them “fresh.”

The good news is that we’re able to nurture nature, and to change our ways when we need to. The bad news is that well-established habits die hard.

(Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at