October 12, 2013 by Beatrice Marovich
How much can the obesity epidemic be attributed to individual and virtue-laden issues such as personal discipline when obesity is a notable problem in other forms of animal life? Increasing evidence, demonstrating that obesity is an inter-species problem, seems to be advancing the case that obesity is a systematic and economic problem, rather than one of personal fitness and individual diet alone. In 2010, a study called, “Canaries in the coal mine: a cross-species analysis of the obesity epidemic” published through the Proceedings of the Royal Society drew parallels between the obesity epidemic in human life and obesity epidemics in forms of animal life that ranged from domestic pets, to rats in laboratories, to chimps in captivity, to animals who are only more loosely allied with human life. This summer, science writer David Berreby published a piece in Aeon Magazine, illuminating the various ways in which this study (along with other emerging research) unseats the “thermodynamic” model of analyzing obesity: that it’s simply a matter of calories in, calories out.
This week, ProPublica has released a report from David Epstein that explores which chemicals might be playing a role in hormonal shifts driving obesity in human and other animal forms of life. Among those he lists are the so-called “zombie chemicals”, recently reported on in Nature: hormone-disrupting chemicals, being sent into lakes and rivers that break down in the sunlight, but “can regenerate at night, returning to life like zombies.” Epstein’s report hedges more toward the skeptical side of this issue than Berreby’s piece in Aeon. He’s cautious to acknowledge, in his leading paragraphs, that obesity in the life of captive chimps (for instance) can still very likely be attributed to the classic “big two” factors in discourse about obesity: eating more, moving less.
Those who have long been convinced that obesity is a systemic social problem that can be linked to capitalist forms of food production and distribution, will unlikely find any surprising news in this emerging research. But it may be the case that this offers more concrete evidence. And I think it’s a great example of the ways in which the entanglements of human health with that of other animals is becoming a useful way of questioning dominant narratives about how we live, and what might be driving some of our most deeply seated social problems as animals.