Satiety Signals

Posted: April 26, 2012 in Consumerism, Culture, Health, Philosophy
Tags: ,

This post is rewritten and expanded from a blog comment I made here.

In human biology, the part of the brain that controls appetite is called the hypothalamus, and it responds to four different hormones: insulin, leptin, CCK, and ghrelin. The first three signal when one has had enough to eat and the last inhibits the function of the first three. With normal foodstuffs, the satiety signal appears readily enough. However, food manufacturers through the application of science can now outwit our hormones so that, for instance, a 32-oz Big Gulp no longer seems like a lot of liquid to drink because the normal “I’m full” signal never reaches the brain even though the liquid reaches the bladder. Fructose and high-fructose corn syrup (more commonly known as HFCS, which has roughly equal parts fructose and glucose), major ingredients in soda, in particular fail to stimulate production of these hormones and are accordingly regarded as toxins or poisons by many dieticians. It might sound conspiratorial to suggest that food makers have purposely substituted HFCS for other sweeteners precisely to forestall the feeling of fullness, but then, no one believed the conspiracy to load cigarettes with addictive nicotine for a long while, either.

This information is preliminary to the question that prompted my linked comment above, namely, “why would we as a species get to this point [in our cultural development?] … What was the attraction to go down this road to the cliff?” My short response was that Sandy Krolick’s term, “The Curriculum of the West,” explains it well enough, but reading and following his blog is necessary to understand the term fully. One might ask, “Who writes the Curriculum?” And I would reply, “No one, really. It writes itself.” It’s a blind historical process, like evolution or geology or cosmology. Because humanity is at the core of it, we tend to ascribe agency to it or anthropomorphize it, but really no one is driving the bus. Yeah, some of us embrace and pursue the Curriculum more vehemently than others (or rail against it), and there have been switchbacks and intensifications over time as well, but it should be obvious that for some 3000–5000 years at least it’s been the background against which all our endeavors are measured, and no one is free of it since it went global in the last century or so.

Blind processes often require kick-starts, same as with the emergence of life on Earth or the spark that eventually led to human language. In my view, knowing some (little) about where we came from as a species, the root of it all is the base of Maslow’s hierarchy: physiological needs. Once met, we turned (and turn) to other needs. However, the invention of agriculture and thus surplus kick-started the really invidious notion of ownership and then systems of thought and law to protect surpluses and enslave people to the will of the emerging ownership class. All our machinations in the millennia since might be understood as refinements of that foundational relationship.

Our latest stage of refinement involves primarily information flows, which were first enabled by inventions such as the telegraph, radio, and telephone that brought simultaneity of experience (and information) across distance. James Beniger describes this in his book The Control Revolution, which takes a biological view of both individuals and society as processors of material, energy, and information:

[The] reason why the Control Revolution has been so profound in its impact on human society [is that] it transformed no less than the essential life function itself. Rapid technological expansion of what Darwin called “marvelous structure and properties” and what we now see to include organization, information processing, and communication to effect control constitute a change unprecedented in recorded history. We would have to go back at least to the emergence of the vertebrate brain if not to the first replicating molecule … to find a [comparable] leap in the capability to process information.

Beniger’s hyperbole is obvious enough, but it’s impossible to dismiss his assertion without at least pausing to consider his evidence, which is exhaustive. Following the date of publication of Beniger’s book (1989), information flows were further catalyzed in the computer era with data mining and Big Data, and we now have the Security or Surveillance State as a side effect. Some argue that a sinister conspiracy to debase educational institutions is also underway to keep the masses ignorant, to limit their ability to process information (though not access to it), but I don’t see it quite that way. Rather, attacks on education are part of longstanding attempts at subjugation of labor and aggregation of wealth (now through privatization) where hollowing out institutions themselves is collateral damage that benefits the managerial class who deploy information the same way deployment of wealth/power benefits the ownership class — those two classes having significant overlap.

I don’t find any of this too mysterious, though a perspective wide enough to apprehend the full picture may well be beyond most people. Details as to place, time, institution, ideology, etc. all collapse to the ontological level of paranoid material need run amok, overtaking spiritual and aesthetic aspects of life.

To supplement my blog comment and to circle around to the idea of satiety signals, it seems to me that physiological needs, while always primary, have paradoxically loomed so large in the age of abundance that we’ve become maniacal in our pursuit of them despite our standard of living in the First World being quite high. Worse, there is no signal to indicate satiety, or when enough money or material wealth has been acquired. Oliver Stone gets it right in his film Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps when the character Bretton James answers the question, “How much is enough? What is your number?” with the simple reply, “More.”

So in effect, we can’t turn off the capitalist machine once it’s been started. Indeed, capitalism might be viewed as a late phase in the unforeseeable chain of reactions initiated when the Curriculum of the West was adopted unwittingly millennia ago, before anyone had an inkling human impacts on Earth could alter the chemical makeup of something as large as the oceans and the atmosphere. Even more recently — only about 200 years (or less) — industrial civilization launched us past the knee of the curve and become an instance of malicious ecophagy.

Some argue that tearing into what little pristine nature remains to us is a final, rapacious step of exploiting the last resources — like the Easter Islanders cutting down the last palm tree, now that the planet has been metaphorically shrunk to the size of an island — just to further enrich those elites in a position to buy governments and sidestep ecological regulations. While that is undoubtedly true, I suspect it’s both simpler and more widespread than that. In short, we humans are the equivalent of a plague of locusts, wantonly consuming everything in our path (soil, water, air, metals and minerals, oil and gas deposits, etc.) before moving on. The problem, of course, is that we’ve been doing it so long and effectively that soon enough there won’t be anywhere else to move on to. Every landscape and seascape will already be shattered by our activity. What happens then is obvious if you’ve been paying attention.

  1. White Indian says:

    [URL redacted] There is no hope, anywhere. Not even in “re-wilding” for a post-civilized primitive existence. Primitivists forget that with the coming resource wars comes nuclear winter and radioactive fallout at extinction event strength.

    I’m done hoping for anything. I’m just enjoying the last few years of my life like On The Beach, right now. It’s very much freeing. Enjoy some dandelion tea, enjoy the crows outside, take no thought of tomorrow.

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. I have a great deal of sympathy for this perspective, to which I’ve defaulted myself. However, I’m bothered by the moral dimension of doing nothing to forestall disaster, not that there is necessarily anything to be done. I don’t want to pile on any worse than necessary, either. Rock, meet hard place.

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