Nothing in nature is “perfect” Michael Pollan, and that goes for breastmilk, too


Imagine if I made the following claim: Sexual intercourse is the perfect method of reproduction, formed by natural selection to result in a perfect baby every time. After you picked yourself up off the floor from laughing so hard, you’d probably point out a number of facts to me:

1. Every episode of sexual intercourse does not result in conception.

2. Every conception does not result in pregnancy.

3. Fully 20% of established pregnancies naturally end in miscarriage.

4. Many babies are born premature and die as a result.

5. Some babies are born with birth defects and die as a result.

So how have human beings taken over the planet, expanding from a population of perhaps 10,000 early in human history to 7 billion today?

First, population expansion does not require perfection in reproduction; it only requires more people in the next generation than in the one before. If a couple has 10 children and 7 of them die, the population still expands. Second, technology has dramatically improved our ability to survive and thrive in a myriad of environments, including those previous inhospitable to humans.

That’s because nature doesn’t do “perfect”; it only does “good enough.”

I would think that journalist Michael Pollan, often described as a “liberal foodie intellectual” would understand that, but apparently not. In a recent interview in the magazine Lucky Peach, Pollan makes the following absurd claim:

Breast milk is the perfect food, formed by natural selection to have everything the developing child—and its microbiota—needs. We’ve spent almost two hundred years trying to simulate it, because food companies can’t make money when people are nursing their babies.

Let me pick myself up off the floor from laughing so hard, and point out a number of facts to Michael Pollan:

1. Every pregnancy that results in a live baby does not result in a live mother. No mother = no breastmilk.

2. A mother’s ability to produce breastmilk exists on a continuum just like most other human characteristics. Most women will produce enough, but a lot of women will fall short and their babies would die if not for supplementation.

3. Breast milk is not a perfect food. For example, it does not contain enough Vitamin K to prevent hemorrhagic disease of the newborn in a significant number of babies. Those babies “naturally” die by bleeding to death.

4. Babies are not perfect, either. While most will be able to breastfeed successfully, not all will and if they can’t figure it out in time, they will simply die of starvation.

5. Breastmilk substitutes have existed long before the advent of record history. Babies whose mothers died were nursed by other women (wet nurses). Babies whose mothers couldn’t produce enough milk received milk from goats and cows. Throughout recorded history, women supplemented breastmilk with a wide variety of substances.

6. Formula was not created by corporations. It was created by doctors who were tired of seeing so many babies die for lack of breastmilk and because previous supplements were contaminated with bacteria or lacking in adequate nutrition.

That’s because nature does not do “perfect”; it only does “good enough.” Breastmilk isn’t perfect and neither is breastfeeding. It is only good enough, and Pollan ought to know that.

According to Pollan:

It’s human arrogance to think we can outwit nature.

To which I would say:

It is the human tendency to romanticism to pretend that we do anything other than outwit nature every moment of every day of every year. Nature is not that nice lady wearing a flower crown in the Chiffon Margarine commercial. That was an advertising campaign that thoroughly misrepresented nature in order to sell a product. Nature is heartless. Starvation is natural. Drought is natural. Disease is natural. Earthquakes, tornados and hurricanes are natural. War is natural. Infanticide is natural.

Everyone who lives in a house outwits nature. Everyone who wears clothes outwits nature. Everyone who cooks their meat instead of eating it raw outwits nature. Everyone who ever took an antibiotic to cure an infection, a vaccine to prevent smallpox, or had surgery to removed an inflamed appendix has outwitted nature. Every one of the many, many millions of babies who survived because of formula has successfully outwitted nature.

Breastmilk is good. It has advantage over formula, although in industrialized societies those advantages are trivial. It is not perfect because nothing in nature is perfect. I would venture to guess that the human tendency to romanticize nature, as Pollan has done with breastmilk, is entirely natural. That doesn’t change the fact that it is nothing more than a touching fantasy beloved of intellectuals, most of whom who wouldn’t last 5 minutes if they actually had to live in nature.