I love milk.
No offense, orange juice industry, but to me a day without milk is like a day without sunshine. I can’t remember the last time I went sunup to sundown without at least one ice-cold glass of moo juice. Usually it’s more than one. A lot more.
Milk is weird.
As you know (I hope), dairy milk comes from the mammary glands of large, grass-munching, hooved quadrupeds. It contains many little things that prop up my health and well being, which is nice, but I drink it because I crave it. I slam it. It sets me in right mind like no other beverage. But it’s, like, from cows. What kind of crazy stuff happened in human history that led to my milk lust?
My home state is known affectionately for its enormous dairy heritage. No doubt this has contributed to my deep attachment to its main fluid product that’s not beer. My grandparents milked cows—as did the forbearers of most Wisconsinites I know. I wonder if I can blame my milkiness on the loving hands that came before, or is there a more scientific reason I’m so hooked on the white stuff? Am I a slave to nurture, or nature?
I am milk.
In his famous book, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jarred Diamond gives me a clue. He says that a key difference-maker in Europeans’ overtake of the New World was their long domestic attachment to the bovine. In a subsequent essay about his book, Diamond writes,
One means by which Europeans were able to spread at the expense of other peoples was by infecting them (usually unintentionally) with epidemic infectious diseases such as smallpox and measles, to which Europeans had evolved some genetic resistance and had acquired much immune (antibody-based) resistance through historical and lifetime exposure respectively, while unexposed non-European peoples had no such exposure, hence no such resistance.
But why didn’t non-European peoples evolve deadly diseases of their own to give back to invading Europeans? The explanation lies in microbiological studies of recent decades, which I summarized in one chapter of Guns, Germs, and Steel … The exchange of major epidemic infectious diseases was one-sided, because most of those diseases in the temperate zones came to us humans from diseases of our domestic animals (such as cattle, pigs, and chickens) with which our ancestors lived in close contact after those animal species had been domesticated. But of the world’s 14 species of valuable domestic mammals, 13 were Eurasian, only one American, and none Australian. Hence Eurasians ended up as disease bearers, and with much resistance themselves to their own diseases.
It wasn’t that the nasty newcomers sailing in from the east were any smarter or stronger, but that they, unlike the New World natives, had lived hands-on for a long time with large, domesticated animals. Cows, mostly. The natives didn’t stand a chance against the virulent onslaught. Smallpox and measles, compliments of dairy-mongering invaders, did them in.
The takeaway? If you want to wipe out a string of advanced civilizations, don’t forget to milk your cows first.
I am weird.
Were it not for my ancestors’ embrace of Bovine, I just wouldn’t be me. It’s true. The goings-on of itty-bitty bugs in my non-ruminant gut bear a resemblance to the pageant of itty-bitty bugs in the gut of dairy cows. Who knows how much interaction between these microscopic gut worlds has taken place over the centuries? I think it’s safe to say, quite a bit. In his 2008 article in Harper’s, “The Revolution Will Not Be Pasteurized,” Nathanael Johnson describes a corner of the nutritional cow-human relationship:
When I started talking to milk experts, several told me I needed to speak to Bruce German. A food chemist at U.C. Davis, German realized early in his career that if he could determine what a food perfectly suited to our DNA looked like, he would have a Rosetta Stone with which to solve the puzzle of dietary well-being. He would be able to examine each molecular component of this food to understand what it was doing to make people healthy…[t]hat Ur-food, of course, is milk.
Consider, German said, what it means that milk, the model food, has evolved such a sophisticated chemical system that caters not to us but to our microbial friends. It means, he said, raising his eyebrows, that “bacteria are tremendously important to us”—so important that researchers studying the microbes living inside us say it’s unclear where our bodily functions end and the functions of microbes begin.
By any rational measure, this world belongs to microbes. They were mastering the subtleties of evolution three billion years before the first multicellular organism appeared. They continue to evolve and adapt in a tiny fraction of the time it takes us to reproduce once. They flourish in polar ice caps, in boiling water, and amid radioactive waste. We exist only because some of them find us useful. Ninety percent of the cells in our bodies are bacteria. The entirety of human evolution has taken place in an environment saturated with microbes, and humans are so firmly adapted to the routine of sheltering allies and rebuffing enemies that the removal of either can devastate our defense systems.
We exist only because some microbes find us useful. Now there’s a challenge to the eminence of human philosophy. Forget about all our silly attempts at high culture; humans are nothing more than coliseums with restaurants and cab service for microscopic happy campers. Milk, it seems, may be the key component of this, er, arrangement. Is that why I find it so dang delicious and essential? Key inner microbes—not a part of ME, really—need me to find it delicious, or else their good thing shuts down. I’ve been programmed by bacteria, my 90%, to serve their purpose. Weird I am.
Weird is good.
Without belaboring the science, (okay, I don’t really understand it, but) I suspect that microbes therefore find useful my close relationship with cows. It’s a neat chain. I’m nature’s microbial shuttle service between the two gut environments, and I’ve played an unwitting role, but enough of a role that I feel good collecting the fare—I drink milk, I get a healthier gut, which is the source of stronger, wider-acting immunity, and I am very immune.
And there’s more to it. In my relationship with milk, I may giveth, but I receiveth more. Let’s set aside the whole microbial/bacterial thing and look at what milk provides this here bipedal mechanism: energy, water, carbohydrates, essential fats, proteins and vitamins; minerals and enzymes—many of them at levels the U.S. government recommends to keep its taxpayers paying taxes.
It seems my microbial hypnotists are also sweetly looking out for the me that is me. Especially when I choose to chug organic milk from cows that eat lots of organic grass. The cows are healthier and have healthier guts, which leads to more healthful milk, as demonstrated recently by Washington State University. I get 62% more of the essential fatty acid omega-3 (as well as an ideal, healthful ratio of omega-6 to omega-3), 18% more cancer-fighting conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and a righteous milk taste that makes my soul sing in soothing harmonies.
Maybe I have a shot at high culture after all, and I plan to pursue my shot, right after I slam another frosty glass of my beloved Ur-food.