Are people getting better? An interview with Webb Keane on ETHICAL LIFE

From inner city America to the Inuit Arctic, from evangelical Christians to ardent feminists, our increasingly diverse and global society means, as Webb Keane puts it, that “everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town.” How then, does one exercise the distinctly human tendency to take an ethical stance toward oneself and everyone else? Which values can be said to be universal? Is it innately human to apply ethics, or is it strictly a product of one’s cultural and historical context? Keane, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, took some time to answer questions about his new book, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories.

Keane jacketWhat’s new about Ethical Life?

WK: This book brings together research findings across a wide range of fields that rarely communicate with one another. So one thing that’s new is the wide net it casts. It takes in developmental psychology, the microsociology of conversation, ethnographies carried out with everyone from inner city crack dealers and to hunters in the rain forest, and histories of feminism, evangelical religion, and communist revolution. Along the way, it brings philosophers into the conversation, and takes occasional sideglances to cognitive science and neuroscience. Usually when a book covers so much territory, it tries to do one of two things. One approach is to give us a kind of encyclopedia: there’s this, and this, and this. Another is to claim there’s one big explanation, like for example, it all boils down to your DNA. Well this book takes a different tack. It says that each of these different angles on human ethics tells us something that can’t be reduced to, or explained by, the others. But none of them are complete in themselves. So the book explores the borderlands where they meet each other. For instance, psychology shows us that the impulse to seek out other people’s intentions is shared by all humans, and is very deep; philosophy tells us why intention-reading is essential to ethical judgments; ethnography explains why some communities will emphasize intention-reading while others suppress it; and history traces out how it comes to be that one society, at one point in time, ends up finding intentionality fascinating, while another takes it to be a source of anxiety—and what happens when people actively try to change their own ethical system.

Can you explain the title?

WK: I use the term ethical “life” because I think it’s important that ethics isn’t just a set of rules or ideas that you consult from time to time. It’s built into the very flow of everyday life. It’s part of your emotional equipment, your sense of self, and of your ability to have relations to other people, as well as to the words and habits and institutions you get from living in a particular society at a particular time. Notice that this list ranges across all the fields I’ve mentioned: psychology, social interaction, history. “Ethical life” means that an ethics saturates even quite ordinary activities.

Some people say that the foundation for ethics and morality is religion. Isn’t this so?

WK: It follows from the proposition that ethics is built into ordinary life that it’s not based on religion as such. Anthropologist will tell you that even very traditional religious communities always have their village atheists, yet the village atheist also participates in ethical life. And of course many philosophical systems have tried to base ethics on non-religious principles like reason. Still, it’s also true that religions have played a huge role in the development of ethical systems. One chapter of the book looks at examples from Christianity and Islam to show how they construct and inculcate a very distinctive style of morality. But they do so by drawing on raw materials that are already part of everyday life, and then transforming them in certain characteristic ways.

But at least we can say ethics is the specialty of philosophers and theologians, so why would an anthropologist be talking about this?

WK: Anthropologists have two mandates. One is to understand people as they actually are—warts and all–and not as we think they should be, which can sometimes put us in the company of some pretty nasty characters. The second mandate is to begin by trying to see people from their own points of view. Our job doesn’t stop there, but making that our starting point means we have to grapple with ethical intuitions that we may find foreign or even repugnant. As I see it, the traditional role of the philosopher or theologian is not to carry out empirical research to discover what ethical life actually is, but rather to say something about what it should be, and to justify that view. Now certainly there are many philosophers and theologians who are in deep conversation with social scientists, and vice versa—I hope you can see this dialogue going on in my book–but most of us end up observing that division of labor, and work at different sides of the questions. And one of the things this book says, with which many philosophers and theologians may disagree, is that there’s no guarantee that we can find a single set of unifying principles that everyone will agree to, or that history is leading us to converge on a shared ethics.

Is it human nature to be ethical?

WK: Yes and no. One the one hand, ethical life is a dimension of ordinary human existence across the board. It draws on certain capacities and propensities that all children develop early in life, and that all societies respond to and develop in one way or another. The book stresses the very basic elements of ethics, like seeing yourself from your interlocutor’s perspective or having a sense of reciprocity and fairness, which are features of life everywhere. On the other hand, this book also argues that these basics do not amount to a full-fledged ethics until people have some way of recognizing that that’s what they are: that there’s something ethical at stake. And this depends on all sorts of social dynamics which necessarily vary from time to time and place to place. They have a history. Moreover, every community has some values which are likely to conflict with one another, such as freedom and equality, or justice and charity. The balance between them is likely to shift from one context to another. Which is one reason why we’re not likely to end up with a single set of shared ethical principles.

Well, if ethics isn’t just a universal set of rules, is the end result ethical relativism?

WK: The short answer is “no.” This is the other side of the coin in the answer to the previous question: there are limits to how far any ethical system can ignore or go beyond the raw materials with which it’s working. Simply in order to make sense of one another, people have to act in ways that others can interpret, and there are cognitive, linguistic, and sociological constraints on this. Moreover, just recognizing that other people have very different moral intuitions doesn’t exempt me from having certain commitments. If I’m going to play soccer, I have to care about the outcome even if I’m aware that there are people out there who don’t know or care about soccer (but, say, who do care about basketball). But no amount of knowledge about the different games is going to give me an objective basis for declaring that the game I’m playing is the one that should really matter. We can’t expect our scientific knowledge about ethics to provide us with a superior position from which to we can prove to everyone else that our ethical intuitions are the correct ones.

The last section of your book is about historical change. Many of us would like to know, are people getting better?

WK: That really depends on what yardstick you want to use to measure progress. On the one hand, it’s clear that people around the world are more and more likely to have dealings with others from different backgrounds, and to see some connection to people who aren’t right next door. So two things follow. First, everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town. And second, the potential scope of their ethical concern is expanding. Alongside this is the rise of universalizing ideals, like the concept of human rights. On the other hand, this doesn’t necessarily mean people are becoming more cosmopolitan—sometimes they just circle the wagons and double down on racial, national, or religious exclusiveness, insisting that some people are not due objects of my ethical concern. So, again, I don’t think we’re going to find any guarantees out there. But it does look like the friction generated when different ethical worlds rub up against one another can charge up new ethical ideas and provoke us to make new discoveries about ourselves.

Webb Keane is the George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter and Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society.

New Anthropology Catalog 2016

We invite you to scroll through our latest Anthropology catalog.

MushroomCheck out The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, an investigation of Matsutake, the most valuable mushroom in the world and its amazing ability to survive and, indeed, thrive in human-disrupted landscapes. Using the mushroom as an example, she sheds light on the relationship between the darker side of capitalism and collaborative survival.






RighteousIn Righteous Transgressions, Lihi Ben Shitrit examines how women in conservative religious societies find ways to circumvent strict ideas about their role to engage in the political arena using four groups as examples: the Jewish settlers in the West Bank, the ultra-Orthodox Shas, the Islamic Movement in Israel, and the Palestinian Hamas.






YoungFinally, Avi Max Spiegel examines the competition among established Arab Muslim groups to gain the support of the growing population of youths among their ranks in Young Islam. He focuses not only on the work of established Muslim thinkers, but also the growing body of writing from the younger generation to make the case that the nature of Islamist movements is changing.




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PUP will be at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting from November 18 to November 22 in Denver—visit us at booth #310!

Finally, for a limited time we are offering 30% off on select print titles.


(Stanley) Fish Food for Thought: Cultural Reflections

Welcome to Part 5 of PUP’s Stanley Fish series, Fish Food for Thought. All selections are excerpted from Fish’s new book, Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law, and Education.


Fish Food for Thought

Part 5: Cultural Reflections

3.1 Professor Sokal’s Bad Joke

May 21, 1996

Fish on why Professor Sokal is wrong about sociologists.

When Professor Sokal declares that “theorizing about ‘the social construction of reality’ won’t help us find an effective treatment for AIDS,” he is at once right and wrong. He is right that sociologists will never do the job assigned properly to scientists. He is wrong to imply that the failure of the sociology of science to do something it never set out to do is a mark against it, (95)

3.3 Dorothy and the Tree: A Lesson in Epistemology

April 25, 2011apples

Fish on why Dorothy picked an apple from a speaking tree without thinking.

Another way to put this is to say that changes of mind tend to be local and piecemeal, not systemic. Wholesale conversions like Paul’s on the road to Damascus do occur, but more often a change will affect only a small corner of one’s conceptual universe. After her conversation with the tree, Dorothy may no longer place trees and persons in completely different compartments, but much that she used to think, she will still think, (107)

3.5 What Did Watson the Computer Do?

February 21, 2011

computerFish on the difference between computers and humans when following the rules.

The inability or unwillingness of human beings to follow the rules or be
content with their guidance is not a weakness but a strength; it is the strength of being able to adjust when the rules have nothing helpful to say or produce absurd results in a situation the rule-markers did not anticipate. Only a fool will persist in adhering o a rule or set of directives when its application is clearly counterintuitive and even disastrous… The computer I am writing this column on is a fool,

3.7 Can I Put You on Hold?

November 16, 2009

Fish on the annoying little things everyone encounters.

There is a class of utterances that, when encountered, produces irritation, distress and, in some cases, the desire to kill… Mine is a three-word announcement on the TV Screen, “To Be Continued,” which says, “I know that you have become invested in this story and are eager to find out how it ends, but you’re going to have to wait for a few days or a week or a month or forever.” In the great order of things, it is only a minor inconvenience, but it is experience as a deprivation; you were banking on something and now it has been taken away, (120)

3.10 Favoritism is Good

January 7, 2013

Fish on why favoritism is sometimes the preferred thing.

Favoritism – giving more than an even break to your own kind – is not a distortion of judgment, but the basis of judgment. And being impartial to those who are a part of you – through blood or creed or association or profession (think of the thin blue line) – is not to be virtuous but to be ungrateful and disloyal, more concerned with hewing to some abstract principle of respect for all than with discharging the obligations that come along with your most intimate relations, (129-130)


Ian Goldin discusses the migration crisis

Exceptional people jacketWith the wave of migrants and refugees from the Middle East traveling to Europe, migration has once again become a politically and emotionally heated international debate. In this exclusive PUP interview, Ian Goldin, Oxford University Professor of Globalisation and Development, author of The Butterfly Defect, and co-author of Exceptional People, clarifies the facts and dismisses the myths about this societal movement that dates back hundreds of years.

Why did you write your book, Exceptional People?

IG: I believe that the debate about migration is dominated by emotional rather than fact-based responses. I wrote the book to assemble the available evidence and place current debates in both a historical and future looking context. In the USA, the immigration debate is as politically charged as it is in Europe and many other countries. But as the book shows, no country would be where it is today without the benefit of waves of previous immigrants.

Are there more migrants today than in the past?

IG: Migrants today account for about 3% of the world’s population, which is roughly the same proportion as it has been over the past hundred years. It is actually lower as a share of the US or European population than it was in the age of mass migration in the second half of the 19th century. Migrants are defined as people crossing international borders, so the fact that there are 100 more countries in the world today means than 100 years ago, means that people that used to move within a country, are now defined as migrants. This trend has accelerated with the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the rise of independence movements.

What do you think are the main myths about migrants?

IG: That they take locals jobs, that they reduce wages, that they increase unemployment, that they are a drain on government budgets and that they are more prone to commit crime. None of these fallacies are borne out by the evidence.

Surely new arrivals means less employment and lower wages for locals?

IG: Although this seems to be intuitively obvious, it is not borne out by numerous studies. The reason is that migrants tend to fill needs in the labour market which local people are not providing, allowing the economy to grow more rapidly, which in turn creates more jobs and provides more taxes and services and leads to higher incomes and wages. This is both true of unskilled workers, where migrants allow greater levels of participation of local workers. For example, female workforce participation increases as migrants undertake tasks such as childcare that may keep mothers at home. And migrants create cheaper goods and services, such as food, cleaning and hospital care, which allows locals to be better off and spend more on other services undertaken by locals, such as professional and entertainment services. Migrants are also a powerful source of dynamism and innovation in society as is evident from Silicon Valley and a quick scan of who the Nobel Prize and Academy Award winners are. This increases the growth rate and competitiveness of societies, which leads to higher levels of employment and wages. It also provides for more dynamic and diverse entertainment, food, fashion and other choices for citizens.

So are there no costs associated with migration?

IG: There are costs. Particular communities may at times feel understandably threatened by the inflow of individuals with different cultural, religious or other views. Groups of workers may also feel the competitive pressures of immigrants. The challenge for cities, states and countries is to manage these flows, to ensure that each wave of immigrants is integrated effectively into society. The benefits of migration are national and are felt strongest in the medium term, whereas the costs tend to be local and short-term. This is why communities may need help, for example in ensuring that migrants do not put undue pressure on housing or education or other local services. The answer is not to stop migration, but to manage it more effectively.

Are there good examples?

IG: The USA is the best example, as its history is one of immigration. As I show in Exceptional People, it is vital that the lessons from this and other successful experiences are learnt to ensure that migration continues to play its central role in meeting the challenges of the future.

What about refugees?

IG: Refugees are very different to other migrants as they are in severe danger of death or persecution if they remain in their home countries. There is an internationally agreed legal definition of what constitutes a refugee. The desperate situation of Syrians illustrates that despite the legal and ethical imperatives, refugees regularly are denied safe passage and asylum. In principle, refugees aim to return home when it is safe to do so, but they may be compelled to stay in their host countries for many years. I show in Exceptional People that the policies of the host country, including as to whether refugees are allowed to work, fundamentally shapes the extent to which they are able to integrate and contribute economically.

Ian Goldin is Oxford University Professor of Globalisation and Development. He has served as vice president of the World Bank and advisor to President Nelson Mandela, and chief executive of the Development Bank of Southern Africa. His many books include Globalization for Development and The Butterfly Defect.

Jonathan Zimmerman: How consensual is casual sex on campus?

zimmerman jacketIn a recent op ed in Washington Post on the question of consensual sex on college campuses, Jonathan Zimmerman, author of Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, writes, “… if we want to protect our students, not just their colleges, we will have to begin a deeper dialogue about the meaning of sex itself.” In an approach that departs from debates that have focused on what constitutes ‘legal’ sex, Zimmerman questions the ability of students to emotionally connect in such an intimate setting in extremely limited periods of time:

We might succeed in cajoling more students into some kind of verbal consent. But that’s a script, a bedroom contract between sexual vendors. Yes, it will make the whole transaction legal. But consensual? Really? If you met somebody an hour ago, how can you tell what they want? And since you know so little about them, aren’t you more likely to do something that they don’t want, no matter what kind of “consent” they have given?

According to Zimmerman, university online courses, workshops and informational resources about consensual sex on campus fail to emphasize the vital notions of emotional connection and communication. Due to this lack of communication, he suggests that although female students may verbally give consent, they are still pressured to do things they would normally avert.

Read Zimmerman’s full piece in the Washington Post here.

Jonathan Zimmerman is professor of Education and History at New York University. He has also authored Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory and Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American.

Hamburgers in Paradise: 12 Facts

FrescoDepictions of paradise can be found throughout the centuries, portrayed as an impossible, unchanging ecosystem in perpetual motion that provides an abundance of food, water, and shade to sustain humans and animals in perfect harmony with no effort required. In Hamburgers in Paradise, Louise O. Fresco argues that the idea of paradise as an impossibly stable, diverse, and productive ecosystem has had a profound effect on our thinking about nature, farming, and food, and remains a powerful influence even today. Despite secularization, paradise is a frame of reference for what we think and do in relation to food.

Today at 2:30, Fresco will be presenting her book to Kenneth Quinn, the World Food Prize ambassador, at the 2015 Borlaug Dialogue, hosted by The World Food Prize. You can view the live stream online, and you can join the conversation online using #WorldFoodPrize.


A few facts from the book that may surprise you:

  • In most Western European countries, life expectancy tripled in the period 1750-2000, when food began to be available in large quantities.
  • The history of tens of thousands of years of food scarcity explains our preference for foods high in calories, proteins, and other essential nutrients.
  • All religions attribute moral and psychological properties to food. For example, the kingfisher has been seen as a symbol of abundance and prosperity, and so it was not to be eaten. In many religions fasting, or the resistance of temptation for food, is seen as the highest virtue.
  • In the U.S., the tasteless bun of a hamburger is not the norm because Americans don’t know how to bake bread, but because a certain consistency is needed to bring out the juiciness of the meat. The bun is wrapping, plate, and napkin first and a source of carbohydrates to balance out the protein of the meat second.
  • The earliest archaeological evidence of farming comes from 9,500 years ago.
  • Dependence on food introduced from elsewhere is an ancient phenomenon, reflected in the names used and the confusion surrounding them. For example, in Italian corn is called “grano turco” or “Turkish grain,” the word “Turkey” signifying oriental or exotic and not its actual origin since corn comes from Central America.
  • Without the influence of humans, neither wheat, corn, apples, nor lettuce would ever have evolved from their wild ancestors.
  • 30% of the surface of the earth is used as farmland or pasture.
  • Bread can be a symbol of plenty, but it can also be a symbol of want. There are countless examples in literature of the proverbial poor thief who steals a loaf for his family. Victor Hugo used this trope to great effect in Les Misérables.
  • Bread was so important in Ancient Rome that the killing of a baker was punished three times as severely as the killing of an ordinary citizen.
  • Archaeological remains of sieves suggest that cheese may have been made in the Alps more than 5,000 years ago.
  • In the Netherlands no more than 4.5% of people are vegetarians, in Germany perhaps 9%, and in Italy 10%.

Paul Krugman hosting free discussion at Cooper Union with authors of THRIVE

Thrive jacketTonight, Nobel-prize-winning economist Paul Krugman will host a free public discussion at Cooper Union with Richard Layard & David M. Clark, co-authors of Thrive: How Better Mental Health Care Transforms Lives and Saves Money. Richard Layard discussed the book with Tom Keene on Bloomberg Surveillance here, and both authors answered some questions on mental health policy for the PUP blog here.

Mental illness is a leading cause of suffering in the modern world. In sheer numbers, it afflicts at least 20 percent of people in developed countries. It reduces life expectancy as much as smoking does, accounts for nearly half of all disability claims, is behind half of all worker sick days, and affects educational achievement and income. There are effective tools for alleviating mental illness, but most sufferers remain untreated or undertreated. What should be done to change this? In Thrive, Richard Layard and David Clark argue for fresh policy approaches to how we think about and deal with mental illness, and they explore effective solutions to its miseries and injustices.

Richard Layard is one of the world’s leading labor economists and a member of the House of Lords. He is the author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, which has been translated into twenty languages.

David M. Clark is professor of psychology at the University of Oxford. Layard and Clark were the main drivers behind the UK’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies program.

Paul Krugman is an author and economist who teaches at Princeton, the London School of Economics and elsewhere. He won the 2008 Nobel Prize in economics. He is also an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times.

September 29, 2015 @ 6:30 pm – 9:30 pm
The Great Hall
Foundation Building
7 E 7th St, New York, NY 10003

Please RSVP here.

What does the Bible really say about infertility?

Moss jacket“If fertility is a blessing, then infertility ought to be a curse—so goes the logic of Genesis 1 and the creation story” write Candida Moss and Joel Baden, authors of Reconceiving Infertility, in their recent Daily Beast piece. In the secular view, infertility is a medical condition for which there is logical recourse: fertility treatment, adoption, or the decision to remain childless and pursue other means of fulfillment. But from ancient times to today, fertility through a biblical lens has often appeared as a sign of blessedness and moral uprightness, while infertility has been associated with sin and moral failing.

This week, the pope’s message carries the promise of many things: compassion for immigrants, vigilance about global warming, and redemption for those who have become alienated from the Catholic church because of its stance on divorce and other lifestyle choices. And yet, as Baden and Moss note in The Daily Beast:

Beyond the obvious—faceless corporations, greed, capitalistic exploitation, and so on—there is another group that Francis thinks is selfish: childless couples. In fact, during his tenure Francis has directly described those who choose not to have children as “selfish” and as obsessed with material things. He regularly uses sterility as a pejorative metaphor and fruitfulness as the primary image for that which flourishes. In so doing, he appears unaware of how this language alienates those without children and empowers others to negatively judge them.

Judgement of the childless, rooted as it may be in ancient biblical language, has long been a feature of modern life as well. Infertility carries a lingering stigma, and the decision not to procreate, often seen as a calculated choice, has led many to defend their “childless by choice” lifestyles. Yet according to Baden and Moss, biblical views on procreation and infertility were more diverse than we tend to think, particularly when we take into consideration the ancient contexts from which they emerged:

The good news is that the Bible, one of the primary ideological sources for discrimination against women, is in fact more complicated on the issue of infertility than it at first seems. While biological procreation is a perpetual blessing on God’s people, fertility is not always assumed to be the default human state. Certainly by the New Testament, the biblical “family” was less about biology than about a community drawn together by duty and responsibility. Informal adoption, mentorship as family, and concerns for others as a replacement for biological generation are the norm.

Read the rest of The Daily Beast piece here.

Candida Moss is professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, and is serving as a papal correspondent for CBS this week. Joel S. Baden is professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School.

Behind every meal you eat, there is a story

Louise Fresco, president of Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands and author of Hamburgers in Paradise, talks about that story here:


An interview with Louise Fresco on “Hamburgers in Paradise”

Fresco JacketIn Louise Fresco’s new book, Hamburgers in Paradise, the term “Paradise”, in her own words, is “a metaphor that refers to the landscapes on our planet, the collective Garden of Eden which, according to some views, we have irreversibly destroyed through large scale food production.” It is a view shared by many in a world simultaneously plagued by food shortages and GMO fears. In such a climate, is there room for optimism? Fresco looks at our food situation in all its complexity, taking the stance that there is no one perfect way to produce or consume food, and that balance and trade-offs between different goals are central to any long term solution. You can see her TED talk here, and the English subtitled version to a documentary she made about the food industry here. Recently Fresco took some time to answer some questions about her book.

What’s new in this book?

LF: Human history has been one of continuous scarcity. The abundance of food that has emerged for the majority of the world population in the last decades is so unique that we have not yet learnt to deal with it. We are still scared that there will not be enough, and that we will destroy our environment. Scarcity is our default mode, and that of our bodies, hence our difficulties to balance our diets and to reduce our ecological footprint. Abundance is a triumph of science and trade; it allows us to shed our fears of shortages. But the book argues that we require new ways of thinking, to reign in our needs (for example of meat) while producing food sustainably for all, with new methods (for example through recycling or using algae). The book demonstrates in detail that there is not one perfect way to produce and consume food, but that we always have to balance the trade-offs between different goals, such as large scale production (i.e. low food prices) and biodiversity. What is best depends on our goals and our insight in unintended side effects (we may like to see free roaming chickens but they may be more prone to disease that way).

Can you explain the title Hamburgers in Paradise?

LF: The title refers to a thought experiment: if Eve were alive today, what food would she offer Adam as a temptation? Paradise as a metaphor also refers to the landscapes on our planet, the collective Garden of Eden which, according to some views, we have irreversibly destroyed through large scale food production. These semi-conscious images of a pre-Industrial and idealized past are still guiding many of our reactions to modernization. The hamburger, of course, is the iconic food that symbolizes the rise of the modern middle class, from suburban America to places like Moscow or Mumbai, as well as the critical counterforces: slow food, vegetarian and organic products. The hamburger illustrates also the adaptation to new demands: fat and salt contents have been lowered, information on calories and nutritional values are published, wrappings are made of recycled materials and advertising to children is limited. In the most recent twist of history, the hamburger becomes popular once again in upper class restaurants, dipped in liquid Nitrogen, or in a vegetarian reincarnation.

Food is the source of much confusion today, we hear so many, contradictory stories about what we must or mustn’t eat and why. What is the reason for this confusion?

LF: Food and agriculture are the basis human survival. Food conjures up strong feelings, based on individual memories, strict convictions and long traditions, especially in times of rapid modernization. Many people, even in rural areas, are hardly aware of how food is really produced and how it lands on their plates. Nearly all of us rely on others, often far away, to feed us. Ignorance and dependency make us feel vulnerable and worried about food.

But we can also turn this around: behind every meal there is a story, one that is nearly always fascinating and often complex, but always worth telling. Food connects us with the past and the future.

Is there room for optimism?

LF: With current knowledge, we can feed nine or ten billion people quite easily. This doesn’t mean that there is no world food problem. Even if enough food can be produced this is not easy and more production does not mean food reaches people automatically. The current gap between actual and attainable yields is still enormous. At the same time, agricultural research and innovation continue to be needed to tackle specific problems of animal and plant diseases, poor soils and climate variation. The application of existing knowledge is hampered by poor infrastructure, unavailability of irrigation or fertilizer, dysfunctional markets and policy.

Food shortage is more a matter of distribution than just production. Hunger is caused by poverty, so creating employment is essential. The great improvements in agricultural production since the 1970s have benefitted the urban poor more than the rural poor. These improvements involve higher yields, through better agricultural techniques such as irrigation, leading to lower food prices that benefit those who buy food (those living in cities), while farmers selling foods are at a disadvantage. Today more than 850 million people go hungry and perhaps as many as 2 billion may lack balanced nutrition. Most of the hungry live in areas of civil war or frequent natural disasters, so peace and resettlement are priorities.

There seems to be much concern about Genetically Modified Organisms, is this concern justified?

LF: This is a very complex issue about which it is impossible to generalize and about which there are many misunderstandings. For example, if cows are fed genetically modified soy bean, their milk does not become genetically modified, even if some people fear this. The modified genes and cells do not survive the gut. What the effects and risks are depends very much on what crop or animal, what genes are used for what purpose and where. Certain problems, for example diseases in banana, can only be tackled with biotechnology, a large toolkit which does not necessarily result in GMOs. There are two types of risk, for human and animal health. While we need to continue to monitor the situation, there are no indications that GM crops lead to additional food related risks in human beings or animals. So far, there are no indications of environment effects (such as insect mortality or genes “escaping “), but ecosystems are complex and difficult to monitor. Finally, there is also the issue of intellectual property rights: while a fair reward is needed for the companies developing the biotechnology or GMOs, we must also make sure that farmers and scientists and breeders elsewhere can keep access to varieties or breeds. Here the U.S. and EU legislation and traditions do not coincide.

What about chemical inputs such as fertilizer. Are we not destroying the land?

LF: Plants and animals need food just as we do. These nutrients come nearly exclusively from the soil (and through water, transported from soils elsewhere). Only very few soils can sustain production for long periods and their nutrient reserve needs to be built up through other sources of nutrients. Whilst manure from animals can be used for this, this does not solve the problem, it just means that animals have to graze somewhere from where they take up the nutrients. Almost without exception agriculture requires fertilizer to be sustainable. Fertilizer has a bad name mainly because it has been overused in the past with detrimental effects on surface water, but in itself, if wisely used, it is a blessing. More land is depleted through lack of fertilizer than is affected through its use.

Is fast food the source of all evils?

LF: Fast food is part of a complex process of transformation of society: greater mobility, work pressures, urbanization, diversification through trade, smaller and singe households, greater affluence of young, ubiquitous equipment like microwaves and fridges people all lead to out of home eating and pre-packed meals. As with all foods, it is not the individual item that is “bad” but the pattern. Eating fast food from time to time is acceptable in an otherwise healthy lifestyle. However, fast food often contains too many calories and we should be concerned if there are no other options, In so-called food deserts, neighbourhoods devoid of shops selling vegetables, fast food is often the recourse for single parents.

What type of agriculture is most sustainable?

LF: There is no blueprint for an agricultural model that fits all situations. Agriculture is the art of the location-specific and always depends on soils, climate, geography, culture and economics. Agriculture is forever changing, adapting to new consumer demands and new technology. However, using resources as efficiently as possible is essential to avoid wasting labour, water, land, fertilizer, seeds or animals as well as reducing post harvest losses in the entire value chain. Efficiency is often misunderstood as large-scale and anonymous, but it applies at all scales. No farmer can afford to waste resources, nor can we as humanity. The World will need 50% more calories in 2030.

Would the world be better off if all meat would be prohibited?

LF: No, meat is necessary for certain groups such as pregnant and lactating women, children, the elderly and sick and of course the malnourished. Meat is not only a source of proteins but also of essential nutrients such as iron and certain vitamins (B12). Humans evolved as omnivores; vegetarians, even in India, have always been a small minority. Also, there are areas in the world where nothing else can be produced but grazing land and animals. The growth in demand for meat and fish is expected to increase faster than the growth in population, especially in Asia and Africa.

However, there are major problems associated with meat production: environmental (water, emissions, production and transportation of feed) veterinary public health, human health (diseases associated with high red meat intake and overuse of antibiotics) as well as animal welfare. These can all be solved with adequate research and regulation. Reducing meat consumption through substitution of animal proteins in healthy individuals in affluent societies is part of that.

Louise O. Fresco is president of Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands. The author of several books, she is a member of the Council of Advisors for the World Food Prize and has worked extensively in developing countries for many years. She lives in Amsterdam.

Mark Zuckerberg chooses “Portfolios of the Poor” for A Year of Books

Collins jacketMark Zuckerberg is spending a year reading books and is inviting others to join him. The latest pick for A Year of Books, just announced, is Portfolios of the Poor by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford, and Orlanda Ruthven. Over 250 families in Bangladesh, India, and South Africa participated in this unprecedented study of the financial practices of the world’s poor. In selecting a story of life very bottom of the global economic order, Zuckerberg seems to suggest the particular importance of empathy for entrepreneurs and those in leadership positions.

“It’s mind-blowing that almost half the world — almost 3 billion people — live on $2.50 a day or less. More than one billion people live on $1 a day or less. This book explains how these families invest their money to best support themselves. I hope reading this provides some insight into ways we can all work to support them better as well,” he wrote on his personal Facebook page.

So far there have been 17 books chosen, and this is the third Princeton University Press title to make the list. Rational Ritual by Michael Chwe, and The Muqaddimah by Ibn Khaldun were chosen earlier this year.

Congratulations to the authors!

You can find more information on the website for Portfolios of the Poor here. A sample chapter is available here.

Ready for football? Remembering the first game between Princeton and Rutgers

It’s that time of year again! The air is saturated with the promise of cooler days ahead, the leaves are holding their breath, and school is nearly back in session. And that means one thing. Football season will soon be here. More specifically, college football. Princeton, as I’m sure you know, has quite the legacy in this area—dating back almost a century and a half.

To be precise, that legacy dates back all the way to November 6th, 1869: The day of the first official collegiate football game played between Rutgers and Princeton (then called The College of New Jersey).


Back then, the game was really a hybrid combining elements of rugby and modern-day soccer. Each team consisted of 25 players struggling to kick the ball into the opposing team’s territory. Reportedly, a mere 100 spectators gathered to watch the game, many of them sitting on a wooden fence. The players took the field, removing their hats, coats and vests in preparation for play. Speaking of attire, some believe that the “Scarlet Knights” nickname for Rutgers came to be at this game. To differentiate themselves from Princeton, some players sported scarlet-colored scarves, worn as turbans. Thus, the Scarlet Knights were born. Alas, Rutgers defeated Princeton that day, 6-4. Six to four you ask? That’s right. Even the score-keeping method was different back then.

What a far cry from college athletics today, especially football. If you’ve ever been to a college football game (especially a Division 1 game), you know what I’m talking about. In 2011, many colleges including Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, and Texas, had over 100,000 fans in attendance at their games. Stadiums practically ooze their team’s colors and the roar of the crowd is deafening. Music pumps through unseen speakers and there are always a few dedicated fans that choose to doff their shirts in favor of painting their team’s colors and/or letters onto their bodies. Who's #1? The Science of Rating and Ranking

People take their college football very seriously these days. There are all different types of divisions, championships, and rankings that decide when and where they get to play. The ratings of the NCAA determine which schools get to play for all the marbles in postseason bowl games. Amy N. Langville and Carl D. Meyer discuss these types of ranking systems in their book Who’s #1?
The Science of Rating and Ranking.

The major differences between college sports in the 19th century and college sports today are significant. College athletics have become an integral part of the community of higher education and of society as a whole.

Gaming the World But the nature of college sports today are troubling to some. On the one hand, college athletic programs serve to bring communities together and unite people who otherwise wouldn’t share any common ground.  In Gaming the World  Andrei Markovits and Lars Rensmann reflect on and explain how sports influence our daily lives and help to confirm a certain local, regional, and national identity. These programs also promote health and wellness at colleges nationwide, which benefits students.

But on the other hand, many colleges and universities, in their constant need to compete with other institutions, sometimes redirect funds and other resources toward football or basketball while the academic side of the institution is forced to manage without those funds.

In addition to the funding problem, there is also an “underperformance” problem. In Reclaiming the Game, William Bowen and Sarah Levin explore the academic experiences of college athletes and oReclaiming the Gamether students. In one of their studies they’ve found that recruited athletes at some schools are four times more likely to achieve admission than are other students (non-athletes) with similar academic qualifications. They also show that the typical recruit is more likely to end up in the bottom third of the college class than are other students and non-athletes.

It’s safe to say that the feverish fandom of college athletics can either boost or take away from the institution itself and the college experience. What’s your opinion on the matter?

Beautiful Game Theory: How Soccer can Help EconomicsIf the impact of sports is a topic that interests you, and you’re intrigued by unusual applications, also check out Ignacio Palacios-Huerta’s Beautiful Game Theory. Palacios-Huerta uses soccer as a lens to study game theory and microeconomics, covering such topics as mixed strategies, discrimination, incentives, and human preferences. Palacios-Huerta makes the case that soccer provides “rich data sets and environments that shed light on universal economic principles in interesting and useful ways.”

PS: Not to worry, Princetonians – we didn’t make a habit of losing to our northern neighbor. On May 2nd, 1866, in the first intercollegiate athletic event in Rutgers history, the Rutgers baseball team lost to Princeton, 40-2. Quite the slaughter! And Rutgers may have ended up winning the first football game 6 to 4, but a week later Princeton won the next match at home, 8 to 0.

A rematch is also on the horizon! If you’ve done your math right (and I’m sure you have) the 150th anniversary of the historic football game takes place in 2019. There have been talks of a rematch for this upcoming anniversary. Read more here.

Image credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,