How Cows Created America

Posted on 2013 April 4


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There’s an interesting article about researchers who, studying various human societies, have discovered that Americans make up one of the oddest cultures in the world. We’re part of a larger civilization called “WEIRD” — Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic — that includes Europeans, Australians, and so forth. But Americans tend to be at the extreme end of this group: we’re highly analytical, individualistic, and aggressive, and we tend, myopically, to presume that everyone else thinks like us and should do things our way.

No, this won’t be a diatribe about American cultural imperialism or the follies of the Iraq invasion. That’s been done. What captured my imagination was the implied question, “How did we get this way?” Why are we so unusual among cultures of the world?

I wondered awhile about that, and then it hit me: cows.

Cows? Yes, cattle. Especially milk cows.

It all started several thousand years ago, when a group of people in what’s now the Middle East figured out how to use goat’s and cow’s milk to make yogurt and cheese to feed their children. This food, with its powerfully dense nutrition, improved the kids’ survival odds. It helped that a good number of them could tolerate lactose (milk sugar); otherwise, cow’s milk wouldn’t have been nearly as beneficial. These folks then migrated to Europe, where their animal husbandry displaced the local hunting and gathering. Pretty soon many, if not most, Europeans were raising cows. A map of lactose tolerance shows that the bulk of northern Europeans now have the gene for digesting milk.

So what? Well, if you lived in a rice-farming culture like China or Japan — where, incidentally, tolerance for cow’s milk is low — you worked closely with your neighbors to cultivate and harvest the crop that kept all of you alive. It was natural, then, for such Eastern cultures to emphasize communitarian values. Herders, on the other hand, guarded their cattle alone, watching for poachers — who, in the dead of night, were tempted by the relative ease of pilfering stray cows — and only the cattlemen’s willingness to battle trespassers stood between them and ruin. It was a lonely way of life, individualistic, militant, tactical, analytical. Life was lived by an Honor Code: leave my stuff alone or I’ll shoot you.

Here’s where America fits in. Northern Europeans — including a great number of cattle-raising Scots — migrated here in search of land and freedom. (Many herders wound up in the southern Appalachians, where the Honor Code holds to this day, and you best be polite to strangers, many of whom are armed and touchy about their reputations.) It’s largely from this group that the Framers of the American Republic were drawn. Their attitudes — strength, self-responsibility, initiative, honor — shaped the Constitution. Our country’s current politics and culture descend directly from the Framers and their world — which, in turn, was heavily influenced by the Honor Codes of those milk-drinking Celts.

Today, Americans are more individualistic than nearly every other people. We have more guns, a bigger military, the highest incarceration rate in the world, and a garish murder rate. We’re highly analytical and inventive, and our computers and aircraft and machine tools and financial expertise are the envy of the world. We adore cars — they provide independence and mobility on a scale cowboys on horseback could only dream of — and we rank near the top in per-capita auto ownership.

In short, we’re an aggressive, independent, gun-toting, car-loving, inventive people who are quick tempered and love a good fight, cheerful and friendly toward strangers but equally quick to quarrel with them. In short, Americans are, in essence, cowpokes. In that respect, we’re unique in the world.

And we owe it all … to cow’s milk.