Moses the Microbiologist

Thursday, August 23rd, 2018

John Durant’s Paleo Manifesto is neither paleo, nor a manifesto — and that’s not a bad thing.

I recently revisited Chapter 4, titled Moses the Microbiologist.

I highlighted these passages:

  • However the books were actually written by multiple authors, include stories borrowed from neighboring cultures, sometimes diverge from the best history of the era, and weren’t compiled until long after Moses allegedly lived. Seen in that light, the story of Moses is more than the story of one man; it’s the collective memory of half the world’s people.

    Location: 740

  • Jewish scholars count 613 commandments (248 do’s and 365 don’ts), with thousands of long-standing interpretations and implications for daily life.

    Location: 749

  • How curious that one of those commandments ordered Jewish priests to wash their hands—one of the simplest and most effective forms of hygiene ever discovered—right at the moment in history when infectious disease was exploding. And this commandment came just after the part of the story where the Jewish people distinguish themselves as being impervious to plague.

    Location: 750

  • The flight from Egypt is also the moment in the story when the Jewish people transition from being pastoral herders to urban dwellers. If there is one people who not only made the transition to living in cities but also developed a reputation for thriving in cities, it is the Jewish people. Jewish culture has survived for some 3,000 years—arguably the oldest non-isolated culture with significant permanence—which suggests that it contains features that have allowed it to persist through the Agricultural Age and helped Jews adapt to life in the big city.

    Location: 753

  • Whether or not early agriculturalists realized it, many ancient cultural practices were adaptations against pathogens. For example, spices have antimicrobial properties, which made them a healthy addition to food in an era before refrigeration. It’s not a coincidence that equatorial ethnic cuisines are particularly spicy (food spoils faster in hot climates) and recipes for meat dishes tend to call for more spices than do vegetable dishes (meat spoils faster than plants). Water in early cities was often filthy, which helps explain the emergence of sterile alternatives such as wine (microbes can’t survive in alcohol) and hot tea (boiling kills microbes). Early people didn’t know that invisible bacteria were causing their cavities, but many still ended up using “toothbrushes”—wooden chewing sticks containing a natural antiseptic or treated with one.

    Location: 778

  • In reading the Torah, one thing becomes immediately clear: life was rife with disease. Not only does the Torah describe pestilence and plague in a general sense, it also mentions dozens of distinct diseases and illnesses. Yet the Jewish people seem miraculously exempt from pestilence—when they obey God’s laws.

    Location: 808

  • There’s much in the Law of Moses that remains mysterious or defies a simple explanation, but it is remarkable how much makes sense from a single point of view: infectious disease.

    Location: 814

  • Some of the rules unambiguously address infectious disease, with priests explicitly playing the role of healer. For example, the laws concerning “leprosy” read like a medical text (Leviticus 13–14). Though the modern condition known as leprosy isn’t itself described, the laws help healer-priests discern between multiple skin diseases and determine the appropriate treatment. The…

    Location: 815

  • immediate quarantine, washing, and in some cases hair removal. The laws also specify how to deal with “leprous” garments or dwellings. Garments had to be quarantined and washed; if that failed to halt the spread of infection, they had to be burned. Dwellings had to be emptied, contaminated stones had to be replaced, and the walls had to be…

    Location: 819

  • Far beyond the laws on leprosy, it’s fair to say the Mosaic Law is obsessed with cleanliness, stipulating a lengthy code of personal hygiene and public health—accounting for some 15–20% of the 613 commandments. Though many commandments applied only to priests, the practices often came to permeate Jewish culture, fulfilling the injunction: “ ‘And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ ” (Exodus 19:6). Jewish scholars have written about the importance of ritual hygiene in Judaism for a very long time (it’s one of the oldest themes in…

    Location: 822

  • The Jewish hygiene code appears to be based on four…

    Location: 828

  • First, certain people, animals, or things are inherently “unclean.” Inorganic matter alone, such as dirt, doesn’t make someone “unclean” in the literal sense of “dirty.” Uncleanliness comes from organic matter, such as corpses, bodily fluids, insects, and certain animals. In many cases what the Jews call…

    Location: 828

  • Second, this “unclean” status is transferable through physical contact. In the same way that germs are transmissible, “unclean” things are…

    Location: 832

  • Third, an “unclean” person or object could become “clean” again through various purification rituals. It was as if these cleansing rituals were able to “…

    Location: 834

  • Fourth, individual “uncleanliness” affects the entire community. Akin to mandatory public health measures, the Mosaic Law applies to all Jews—and the text makes clear that Jews’ collective adherence to the Mosaic Law…

    Location: 836

  • However, ineffective rules may have been the price of a generalized obsession with potential routes of infection, and such a mindset would lead to practices that are genuinely hygienic.

    Location: 844

  • Honoring the dead benefited the living: quick burials make hygienic sense given how rapidly corpses decompose in a hot climate like that of the Middle East.

    Location: 855

  • Showing a similar wariness of corpses, Jews were not allowed to eat any animal that either died of its own accord or was killed by wild beasts (Leviticus 7:24, 11:39–40). Animals weakened by disease are more likely to drop dead or be picked off by predators, and, as with humans, a corpse lying out for long enough becomes a literal breeding ground for pathogens.

    Location: 858

  • With so many people dropping dead from disease, cannibalism was a recipe for infection—thus an ancient indigenous method of honoring the dead turned into an unthinkable taboo, used in curses as a sign of the ultimate defilement (Leviticus 26:29; Deuteronomy 28:52–57).

    Location: 862

  • The result was an ancient form of food inspection: the carcass and internal organs had to be examined for defects, signs of disease, or anything that might have caused the animal to die of its own accord in the near future. Later in history, Jews even inflated the lungs and submerged them in water to look for any leaks—a telltale sign of tuberculosis.

    Location: 867

  • Avoiding vermin and insects like the plague, as it were, would have been a simple and effective rule to avoid infectious disease.

    Location: 878

  • The “unclean” lizards and amphibians (Leviticus 11:29–30) are low disease risks, but they do perform a useful function: They eat scads of insects, which carry disease.

    Location: 888

  • The prohibitions against eating birds of prey appear to follow a similar ecological logic (Leviticus 11:13–19). Birds of prey eat vermin and other pests. Carrion fowl, such as the forbidden vultures, conveniently dispose of corpses (Leviticus 11:13–19), as do four-pawed carnivorous mammals (Leviticus 11:27).

    Location: 890

  • By excluding cats from the dinner menu, even the American diet reveals the influence of protecting a species that eats vermin.

    Location: 896

  • Zoroastrianism explicitly stipulated that all human corpses must be taken to a mountaintop, chained to the ground, and left to be devoured by corpse-eating wild dogs and birds (Avesta, Vendidad 6:44–51).

    Location: 899

  • Any direct contact with an unclean person (or thing) made someone (or something) unclean. For example, if a rodent carcass touched household objects or fell into food or water, it all became unclean (Leviticus 11:32–38). The idea that germs were transferable by even the slightest physical touch may seem obvious today, but it was an astonishing inference thousands of years before the formal discovery of the germ theory of disease in the late nineteenth century.

    Location: 923

  • As a result of water’s dual nature (easily transmitting uncleanliness, yet itself a source of purification), Jews became fixated on ensuring the purity of their water supply.

    Location: 932

  • One of those purification rituals requires an unclean person to take both hands and rinse them in clean water (Exodus 30:17–21; Leviticus 15:11; Deuteronomy 21:6).

    Location: 940

  • Another form of “ritual” purification required Jews to immerse themselves in a pool of water—also known as taking a bath.

    Location: 947

  • Observing the Sabbath was very important: the penalty for not observing a day of rest—taking a vacation day—was death (Exodus 31:12–17). In preparation, Jews had to undergo multiple purification rituals: take a bath, wash their hands, launder their clothes, and clean their home.

    Location: 954

  • The Jewish people also knew about at least one form of sterilization: fire.

    Location: 957

  • Here’s how to make that “water of purification”: slaughter a cow, burn it whole, and throw some “cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet” into the fire. Then take the ashes and add water (Numbers 19). Water, ash, and animal fat are ingredients for soap.

    Location: 961

  • Even though Jews stopped sacrificial slaughter thousands of years ago, Jewish rabbis offered a different interpretation of “water of purification”: scalding hot water (Talmud, Avodah Zarah 75b). As a result, Jews sterilized their dishes and eating utensils by submerging them in water that had been brought to a boil.

    Location: 965

  • Earthenware pots, which are porous and difficult to sterilize, had to be broken and could never be used again if they became unclean (Leviticus 6:28, 11:33). In contrast, bronze pots could be scoured and washed (Leviticus 6:28). Items made from wool, linen, leather, and wood could usually be washed (Leviticus 11:32, 13:53–59, 15:12; Numbers 31:20), though sometimes they had to be destroyed with fire (Leviticus 13:47–52).

    Location: 968

  • (In fact, this passage in Numbers became the basis for many rules governing any type of contact with Gentiles and their possessions, which were assumed to be unclean. This wariness of contact with filthy foreigners, plus an obsession with hand washing, would have given Jews an advantage in commerce, both as middlemen—as hubs in trade networks—and long-distance merchants visiting lands with novel pathogens—key edges in trade networks. Another people similarly distinguished are the Parsis of India; curiously, they are some of the last remaining followers of Zoroastrianism.)

    Location: 977

  • Not only did the physical plunder have to be cleaned of infection, so did the captive women (all the men were killed). Female captives were forced to shave their heads and trim their fingernails (Deuteronomy 21:10–12),

    Location: 981

  • Only virgin women could be captured; all other women had to be killed (Numbers 31:15–18). This was a direct result of past experience—see “the Peor incident” (Numbers 25)—when the Jewish soldiers kept all the conquered women alive, had sex with them, and brought a plague upon themselves.

    Location: 986

  • Early agricultural sex cults—of which there were more than a few—tended to die out. Religions that placed restrictions on our sexual impulses did not.

    Location: 995

  • The connection between cervical cancer and sexual activity was discovered by observing that celibate nuns were unafflicted by cervical cancer, whereas the affliction was relatively common among prostitutes.

    Location: 1006

  • Follow God’s hygiene rules and emerge unscathed from the great plagues that destroy rival peoples: a sign of God’s favor. Disobey God’s hygiene rules and be struck down by pestilence: a sign of God’s displeasure.

    Location: 1034

  • In Europe, from the Black Death onward, Fishberg uncovered reports of Jewish people dying at lower rates than Christians during major epidemics: a typhus epidemic in 1505; fevers in Rome in 1691; dysentery in Nimègue in 1736; and typhus in Langeons in 1824. By the nineteenth century, public health statistics revealed not only that the effect was real, but that it was enormous: a ten-year advantage in life expectancy in many European cities. This disparity was even more remarkable considering that Jews were often forced to live in crowded and damp urban ghettos—places conducive to the spread of disease.

    Location: 1076


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    The 613 laws are Talmudic not Torah. And the number is in dispute:

    However, any successful agricultural society, with the usual high population densities, must have come with practical rules to control disease, even if how and why the rules worked was unknown. The ones that didn’t disappeared quickly.

    There is a lot more interesting stuff in the Old Testament besides dietary and sanitary rules. The Exodus itself reads like a story of the Sea Peoples and the end of the Bronze Age.

    What is more interesting is that the writers of the books compiled and edited by Ezra had no clue or memory about the Bronze Age. Everything in the Bible is Iron Age stories.

  2. Adar says:

    Phineas killed the Hebrew man and the Canaanite woman caught in a romantic embrace. Then stabbed the dead woman with his spear through her genitals to dramatize WHY he had done the deed. Prevent the spread of some form of ancient STD, among those scourges as mentioned in the Bible.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    There is a lower limit to how depraved a society can be and still survive. But two cultures that I know of made much more than the minimum effort at physical hygiene: Israel and Japan.

    Good habits always seem to get conflated with religion. Morality is connected with disgust at “filthy” sin. Maybe that’s just how the human mind works. Perhaps religion is an emergent phenomenon of evolutionary ethics?

    I have a low opinion of organized religion, because it seems to promise much more than it can deliver on the spiritual front – and the spiritual is precisely what it claims to be all about. But I’ll concede that it’s good so long as it sticks to what it does best: inculcating and propagating healthy values.

    Judaism from the beginning was much more about this world than the next. Jehovah brought a degree of sacredness to this grubby physical life. Christianity is a much more ambitious project, and to try to save souls may be an overreach.

  4. Kirk says:

    I think that characterizing the Japanese as being “like the Jews” might be a bit of an error. Their approach to the spiritual and religion is best described charitably as “eclectic”, and less charitably, as “schizoid”. Because, that’s what it is. The Jews, with their monomania for monotheism? Couldn’t be more different.

    I think cleanliness and social virtue aren’t necessarily connected to religion. The Japanese are extremely fastidious, and have a very inclusive attitude towards the beliefs they take up. The Jews? Fastidious, and very much not inclusive. Ancient Rome? Best hygiene in the world, in those days. Very inclusive, almost predatory religious practices. Aztecs? Packed more people into less space hygienically than anyone else in the world at that time, and were also hacking people’s hearts out of their chests.

    Overall, I think this thesis is probably an error of correlation vs. actual causality. There is also the fact that a culture which did not possess good hygiene isn’t going to survive very long, and the fact is, if a culture survives… It almost has to have good hygiene, or it’s gonna have collapsed into a mire of filth and debauchery before it gained a reputation for success and longevity.

    I’m really not seeing the connection between good public sanitation and religion, here.

  5. Harry Jones says:

    The connection is summed up in the phrase “ritual purification.” A big part of Shinto.

    Also, for a long time Japan persecuted Christians. So did the Roman Empire. Christians were regarded as smelly hippies or dangerous immigrants. And the Aztecs mostly ripped out the hearts of non-Aztecs. Not what I’d call tolerant or inclusive. Outsiders and nonconformists have cooties.

    Correlation doesn’t prove a particular direction of causality, but it doesn’t just happen by itself either. Something’s up.

    A culture or subculture with mediocre hygiene can survive a long time, and many have done so. It’s just a matter of compensating for a high death rate with a high birth rate. A fertility cult will do in lieu of a purity cult so long as individual life is regarded as cheap. The culture survives, it’s just people — replaceable people — who die. Make it up on volume.

    Breed like rabbits. By the way, rabbits have filthy habits.

  6. Kirk says:

    Harry Jones,

    Mmmm… I’ll give you that one. It is a similarity that I’d not considered. The Japanese and Jews both love them some ritual and tradition…

    The inclusivity that I’m referring to isn’t that for outsiders, but for outside belief systems. The Japanese are particularly prone to this, in that they’ve incorporated Buddhism and a fair amount of Confucianism into what we think of as their traditional animistic religion, Shinto. Christianity is on its way to being incorporated, too. Islam? Not so much. Judaism is getting in there, too, due to their fascination with the Talmud as a guide to “getting ahead”.

    The Japanese are a strange bunch, when you start getting into their religious views–They have zero problem just glomming onto things and taking them in, regardless of source. “Oh, these Westerners have this sacrificed god, and do a celebration of his birthday at mid-winter? Oh, cool… Let’s get in on that…”. Next thing you know, you’re selling KFC on Christmas, and it’s all good. In a few more generations, the Japanese will likely forget that they “borrowed” the idea, and it’ll be fully integrated into “Japanese Tradition”.

    Japanese guy I met once seemingly had no problem reconciling Shinto, Buddhism, the Tao, and still called himself a Christian. His was a very mix-and-match theology, and he was confused as to why I’d even find that odd. Very much the opposite of Judaism… More Roman-like, when I think about it–Take what you like, leave the rest, a buffet of religious belief systems.

  7. Harry Jones says:

    People in most of the Far East are much more open minded than they were before Commodore Perry paid a visit. Jews and mainline Protestants also have evolved toward more openness in certain dimensions. But there’s a naivete in the Far East. They seem to have no filter for nonsense. They’re like sheltered teenagers discovering the wide world.

    These days it tends to be the atheist ideologies that strike me as the most hostile to other ways of thinking. Maybe this is a phase as well.

    It would be nice to strike a balance, but it seems humanity tends to go to extremes, and the only change is oscillating from one extreme to another. Some ex-Catholics I have known get into neopaganism and sex orgies. From neurotic, uptight purity to swinish incontinence without any intermediate stops.

    Then there are those raised in Christian households who rebel and go full militant atheist. They don’t even consider a humble and tolerant agnosticism. And I think horseshoe theory might apply here. They just jumped the gap.

    Fundamentalists strike me as extremely uptight. They fear sin like some people fear germs.

  8. Wang Wei Lin says:

    This topic cover 34 years ago:
    None of These Diseases Paperback – June 1, 1984

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