Weekend Reading: Darwinian Gastronomy, Humboldt, and Taxes

November 16, 2019 • #

🌶 Darwinian Gastronomy

Turns out cultures from warmer climates evolved a taste for spicy foods to combat the presence of more diverse bacteria:

Alas, nothing in nature turns out to be that simple. Researchers now suggest that a taste for spices served a vital evolutionary purpose: keeping our ancestors alive. Spices, it turns out, can kill poisonous bacteria and fungi that may contaminate our food. In other words, developing a taste for these spices could be good for our health. And since food spoils more quickly in hotter weather, it’s only natural that warmer climates have more bacteria-killing spices.

🌲 The Pioneering Maps of Alexander von Humboldt

The German scientist Alexander von Humboldt is one of the most important figures in conservation and geography. He was one of the first scientists to use maps as a critical tool for communicating his discoveries and ideas:

Another of Humboldt’s groundbreaking illustrations came out of his five-year voyage to Central and South America with the French botanist Aimé Bonpland. In 1802, Humboldt and Bonpland ascended Chimborazo, a volcano just below the equator that was believed at the time to be the highest mountain in the world (at 20,564 feet, it’s more than 8,000 feet shorter than Mount Everest). The pair documented the mountain’s plant life, from the tropical rainforest at its base to the lichen clinging to rocks above the treeline. The image below, which Humboldt called Tableau Physique in the French version of his original publication, organizes these observations in an intuitively visual way, showing Chimborazo in cross-section, with text indicating which species lived at different elevations on the mountain.

đź’° Connecting Some Dots on Taxes

There was a roil over a Bill Gates interview from the recent DealBook conference, specifically around his comments on the upcoming election and his uncertainties around the Democratic candidates’ tax policies and consequences they might have. As is usual for Twitter, the rage machine was in full effect around Gates’s comments about “how much he’d have left” if Elizabeth Warren had her way.

The notion commonly tossed around with regard to billionaires is that there’s no way that level of wealth accumulation could happen through non-nefarious (or illegal) means. Kevin Williamson does a good job in this piece picking apart the logic here (or lack thereof) around “wealth transfer” — a disingenuous way to describe a phenomenon where there was no coercion involved.

The idea that there is some big national slop bucket marked “income” and that Gates et al. are grabbing up more than their fair share is breathtakingly primitive. A relatively small number of high-growth firms has accounted for a very large share of economic growth in the United States in the past several decades. That represents wealth creation, not a wealth transfer.