Do evolutionary perspectives of morning sickness and meat aversions apply to large-scale societies?: an examination of medieval Christian women
By Kristen M. Snodgrass
PhD Dissertation, University of California – San Diego, 2012
Abstract: A hypothesis put forth in 2002 by Daniel Fessler argues that, of all food types, meat and animal products are the most likely food items to carry pathogens and are, therefore, the principle target of gestational food aversions and pregnancy food taboos. Fessler posits these aversions are likely a source of selective pressure that has affected pregnant females throughout human history. Through an examination of 73 societies, Fessler’s findings support his hypothesis. These societies, however, are small in scale.
This thesis examines the validity of Fessler’s (2002) hypothesis in large-scale societies comprising medieval Christian Europe. The reasons for choosing the medieval period are threefold. First, there is a lack of large-scale societies in the populations Fessler investigated. Second, if meat aversion is an evolutionary adaptation that has continued to be selected for, then it should apply to pregnant medieval women. Third, if meat aversions are selected to protect the mother and embryo from pathogen ingestion, then choosing large-scale societies with access to various forms of meat, but lacking in modern sanitation practices, should bring to light the applicability of this hypothesis to large- scale societies.
Through an investigation of staple diets, religious dietary views, medical literature, and wives’ tales of medieval Christian women, aversions to animal flesh and animal products among pregnant women do not appear to be supported. I propose, therefore, that Fessler’s hypothesis should be rejected, since it is based almost exclusively upon biological constraints within small societies, and does not take cultural constraints of large societies into consideration.