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12.1.09

Natural Lactose Tolerance

I find it interesting how people can come to the same conclusions as I do, yet be swayed by arguments I find quite lacking. Today's example comes from Alicia, who says the argument against consuming milk that she found most compelling, and which tipped her over the edge, was the idea that adult milk consumption is unnatural.

There are a number of things right about Alicia's post. She's right to say lactose intolerance should be understood as a mismatch between a person's biology and the expectations of their society, not a deficiency in the lactose intolerant person. And the statistics she cites about the prevalence of lactose intolerance worldwide, and its particular concentration among people of color, is a good corrective to the idea that adult milk consumption is a human universal. So "everyone should drink milk!" has both ableist and ethnocentric components.

Where I disagree is her further claim, which she says tipped the balance for her in going vegan, that milk consumption is unnatural. In general, I don't find naturalness arguments compelling on their own, except as a rough indicator of potential problems when we lack other, more direct information (which is not the case here -- we have centuries of direct information on the effects of consuming milk). Further, I would argue that it's perfectly natural for European-descended people to be lactose-tolerant. European lactose tolerance isn't just a coincidence -- it's a product of evolution, a quintessentially natural process if ever there was one, fitting Europeans to better take advantage of the foods available in their cultural-economic environment (i.e., one with dairy cows). So absent further arguments about the harm to cows and the environment (which I think Alicia also accepts), those of us who are perfectly able to digest lactose as adults should be free to continue consuming milk.

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