So, did you hear the one about the blind men and the elephant? I know, it sounds very politically incorrect.
The story started somewhere on the Indian sub-continent and is a story about blind men who all touch an elephant to learn more about it. Each one feels a different part and describes it - and depending on the telling of the story - sometimes argue so vehemently that they come to blows.
It is a parable that has crossed between many religious traditions and is part of Jain, Buddhist, Sufi, Hindu and Bahai lore.
The man who feels the leg says the elephant is like a pillar, the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope. The one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch, the one who feels the ear, says the elephant is like a hand fan. The one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.
The Jain texts use this to illustrate the complicated nature of truth. They argue that immature people deny various aspects of truth. People can be misled by the aspects they do understand, and thus ignore or oppose the aspects they do not understand. This parable is also cited to stress the importance of considering all viewpoints in obtaining a full picture of reality.
The story is seen as a metaphor in many areas of study - none so important now as the arguments that rage over food and individual nutrients.
There has, unfortunately, been increasing focus on individual nutrients instead of whole foods since the early 1980s. One of the reasons for this related to the publication of the National Academy of Science’s report in June 1982 - “Diet, Nutrition and Cancer”. Prof T Colin Campbell was one of the 13 scientists responsible for the study. He expresses sadness and frustration about the way the report was used, with its findings distorted for financial gain.
The report included chapters on individual nutrients and groups of nutrients as this was how the research had been conducted. In the report summary, the panel explicitly stated that “these recommendations apply only to foods as sources of nutrients - not to dietary supplements of individual nutrients”.
Unfortunately this was ignored by the world of business who ignored this message and began advertising vitamin pills as products that could prevent cancer - “arrogantly citing our report as justification.” Professor Campbell describes the mistake of characterizing whole foods by the effects of specific nutrients as “reductionism”. The poet John Saxe illustrates this in his poem!
The Blind Men And the Elephant - John Godfrey Saxe (1816 -1887)
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong
Next week: The Magic Apple