Last night on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart interviewed National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Spencer Wells about his new book, Pandora's Seed. About half-way into the interview (3:55, to be exact), Stewart asks a great question:

But isn't our obesity almost a medal, a badge of sorts, congratulating us on our...utter domination of the planet?

I'm not sure how well obesity-as-badge-of-honor will get anyone, but to a large degree it is true and example of what demographers call the demographic transition. Rather than dying of infectious diseases that left the human population with relatively high death rates, we now find that disease in developed nations is largely due to chronic conditions. What is interesting about obesity, and why as a sociologist I find it so fascinating, is that it is not only a chronic condition that, as Stewart points out, is an exclusively modern condition (because having enough to eat is a thoroughly modern phenomenon) that has a large behavioral component to it as well. While ecologically obesity might symbolize our triumph, physiologically it might represent a significant step back. The complete list of reasons for my interests in obesity research is a topic for another day, but understanding how the social and cultural logic of that is linked to the physciological component is, in my opinion, an extremely intersting sociological question.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Spencer Wells

  1. I think that being a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence has to be the coolest job ever. I want to figure out how to become one of those.