The evolutionary aversion to eating fish: another one of my theories which is mine

Here’s a post (indented) that I put up on January 28 of this year, and it garnered nearly 300 comments.

Here’s a theory (which is mine) for which I’ll surely get shellacked.  My theory, which (again) is mine, is this, and here it is. It’s just below:

 In general, people don’t like fish nearly as much as meat.

My evidence:

  1. Catholics used to eat fish on Fridays as a penance, which means that foregoing meat for fish was considered a sacrifice. (This practice was also the reason why McDonald’s created the Filet-O-Fish sandwich, as hamburger sales fell off on Fridays.)
  2. The most consumed fish in the U.S. are #1: tuna, and #2 salmon. What do they have in common? They’re “unfishy” fish, with a meaty texture and flavor. In fact, I frequently hear people say that they don’t like “fishy” fish, which means that they don’t much like fish.

I know a lot of people will write in angrily and say they love fish, and love fishy fish like anchovies and herring. I recognize that you people exist, but I am making a general argument, one supported by the data above. (Another non-fishy fish that’s highly prized, by the way, is swordfish.)

Full disclosure: I am not much of a fish fan, and when I do eat it it, it’s tuna or salmon.

p.s. Be temperate in your remarks below: remember there are rules about calling people names. Try not to carp too much.

p.p.s. I am talking about humans here, not cats.

Now of course a lot of people wrote in saying they LOVED fish, as if that were some kind of refutation of an argument based, well, not on statistics, but on general observation. Single cases of fish-lovers don’t count. And I still claim that most “carnivores”, that is, people who eat both fish and meat, and have the opportunities to do so, usually prefer meat to fish. Remember, the most-loved fish are tuna, salmon, and also swordfish, which are “unfishy” fish.

Yesterday it occurred to me that there may be an evolutionary reason why people prefer meat to fish. Over the vast period of human evolution, we ate plants and meat—and meat more often after we tamed fire. But surely we ate uncooked meat over much of our evolutionary history.  On the other hand, we didn’t eat much fish, if for no other reason than early African ancestors probably didn’t live near areas that harbored a lot of fish. Further, the first evidence for fishing dates back only about 40,000 years—only 1% of the time since we split off from our ancestor with chimps.

What does this mean? As I’ve always said, foods don’t have an inherent flavor: how they “taste” to us is an evolutionary product of our olfactory and taste receptors and the neurons in our brain that interpret their signals as “yummy” or “ick”. And evolution would mold the taste “qualia” in a way that we would discern as pleasurable the foods that we require given our physiology and way of life. I’ve also said that a vulture probably finds the taste of well rotted carrion as pleasurable as we find the taste of ice cream sundaes or (if you don’t like sweets), steak or chicken. We like fats and sweets because, in our ancestors, those substances were vital nutrients and sources of energy, and so natural selection molded us and our ancestors to find those things tasty. (Now, of course, we’re screwed by those genes, for we eat fats and sweets in quantities never available to our ancestors, causing diabetes, obesity, and heart problems in modern humans.)

So why do we like meat more than fish? Because meat was for dinner over most of our evolution and fish wasn’t. Our taste receptors and neurons gradually adapted to this diet, so that we find meat far more palatable than fish. Those people who didn’t like meat didn’t leave as many copies of their genes. That, at least, is my theory, which is mine.

Now don’t go into the comments and carp, saying that my argument is wrong because you like fish. That’s an anecdote, not a counterargument. (My anecdote: I’d take a good steak over tilapia any day.) If you want to refute my argument, which after all is just a top-of-the-head thought, you’ll have to come up with something else.

An addendum: in those cultures which now subsist largely on fish, selection will mold genes for fish-liking; and, of course, there are culturally-based preferences, so some of the Japanese love of fish surely comes from the fact that they’re brought up with it, and may regard other foods with suspicion.



  1. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    In general, people don’t like fish nearly as much as meat.

    First criticism: you don’t consider fish to be meat? It is animal flesh.

    • Posted December 12, 2016 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      That’s picky. If you like, I’ll add “non-meat”. You know what i”m talking about, right?

      • Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

        The standard definition of meat excludes fowl and fish. See Mirriam-Webster: “2a : flesh 2b; also : flesh of a mammal as opposed to fowl or fish” Or Collins: “the flesh of mammals used as food, as distinguished from that of birds and fish”

        • Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

          Okay, I include chicken with “meat”, as opposed to fish.

          I HOPE I AM CLEAR NOW. Let’s not argue semantics here, as what I said in my post should be perfectly clear.

          • dabertini
            Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

            I get what you are saying fish meat vs terrestrial meat? Sea creatures vs land creatures? But I still think I prefer fish vs other meats. It is easy to cook, there are a myriad ways to prepare it and it is the healthiest meat to boot. Part of the problem is that fish needs to be fresh in order to get the best taste so it is not the most convenient meat. Frozen fish is not nearly as good as frozen beef/fowl. On the other hand, beef lovers will never eschew it in favour of fish. Fish is more delicate in flavour and beef much bolder in flavour? Anyways, when I eat out, fish dishes are the first I consider.

            • jeremy pereira
              Posted December 13, 2016 at 7:37 am | Permalink

              Part of the problem is that fish needs to be fresh in order to get the best taste so it is not the most convenient meat.

              That is slightly circular. I’ll go with JAC’s assertion that the majority of people prefer land meat to fish, With the above statement, you are saying people don’t like the taste of fish because it doesn’t taste as nice.

          • Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

            My theory is that flesh poses the least aversion when it “tastes just like chicken.”

      • Sal
        Posted December 12, 2016 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

        Carpe Carp. From a fisher.

  2. BobTerrace
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    The perfect food:

    Pizza with pineapple, anchovies, bacon and pepperoni, extra cheese and sauce.


    • Ken Kukec
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      That’s not something you hear every day. Sounds tasty enough to me, though.

    • dabertini
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      That is a faux pas. Surf and turf pizza!!! Anchovies are fish. That pizza has to have enough sodium to cover your sodium requirements for the year!! LOL!!

    • David Duncan
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      No pineapple PLEASE. Most of our ancestors didn’t have it, so the most highly evolved amongst us don’t like it. 🙂

    • Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      Leave off the pineapple and you’ve got me.

      • Merilee
        Posted December 12, 2016 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        Love (fresh) pineapple but hate it on pizza!

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted December 12, 2016 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

          Hawaiian pizza (ham & pineapple) is by far my preference.



    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

      I would try that.

    • Posted December 12, 2016 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

      For me, add some fresh basil and hot peppers. Or better yet, substitute prosciutto for the pepperoni, and arugula glistening with EVOO, for the pineapple. Slurrp 😛

    • Vaal
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

      Good combo, but pass on the extra cheese.

      Cooking is about balance. I don’t know what the obsession is on the extra cheese is for pizza (must be an American thing?) Every time I’ve had pizza with extra cheese (ordered by someone else) it just becomes to heavy weighted toward thick gooey cheese.
      One layer will do. I like to taste the sauce, and the rest of the ingredients.

      But on the anchovies….solidarity! There aren’t enough of us, which makes anchovy-luvin’ life hard.

    • Lurker111
      Posted December 13, 2016 at 7:20 am | Permalink

      The pizza from hell:

      Limburger and anchovy pizza, with diced durian topping.

      Guaranteed to get you arrested.

    • jeremy pereira
      Posted December 13, 2016 at 7:39 am | Permalink

      There’s such a thing as overdoing a pizza.

      Also, pineapple should never be put on savoury dishes except gammon and then it should be discarded before eating.

  3. Joseph McClain
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    Curious that you don’t mention shellfish. There are plenty of people who like flavorful things like shrimp, etc., but don’t like “fishy fish.” And isn’t there some considerable evidence of humans and pre-humans chowing down on coastal shellfish?

    • kevin7alexander
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      Fish were too quick for the aquatic apes* to catch but shellfish, which don’t taste fishy, would be ok.

      *this is tongue in cheek so don’t get down on me.

      • Joseph McClain
        Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

        Thinking about it, I would imagine that spawning behaviors, post-flood strandings and other aquatic misadventures would make finfish at least seasonally available. If they’re down there looking for whelks and a ray swims by, I bet they don’t say no.

    • GBJames
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      But not in “deep” prehistory. PCC[E] is thinking in terms of millions of years whereas the oldest shell middens would be something like the 140,000 years.

      • Joseph McClain
        Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

        But is that because they didn’t eat shellfish back then or because they didn’t toss their shells in the same place back then?

        • GBJames
          Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

          It seems unlikely that shellfish-eaters would carry the shells off-site just to confuse future archaeologists. (You tend to consume shellfish where you find them, at least until the time when storage and shipping allowed people to send them somewhere else for consumption. It is great food but spoils quickly)

        • Diane G.
          Posted December 15, 2016 at 12:55 am | Permalink

          It’s because there aren’t a lot of shellfish in the middle of Africa. 😉

    • Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      Yes, and that’s why we like shellfish more than “real” fish!

      • Brian Salkas
        Posted December 13, 2016 at 2:23 am | Permalink

        Gas Saad had a good section in his book about shellfish and why certaine ones were forbidden in the Torah. According to him they were likely to carry desease and of course people thought god was punnishing them for eating “unclean” animals. I remember him saying something like 1 in 5 oysters would kill you back then but I have no idea what his source was. I wonder if we developed any kind of built in aversion to raw oysers from that.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      He was a bold man that first ate an oyster, as J. Swift remarked. And I say that as someone who eats raw shellfish every chance he gets.

    • Posted December 12, 2016 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

      I’d pick lobster over steak. But maybe it’s the garlic butter. 🙂

  4. strongforce
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    In much of SE Asia there is a preference for fish and fish flavored seasoning,sauces, etc.

    • harrync
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      I suspect that people are much more likely to put a sauce, etc., on fish or fowl than on meat. This would support Coyne’s claim that people prefer the taste of [undoctored] meat over [undoctored] fish. But I still go out for sashimi about once a month.

      • John Harshman
        Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

        Those aren’t sauces for fish; they’re fish-flavored sauces, generally used for meat and/or veggies.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:59 pm | Permalink


          • Derek Freyberg
            Posted December 12, 2016 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

            Fermented fish = an aqueous solution of sodium salts of amino acids and various other protein breakdown products.
            Not necessarily even very fishy-flavored, depending on the source and how purified it is.

            • Tim Harris
              Posted December 12, 2016 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

              I live in Japan and eat mostly fish, as do many other non-Japanese acquaintances. Throughout East Asia & South-east Asia people eat fish. In England in my youth we regularly ate fish. And what about fish and chips? Spanish & Mediterranean cooking uses fish a lot, the cod and herring harvests of the North Sea that fed the Scots, English, Scandinavians, Dutch…, herring, cod and that tremendous delicacy, long-fermented shark in Iceland… I can understand not eating much fish if one lives in the middle of the American continent, but a lot of people don’t. I don’t think you’ve a fin to stand on, Jerry. 

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted December 12, 2016 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

            Exactly my thought too. And I’m not the classicist.

  5. Tom
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant, may be a Nobel Prize somewhere in this, so the idea should be taken further.
    It might be thatsince waterholes rivers etc were dangerous places favoured by predators,
    our early ancestors did not hang about long enough to acquire fishing skills or the taste for fish.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Since they don’t award a Nobel in biology, Jerry may have to settle for a Cordon D’Or on this one. 🙂

      • jeremy pereira
        Posted December 13, 2016 at 7:42 am | Permalink

        Or a Cordon Dory.

  6. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Interesting- where’d the 40,000 years figure come from?

    I’ve noticed that fish from yucky water – e.g. carp from a “working” river, in fact – can taste like a pond. you could call that “fishy” I suppose, but it’s really more like dirty water.

  7. Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    I take it that PCC-E is not an Elaine Morgan fan then? 🙂

  8. Stephen Barrett
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    ‘Now don’t go into the comments and carp…’
    I saw what you did there.

  9. Roger Latour
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    “evolution would mold the taste “qualia” in a way that we would discern as pleasurable the foods that we require given our physiology and way of life.” I think that much. Along those lines can we say that animals like cervids are universally charismatic. Everybody thinks Bambi is so “beautiful”. Including the mountain lion!

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      My New Year meal ideas include Bambi Burgers and Skippy Steaks. And I’m still trying to find a supplier of Horse Haunch.

  10. eric
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    On the other hand, we didn’t eat much fish, if for no other reason than early African ancestors probably didn’t live near areas that harbored a lot of fish.

    I opine that this is incorrect. I would bet that the majority of human settlements (and even hunting-gathering before that) were close to a source of fresh water. We need it to live, after all. And that means living near areas that have fish. I don’t think, for example, that you could say that the early civilizations that arose around the Tigris-Euphrates, the Nile, and the Yangtse “didn’t live near areas that harbored a lot of fish.”


    I’d personally put my money on two non-evolutionary (well, one non- and the other sort of-) factors. First, acculturation: If you grow up eating some food, you’ll probably like it. That’s a gross generalization with numerous exceptions, but I think it probably explains the ‘western’ preference for beef, pork, and chicken over fish better than ‘evolutionary factors.’ Acculturation has the advantage of also explaining why some other cultures (the Japanese, for example) love fish.

    Second, fish aren’t domesticated (at least not in the same way). Beef cows and pigs are raised to have a high fat content. The cuts we love best are marbled – layers of meat and fat intermixed. A fish’s meat is going to be comparatively lean. It shouldn’t be too surprising that many humans prefer the meat from a domestic animal – an animal specifically fattened up for consumption – over a ‘wild’ animal such as a fish that has not been analogously fattened up.

    • Kevin
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      As I read I thought, someone discouragingly, that in a hundred or more years we may wreck the planet so much that we will all have to eat crickets and grubs.

      And I am wondering if I would call that voluntary stupidity of a species enforcing an unwanted evolutionary change on itself.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted December 12, 2016 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

        in a hundred or more years we may wreck the planet so much that we will all have to eat crickets and grubs.

        Less than a hundred years. And don’t leave jellyfish off the plate.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted December 13, 2016 at 6:20 am | Permalink

        Australian aboriginals eat witchetty grubs, which are apparently both delicious and nourishing, whatever those from, or originally from, or whose ancestors were from, other climes may think. In Japan, you may buy jars of grasshoppers cooked in soy sauce and sugar. And I know personally Japanese people who ate grasshoppers raw in the lean years during and after the war (they are very good apparently, but being a lover of insects in a non-edible way, I haven’t tried them).

        • Tim Harris
          Posted December 13, 2016 at 6:41 am | Permalink

          I have tried those cooked in soy sauce and sugar, though, but they taste mainly of soy sauce and sugar.

    • Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      Early humans may have lived near bodies of water that harbored lots of fish, but since humans evolved in near equatorial Africa, these bodies of water likely would have also harbored Nile crocodiles. Spending any significant time in the water while hunting for fish would have been strongly evolutionally discouraged.
      And I think all these early civilizations around Mesopotamia, the Nile, and China would have existed much less than these 40000 years.

      • eric
        Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

        Orangutans in Borneo catch and eat fish. See here. Now, there are a lot of important caveats to those findings (only juveniles, the groups studied may have seen humans fish, etc…), so I wouldn’t necessarily claim that this is a solid evidence that early hominids actually fished. Its at best an interesting factoid that speaks to the possibility that they did so. However, probably the most relevant comment in the paper is “Our review of primates’ aquatic fauna eating showed orangutans to be one of 20 species that eat aquatic fauna, one of nine confirmed to eat fish, and one of three that use tools to obtain fish.” Given that nine of our cousin-species actually eat fish, I think saying ‘crocs, so they probably didn’t fish’ is unwarranted.

        • Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

          Interesting. I’d like to know what are the other 8 primate species that catch fish, but only the abstract is open, unfortunately.
          I can also add some caveats – there are over 600 species of primates and only 9 apparently catch fish. So fishing is definitely not a common occupation among our cousins.
          And it would be more informative to see if chimpanzees, gorillas, and other African apes regularly catch fish.

      • Posted December 12, 2016 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know why it is assumed that fishing requires rivers and oceans, large bodies of water. Fish are also found in swamps, creeks, rivulets and other small bodies of water. In fact, fish have been found in small drainage ditches in farmers fields in Oregon.

        And, as to future bug eating. Some of our human ancestors did this long ago. Certain Northern California indigenes ate bugs and bug larva. I don’t remember the names of the two men who are doing this, but bugs are being turned into flour/meal commercially right now.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

      Prehistoric middens containing shells are found in Africa as well as the United States and elsewhere, throughout the world. People moved out of Africa along the coasts, and quite naturally they ate what they encountered, which doubtless included birds and maritime mammals and reptiles as well as fish and shellfish.

      • GBJames
        Posted December 12, 2016 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

        Middens have nowhere near the antiquity needed to be relevant to PCC[E]’s theory, which is his own.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted December 12, 2016 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

          How so? The evolution of lactose tolerance among pastoral populations is even more recent.

          • GBJames
            Posted December 12, 2016 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

            PCC[E]’s hypothesis (theory, which is his) is that selection has been operating for millions of years on the hominin line, producing a “taste” for food which favors meat-lovers. Any similar selection for preference for “fishy” foods would to the best of our current understanding be something that’s been operating for a much more limited time, tens of thousands of years (perhaps 15 tens, but still tens). This based on what little archaeological evidence we have for human seafood consupmption.

            Given the relatively small amount of coastal resource availability, compared to the much greater land available for hunting and pastoral activities, it seems reasonable to conclude that evolution of “taste” has been much stronger for meat eating than seafood eating.

            I have no dog in this fight. I eat a lot of seafood and no mammal or avian meat. But I suspect my ancestors weren’t like me in this regard.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted December 12, 2016 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

              Yes, Jerry’s hypothesis invokes deep time, but why should that be relevant if evolved preferences can be altered to track changing diets on geologically short timescales?

              I also fail to see the relevance of vast continental interiors if relatively few people actually lived there. Is there evidence that most people lived far from aquatic resources? Or is that just speculation?

            • Tim Harris
              Posted December 13, 2016 at 1:46 am | Permalink

              Why, GBJ,do you suspect your ancestors weren’t like you in the matter of eating or not eating fish? Evidence! I’ve seem no evidence whatsoever for PCC’s hypothesis except for what seems to be his own aversion to fish.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted December 13, 2016 at 5:57 am | Permalink

                I might add that here, in Japan, as well as in England in my youth, not to mention the many European and Asian countries where fish are widely eaten, the species of fish eaten are far from being confined to the tuna and salmon which PCC appears to think are the only fish people like. I really do not see how Catholic practices and the tastes of certain members of the American populace, or even the tastes of the American populace as a whole, can be regarded as ‘evidence’. There are other people in the world apart from Catholics and US citizens.

              • GBJames
                Posted December 13, 2016 at 6:56 am | Permalink

                PCC[E] is making a statistical assertion, he isn’t just stating his own preferences. Whether he is correct in his assertion I can’t say for sure, but I suspect he is probably right.

                We humans are omnivorous and eat what we can to survive, most of the time through prehistory. Including fish. We know this. What we don’t know is whether there is any kind of innate preference for land-animal meat, statistically speaking.

                My own preferences have little relevance. I eat no land-animals at all but that has nothing to do with whether I like the taste (I do). I’m looking forward to trying Memphis Meats someday.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted December 13, 2016 at 7:11 am | Permalink

                The trouble is, I don’t see any statistics… only unstastisticified assertions. Perhaps you could go fishing for them, GBJ, and report back?

              • GBJames
                Posted December 13, 2016 at 7:19 am | Permalink

                Tim… You’re arguing with the wrong person. PCC[E] is the person you need to argue with. The theory is his (which he owns).


              • Tim Harris
                Posted December 13, 2016 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

                It was you who asserted that PCC was making a statistical assertion, and not just stating his own preferences, and you also asserted that PCC was ‘probably tight’ in making his assertion. If PCC owns his theory, which is his own and nobody else’s, then I think you may be regarded as owning your assertions about PCCs theory, which he owns.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted December 13, 2016 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

                ‘probably tight’ should of course read ‘probably right’.

              • GBJames
                Posted December 13, 2016 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

                Tim, Tim, Tim.

                Search for the word “statistics” on the page. The first use of it is by the Professor, referring to the lack of it in people who respond to him with personal taste statements.

                My only assertion is that he is making a statistical assertion even if he doesn’t provide any numbers. He may be right or wrong, you should argue with him about that.

                I happen to think he may be right. It seems reasonable to me. I don’t need to provide statistics to back up that statement since it is one of fact. That is what I think.

                Why do you want so badly to argue with me?

              • Tim Harris
                Posted December 14, 2016 at 12:58 am | Permalink

                Why not?

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted December 12, 2016 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

        Importantly, the techniques of raft-or-boat + line fishing + shellfish eating would work for pretty much any stretch of coast without needing much novelty apart from “Mum and Dad didn’t travel in this direction”. The worst blockage would be in areas of long stretches of steep cliffs without fjords.
        If I had a few million dollars and sufficient interest in the “peopling of the Americas” question, I’d hire a decent boat some good side-scan sonar and photogrammetry “fish” (towed underwater toolkits) and start some systematic surveying along the … British Colombia coast, down to about 80m present day water depth. No in-depth investigation, just target identification for prioritisation and follow-up.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

      I would bet that the majority of human settlements (and even hunting-gathering before that) were close to a source of fresh water.

      In fact Jerry posted a quote from Richard Leakey to this effect just yesterday.

  11. FloM
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps people like fish less, because for most of our history unspoiled fish has been nearly impossible to come by unless you lived by the sea and fished it yourself. Fish perishes much faster than meat and accumulates bad smells (e.g. trimethylamine)really fast. So the avoidance is probably due to its faster spoiling. On the other hand, there may also have been positive selection for eating fish: as fish is phylogenetically more distinct from us than the mammals from which we get most of our meat, it contains fewer pathogens and parasites that might also harm us.

  12. Kevin
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    There are also far fewer land meats than fishes. I have had maybe 20 different land meats: cow, pork, lamb, fowl, reptiles, etc. And I am including varieties like pork chops as opposed to bacon or tongue or even 80% hamburger vs. 95% hamburger, which, to me, are very different.

    But the number of fishes is huge and I have nowhere near explored all of them. Not to mention preparation: sushi vs. crab cakes vs. chowders and stews vs. steamed vs. fried.

    When I first saw on WEIT a discussion that we do not like ‘fishy’ stuff, I was skeptical, but in truth, a lot more fish-stuff disgusts me in some form, but not necessarily in another. Some cuisines, e.g. Thai, can make some fish taste better, while making others more disgusting.

    Bottom line: answer is complicated but very interesting.

  13. Markham Thomas
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    An interesting article: Meat-Eating Among the Earliest Humans

    “For a long time, it was assumed that all of the meat, marrow, and brains in the early human diet came from terrestrial mammals. After studying patterns in fatty acid composition of aquatic food, however, Josephine Joordens of Leiden University and her colleagues proposed in 2014 that eating fatty fish could have significantly increased the availability of certain long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA), which helped to support the initial moderate increase in brain size of early humans about 2 million years ago.”

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      This post, doesn’t mention fish — it’s about consuming offal — and though the author is apparently a linguist, I find it an interesting complement to the article linked in your comment.

      I’ll have surf-and-turf for a first course, followed by a plate of couscous with ‘osban (Tunisian offal sausage, which is awful good).

  14. Geoff Toscano
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    I suppose the theory makes sense, but I wonder to what extent preference for meat or fish is environmentally conditioned. The UK’s favourite food is fish and chips, and we are obsessed by cod and haddock. Spain is hugely into squid, octopus, prawn…you name it. Of course I have no idea as to respective proportional preferences, especially given Spain’s obsession with pork, but my perception is that fish is not a minority preference.

    • Posted December 13, 2016 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      I read years ago that the national dish of Portugal was a shell”fish”/pork stew. No idea whether that’s correct or not, but …

  15. Randall Schenck
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I suspect people in general eat what they are provided or introduced to and therefore, get use to eating. Killing and eating other animals was easy. If close to water, fishing was easy. I think in Asia, they eat much more fish than meat. Meat is very expensive in places like Japan.

    I personally love fish but also eat meat. If you have ever been fishing on a big lake in Canada, with a guide and you pull in for shore lunch and eat what you caught that morning…there is nothing better. If you have fished in Hawaii and caught some Mahi Mahi and then prepared and eat some fresh…oh boy.

    I suspect many people that do not like fish, had a bad experience, such as nothing but frozen fish that was mistreated or they do not know proper ways to prepare it. You can screw up fish very easily and that is often the problem. Ask any good cook.

    What really gets me is the person who loves fishing but cannot stand fish. Go figure.

    • Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      The process of fishing involves sitting quietly in attractive places. A kind of meditation. Worth doing if there is not product or if the product will only be given away.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 12, 2016 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

        A fishing-rod is a stick with a hook at one end and a fool at the other.

        — Samuel Johnson

        And I offer that up as an avid fisherman myself.

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted December 12, 2016 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

          And such a fool we are. But please don’t say you do not like fish. After all, there is such a variety and hundreds of ways they are cooked. I can understand why some westerners run at the sight of the word sashimi but come on.

          Can a person really say they do not like fresh Walleye? Or maybe a Trout. A Halibut If they have not tried these, how can they say?

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted December 12, 2016 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

            I’ve yet to encounter a seafood dish I wouldn’t eat. Raw, steamed, broiled, sauteed, fried, fricasseed, or pickled — any way it’s prepared, I like it (and as a general rule, the less it’s cooked, the better).

            • Mark R.
              Posted December 13, 2016 at 12:08 am | Permalink


            • Posted December 13, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

              Have you tried lutefisk?

              • Ken Kukec
                Posted December 13, 2016 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

                Haven’t had that experience yet. From what I’ve heard, it could be the exception that proves the rule. 🙂

              • Posted December 14, 2016 at 11:37 am | Permalink

                Ken: I think that would be my experience as well. A Norwegian I used to know described lutefisk as tasting like a combination of soap and vodka.

    • Posted December 12, 2016 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      Hunting/fishing motivation could be very different from the wish to consume the catch. Think of all cats and dogs that will catch mice and leave them, untouched, in front of the door.

      • GBJames
        Posted December 12, 2016 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

        Think of all the beef-lovers who couldn’t bear to kill a cow.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted December 12, 2016 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

          Think of Davy Crockett, who wasn’t cowed by killing a bear, when he was only three.

    • Chukar
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

      I’ve eaten Walleye, I’ve eaten Northern Pike. I’ve caught them both, then killed, cleaned, cooked and ate them. Fried, breaded, roasted, baked, stewed, whatever. I’ve eaten dozens of species of fish, plus oysters, clams, abalone, lobster, crab, shrimp. I’ve eaten some of these things raw. I found it all disgusting, and I would have quit long before I did had not my parents forced me to eat these things. That included the supposedly “non-fishy” tuna and salmon.

      The above is my way of saying that people who make assumptions about why someone doesn’t like the taste of a particular food, when they love it themselves, especially when they say, “Why, they’d love it if they only they’d just…”(fill in the blank with your favorite rationale), are trapped in their own anecdotal world-view. It’s time to get out and travel.

      If these things tasted to you, dear fish-lover, the way they taste to me, you would not like them either. Qualia.

  16. Mark R.
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    I’ve lived on the west coast and in the US interior (Nevada and Wyoming). I have found that people living on the west coast where fish is available year around and very fresh when in season, by and large enjoy fish. People who live in places where fish isn’t as fresh or readily available don’t like fish. The one exception is fish ‘n chips.

    This is an additional observation to your addendum re. cultures (Japan) that subsist on fish. As you stated, I also think there is a geographical reason for the aversion or affinity for fish.

    I don’t know if it is a myth or not, but I have been told on a number of occasions that the reason Catholics were told to eat fish on Friday as a penance actually had a larger context. One of England’s kings (might have been Henry VIII) wanted to strengthen his navy, but there just weren’t enough sailors. Creating a huge demand for fish created a huge demand for fishermen, thus many sea worthy individuals; this made the creation of a superior navy possible. Again, it may be apocryphal, but I’ve always liked the logic and the way religious people get conned at every turn by those (Trump) who know how to con them.

    • eric
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      The one exception is fish ‘n chips.

      Well sure. You can bread and deep fry practically anything and people will like it more. Because of the breading and the oil used in frying.

      • Mark R.
        Posted December 12, 2016 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

        Indeed…evolution caused us to like deep fried foods as well.

        • kevin7alexander
          Posted December 12, 2016 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

          It’s the little known ‘Deep Fried Ape’ hypothesis. Our forbears dwindled to a small population that lived near petroleum pools by a volcanic heat source. Passing game would sometimes fall into the boiling oil and would be fished (sorry) out and consumed. We soon learned to herd shrimp, potatoes and other game animals into the oil.

          • Mark R.
            Posted December 12, 2016 at 8:27 pm | Permalink


            This is not directed at you:
            “it’s the oil stupid!” High caloric food stuffs is what I’m alluding too. Grizzly bears in Alaska (and other environments) eat the brains of any salmon caught, and the roe of females; the meat is left behind when times are good. I’ve seen the waste myself. The rest of the fish bears kill is left to waste for the bacteria and maggots. We’ve evolved to crave high caloric food as I’m sure you know. We just perfected it with breading and hot oil. mmm.

    • GBJames
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      Henry VIII wasn’t the sort of king who would make Catholics become Friday fish-eaters. Turns out not to have been popular with Catholics at all.

      Mark Kurlansky’s book Cod is a great place for details on this subject. (I don’t remember the details off-hand, but they are there.) Great book, actually.

      • Mark R.
        Posted December 12, 2016 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the link, sounds like an interesting topic. Yeah, the pope and Henry the VIII weren’t friends…duh.

  17. Todd J Morgan
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    But I love fish!

    /kidding. I hate fish. But I love sea insects.

  18. Diana MacPherson
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    This fish hypothesis is fintastic but if you have a batter one let minnow.

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      For shame 😀

    • Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      Ha, Diana wins the thread!

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:32 pm | Permalink


        • BobTerrace
          Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

          … as she takes a lap, grinning from gill to gill.

    • Posted December 12, 2016 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      Those are crappie puns, Diana.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted December 13, 2016 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        Oh my cod. I’ve haddock enough of your attituna!

    • Sigmund
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      Enough with the fishy puns!
      You’re making anenome of me!

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted December 13, 2016 at 9:43 am | Permalink

        The sheer scale of my punnery is hard to grasp but is beginning to flounder.

    • Posted December 12, 2016 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

      I’m feeling a little green around the gills.

  19. netbuoy
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    1) The Church’s perspective was that Christians should actually fast. For those who could not be expected to fast, meat, which was a symbol of feasting was barred.

    2) The European ancestors of many a US immigrant consumed mammoth quantities of fish with relish. What evidence do you have that a preference for “meat” even exists beyond Madison Avenue indoctrination.

    3) Alaskans have been depending on fish for sustenance for some 15000 years, and likely their Siberian ancestors for another 10000 before that. At what point does any “genetic” explanation have to beg off in light of historic access?

  20. Paul S.
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    I used to prefer land based meats to water based meats, but that has changed as I’ve eaten more fish. I think the dislike of “fishy fish” is accurate, however what I’ve discovered is the “fishy fish” taste rarely exists, if ever, with fresh fish.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      Yah, raw “fresh fish” sashimi – at least salmon – is yummy. Cooked “fishy fish” is not.

  21. Another Tom
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    My mom told me that she didn’t like seafood until after she moved to Seattle (she grew up in North Dakota). It wasn’t until then that she liked to eat fish. My personal experience is that once you hit Montana you switch to beef or buffalo, as the fish just isn’t as good once you get to the high plains.

    I eat fish on at least a weekly basis not for penance, but for the fact that there is so much tasty fish in Seattle. There are a number of places near where I live that serve up mystery white fish in fish tacos that are great.

    What strikes me as odd is that I can get a 6oz pack of Copper River smoked salmon for only slightly more than it costs me to mail it to my uncle in North Dakota.

    • Merilee
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      I had some very surprisingly delicious fish tacos recently in an English-style pub outside Toronto.

  22. Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    One piece of evidence in favor of your hypothesis. I’ve often had guests comment on how good it smells when I am BBQing steak but never when I am BBQing fish.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted December 13, 2016 at 6:06 am | Permalink

      From the (apocryphal) Book of Tobit – King James version:

      1 And as they went on their journey, they came in the evening to the river Tigris, and they lodged there.
      2 And when the young man went down to wash himself, a fish leaped out of the river, and would have devoured him.
      3 Then the angel said unto him, Take the fish. And the young man laid hold of the fish, and drew it to land.
      4 To whom the angel said, Open the fish, and take the heart and the liver and the gall, and put them up safely.
      5 So the young man did as the angel commanded him; and when they had roasted the fish, they did eat it: then they both went on their way, till they drew near to Ecbatane.
      6 Then the young man said to the angel, Brother Azarias, to what use is the heart and the liver and the gal of the fish?
      7 And he said unto him, Touching the heart and the liver, if a devil or an evil spirit trouble any, we must make a smoke thereof before the man or the woman, and the party shall be no more vexed.
      8 As for the gall, it is good to anoint a man that hath whiteness in his eyes, and he shall be healed.
      9 And when they were come near to Rages,
      10 The angel said to the young man, Brother, to day we shall lodge with Raguel, who is thy cousin; he also hath one only daughter, named Sara; I will speak for her, that she may be given thee for a wife.
      11 For to thee doth the right of her appertain, seeing thou only art of her kindred.
      12 And the maid is fair and wise: now therefore hear me, and I will speak to her father; and when we return from Rages we will celebrate the marriage: for I know that Raguel cannot marry her to another according to the law of Moses, but he shall be guilty of death, because the right of inheritance doth rather appertain to thee than to any other.
      13 Then the young man answered the angel, I have heard, brother Azarias that this maid hath been given to seven men, who all died in the marriage chamber.
      14 And now I am the only son of my father, and I am afraid, lest if I go in unto her, I die, as the other before: for a wicked spirit loveth her, which hurteth no body, but those which come unto her; wherefore I also fear lest I die, and bring my father’s and my mother’s life because of me to the grave with sorrow: for they have no other son to bury them.
      15 Then the angel said unto him, Dost thou not remember the precepts which thy father gave thee, that thou shouldest marry a wife of thine own kindred? wherefore hear me, O my brother; for she shall be given thee to wife; and make thou no reckoning of the evil spirit; for this same night shall she be given thee in marriage.
      16 And when thou shalt come into the marriage chamber, thou shalt take the ashes of perfume, and shalt lay upon them some of the heart and liver of the fish, and shalt make a smoke with it:
      17 And the devil shall smell it, and flee away, and never come again any more: but when thou shalt come to her, rise up both of you, and pray to God which is merciful, who will have pity on you, and save you: fear not, for she is appointed unto thee from the beginning; and thou shalt preserve her, and she shall go with thee. Moreover I suppose that she shall bear thee children. Now when Tobias had heard these things, he loved her, and his heart was effectually joined to her.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted December 13, 2016 at 6:39 am | Permalink

        The name of the devil whom Tobias drove away, by the way, was Asmodeus – a demon of lust. He gets a mention in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book IV, when Satan’s entry into Eden is described:

        As when to them who sail
        Beyond the Cape of Hope, and now are past
        Mozambick, off at sea north-east winds blow
        Sabean odours from the spicy shore
        Of Araby the blest; with such delay
        Well pleased they slack their course, and many a league
        Cheered with the grateful smell old Ocean smiles:
        So entertained those odorous sweets the Fiend,
        Who came their bane; though with them better pleased
        Than Asmodeus with the fishy fume
        That drove him, though enamoured, from the spouse
        Of Tobit’s son, and with a vengeance sent
        From Media post to Egypt, there fast bound.

        I must confess I am not enamoured myself of the smell of fish being grilled, which one smells all the time in Japan, but once grilled… ah, that’s a different story.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted December 13, 2016 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

        “I have heard, brother Azarias that this maid hath been given to seven men, who all died in the marriage chamber.”

        Truly the kiss of death.

        But hopefully they died happy.


        Oh this is such an entertaining passage – why was it not in the Bible?


        • Tim Harris
          Posted December 13, 2016 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

          Too entertaining.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted December 13, 2016 at 10:00 pm | Permalink



  23. Grania Spingies
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    I’m eating a toasted sesame seed bagel with taramasalata on top and feeling great sympathy for those who are unable to appreciate the flavor.

    My theory which is mine is that some people have an aversion to fish in the same way as some people have an aversion to coriander. It’s not your fault, it’s your genes.

  24. Richard Zierman
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    If our ancestors on the savannas of East Africa had ever discovered Southern Fried Catfish and Hushpuppies the preferred meat hypothesis would be out the door along with the Jewish ban against fish without scales.

    Now…for another bite of this tasty Catfish heaven.

  25. Billy Bl.
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Fish tolerance is probably similar to lactose tolerance, i.e. cultural. I’ve always wondered why cats like fish so much – it can’t be an evolutionary thing (although I don’t know what the natural diet was of the ancestors of the domestic cat).

    • GBJames
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      Huh? Lactose tolerance is genetic.

      • Billy Bl.
        Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

        It became genetic because of the culture.

        • GBJames
          Posted December 12, 2016 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

          Is that a bad yoghurt joke?

          • darrelle
            Posted December 13, 2016 at 10:00 am | Permalink


        • Wunold
          Posted December 13, 2016 at 2:25 am | Permalink

          Culture depends on genetic preconditions.

    • aljones909
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

      There’s anecdotal evidence out there that domestic cats do actually fish. Maybe it was one of those opportunistic abilities that gave a survival edge.
      I always wondered why canines had such a sweet tooth. They seem to love sugary foods as much as we do (cats don’t taste sweet apparently).
      The answer could be, and I’ve seen it on video, wild wolves eat berries. A taste for berries might have given wolves a survival edge in the winter.

  26. Mark Cagnetta
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    This reminds me of the Marx Brothers routine when Groucho is trying to get into the speakeasy. Chico asks him the password and Groucho asks for a hint. “Itsa the name of a fish”
    “Is it Mary?”
    “No that’s not the name of a fish”
    “Well, she sure drinks like one!”

  27. Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Seems entirely plausible to me (said as a serious fish/shellfish/crustacean eater).

  28. Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    I think if people preferred non-fishy fish to fishy fish seaside communities would eat more sea-dwelling non-fish, like dolphins.

    Fish is harder to preserve than bird or mammal meat without altering the flavour so much you might as well just eat salt. Cultural tastes seem to correlate with the ability to preserve what you eat, hence the taboos on pork in so many warm countries.

  29. Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    I think if fish-eating was considered second best to meat Jeebus wouldn’t have hung out with fishermen, he’d have hung out with cowboys.

    He wouldn’t have called his disciples ‘fishers of men’. They wouldn’t have used a fish as the symbol of early Christianity.

    When he told Peter to cast his net again into the Sea of Galillee they would have come back bulging with sausages, and he’d have fed the 5,000 on five burgers and a bun.

  30. kelskye
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    I like some fish and not others, though I rarely get to eat fish because my OH hates any fish that’s not tuna or salmon.

    I was talking about this with a coworker at work the other day, and she concurred that “fishy taste” is an apt description of why fish tastes bad.

    • BobTerrace
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      I dislike catfish, grouper and oysters but I like most other fish and shellfish. I eat seafood 4-6 times a week.

  31. stuartcoyle
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    I’m a vegetarian, so this discussion is out of my field of experience.

    However Mithra, my cat, has some very clear views on this topic. He has expressed very clearly to me that fish is evil, disgusting and thoroughly revolting stuff that he would not deign to eat. “Give me a crunchy rat head any day!” he exclaims, preferring meat over anything that comes out of water (which in itself is dangerous and horrible).

  32. Billy Windsock
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Do you have a second theory? You could call it ‘theory number two.’

  33. nickswearsky
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    ” On the other hand, we didn’t eat much fish, if for no other reason than early African ancestors probably didn’t live near areas that harbored a lot of fish.”

    I don’t know if this is correct. Plenty of fish in rivers, streams, lakes in Africa and beyond. Maybe no available all year, bu certainly abundant in many regions.

  34. Posted December 12, 2016 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a link to some research about early human’s interest in meat. One noteworthy point made by the author is that we humans are not necessarily hard-wired to be meat eaters.

  35. aljones909
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    I don’t eat either but one thing puzzles me. Omega-3 fats seem to be vital for humans and the most plentiful source is fish. This would imply (from evolutionary basics) that fish must have been in the human diet for many generations. Long enough for the omega-3 producing DNA (I assume we naturally had)to get broke. Yet many people don’t seem to eat much fish. Are the omega-3 fats not vital or do we get plenty of these from non fish sources?

  36. Chukar
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    I loath fish flesh but I love durian. It seems to me that anything that anyone says about fish flesh vs mammal flesh also applies to the question of like vs dislike of durian.

  37. Posted December 12, 2016 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    Of course this has nothing to do with statistical analysis or anything, but I don’t eat fish not because I don’t like it but because of economics. The beef I eat is typically ground beef because I can’t afford steaks and roasts unless it’s on special. Chicken is usually the least expensive meat. Fish, shellfish, and beef are typically out of my economic means. Pork is usually cheaper than beef so I eat more of that than I do beef.

    • BobTerrace
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

      Chicken livers and beef liver are usually inexpensive.

      • Billy Bl.
        Posted December 12, 2016 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

        Chicken livers are the staple of my cats’ diet. They love them. I do more cooking for them than for myself.

    • Posted December 13, 2016 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      Might depend on where you live. If you’re closer to the water, fish (if not shellfish these days) are likely to be cheaper than beef and pork (and likely chicken). Vancouver is like this – or was when I lived there. (Of course, I almost never buy chicken, pork or beef as groceries anyway.)

  38. Michael Scullin
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    We know (at least archaeologists know) that early humans ate a lot of fish as well as shellfish. There are innumerable sites found along coasts, lake shores, and river banks. A bias occurs in part because when the last ice age ended about 12,500 years ago sea levels rose by as much as about 100 meters (300 feet). So much for all the sites along thousands of miles of shores. Anecdote: I was walking along a Pacific beach in southern California and encountered a group consisting of an extended Japanese family. They had an apparently favorite rocky spot and all but the youngest kids set about scraping limpets and oysters from the rocks. The grandfather had a pole with a line and a rag tied to the end. He fished for octopuses (or octopi if you prefer). The point being that shorelines are incredibly productive. Native Americans all over the continents (N & S America) did a great deal of fishing even when deer and bison were available. I have excavated sites in southern Minnesota where the garbage (thrown into abandoned storage pits) was almost entirely fish bones. At one site it was clear that the cook was dumping the fish bones from the pot in which they had been cooked because of the masses of bones scattered through the fill. They also ate fresh water mussels and turtles. They apparently caught fish in fish traps baited with scrap meat. This method continued in most places until Europeans arrived, passed on European diseases which killed about 90% of the indigenous populations.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

      Excellent point on the rising sea levels. This is one case where absence of evidence clearly should not be construed as evidence of absence.

  39. Posted December 12, 2016 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Long ago, I read that the requirement for Catholics to eat fish on Friday was an effort on the part of the Catholic church to prop up the fishing industry which (for whatever reason) was losing money. Following is an internet source that contradicts that:

  40. Robin
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I think you are on the right track and I wonder if it has anything to do with the rate of digestion?

    Animal proteins: Egg yolk – 30 min. digestion time Whole egg – 45 min. Fish – cod, scrod, flounder, sole seafood – 30 min. digestion time Fish – salmon, salmon trout, herring, (more fatty fish) – 45 min. to 60 digestion time Chicken – 11/2 to 2 hours digestion time (without skin) Turkey – 2 to 2 1/4 hours digestion time (without skin) Beef, lamb – 3 to 4 hours digestion time Pork – 41/2 to 5 hours. (source:

    I would imagine that the feeling of fullness was advantageous to early humans. That sleep we need after a heavy meal kept us safe (not having to go out and hunt for a midnight snack). A hearty steak is much more filling than a plate of sashimi.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted December 13, 2016 at 2:11 am | Permalink

      Oh, dear. Or is it meant to be funny?

  41. Posted December 12, 2016 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Early human beings were not picky eaters. They ate whatever they could find by whatever method on any given day and ate everything deemed edible. They were not averse to sharing leftovers killed and partially eaten by other animals. Since the opportunity to eat well was seasonal, they had to store up as much food in their bodies (and baskets and pottery, etc.) as they could before winter. They learned to preserve foods. However, it was more gorge whenever possible in the more clement times of the year vs. fasting in the winter. In some cultures, the sharing out of food among the group was strictly equitable. In others, some members of the group were fed more and better than others.

    On another topic, the foods we eat currently are much changed from what our distant hunter-gatherer ancestors ate. Beef, fish, vegetables and fruit have all been modified so much that nutrition also has changed. Not many of us eat the way those ancestors did. Even the more recent changes from what and how our farmer ancestors prepared, ate and stored food would surprise most of us.

  42. Stephen
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    I think the preference is primarily cultural and not evolutionary (in the biological sense). People raised on Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks probably won’t like mackerel and anchovies.

    By the way, I like “fishy” fish and all kinds of sushi, especially uno (sea urchin).

  43. KD33
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if this too broad of a brush. Some somewhat disparate thoughts:

    What about cultures that developed on or near the ocean? Would their population prefer meat to fish (assuming they actually had both and could compare). Even in Japan today I’m not sure you’d get a majority to say they prefer meat to fish overall (well, against that, they love their Kobe beef!)

    Also, I wonder if humans are more sensitively tuned to the smell and taste of fish spoilage than to that of meat. Fish does not keep as long as meat, all conditions being equal. And when people say “fishy” I think many are really referring to fish that’s not *really* fresh. (In the 70’s, pretty much all fish soled in the US by standard grocery channels was fishy to some extent, except for good ol’ fish sticks.) So, maybe this apparent preference is an trait evolved to keep us from getting sick, rather than a trait that evolved to prefer one nutrient source over the other.

  44. Posted December 12, 2016 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    Doesn’t your addendum basically refute your core argument? You are using observations based on US culinary preferences as if they represent an evolutionary baseline/general worldwide trend, but why should that be the case? I suspect for most of evolutionary history a lot of the human population has lived on islands/coastlines/near fresh-water so developing preferences that would serve to diminish interest in a previously abundant source of nutrition would seem counterproductive and fitness diminishing.

  45. Aldo Matteucci
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Medieval contracts for maids and servants in the city of Basle Switzerland set out that salmon may not be given more than twice a week. Salmon plentiful then and considered food for the poor. Current fish aversion may be correlated with class.

    Slaves were fed second-rate salted codfish from Boston instead of meat. First class codfish went to Europe, where is was consumed in huge quantities – possibly for the collateral salt (a way of avoiding salt-tax). Salted fish is no match for a steak.

    River fish was plentiful in Europe until deforestation clouded the rivers and brought many fish species like sturgeon to extinction.
    in fact, fish was the mainstay of the menu for poor people.

    All of these aspects point to cultural rather than biological selection.

    In any case, do not use the term “theory” in vain, lest creationists argue that “theory” is nothing but a hunch…

  46. Hempenstein
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    1) I remember reading somewhere a long while ago that the Romans mostly subsisted on fish meal. No memory of any more than that.

    2) My ex’s favorite fish was stick.

    Me, I like everything from sardines to salmon, via herring and catfish. Mackerel and bluefish preferably smoked. I’ve only had walleye once but would love to have some again, and I’d love to try sturgeon and paddlefish.

  47. Posted December 12, 2016 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    You made an error when you said you had a “theory” about the aversion to eating fish. You should have said you have a hypothesis. Your “hypothesis” did not meet the requirements of a “scientific theory”.

    -Larry Stevens

    • Posted December 13, 2016 at 4:40 am | Permalink

      I was echoing the old Monty Python skit in which Anne Elk (Miss) has a theory, which is hers, about the brontosauraus. It’s a hilarious sketch, here:

      But you’re just a petulant tut-tutter who didn’t realize this and wants to correct me. Please go read another website.

      • Wunold
        Posted December 13, 2016 at 5:38 am | Permalink

        I also didn’t get the reference, thanks for the link. The sketch is hilarious. 😀

        • Mike
          Posted December 13, 2016 at 9:31 am | Permalink

          Don’t make em like that any more, mores the pity.

    • Lurker111
      Posted December 13, 2016 at 7:23 am | Permalink

      ‘Your “hypothesis” did not meet the requirements of a “scientific theory”.’

      This is the exact reason why I refer to “String Conjecture.” 🙂

  48. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    Splitting many hairs – *which* ‘meat’?

    My personal tastes are, in order,
    1. Bacon (yum!)
    2. Ham
    3. Fish (fried in batter)
    4= Steak (well done)
    4= Pork
    That’s about it. Dead sheep are only marginally edible as far as I’m concerned, and virtually all of the other internal organs that people eat, I find quite revolting.

    So my ancestors must have domesticated pigs long before sheeps came along.


    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

      P.S. I also find shellfish disgusting, in about the same category as ‘organs’.

      I think I must have been planted here by a UFO.


  49. Tom
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 1:41 am | Permalink

    By the way is PCC-(E) a fan of Monty Python?
    Some of the wording of the Fish Theory reminds me of the Brontosaurus Theory.

  50. Tom
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 2:44 am | Permalink

    Sorry above should read “Some of the wording used to introduce the Fish Theory”

  51. Anonymous
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 2:47 am | Permalink

    I can’t make sense out of your theory. Most human settlements (whether permanent or temporary) had to be next to water. And water means fish and crustaceans. Where did you get the idea that humans ate more mammals/birds than fish? Also, I cannot see why eating fish would be selected against in contrast to eating other meat.

  52. Lurker111
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    My take on “fishy” fish and squash:

    1) Almost every “fishy” fish recipe attempts to tone down or hide the flavor of the fish.

    2) Almost every squash recipe attempts to add flavor–of ANY kind–to squash.


  53. Posted December 13, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Assuming the hypothesis for the moment: how do humans learn to do otherwise? For example, in Japan.

  54. Tejas
    Posted December 14, 2016 at 1:46 am | Permalink

    Very strange that the evidence of meat over fish is based purely on data of the US, which is hardly a representation of the entire world. Probably one of the biggest seafood consumers, Japan, gets a passing reference.
    I wish for a change, people can take India as an example. The food patterns very accurately reflects the biodiversity of the region. Food habits change within few hundred kms. It will be very hard to establish a meat vs fish preference based on evolutionary basis. Coastal regions have a fish heavy diet whereas interior regions and the mountains have a meat heavy diet. Again in the hinterland, river basins show a fish heavy diet. So I see very little connection to evolution

  55. keith cook +/-
    Posted December 15, 2016 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Asia, Africa and i would say Nth & Sth America when the annual flooding of river basins started to subside, fish were stranded and there for the picking of all and sundry, if it were not a preference for fish, we are talking here before fish hooks or netting were invented, it would be a novelty and possibly a delicacy and a highly anticipated treat.
    Fish is part of the staple diet in the Mekong Delta like other areas with the same seasonal flooding and spawning cycles. They rely on the flooding and migration of their endemic fish species. Japan has made fish consumption an art.
    For the ancients, fish does not keep so well (exception say, you live in Siberia) where as meat can still be eatable if not a little ‘gamey’ as they say, the tradition of hanging meat or drying it out. This also applies to fish once they had the tools to catch them in bulk.
    This is not evidence either way of fish preference over meat or visa versa but what and where you take your protein your reliance on that source, is down to your environment and culture.

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