How are Certain Foods and Drugs Discovered?
Simple Questions about the Process of Discovery
I remember reading somewhere that beaver testicles could be used as a pain reliever. (I cannot emphasize enough that this information was not acquired through personal experience.) In order to make sure that I was not completely senile, I searched online to see if this was true. Sure enough, I found several sites confirming that dried beaver testicles were used by Native Americans for a variety of ailments, including pain relief. The obvious question, of course, is how they discovered these medicinal uses. Did they try various body parts of different species of mammal before they found the one that did the trick? Or maybe they tried to save time by going straight for the testicles. It is, after all, the most potent spot for the male gender, regardless of the species involved. Whatever the case, I would not want to be the volunteer for this type of trial and error experimentation.
Similar questions come to mind when I think about certain types of food. For example, blowfish is considered to be a delicacy by the Japanese. The only problem is that it also happens to be poisonous, so if the dish is not prepared properly, it can cause some issues. So how many poor saps were made to suffer in the process of figuring out how to prepare this toxic dish? You also have to wonder how people determined that the risk was actually worth it. Of course, the dangerous trial and error process associated with eating does not merely apply to exotic dishes like blowfish. Certain types of mushrooms, berries, and other plant life can also kill, and people over the generations had to figure out the difference between the nutritious and the malicious. Maybe they literally used guinea pigs or other animal life to get a clue of which might be safe. Either that or they had to find a system of choosing human guinea pigs. I guess that it could be a job for the most annoying, troublesome, or unintelligent individuals in the village. Just slip them a mushroom and see what happens.
One of my favorite history books is called “Ancient Inventions.” It talks about the earliest evidence for various human innovations, including sections on plumbing, medicine, sex toys, transportation, and just about anything else you can imagine. In the section on sex life, the book talks about ancient remedies for contraception, many of which have been scientifically proven to be at least somewhat effective. Because this is a G-rated blog, I will spare you the gory details. Suffice to say that the book lists various substances that were placed on certain body parts in order to reduce the prospects of pregnancy: olive oil, honey, acacia gum, vinegar, clarified butter, and, most disturbingly, alligator or elephant dung. (For future reference, elephant dung is more effective, although I imagine that any kind of animal droppings would have a tendency to encourage abstinence.) Once again, it is disturbing to think about the trial and error process involved. (“OK, you two have been chosen to test out the zebra dung this evening.”) Whatever the case, it is remarkable that ancient people were able to discover some substances that actually worked.
So the next time that you eat, drink, take medicine, or engage in non-pregnancy inducing sex, give thanks that you live in the modern world. It is much easier, after all, to take a Tylenol than it is to find a beaver to kill and castrate. Also, raise a glass to distant ancestors who spared us from learning some things the hard way. You should be especially thankful the next time that you are having blowfish bathed in mushroom sauce (or have sex without the smell of dung in the air.)