Anthropological Musings on the Painfully Hot Ghost Chili
Last Wednesday, the Hub and I ventured over to Inman Square’s East Coast Grill for their legendary Hell Night. For four days out of the year, the talented chefs at East Coast prepare a menu to tantalize and terrify the taste buds. Habenero-infused vodka, Chile Chimichurri steaks, oysters drenched in hot sauce, and a dozen other spicy options ranging from one to nine chili peppers grace the menu. The star of the night, however, is the pasta from hell. This pasta, made from the world’s hottest ghost chilies, has been featured on the craze foodie hit Man vs. Food, where even the daring Adam Richman could only take about two bites. This pasta is hot. And I ordered it.
You are required to sign a waver before you dig in, which is all part of the fun. But after the first bite, the most excruciating pain sets in, the kind of pain that sends tears down your cheek as you dig your high heel into your calf to distract your dendrites from the horror taking place in your mouth. Now, don’t get me wrong. I live for spicy food. I eat sriracha on everything. I nibble on raw jalapenos while I cook spicy Mexican food. I have successfully taken an adolescent dare to drink an entire bottle of Tabasco. And by the time reached the half-way mark on my pasta from hell, I was doubled over in pain and had to stop. But I took it home, and the next night suffered through the rest (armed, of course, with a full bottle of antacids for the heart burn that came later that night).
When I recovered, I started wondering why in the world I freely and intentionally chose to do something so painful, not just once, but two nights in a row. Everydaythomist that I am, I toyed with the question of whether my actions constituted daring, one of the vices against fortitude that inclines the appetite toward danger in ways contrary to reason.
Turns out, scientists are doing research on this very question. A few months ago, the NYTimes featured an article on the pleasure and pain of chili peppers based on the research from Dr. Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania:
[Rozin]has evidence for what he calls benign masochism. For example, he tested chili eaters by gradually increasing the pain, or, as the pros call it, the pungency, of the food, right up to the point at which the subjects said they just could not go further. When asked after the test what level of heat they liked the best, they chose the highest level they could stand, “just below the level of unbearable pain.” As Delbert McClinton sings (about a different line of research), “It felt so good to hurt so bad.”
Rozin disagrees with theories that argue for an evolutionary advantage to eating hot peppers, say, for example, by arguing that they lower blood pressure or provide some other such advantage in health. In fact, Rozin thinks there actually is not an evolutionary advantage at all to such acts:
No one knows for sure why humans would find pleasure in pain, but Dr. Rozin suggests that there’s a thrill, similar to the fun of riding a roller coaster. “Humans and only humans get to enjoy events that are innately negative, that produce emotions or feelings that we are programmed to avoid when we come to realize that they are actually not threats,” he said. “Mind over body. My body thinks I’m in trouble, but I know I’m not.” And it says, hand me another jalapeño.
One of the key observations here is that no other mammal likes hot peppers. And from this observation, Rozin and others draw an interesting conclusion: the human taste for painfully hot peppers says something important about what it means to be human:
[A]s Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist, puts it, “Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans — language, rationality, culture and so on. I’d stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce.”
That’s from Dr. Bloom’s new book, “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like,” in which he addresses the general nature of human pleasure, and some very specific, complicated pleasures. Some, like eating painfully spicy food, are accidental, at least in their specificity. A complicated mind is adaptive, but love of chilies is an accident.
And that is what I celebrate behind my respirator as my son and I dice habaneros, accidental pleasures. A taste for chilies has no deep meaning, no evolutionary value. It’s just a taste for chilies. I might add, though, that since it takes such a complicated brain and weird self-awareness to enjoy something that is inherently not enjoyable, only the animal with the biggest brain and the most intricate mind can do it.
Take heart, chili heads. It’s not dumb to eat the fire, it’s a sign of high intelligence.
I find this a fascinating and largely compelling contribution to philosophical anthropology. Whereas for most animals, pleasure is a function of biology, humans have a lot more flexibility. They can, in many ways, choose what it is that brings them pleasure, even things that go against biology or evolutionary advantage. That is, human beings are masters of their actions largely because they are masters of their pleasure.
This means that for human beings in particular, morality cannot simply be a matter of examining nature and drawing normative conclusions. Human beings are greater than the sum of their biological parts, and the objects from which they draw pleasure cannot be reduced to merely a biochemical neural reaction.
When it comes to chili peppers and roller coasters, the human ability to find pleasure in biologically unpleasant things may not have much moral consequence, but in other areas the question may be more serious. For example, a friend sent me an Atlantic article on porn addiction which also examines the recent prevalence of anal sex. I hesitate to even quote the article on my blog due to how explicit it was, but I do think the following revelation from the author is significant:
Never was this made plainer to me than during a one-night stand with a man I had actually known for quite a while. A polite, educated fellow with a beautiful Lower East Side apartment invited me to a perfunctory dinner right after his long-term girlfriend had left him. We quickly progressed to his bed, and things did not go well. He couldn’t stay aroused. Over the course of the tryst, I trotted out every parlor trick and sexual persona I knew. I was coquettish then submissive, vocal then silent, aggressive then downright commandeering; in a moment of exasperation, he asked if we could have anal sex. I asked why, seeing as how any straight man who has had experience with anal sex knows that it’s a big production and usually has a lot of false starts and abrupt stops. He answered, almost without thought, “Because that’s the only thing that will make you uncomfortable.” This was, perhaps, the greatest moment of sexual honesty I’ve ever experienced—and without hesitation, I complied. This encounter proves an unpleasant fact that does not fit the feminist script on sexuality: pleasure and displeasure wrap around each other like two snakes.
If anal sex is unpleasant, why do it? Human intentionality, that is, human choice, can transform unpleasant actions and unpleasant objects into pleasure. In Dependent Rational Animals, Alistair McIntyre made the somewhat surprising claim that ethics could not be separated from biology. Ghost chilies and anal sex remind us that morality also cannot be reduced to biology. Human intentionality transcends what we are biologically conditioned to do.
Natural law scholars, especially those rooted in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, debate whether natural law should be grounded in a “metaphysical biology” which assumes that the normative “ought” can be drawn from the biological “is.” The more we learn about biology, the more important biology becomes in our moral reflections, and this, I think, is a good thing. Biology reminds us that we are creatures, not just spirits. It reminds us how much we share with our non-human animal cousins. But, while biology can tell us what it means to be “animal” (which humans are), it cannot tell us what it means to be human. In Aristotelian parlance, our human species is derived from our genus (animal) and differentia (rational). And that differentia does a lot to separate us from our non-human animal cousins. It does not totally separate us, but it separates us enough to give us pause as we realize that our animal nature cannot explain the many perplexing questions regarding why we do what we do. Now, if you will excuse me, I need another antacid.