As George Washington left office he famously admonished the country to avoid entangling alliances abroad, particularly those of a military nature. Whether or not people took it truly listened, the message stuck. Even today, you can hardly have a discussion about foreign policy without someone bringing it up. It’s especially loved by politicians – Democrats and Republicans equally – who like to throw it in each others faces when the opportunity arises. And of course, they’re well aware of the irony in doing so because in the same speech Washington emphatically warned against the formation of political parties which had at that point not yet taken hold.
Unfortunately, this is what happens when we strip observations from their context or pick and choose what we want to believe. We’re often left basing important decisions on ideas that are not even wrong.
That’s all I can think about when I hear people talk about the paleolithic diets and hunter-gatherer exercise.
Put aside the dubious science for a second. That Greek hoplites on campaign, for instance, subsisted almost entirely on grain and rarely ate meat – god forbid, we’d ever be cursed with their fitness. (For fun put a picture of a Greco-Roman statue and an African tribesman side by side) It’s an idea with a kernel of truth, stripped from its context and wrapped in contradictions. The real question is why?
What a relatively superficial problem to find with our modern lives. It’s a shame too when there is so much in evolutionary psychology that can be used to make us better people. It can help us understand roots of things like jealousy, ambition, and fear. We can think about these deeply natural drives and how they’ve come to fail us in the world we currently live, not to selectively embrace and emulate the conditions that created them. And what’s the goal here anyway? To not waste your time like the people who try to eat a balance diet and regularly exercise? Those idiots.
What the internet makes easier – and our culture encourages – is organization without sacrifice and beliefs that don’t require much conviction. Oppose a foreign war: quote Washington but cling to your political party. Creating a new diet: use evolution, forget the naturalistic fallacy. It’s the illusion of profundity without any of the risk. And I know it’s cute to think of ‘cavemen in New York City’ but it seems more like an undermining contradiction than irony to me.
The problem is that these ideas ultimately consume so much of our time and energy for muddled results at best. They are lifestyles at the expense of life. Like there is something shameful about waking up as a regular person and dealing with the issues that we all have in front of us: pride, anger, lethargy, accumulation… Do you waste your time playing videogames? Do you have to drink to be comfortable around other people? Do you find yourself consumed by petty office politics and gossip? So much is ignored at the cost of hunting raw meats and bone marrow and so little is gained in return. (For that plug anything)
To me these theories mark the very real temptation to stay busy at the expense of real work. It’s the trap of subbing meaningless discipline in for the kind that forces us to change and improve. All the upside of feeling accomplishment but without any of the risk that you might become a better person for the process.