Daniel Boorstin wrote that throughout history, philosophers have looked for new handles by which they could grasp the world around them. Technology and advancement became the source of new metaphors, new analogies, new explanations for who they were and why. The clock, for instance, became a vehicle through which they could explain a world that seemed to allow more and more autonomy—God as the clockmaker, who created life that could operate on its own.
The Epicureans, in 300 BC, developed the theory of atoms. Though they stumbled, primitively, on the physics of matter thousands of years before modern science, they weren’t what we’d consider today to be scientists. They were humanists. Epicurus used the theory to explain the degradation of the human body—why we age and die and what that means for our lives. Atoms helped explain dissolution. They explained infiniteness and placed man in his place, in the context of a world that was bigger and more complicated than he was.
Montaigne, for his part, loved to read about the recently discovered tribes of South America. He read whatever he could get his hands on, not because of some misguided notion about noble savages, but because the material showed the absurdity in all kinds of traditions. His essays are full of anecdotes from travelers and books that put the perspectives from the “cannibals” to good philosophical use.
Last week, I attended a dinner with a group of prominent people in the paleolithic health community. Though I’ve begun to question some of my initial skepticism towards the ideas behind it, it still struck me at moments how much focus and energy people are willing to spend on this field. To see grand theories reduced to comparatively minor personal actions just seemed like a misappropriation.
What I’ve started to wonder is what the ancient philosophers would have done had they know about evolution (which is also to point out how little our modern “philosophers” have done with it). Would they have obsessed over trivial improvements to our health or our sex lives? Would they have used it to justify or rationalize or pretentiously “discover” things we have always known to exist in human nature? I’m thinking of attempts to explain altruism or sex differences that are nothing more than common sense dressed up in jargon. What philosophers have done throughout history is to use the advances in science and technology to properly communicate better ways to live our lives. What we do now is fill up our time discussing the implications of theories in their least applicable way—or worse, apply them only in relatively meaningless settings.
I think they would have made much of natural selection as a metaphor. The concept of “shared ancestors” conjoins nicely with the philosophical notion of unity in nature, in addition to making a empathic case for humility and perspective. The same goes for themes like extinction, random mutation, tit-for-tat, and so on. Philosophers, especially the Stoics, registered early warnings against the Naturalistic Fallacy and and I think it goes without saying that they’d have benefited even more from knowing what makes us act the way we do. But the difference in practice: they wrote to contemplate death, not whether drinking or not drinking helps you live a little bit longer.
Ironically, paleolithic lifestyle advocates are guilty of the same inconsistent application as the scientists they criticize. Just as biologists originally accepted that other species were shaped by evolution but not humans, and then that all human organs were but not the brain, paleos seem to only question whether our eating and exercise habits are natural. But what of the rest of modern life? Maybe jobs or cities are well-intentioned but toxic inventions. That we subject ourselves to barrages of information that our minds can’t possibly break down properly, for instance, is an obvious missed metaphor for a movement that came to the same conclusions about food.
This is what Seneca said when he criticized how people tend to read. What does it matter whether Odysseus was in Italy or Sicily when he was hit by a storm, or whether early man ate many vegetables, when we have worse storms in our own lives. The key is to read and learn and study in a way that the words can become works. To use whatever you study, be it science or health or literature or mathematics and, use it to address the larger issues that we face. He meant that what mattered was what made you a better person—not physically or rhetorically, but spiritually and emotionally. And to be careful of the line where curiosity and self-improvement transition into wankery.