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.
What’s “real work”?
I enjoyed this essay, but it’s easy to mock those who ‘forage’ for bone marrow/organic sprouts and ignore the more subtle suggestion that eating real food is good for us, and eating Fritos tagged with “healthy choices” is not.
If “modern cavemen,” as silly and self-important as they are, get more people to stop eating themselves into diabetic bliss and to pick up some weights to prevent frailty, thus becoming stronger, more useful human beings, then this is good.
Focusing on becoming a better person, fixing our flaws, becoming less controlled by emotional reactions, figuring out what makes us happy, contributing to the world around you and so on.
This, I would present, is an alternative to some arbitrary lifestyle choice like veganism or a paleothithic diet that diverts your attention completely to the physical parts of your body.
I’m as guilty as anyone of busywork rather than engaging in the difficult and complex questions of life.
It stems from a desire to simplify, and reduce the number of fronts I want to assault at one time, which in turn comes from the lack of patience and conviction with which I try to address these issues.
Good post. Something I’ve got to be mindful of.
Just from personal experience I would say that the introduction of some of the principles above have helped me simplify, as opposed to complicate, my life. Exercise has been turned into a much more engaging activity to me, while at the same time I do not worry about it nearly as much as I would have in the past. It’s made that part of my life more fulfilling I think.
In the same vein I feel like adopting a more paleo cenrtic (along with regular fasting) approach to eating has helped me get healthier while spending less time worrying about food. But then I am not as hardcore about it as some of the people profiled, as I will generally go with the flow when I am eating with other people and enjoy myself.
I am sure to some extent I have sacrificed time that would have been better spent working on myself, but I also value some of the benefits of this lifestyle and what it can do to improve my overall existence, so in the end I feel it has been a net benefit to me. But perhaps not.
good post and i get the point.
but am I the only one who thinks it is funny that “not even wrong” and evolutionary psychology are both in there?
Its clearly pretty dumb to join and propagate a movement based on a set of really questionable scientific assumptions. If there was evidence of far more rigorous research personally being done by these people (as it fits the context of a ‘diet’), would you still feel they are wasting their time?
Your gripe is about the way people borrow ideas and apply them to ill-fitting contexts, basically creating a nicely packaged and pseudo-scientific ‘fad’ lacking any decent amount of underlying substance…and thus is a distraction to be avoided. Is this correct?
What I meant when I said put the dubious science aside was that let’s say it was rock solid, would it matter?
This guy, a 20-something man living in New York City, the epicenter of the modern world right there in front of him, zones in on our diet not being primitive enough? Yeah, that is the problem.
“What I meant when I said put the dubious science aside was that let’s say it was rock solid, would it matter?”
Why wouldn’t it? Not to delve into irrelevant hypotheticals, but let’s say the science these ‘paleo dieters’ were using was excellent, reputed, and widely circulated to possibly benefit others. This is still wankery? Is this not a contribution at some level? Why not? And where would it make sense for this 20-something man to live while developing this dieting idea?
I get your central point I think, but I don’t see how diverting some attention to human physicality is itself a distraction or a bad thing. This is why I asked my first question.
Or maybe I’m badly missing something here.
Not sure how often you delve into medical literature, but amongst the evidence-based fitness crowd this article got quite a lot of discussion. You can look it up at PubMed:
Mercader J. Mozambican grass seed consumption during the middle stone age. Science. (2009) 326(5960):1680-3.
I’ll quote the abstract, important parts bolded…
“The role of starchy plants in early hominin diets and when the culinary processing of starches began have been difficult to track archaeologically. Seed collecting is conventionally perceived to have been an irrelevant activity among the Pleistocene foragers of southern Africa, on the grounds of both technological difficulty in the processing of grains and the belief that roots, fruits, and nuts, not cereals, were the basis for subsistence for the past 100,000 years and further back in time. A large assemblage of starch granules has been retrieved from the surfaces of Middle Stone Age stone tools from Mozambique, showing that early Homo sapiens relied on grass seeds starting at least 105,000 years ago, including those of sorghum grasses.”
This pretty much destroys all credibility of the Paleo diet which, as you mentioned, maintains that grains and dairy are the source of all modern disease, including our growing obesity epidemic.
Cordain and Eaton, the two big Paleo proponents, relied on what’s known as The Ethnographic Atlas. This was a work done by non-scientists that recorded (sort-of) what non-modernized people were eating. The work is so horribly flawed and laughable that it fails to display any predicative efficacy under critical analysis.
Nice post as usual.
@Ryan Zielonka – Check out this post as a response to that study: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/stone-age-grains/
…says the guy who spends hours of his life and a significant portion of his energy on running (point being – what one could call an arbitrary lifestyle choice that distracts from “real work,” as you put it).
Ryan, I typically agree with you, but I think you’re way off on this point.
I think the payoff of investing a portion of your efforts into living what you believe is a healthy lifestyle (I personally believe that the science behind the paleo diet is sound; it’s just not mainstream) is worth the cost. The improvements in energy, confidence, health, and lifespan will make the rest of your endeavors in life more fulfilling, more worthwhile, and likely easier. This is a BIG DEAL and not merely a distraction. I don’t want to argue for the diet itself – there is information out there – and apparently your point holds whether or not the science is sound so we don’t even have to agree on this point.
Agreed that a person can go too far and make something like diet/fitness the sole or major focus of their life, and so I agree that this type of behavior is a distraction. I remind myself about this point every once in a while so that I don’t fall into this trap even a little. I think that one can implement a “paleo” or other diet with a degree of moderation so that it takes up minimal additional time and effort and simply becomes part of the routine. I think that taking care of one’s physical well-being is a critical component to taking care of one’s mental well-being. I can’t imagine you truly disagree with this and wonder whether you’re just picking on this particular group?
The science of evidence based paleo is not dubious in the least. Do yourself a favor and go read Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. Or go visit paleonu.com or wholehealthsource.blogspot.com
As to your wider point – I don’t think many people will disagree with you that making a huge part of your life about one thing is unhealthy. But equating an entire health movement with one obsessive guy in new york is just dumb. And the raw meat thing he does? very weird. not paleo.
The science behind the paleo diet is not wankery. Watch these lectures for a quick overview, and then read their books:
The science behind paleo exercise, however, isn’t the best. Bodybyscience.net is what you want for the best in exercise science.
If a healthy diet based on a five-hour-work-lazy-hunter-lifestyle compared to a slave-working-on-a-field-lifestyle is wankery, then I just came in your face.
What is your daily nutrition/late night snack?