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Ancestral Health

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In recent years there has been a surge in interest in gut flora in the wake of research on its substantial effects on personality, so much so that researchers have even taken to describing it as a neutral network.

And much like humans, and even their brains, they are not going to be an exception to recent evolution.

As Chris Kresser writes:

In other words, evolution does not act solely on your 23,000 human genes. Rather, it acts on the 9.02 million genes (both host and microbial) that are present in and on your body, as a single entity.

Moreover, the microbiome can introduce genetic variation and evolve through methods specific to it, such as sharing genes with each other and acquisition of new strains from the environment. And even the borders between bacterial genes and “human” genes are surprisingly porous.

The really interesting observation is yet to come:

Social behavior in primates is also thought to be a critical factor in the evolution of human intelligence (32). Access to microbes may have been a driving force in the evolution of animal sociality, since microbes confer many benefits to the host (33). Social behaviors like grooming, kissing, and sex increased the transfer of microbes from one organism to another. Studies in social mammals have found that development of the forebrain and neocortex in social mammals depends on signals from the microbiota (34), and germ-free mice that lack a microbiota also lack social behavior and show deficits in social cognitive abilities (35).

Depending on the size of these effects there could be some pretty important implications and confounds for psychometrics and genetics of IQ research.

Bacterial composition, for instance, though strongly hereditary, is also going to be affected by the food one eats (a cultural factor), the people with whom one has close contacts with (kissing, certain intimate contacts, and one supposes, effluence in non-hygienic countries), and the local geography, elevation, and climate. Could intelligence be a matter of not just blood and chance, but of soil?

Best not to get too carried away with yet. This paper finds that spousal partners did not have significantly more microbiome similarity than unrelated invididuals (though the sample sizes were small). Still, it might be worth bearing in mind.

• Category: Science • Tags: Ancestral Health, Intelligence 
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The Paleo Manifesto” by John Durant, published in 2013. Rating: 5/5.

Most books on the paleo diet follow a set pattern: An inspirational story about how the author wrecked his health with junk food or vegetarianism before the caveman came riding on a white horse to the rescue; an explanation of why, contrary to the popular expression, almost anything is better than sliced white bread; a long and exhaustive guide to the do’s and don’ts of paleo with plenty of scientific explanations; and finally, a list of recipes and suggestions for further reading.

Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still get a solid idea of how to eat, move, and live by paleo principles from John Durant’s THE PALEO MANIFESTO. But at its core, this is no diet book.

It is a bold attempt to situate the paleo lifestyle within the “Big History” of human biosocial evolution, which is divided into four distinct “ages”: Paleolithic, agricultural, industrial, and information. Each of these ages was characterized by diets that created new problems, problems that were in turn partially mitigated by solutions specific to the very age that spawned them. This is a narrative that evokes a whiff of historical materialism, though John Durant is far more of a neo-reactionary than a Marxist.

Well aware of its pervasive violence and cultural backwardness, Durant does not unduly glamorize paleolithic life. (Nor does virtually anyone in the movement, strawmen set up by paleo’s detractors regardless). But one can’t escape the physical evidence that hunter-gatherers were far taller, stronger, and healthier than the early agriculturalists hunched over their hoes. An anthropologist shows off a male specimen who was 5″10 (175 cm) tall and weighed 150 pounds (68 kg), despite having a musculature that would put the vast majority of modern humans to shame. Average heights decreased by 5 inches after the transition to agriculture, and tooth and bone health deteriorated drastically.

The Bible tells the story: Man took up farming and began eating bread, and then cities appeared, famine and disease stalked the land, and childbirth became painful and dangerous. But childbirth also became more frequent, and the vast (if low-quality) caloric surpluses from grains enabled farmer populations – armed with metal weapons and commanded by literate elites – to gradually displace the world of Enkidu. That world might never have been paradise on Earth, but it “probably seemed like the Garden of Eden” compared to the lives of early farmers.

Agricultural civilization, over time, evolved sociobiological antidotes to the new ills it had spawned – first and foremost, disease. Wine and hot tea appeared as substitutes for (filthy) water. Spices, which have antimicrobial properties, became a universal staple of southern cuisines. Fermented foods and beverages negated some of the poisons inherent to the new diet. Early fertility cults and promiscuous attitudes gave way to patriarchal structures that enforced heterosexual monogamy – a natural adaptation to the appearance of STD’s.

In a stunning insight, and highlight of the book for me, Durant argues that Mosaic Law can be interpreted as one of the most comprehensive – if unintentional – disease prevention guides in history. Cleanliness was associated with godliness; taboos appeared against cannibalism, and eating (potentially spoiled) meat after the third day; leprosy sufferers were to be shunned. Only virgin women could be captured, while all the others had to be killed (the past is a foreign country). The entire “kashrut” system of “clean” and “unclean” animals rested on a valid scientific basis. Vermin, shellfish, and most insects were disease vectors; pigs, lizards, snakes, amphibians, bird of prey and carrion, and cats – which were worshipped in Egypt! – gobbled the former up. In contrast, no plants are forbidden – even though many of them are poisonous – and nor do primarily plant-eating insects such as locusts, whose consumption would provide a double benefit in terms of both protein and fewer crops destroyed. All these strictures were backed up by severe punishment for transgressors, on both the early and godly plane; disease control was a matter of “life and death for the entire community,” and could only be effectively carried out with the cooperation of the entire community.

Industrialization brought a whole new set of nutrition problems. Sailors died like fleas from scurvy on long voyages; obesity started appearing in Britain in the 19th century as sugar became a staple; rickets increased in frequency as people stayed indoors for longer on what was an infamously sunless island in the first place. Instead of religious commandments, this time it was science and technology that constituted the solution. Limes and lemons were packed on ships in addition to the traditional salt pork and gin; in 1863, a formerly obese Englishman called William Banting published the world’s first diet book, based on restricting sweet and starchy foods (see a pattern?); in 1933, the US government started fortifying milk with Vitamin D to combat rickets, and a few decades later celebrities and sunbeds made sun-tans cool again. “Again, we learned how not do die.”

We are now entering the age of biohackers: The Pareto Principle followers, the fox thinkers, Qualified Selfers, the n=1 experimenters who are seeking novel and individualistic ways of improving their health without waiting for formal science – which advanced “one funeral at a time,” as Max Planck so eloquently put it – to catch up. They try to take a big view of the progress and pitfalls across the ages, and adjust their diets and lifestyle to get the best of all worlds: The paleo diet intrinsic to humans for 99% of their existence as a species; the cultural traditions against disease and recent-adaptations like lactose tolerance of the Agricultural Age; the soaring successes and arrogant foibles of the Industrial Age; and the wealth of individually-tailored data and analytical tools now available on the information highways. For the first time ever, optimal health is within our grasp.

The second and third sections deal with the details of the paleo lifestyle, and as such is much closer to the content of most books on the subject. It’s all pretty much standard: Avoid grains and legumes, eat meat (from tail to tail), vegetables, fruit, nuts, and insects (both the familiar oceanic and unfamiliar land versions). Don’t fear saturated fat; the French Paradox is no paradox. Mimic a hunter-gatherer or herder diet. Follow ancient culinary traditions (experiment with broths, fermented and raw foods, organ meats, etc.) and practices (e.g. fasting). Move naturally – humans are evolved to stand, walk, squat, lie down, and occasionally sprint; they are not evolved to sit or do moderate jogging (check out CrossFit and MovNat). Running was traditionally done barefoot, which enables a more natural and less stressful action; consider that or getting a Vibrams. Do cold plunges and saunas. Don’t fear the Sun – the risks of getting skin cancer from it are negligible compared to the warding effects it gives from depression, other cancers, and a multitude of other ailments.

Nonetheless, we still find some clever insights – as well as controversies. For instance, I liked how he destroys the Whole Foods-shoppers’ worship of organic and whole foods over processed. He points out that “organic sugar is still sugar,” and that the absurdity has even spread to “organic tobacco,” while processed foods can be both very healthy (e.g. cooking, fermentation) or very unhealthy (e.g. Coca-Cola, Mars bars).

He does a good job of defending the ecological role played by responsible hunters – though I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say lion burgers are a good or valid way of advancing an animal preservation cause – and of rebutting vegetarian arguments. These range from the rational-seeming but factually wrong (e.g. the assertion that hunter-gatherers got most of their calories from plants, or references to T. Colin Campbell’s deeply flawed interpretation of the China Study), to politicized absurdities such as Carol Adam’s assertion in THE SEXUAL POLITICS OF MEAT that meat-eating is a mechanism to enforce “patriarchy” (in reality, hunter-gatherer tribes were far less hierarchic and male-dominant than complex, grain-based civilizations). Still, while it might be true that vegetarians are crazier than average, there was no need – no need whatsoever – to go off on that bizarre tangent about Hitler’s vegetarianism. What the hell, dude? If you’re trying to present yourself as a voice of reason against the filthy grain-eating peasants, calling on the curse of Godwin probably isn’t the smartest way to go about it.

But a few quibbles cannot detract from what is, all things said, a monumental contribution to the nutritional canon. THE PALEO MANIFESTO is eminently readable, greased along by Durant’s endearingly morbid sense of humor (he advises against cannibalism on account of modern people having a “much higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids due to their grain-based diets”). There is a consistently fluid command of the relevant medical, nutritional, and anthropological literature, as might be expected of the organizer of the world’s largest paleo Meetup group. Above all, he succeeds at contextualizing the paleo lifestyle within the big story of humanity’s biosocial evolution, and his conclusions – earlier jeremiads against the Standard American Diet and vegetarianism regardless – end up acknowledging the critical importance of integrating lessons from all four of the major nutritional epochs.

Though paleo is the most “natural” way to eat, it eminently cannot feed a global population of seven billion. The agricultural system – that is, local and organic – plays a vital role in maintaining plant genetic diversity, but it probably cannot feed the world either, short of most of us returning to a hardscrabble existence in the fields. The industrial system is the caloric workhorse that feeds the world, but it suffers from “serious health, ethical, and environmental drawbacks.” According to Durant, the most realistic, sustainable, and humane way forward is to keep the industrial system, but mitigate its worst effects by drawing on the best of what the paleolithic and agricultural systems have to offer. Meanwhile, the information system that industrialism enables can continue to push forwards our understanding of optimal health and nutrition through the vision and self-experimentation of the 21st century’s biohackers.

And really, who can argue with that?

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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caveman-computerFirst you couldn’t have more than 10% fat in your diet, then carbohydrates became the source of all evil*. Slow-Carb waged war on the various Schools of Paleo. But the Food Pyramid continues to loom over them all like some kind of Eldritch abomination.

Weight machines were once all the rage, but then free weights became king. Then Tsatsouline brought kettlebell back into fashion, while others urged us on to condition ourselves with our own bodyweight, like convicts.

Eggs, coffee, and long-distance running caused perennial headaches to gurus all round.

So how does the layman observing this cacophonic monkeyhouse deal with all the noise? Simplify. Simplify the shit out out of all this crap and reduce it all to the following basic question:

Would you have been doing this 10,000 years ago?

Diet fads and exercise methodologies come and go, but the human body remains constant – at least on the timescales that matter. Apply the Caveman Test – and you are unlikely to go very far wrong.

Should you count calories? Erm, lolzwut? No caveman would know what a calorie even is. Forget all those Weight Watchers programs that would have you obsessing over that extra 5 calories you ingested at lunch.

How often should you eat? Did hunter-gatherers eat 6 carefully portioned meals a day – or did they alternate between bouts of fasting and feasting in-between their hunts? There you go – intermittent fasting. Feel free to give breakfast the finger if you’ve never liked it anyway.

Did you eat grains? No, they ate root tubers. When humans started eating grains, life expectancy plummeted relative to the levels of the Paleolithic Age. But here’s the thing: Humans have adapted. Partially adapted. Some human groups have adapted more than others. East Asians have been cultivating and eating rice for more than 10,000 years, and it remains a major staple of their diet to this day; but they nonetheless boast some of the world’s lowest morbidity and obesity profiles**. It is not an unreasonable hypothesis that their physiologies have evolved to better process grains. Reinforcing it is the observation that some of the world’s worst obesity crises are among peoples that have only very recently adopted grain heavy modern diets – the Ameri-Indians, the Samoans, etc. If you are East Asian, you shouldn’t worry much about eating rice. You were doing it 10,000 years ago, after all. If you’re Europea, approach with caution – rice only arrived in Iberia only a millennium ago. And if you’re Ameri-Indian, flee for the hills. Other forms of grain however appear to be pretty much universally bad.

lactose-toleranceDid you drink milk? Again, no. But because its a useful trait to have, lactose tolerance independently developed among several human groups – and then spread outwards. But if you don’t come from those red and orangey areas, chances are high you are lactose intolerant. So don’t bother with it. Forget about GOMAD.

Did you eat fruit? Of course – whatever Tim Ferriss might believe. But here’s the thing: The fruits we have now are, quite literally, the fruits of labor – that is, of a long period of selection for size and sweetness. Take the strawberry. People like pretending that eating bowls of the stuff is healthy (I won’t even go into stuff like orange juice). Here is a picture of wild strawberries – that is, the genuine ones – that might change your mind on this (and don’t forget they would have all been foraged, and only available for part of the year).


What kind of things would you have eaten that you don’t eat much of now? Root tubers. Organs. Bone marrow.

How would you have exercised? Certainly not by lifting symmetric weights in “sets” according to a certain schedule. Anything but that.

How about:

  • Ripped rock climbers.

    Ripped rock climbers.

    Bodyweight exercises: Pressups, pullups, squats, bridges.

  • Gymnastics.
  • Rock climbing/bouldering. Seriously – have you ever seen a fat rock climber? It’s pretty much perfect as far as developing the optimal physique is concerned. Most of the muscles (except the pushup ones) are worked out from all angles and directions; there is the strongest of incentives to drop weight, which acts even at the subconscious level; and reaching the top is inherently motivational. There are now many gyms with bouldering walls.
  • Sprinting
  • Wrestling
  • Lugging about uneven weights

What else would you have been doing differently? According to Cracked, a leading scientific authority, pretty much everything: Shitting, bathing, breathing, sleeping, childbirth, dental hygiene, sitting. (Well, okay, Cracked’s articles can be quite dubious in many cases – but that one hits the mark.).

Well, you get the idea. Don’t obsess too much over one guru or another. Use your own brain – apply the Caveman Test.

Would you have been doing this 10,000 years ago?

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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Remember the advice to replace rice with more vegetables at Korean BBQ’s? Well, one place I sometimes go to (Steve’s BBQ) to my pleasant surprise now has a new dish made specifically of just salad and BBQed chicken, pork, or beef. It was specifically marketed as Lo-Carb. The paleo revolution is gaining.

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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If you’re in the city during the day and don’t want to grab the nearest carb-loaded baguette, burger, subway etc on hand, what do you do?

1. Get a Burrito Bowl at Chipotle, probably the healthiest major fast food outlet in America. Get it without rice. This is the most affordable option costing only $6 standard, or $8 with avocado spread.

2. Go to a Korean BBQ place and get something like Bulgogi beef. Very caveman-like. Make sure to replace any rice they try to serve with grilled vegetables. Will cost maybe $10. A live Mongolian grill or Shabu Shabu are also valid alternatives, but will typically cost more.

3. A soup at a Thai eatery, no noodles, such as Tom Yum or Tom Kha Kai. Can cost as little as $5.

Modern cell phones are quite adept at finding these places. Then there’s always the traditional method of asking people. No excuse not to do it!

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.