Why the Back to Nature Movement Failed

modern caveman on computer

The paleo diet has been popular for a while now, and it prescribes a “back to nature” way of life that’s interesting. The premise is that humans evolved in an environment devoid of processed foods and high-glycemic carbs, so we should eat a diet that more closely mimics our paleolithic ancestors.  It also suggests that everyone should be outside, moving around all of the time.  I’m not going to try to defend the paleo diet per se, some people lose weight on it, whatever.  But it’s an interesting framework for considering what environments we as humans are adapted to and how we can apply that to the problems of modern life.

Consider depression. Two of the top cures for depression are exercise and light therapy.  It’s clear that humans evolved for at least 100,000 years, largely outdoors, moving around in the sunlight.  Depression is probably best thought of as a disease of modern life, where we’re living indoors and are largely sedentary.

Another aspect of modern, developed cultures is social isolation.  Humans are social animals, and we arguably evolved in tribes of roughly 150 members, according to the Dunbar number.  (I know that Dunbar has been supplanted by newer research, let’s just use this number as a starting point.)

Depression is probably best thought of as a disease of modern life, where we’re living indoors and are largely sedentary. . . Another aspect of modern, developed cultures is social isolation. . . So let’s consider these three aspects of an evolved human lifestyle: 1) Living outdoors in the sun, 2) Moving around continually, and 3) Being surrounded by a community of other humans invested in our survival.  These are all things that many of us struggle with in modern life.

So let’s take these three aspects of an evolved human lifestyle: 1) Living outdoors in the sun, 2) Moving around continually, and 3) Being surrounded by a community of other humans invested in our survival.  These are all things that many of us struggle with in modern life.  Sure, maybe some people still live in tight-knit, traditional farm communities that fulfill these needs, but, here in the US, economic forces have largely broken the cohesion of these rural places and we see drug abuse epidemics as a consequence.

Transhumanists can rightly argue that our need for sunlight, exercise, and social support are just kludgy legacy code tied to our messy biological bodies.  Maybe we can upgrade humans to be more machine-like with replaceable parts and we can do away with these outdated needs.  That’s a valid argument.  I don’t happen to agree with it, but it’s coherent at least.  For the sake of this discussion, I ask my transhumanist friends to acknowledge that these human 2.0 upgrades don’t seem to be right around the corner, so it probably makes sense to make accommodations for the hardware we humans are running right now.

Hippies tried to solve the problems of modern life in the sixties with their back to nature movement. . . But what ever happened to that movement, anyway? . . I asked a fellow named Frosty, an old hippie scientist at one of my clients, who said that when his friends from the city showed up at the rural commune, they blanched at how much work needed to be done.  They didn’t have the skills needed to build structures by hand, grow food, or dig latrines.  And then they would look around and ask, “Where’s the bar?”  They wanted to get drunk and hang out.  Who can blame them?

Hippies tried to solve the problems of modern life in the sixties with their back to nature movement.  Good old Stewart Brand was in the thick of it with his Whole Earth Catalog.  Many long-haired freaks trekked out to the middle of nowhere to build geodesic domes out of logs and get naked in the mud together.  Awesome!

But what ever happened to that movement, anyway?  What went wrong?  Brand himself said at a Long Now talk that the hippies discovered that the cities were where the action was.  I’m fortunate to work with these old hippie scientists at one of my clients, and I asked a fellow named Frosty why the back to nature movement didn’t properly take hold.  He laughed and said that when his friends from the city showed up at the rural commune, they blanched at how much work needed to be done.  They didn’t have the skills needed to build structures by hand, grow food, or dig latrines.  And then they would look around and ask, “Where’s the bar?”  They wanted to get drunk and hang out.  Who can blame them?

Twentieth century communists in Asia attempted their own versions of the back to nature movement.  They took what appears to be a sound hypothesis and effectively implemented it as genocide.  Mao’s Cultural Revolution forced the relocation of city dwellers to the countryside, resulting in disaster.  Pol Pot’s Year Zero also involved a violent reset of the clock, trying to turn back time and force modern people to live as our ancestors did, also a terrible failure.  So yes, as Scott Alexander says, we “see the skulls.”  We need to learn the lessons of previous failed attempts before we can rectify the problems with modern life.

Cities are where the power is accumulating.  Cities are more energy efficient.  Cities are where the action is.  But how can we remake our lifestyles to fit them? . . We see the first glimmers of a solution with Silicon Valley’s obsession with social, mobile, and augmented reality. . . Maybe augmented reality will give us the ability to move freely around the city, connect with our communities, and still do modern work, but while getting exercise and sunlight at the same time.  Call it the “Back to the City, But Working Outside, Walking Around Movement?”  Not catchy, but you get the picture.

We can’t turn back the clock.  We have to start where we are and assume that progress will keep happening whether we like it or not.  Cities are where the power is accumulating.  Cities are more energy efficient.  Cities are where the action is.  But how can we remake our lifestyles to fit them?  We see the first glimmers of a solution with Silicon Valley’s obsession with social, mobile, and augmented reality.  Perhaps we can find our communities via social network technology.  I certainly feel vastly enriched by my East Bay Futurists Meetup.  I’ve made good friends there, who help me grow and teach me a lot.  Mobile technology has made it easier and easier for people to do real work on the move.  Maybe augmented reality will close the loop and give us the ability to move freely around the city, connect with our communities, and still do modern work, but while getting exercise and sunlight at the same time.  Call it the “Back to the City, But Working Outside, Walking Around Movement?”  Ahh, well, not catchy, but you get the picture.  We just need to start redesigning our cities a little bit.  Step One: More parks!

GMO Study Discredited?

gmo-mouse-tumors

The genetically modified organism (GMO) debate flared up again this week.  Last year, a French study led by Gilles-Eric Séralini claimed that Roundup and corn modified to be resistant to Roundup was toxic.  Roundup is a very common weed killer and some crops are genetically modified to withstand it.  Rats in the study developed grotesque tumors.  There was a big outcry of criticism in response to this study, and the journal that published it is now threatening to retract the study.  I don’t know if the study is junk or not.  Séralini’s response to critics seems fairly reasonable.  But if it is a poorly designed study, then I wonder why there aren’t properly designed long-term studies of Roundup safety that would settle this matter more definitively.

Just to clarify my position, I remain skeptical of GMOs and of the safety of consuming Roundup in particular, but I in no way intend to advocate for GMOs to be banned.  GMOs clearly hold huge promise for solving world hunger problems.  I just don’t like the way this debate is being framed.  GMO skeptics are painted as being anti-science.  This might largely be true, but some of the blanket statements issued by scientific organizations to assert the scientific consensus of GMO safety seem… well, unscientific.  Consider this statement on GMO safety by the National Academy of Science:

All evidence evaluated to date indicates that unexpected and unintended compositional changes arise with all forms of genetic modification, including genetic engineering. Whether such compositional changes result in unintended health effects is dependent upon the nature of the substances altered and the biological consequences of the compounds. To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.

Ok, so that means that someone ran GMOs through the gold standard of scientific evaluation and performed a large-scale, double-blind study to prove the safety of GMOs on humans then, right?  Umm, no.  In fact, it appears that not many long-term studies of GMO safety have even been performed on mammals, let alone humans.  So I wonder how the NAS confidently arrived at the conclusion that GMOs are safe.  Well, to be fair, they do hedge their bets with that statement, but consider the final sentence:

To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.

See, the problem with this statement is that there have been no studies of GMO health effects on humans to produce this documentation of harm.  There is no control group to compare GMO eaters to.  Some estimate that 60 to 70 percent of the processed food in the US contains GMOs.  You need a population that isn’t eating GMOs to compare the rest of us to.  One can’t just say that cancer rates have been flat, so there has been no cancer impact from GMOs.  What if cancer rates would have gone down if GMOs weren’t being eaten?  The Amish might be people to study, except for the GMO cross contamination problem and the fact that their lifestyle is so radically different that it would introduce many confounding factors (i.e. Maybe the Amish are healthier because of being closer to the land.).

Another problem is that it will be very hard to document the harm from GMOs if it doesn’t happen immediately.  Who can say what caused health problems that occur after years of GMO consumption?  How could it be shown that GMOs caused harm as opposed to the water that was consumed or other potentially toxic exposures?  The NAS’s final sentence is a bit like saying, “To date, the general public has not documented the existence of the Higgs Boson.”  The public doesn’t have the tools to show which substances might cause long-term harm.  We need scientists to do that for us.

Agribusiness clearly has the cash and political clout to influence legislation.  It’s not realistic to expect any regulation that requires GMOs to be tested for safety the same way that say, drugs are tested.  But it’s not unscientific to question GMO safety given the scarcity of mammalian studies.  Yes, GMOs look good on paper, but show me the empirical data.  Salmon and chickens don’t seem to be hurt by GMOs, but human biology is more complicated.  I would feel much more confident if someone would just run a proper long-term human clinical study and be done with it.  The money spent to prevent GMO labeling in California could have funded plenty of research.  

I would feel much more confident if someone would just run a proper long-term human clinical study and be done with it.  The money spent to prevent GMO labeling in California could have funded plenty of research.

Of course, it’s hard to control what people eat long-term.  But it seems that low security prison populations might provide good candidates.  (They could be given some incentive to participate, not be forced.  The test group would not be any worse off than the general population, after all.)  Their diet is largely controlled already, and I assume that low security convicts stab each other less frequently than high security prisoners, so that would be one less thing to control for when computing mortality rates I guess.

My friend Razib criticized my squeamishness and said that there are plenty of other substances and activities that are probably worse for human health than GMOs.  It’s certainly rational for starving folks in the developing world to risk potential health problems at some time in the future in order to eat Vitamin A enhanced GMO rice today, for example.  But I don’t live in the Global South, and I personally already avoid a lot of the things that more obviously cause harm, so I am a crybaby and I don’t want to touch this GMO stuff until they can show me some REAL scientific evidence of safety.

I know, I know.  I just wrote a post last week examining why many of the scientists I know dismiss dietary interventions to improve health.  Perhaps I am not updating my beliefs properly here?  Give me time, self-optimization is a difficult habit to break, especially since I am more of a fox than a hedgehog.  As Anatoly pointed out recently, generalist “foxes” might be more inclined to self-optimization.  In the final analysis, the world will probably be better off with GMOs than without them.  They provide the potential to feed far more people with less land and fewer resources than organic farming.  Far be it from me to stand in the way of progress.  Pour me a shot of Roundup.

Why Do Scientists Disdain Supplements?

I’ve been taking supplements for a long time now. Gretchen, my partner of many years, gave me a niacin flush back when we were in our 20s. I can’t say that I recommend it. Imagine taking enough niacin to turn bright red all over and feel as though your entire body was being pricked by needles for a couple of hours. Also, I just learned that the fact that I flushed at all is evidence that I probably wasn’t schizophrenic in the first place, which may come as a surprise to my friends from that time. I was even fed Flintstone’s chewable vitamins as a child, so I feel as though I grew up in a culture of supplementation. Why do I take them? To be healthier? More productive? To live longer? Take your pick.

So when I read Fantastic Voyage by Ray Kurzweil, it was right up my alley. I happily went out and bought the top twenty supplements that Ray & Terry were suggesting right away. My friend John warned me about this. He had initially tried the same strategy, but stopped in favor of eating whole foods. We haven’t learned enough about biology yet to know what will be effective, he said. But John had the discipline to sit and eat an entire tub of organic lettuce while chatting at my Futurist Meetup, and I doubted that I had his same level of resolve. So I reduced my confidence in supplements, but I figured they might help offset my shoddy diet.

As the years go by, more and more studies about supplements have shown a lack of efficacy or even detrimental effects. Of course I was quick to defend my beliefs and look for flaws in the studies, blissfully ignoring my own confirmation bias. Sure, the science is flawed in some cases. Maybe big pharma actually works to game the results since naturally occurring substances that can’t be patented could pose competition to its products if proven effective. But as irrational as I may be in defense of my pet concepts, my confidence in supplements erodes further and further over time.

But as irrational as I may be in defense of my pet concepts, my confidence in supplements erodes further and further over time.

In this Bay Area futurist scene, it isn’t hard to find plenty of folks looking for hacks to optimize their personal performance. Rationalists seem particularly fond of nootropics, etc. So my faith in supplements was bolstered somewhat by various things I learned. I might say, oh sure, maybe even mixed tocopherol vitamin E isn’t very effective, but surely this acetyl-glutathione will do the trick. You just need to find the right pill to pop.

As I got involved in Quantified Self, where everyone does self experimentation, I realized how utterly foolish I was being by not monitoring my biomarkers more frequently. Ray Kurzweil might choke down 200 pills a day, but he’s constantly getting blood work done and poring over the results. So my approach of performing a single liver test once a year wasn’t looking too responsible, especially when other QS’ers were monitoring their blood sugar in real time for kicks.

I also had jarring experiences trying to talk about supplementation with actual scientists. Several smart biologists mocked my supplement regimen. Recently, I was at a party and asked Joe Betts-LaCroix and some other science people if anyone followed the paleo diet or did supplements, and I was a bit surprised to find general disdain. Should we return to a paleo era life expectancy? Perhaps we should forego vaccines and sanitation as well? Joe referred me to his brief blog post on this topic, the gist of which being that although there are billions of people with a broad range of diets, no one population is extraordinarily long lived. Thus, we can assume that diet doesn’t contribute much to longevity.

Although there are billions of people with a broad range of diets, no one population is extraordinarily long lived. Thus, we can assume that diet doesn’t contribute much to longevity.

Now some might argue that this speaks to longevity, but not to performance. Maybe it can be shown that diet and supplements can improve performance. At one time I would have been more open to that idea, but I am starting to grow skeptical. Joe’s point is that folks should stop wasting large amounts of effort for small or nonexistent personal gains and should focus instead on the basic research needed to unlock the deep complexity in the foundations of our biology. Of course, not all of us are cut out to do that research.

Dan Millman actually touched on this point at Ted X Berkeley this year. Millman ponders the question of whether it is better to focus energy on improving the world or on improving ourselves. He concluded that self improvement gives us the leverage to change the world more effectively. I am no great fan of Millman’s productized philosophy. He’s like some of these other “gurus” who package up ideas as products and sell them in a way that seems as though they have never heard punk rock or read post-modernism. But I think I can agree with that point – self improvement lends leverage to our endeavors. The question then becomes a cost/benefit analysis. At what point does self improvement offer diminishing returns?

Joe is an interesting person to listen to in this regard. No one can accuse him of not working on himself. He was a big QS’er from the beginning and did calorie restriction for years. He does HIIT, and he even broke out and tried living a 28 hour day. He has also been working fervently to improve the world for years, from his work at the ill fated Halcyon Molecular to his current Health Extension Salon project to combat aging. Yet, here he is admonishing folks to stop piddling around with diet and supplements and get to work on the real problems of this world.

Then there is this other fellow I happen to know named Walter Funk. A friend shared an article about a TA-65 alternative supplement that can supposedly increase your telomeres and roll back aging. This seemed at first to be utter quackery, yet there in the references, low and behold, was a paper by the venerable Dr. Walter Funk. So I said, Walter, tell me, what is this nonsense? He said that the basis of TA-65 is astragalus and that it modestly but reproducibly increases telomerase activity (i.e. protects telemeres which keep your DNA from unraveling, sort of like the plastic on the tips of shoelaces). He pointed out that astragalus is just an herb and regulation of herbs is becoming lax, but that other organic compounds that are purported to increase telomere activity would require clinical trials for FDA approval.

Then I found this article which seemed to suggest that telomerase might contribute to the immortality of tumor cells. But Dr. Funk assured me that reasonable animal data suggested that telomerase might actually prevent cancer. The telomerase activation associated with tumors occurred at a later stage after a bunch of other damage had occurred. So I said, well, that sounds OK then. Do you take TA-65, Walter?  But I got a sardonic reply about him relying on good women and the kindness of strangers. He also offered to forward me a summary of all the NIH supplement studies that showed no benefit or some detriment.

Furthermore, when Cynthia Kenyon spoke at the Health Extension Salon in July 2013, she mentioned a study which showed that antioxidants prevent the increase of insulin sensitivity following physical exercise. In other words, exercise causes stress which normally triggers your body to repair the damage, however, antioxidants seem to prevent your body from recognizing the damage that has occurred. So antioxidants fix some of the damage, but prevent your body from providing a more robust response. This goes hand in hand with recent research, which calls into question the long held belief that aging is caused by oxidative stress (or free radical damage). There’s something else going on here.

Recent research calls into question the long held belief that aging is caused by oxidative stress (or free radical damage).

Part of me wonders if there is something in the personalities of scientists that makes them disdain diet and supplementation. Gretchen suggested that they may all be absent minded professors forgetting that their brains are attached to bodies that need nutrients. The performance hackers seem like a more charismatic and risk tolerant crowd, almost thrill seeking, though I must say they seem to have fewer papers to their credit. At the end of the day, I suspect that scientists disdain diets and supplements because they hold assertions of efficacy to higher standards than many of us do. I strongly suggest that my fellow supplementers listen more closely to what the science is trying to tell us. I will attempt to do the same, although it sure isn’t easy to give up your imagined silver bullet.

Additional references:
Walter sent me these additional references for those of you who are still clinging to your vitamin bottles. (I probably need to read these myself in order to let go.)

Here’s the big flop of one of the most touted supplements, omega-3 for heart disease has absolutely no effect on normal individuals.
http://www.medpagetoday.com/Cardiology/Prevention/38969

No one, especially males, should take vitamin E (tocopherol).
http://www.cancer.gov/newscenter/newsfromnci/2011/SELECTupdateJAMAOct2011

Antioxidants have been shown to not help with cancer.
http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/prevention/antioxidants

An attack on the low carb crowd from a microbiome investigator.
http://humanfoodproject.com/sorry-low-carbers-your-microbiome-is-just-not-that-into-you