Hunter Gatherer

Brimming with ideas and a fascinating read. STEVEN PINKER, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University

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Race, Income, and the Child Obesity Task Force

First Lady Michelle Obama has taken on childhood obesity as her signature issue, and today her task force released its report and recommendations.  I have not had time to read it thoroughly, but from a quick scan, many of the recommendations seem pretty sensible: increase breastfeeding rates, encourage women who breastfeed to do so for a longer period of time (A+), improve the quality of school lunches, and get kids away from the TV set.

But I was struck by statistics on the relationship between obesity, race, income.  Most people probably think that obesity is a problem of poverty and socioeconomic status.  The reasoning goes that the cheapest foods are the least healthy foods, and so people on a budget are eating the worst quality foods.  And the higher your education, the more you know about what’s healthy.  This is all true, to an extent.  But the report, to its credit, casts doubts that socioeconomic status is the primary driver of disparities in health outcomes.

In reviewing disparities in obesity rates, the report mentions race first:

"Childhood obesity is more common among certain racial and ethnic groups than others. Obesity rates are highest among non-Hispanic black girls and Hispanic boys. Obesity is particularly common among American Indian/Native Alaskan children. A study of four year-olds found that obesity was more than two times more common among American Indian/Native Alaskan children (31%) than among white (16%) or Asian (13%) children. This rate was higher than any other racial or ethnic group studied."

For anyone paying the slightest attention to obesity and diabetes, this should come as no surprise.  Obesity and diabetes is most prevalent among races, like American Indians, that have had fewer generations to adapt to the agricultural revolution and modern foods.  Yet it’s amazing how this plain as day finding doesn’t cause more people to take a longer historical perspective when evaluating the health benefits of grains or dairy, or whether eating meat and natural fats might actually be good for you.

The report continues on socioeconomic status (my emphasis):

"Among adults, obesity rates are sometimes associated with lower incomes, particularly among women.

The relationship between income and obesity in children is less consistent than among adult women, and sometimes even points in the opposite direction. Another study from the early 2000s found that only among white girls were higher incomes associated with lower BMI. Among African-American girls, the prevalence of obesity actually increased with higher socioeconomic status, suggesting that efforts to reduce ethnic disparities in obesity must target factors other than income and education, such as environmental, social, and cultural factors."

See page 62 for further discussion of  "Is Poor Diet a Low Income Problem?"  The answer?

"…the similarities are more striking than the differences…"

Income and poverty matter — see the section on food deserts, for example — but it’s not the whole story.  Two key points:

1. Obesity is a national issue that is effecting everyone, rich and poor alike.

2. If we want to understand the underlying cause of obesity and diabetes (and heart disease and hypertension and, and, and), look where the genetic disparities point.

In general, foods that are new to the human diet are killing us.  In general, foods that have been apart of the human diet for the longest time make us healthy and vital.

What’s so good about civilization? Plenty, actually.

Anyone who eats paleo has heard the same joke from co-workers, friends, and family.  I call it Canned Caveman Joke #1.  It goes like this.

John: [Uses a piece of modern technology]

Will Ferrell: "Wait, cavemen didn’t have [modern technology]!"


This surefire and versatile joke may be applied to an infinite number of situations.  Observe:  "Wait, cavemen didn’t have blogs!", "Wait, cavemen didn’t have plastic spatulas!", "Wait, cavemen didn’t have iPads!"  Those are my favorites — where the technology in question didn’t even exist for most of modernity.  Well, yeah, and until a few months ago no one had an iPad.

I’ve decided to come out of the cave, as it were.  I don’t think badly of all aspects of modernity.  (Wow, so liberating!)  So I’ve decided to write a little list of things I love about civilization.   If you’re a blogger in the paleosphere, blog your list.

Here’s the question.  If you had to live as part of an actual hunter-gatherer tribe 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, what would you miss the most about the modern world?  Culture and technology are likely to be popular answers, so get more specific.  If you say music, tell us what bands.  If you say the technology, tell us why UNIX stirs your soul.  Make it personal.  Try to find things that if given the choice between a perfectly healthy hunter-gatherer lifestyle without what you love about modernity and a "healthy" modern lifestyle based on the conventional wisdom, you’d choose modernity.


1. Literacy and books

My Amazon bills are enormous.  I tend to intensely and exclusively read one genre every few years.  My life in book genres, a la High Fidelity:

– Greek myths

– Fantasy (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Jordan, R.A. Salvatore, Raymond E. Feist, George R.R. Martin)

– Science Fiction (Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, various short stories)

– Economics, Politics, and Libertarianism (Hayek, Rand, Friedman, Bastiat, Lomborg, etc.)

– Evolution, Evolutionary Psychology, and Human Nature (Robert Wright, Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Judith Rich Harris, Matt Ridley, and Dawkins)

– Food and Health (Pollan, Taubes, and everyone in the paleosphere).

Many other authors don’t fit neatly into a genre or time period: Nassim Taleb, Neal Stephenson, Ray Kurzweil, Roald Dahl, plus a bunch of literary classics and the occasional popular pulp.


2. More freedom

We have a wider variety of possible lifestyles in the modern world.  In a hunter-gatherer tribe, you would have relatively few options for your life, if only because certain things must be done to survive (e.g., hunt, have babies) and you couldn’t really strike off on your own.  Constraints like these can sometimes be a good thing and I’m sure this would be a very satisfying existence — yet it is an existence that doesn’t push the boundaries of what is possible for an individual human or the human race.   And even if freedom or the relentless pursuit of progress leads to worse outcomes in some cases, there is intrinsic value in being free and striving for greatness.  It’s the human spirit.


3. Less likely to suffer a violent death

Many hunter-gatherer tribes evolved bad customs and cultures, and you could have ended up in a particularly superstitious or violent tribe.  Whether that means initiation rituals that scarred the genitals of men or women, or staggeringly high rates of murder or violent death.   It’s not as if every hunter-gatherer existence was like Avatar, plugging our pony tails into all other species.  Nature red in tooth and claw, survival of the fittest.  There is a ruthlessness to nature.


4. Dogs

Man’s best friend.  Bred over thousands of years to be pleasing to mankind, and we did a damn good job of it. 


What’s on your list?  Music, food cuisines, flying, the internet, or art?  Stamp collecting, baseball, or the Wire?  Cars, motorcycles, or skiing?  Bach, Da Vinci, or Warhol?  Christianity, Will Farrell, or the Godfather?  Butter?  Show us your civilized side.

Deer Hunting for Locavores: Photo Essay

Warning: Some of the pictures below show graphic images of a deer being butchered.  There are also graphic images of classroom instruction, target practice, and naps in the sunshine.  All acts of killing, field dressing, and butchering the deer were conducted with respect.

Click on the images below to start the slideshow!

Deer Hunting for Locavores: Day One

Things I learned today:

– Women are the fastest growing population of hunters.  (Read this great NYT piece by Betty Fussell, who bagged her first deer at the wonderful age of 82.  She attended Jackson’s NYC talk with us a couple months ago.)

– It takes brains to hunt deer.  The only reason deer haven’t been hunted to extinction a long time ago (like many other wild animals on the east coast) is that they are smart, stay hidden, and avoid humans.

– Bow hunting is hard.  Only 30% of bow hunters tagged a deer last season in Virginia.

– Bambi, the movie, is wildly inaccurate as to actual deer ecology and behavior.

– Don’t wear blue jeans to hunt.  Deer see blue (and ultraviolet), but not the red side of the spectrum. 

– Deer use hearing to detect predators, then confirm using smell and sight .

– Supposedly I am a natural with a pistol.  (Not bad with a rifle, but need some work.)


Tomorrow we’ll be field dressing, butchering, and cooking a deer.

Assorted links: Evolution in action

1. Invasion of the Super Weeds (Pollan is spot on.)

2. Neanderthal / Homo Sapiens interbreeding (More on this later.)

3. New species discovered that doesn’t breathe oxygen (Evolution is smarter than we are.)


Question: Is taking an evolutionary perspective on weed resistance a fad?

Answer: No.  It will never go out of fashion.  Draw your own conclusions.

Personality and Food

I work in personality.  I’m Director of Research at an internet start-up called Mindset Media, and we help brands target large audiences who have a common personality trait, like creativity, extroversion, or modesty.  We were founded on the premise that people are more than just a set of demographic stereotypes (age, sex, income, race).  People have individual personalities, and our personality traits, or Mindsets, relate to what music we listen to, what cars we drive, and how we vote.  Pretty cool stuff.

At the office, we subscribe to Psychology Today, and I picked up the new issue earlier this week.  Two surprises greeted me on the cover.  The first surprise was that the cover didn’t show a half-naked beautiful woman.  (The folks at Psychology Today are a little too aware that sex sells magazines — 7 of the last 10 issues feature a beautiful woman’s face, a sexy woman’s body, or cover the topic of love and relationships.)  The SECOND surprise was one of the featured cover stories — "Caveman Cravings: The Allure of An Ancient Diet".  A random and hilarious intersection of two of my worlds: personality and food.  My co-workers and I had a good laugh.

Make no mistake, personality and food are strongly related.  That will be the topic of my talk at the Ancestral Health Symposium next year. I’ll be blogging more about it, but if you want to waste four minutes of your life, you can listen to my interview on KFWB Los Angeles last year about beer and personality.

Stop by a newsstand and leaf through the latest Psychology Today.  The article gives a fair treatment to the evolutionary perspective on health — perhaps the fairest and least sensational of the many recent articles.  Not one of those THERE ARE CAVEMEN LIVING AMONGST US, OMG, THAT GUY ISNT WEARING SHOES!!! articles.  I have to say, I’m getting a little tired of those.  How about this for a fresh angle?  Hunter-gatherer sex.  With the right photo of a paleolithic hottie, we could probably get the cover of Psychology Today.

Michael Pollan vs. Ted Nugent on Hunting


On the surface, you couldn’t find two more different people than foodie journalist and author Michael Pollan and hard rocker, gun rights activist, and avid hunter Ted Nugent.  They certainly don’t vote the same way.  Is it possible they have similar views on hunting?

I’m going to post a video of each of them.  WATCH THEM BOTH.  They each speak in a completely different manner.  But if you can get past Nugent’s brash and unmeasured language (particularly the first 30 seconds), you’ll hear a message of wildlife conservation, reverence for nature, natural foods, and an anti-drug and healthy living philosophy.  Pollan’s video, on the other hand, fittingly takes place at the Yale Farm, and he speaks softly in measured fashion, acknowledging nuance and subtlety — but at about second 54 he starts to criticize the environmental movement for excluding "the hook and bullet crowd".

NOTE: If you are squeamish about hunting or hold liberal political attitudes watch Pollan first.  If you are a gung-ho hunter or hold more conservative political attitudes, watch Nugent first.  Put your reactions in the comments.

Ted Nugent on Hunting

Michael Pollan on Hunting


(Hat tip to Castle Grok for the Nugent video.)

Putting the Hunt Back in “Hunter-Gatherer”

This weekend I’ll be learning how to hunt.  I’m really excited.

Nine of us from Eating Paleo in NYC are heading down to Charlottesville, Virginia for a deer hunting seminar.  We will learn deer ecology, gun safety, how to shoot, how to field dress a deer, and how to butcher and cook venison.  Though we won’t be hunting any deer, we will be field dressing a freshly killed deer outdoors, and then cooking it that evening.

Jackson Landers will be leading the seminar.  The New York Times featured Jackson in a great piece last year about urban and suburban foodies who wanted to learn to hunt.  Many wanted to take the ethical step of being willing to kill the meat they eat.  Jackson was raised a vegetarian, and takes ethical considerations seriously — it’s not simply a testosterone-driven exercise in domination.  He also tries to hunt invasive, non-local species that could use a little culling.

Check out Jackson’s blog.  

Did I mention I’m excited?  I swear it’s not the testosterone talking.  (Okay, maybe a little.)  Lots more to come this weekend.

Tough Mudder Action Shots with Commentary

#1:  This was a fun wooden hurdle near the end of the race.  Most racers were physically capable of vaulting the hurdle going at a decent clip, but many didn’t.  They pretty much came to a stop and climbed over.  Why?  Because they never actually move this way at the gym, and so lacked the confidence to pull off an easy maneuver over a relatively low barrier.  This was Day One basics at one of Erwan Le Corre’s MovNat clinics — remembering that you have a body and that it moves in ways other than jogging, push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups.

#2:  Notice my bare feet with Vibrams in hand.  Focused on my landing.


#3:  Off to the races.  But notice anything funny?  Look closely.

The guy in black is only just landing!   He was ahead of me before the obstacle.  If you look at the first picture I’m only slightly ahead of him, but by the last picture, he hasn’t even landed yet.   And he looks totally off balance and unsure of himself.  He looks trim and fairly muscular, but he’s thrown off by an obstacle he’s never encountered in the gym.

I work out at a gym too.  There is a railing that separates the stretching mats from the machines, and I sometimes use it to vault over.  Back and forth, back and forth.  You can find ways to move even in a gym. You’ll get looks, but hey, that’s half the fun.

(Thanks to Lisa for the screen grabs from her filming.)

Tough Love at the Tough Mudder

Today eight of us completed the first Tough Mudder.  Tons of fun.  It was a 7-mile race on the side of ski slope, interspersed with various challenges, like wading waist-deep through mud, army crawls under wire, and climbing over some walls.  I can see how this type of fitness events will continue to spread. A few observations.


VFFs / Barefoot running

– Lots of VFFs (Vibram Five Fingers), including 7 of 8 on our team.

– I ditched my VFFs for 3 miles of the race. Had to slow down a bit to avoid rocks, but my concentration level went up.  I felt less likely to twist an ankle.  You see guys with these big plodding shoes — they aren’t forced to focus on where they’re stepping, and then when they land wrong, boom, they turn their ankle.  The foot can’t adapt dynamically because it’s locked up in the shoe.

– Your shoes get soaking wet at various points in the race, and your feet dry more quickly barefoot (and you’re less likely to get a blister).

– That said, there were parts of the race where a normal running shoe would have been superior, due to the difficult terrain.  The most difficult parts for VFFs were man-made large-size gravel roads.

Functional Fitness

– You can’t be a specialist.  The steep uphills kill the road runners and the treadmill aficionados.  People who had no upper body strength or co-ordination couldn’t get over the walls.  One of our team members is not a good swimmer, so the water obstacles were a major challenge to him (but he kicked ass).

– If anything, Tough Mudder could make the obstacles longer and harder.  The hardest parts were the uphill climbs at the beginning, which wiped you out for the rest.

– There was refreshing emphasis on teamwork and camaraderie.  I could eventually see these events timed as a team, and including challenges that require all teammates to be present to complete.


– Way too much carb-age.  Everybody was scarfing down bagels and beer right after finishing.

– I just don’t believe that optimal endurance performance necessitates carbo-loading or heavy and consistent carb intake during the race.  If that’s what your body is accustomed to, then yes, you better do it.  But from an evolutionary perspective, that’s a dangerous dependency, and in tough times, humans who could perform optimally (i.e., survive) would live to bring home the bacon.

– See De Vany on "Lard as a performance fuel" (gated). 


– The NYT had a great write-up on how Tough Mudder got started, and how they attracted over 4,500(!) participants for their first race.  The business plan was a semi-finalist in a Harvard Business School competition — penalized since the judges thought they wouldn’t be able to attract 500 participants.  Well, they were only off by an order of magnitude.

– Congratulations to Will Dean, Guy Livingstone, and the whole team at Tough Mudder for building a business that will benefit others by making fitness more functional and more fun.  (Not to mention the $150k+ that they raised for the Wounded Warrior Project.)

Hats off, guys.