Sunday, February 28, 2010

Interview with Keith Thomas - A Paleo Pioneer

Time for another interview. Paleo has become fashionable. It is a movement now with thousands of people on the band wagon. That is not wholly a bad thing, and the many of the popularisers have done a good job.

Despite the recent media interest, there were a few souls who discovered this way of thinking years ago. Art DeVany is well known and Tamir Katz (interviewed here) was also an “early adopter”, but there were others.

I think I initially came across all this stuff about 5 or 6 years ago and one of the first resources that I studied was called EvFit, a fascinating website of thoughts, analysis, references and ideas put together by Keith Thomas in Australia.


I’ve returned to Keith’s writings repeatedly and I thought that it would be useful to ask him a few questions and dig a little deeper into his approach - not just to eating and training but to the influences that have shaped his thought.


Keith, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. As I said, I’ve been reading your site for several years and have really appreciated it. While paleo / evolutionary fitness sites are booming, few people seem to have discovered you, which puzzles me.

I was thinking about how to structure the interview and I’ve tried to group my questions in some different topics: the personal, the principles, the politics, the personalities and the particulars.

Good idea. let’s work through your “Ps”.


Personal

Starting off with the personal ones, could you tell us something about yourself?

I see from your site that you are now 61 years old. How long have you been concerned about your health and fitness? Do you have an athletic background?



Since the early 1960s. There was in Australia at that time an inspirational athletics coach, Percy Cerutty, who trained middle distance runners using exercise, diet and psychology. I was an impressionable adolescent then and that’s one impression that stuck. You can look him up on Wikipedia. I was also interested in the natural world and this pointed me in the direction of cross country running, bush walking (‘back packing’ today), kayaking and rowing. I started using weights in 1965 to complement my rowing training.

Apart from the rowing (which lasted just six wonderful months in 1964-65), none of this was competitive in the traditional sense, though I was keen to track my performances and to improve over time.

I have exercised consistently since the ‘60s, most weeks, in fact, apart from three years I spent in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. But even there I undertook long and strenuous hikes, some at over 14,000 feet.


Do you still train for any sports – I think I read on your site that you were involved in competitive rowing?

I resumed rowing in my late 40s and applied myself to it for seven years. Our crew took it more seriously than most of our age and we won a medal in the World Masters’ Rowing in 2005. But I was getting back aches and, inspired by Art DeVany’s description of endurance sports as ‘industrial drudgery’ (which regards the human body as a machine, rather than a living organism), I gave it up – reluctantly, as the camaraderie on the water was wonderful.


Has your training and diet helped you keep active at an age when many are content to sit back and just watch TV?

I’m sure it has, but there’s more to it than the merely physiological. I am motivated by the combination of knowledge, the examples of others and my expectations of what the future holds over the next 20 years. There is the example of my younger son, whose physical prowess, steely determination and self-sufficiency is such that few are in a position to fully appreciate his achievements. I am also motivated by what I have learned about human evolution and what this means for the place of Homo sapiens in nature. There my reading has been wide, but perhaps the two greatest personal influences have been my older son (when he urged Richard Dawkins’ books on me) and Stephen Boyden, the founder of the academic discipline of human ecology.

What brought you to adopt this way of eating, training and thinking?

Good question. We are all surrounded with examples, information and advice, but the trick is to select the best combination and then apply it – consistently. I have never been afraid to be different; in fact, being different in one aspect of my life enables others to accept me as legitimately different in other aspects. In 1966 I stopped watching television (I now view about 1-2 hours of television a year – yes, a year) and this has helped me maintain my intellectual independence.

Once again it’s a combination of information, examples and worldview. Mine all hang together in a consistent way. Some people are torn between their beliefs and their practice; we all have to make some compromises, but I need to make fewer than most.


How did you make the transition?

Well, I see it more as a development rather than a transition. I have always been physically active, usually grown some of my own food, always enjoyed the natural world and been conscious that my choices today can influence my physical well-being tomorrow. Discovering ‘evolutionary fitness’ (through Clarence Bass’ interview with Art DeVany) was the closest I came to an epiphany, but remember, I had a ‘prepared mind’; others may not find Bass’ interview as revelatory as I did.

Evolutionary fitness gave me a broad paradigm which I could use to weave together so many strands of my life into a single sturdy thread – into a whole that was both intellectually and emotionally rewarding.


Your website is very detailed and comprehensive. How on earth do you meet the challenges of maintaining a site with such sweeping scope whilst ensuring it remains current (and correct)?

As to correctness, I do my best, but I don’t guarantee anything. I’m a hopeless liar, so it was easy for me to be honest about my own experiences and achievements, otherwise critics would discover inconsistencies.

I built the website before blogging software was available and I saw last year someone commented about evfit.com “Yeah, stone age web design, too!”. I’m sorry about that, but I have no interest in taking my web design skills up to the next level – I have much better things to do with my time.

Early on – around 2004 – I found that my own web searches were bringing up pages from my own site. This gave me a new motivation: rather than jotting down relevant information in a notebook, or underlining sentences in a book, I began posting it on evfit.com. I’m still the biggest user of my site! Some days I make a dozen additions and changes to the site, usually adding to it as promptly as a blogger would, but having the luxury of being able to go back to existing pages and improving them as opportunities present themselves. Some pages I have edited over 100 times. Often I find myself adding new information as footnotes to existing pages to keep them current and to either raise qualifications or doubts about what I have written or to cite new examples to clarify or reinforce the evfit principles.

One further point: the ‘sweeping scope’ appears sweeping only because we are used to established academic disciplines and intellectual silos. It all hangs together rather well, but I guess we’ll get on to that soon.


Principles

Turning to the principles, I want to dig a little more into the paradigm, the basic assumptions that we are working with. I like your logic - the way that your site starts with a principle:

"if the conditions of life of an animal deviate from those which prevailed in the environment in which the species evolved, the likelihood is that the animal will be less well suited to the new conditions than to those to which it has become genetically adapted through natural selection and consequently some signs of maladjustment may be anticipated."


Then states some assumptions about your understanding of human evolution and then gives some observations about where we are:

We are Pleistocene beings in a post-industrial world: our environment is no longer Pleistocene, our bodies and minds are faced with activity levels, types and stresses that are not Palaeolithic and our diet is no longer Palaeolithic.


Putting the principle together with the observation am I right to assume that “some signs of maladjustment may be anticipated”. Where do you see these signs of maladjustment?

Ho! That’s a big one. I see them everywhere in our society. I began early on by thinking about industrial food production and marketing vs natural food and about sedentism vs physical activity. But soon realized this was too narrow.

Contemporary Western culture fosters a way of thinking about humans as not being animals in the normal biological sense, about the physical environment as being limitless, about ethics without regard to humans’ environmental footprint, about ‘progress’, and about physical phenomena as isolated objects rather than inter-dependent processes that take place in cycles.

All these features of Western civilization lead to a myriad maladjustments, often feeding off each other.


In my interview with Erwan LeCorre he talked about us being “Zoo Humans” – trapped in a totally artificial environment and screwed up in many ways – physically and psychologically - because of that. Many people focus on the diet and the exercise – the normal health areas. You tend to look more broadly. Do you see this “maladjustment” psychologically and socially as well?

Erwan’s a great inspiration! Anyone who has not watched his video should view it – today.




I agree with Erwan, of course, about “Zoo Humans”, he argues that we need to broaden our perspective to take more into account than caring for our own physiology as individuals. Our academic disciplines channel our thoughts into silos. Talk-back hosts shut callers up who show any sign of straying outside today’s ‘issue’. But these divisions are historically-based, they suit the status quo and are inadequate for dealing with the problems of today, let alone preparing for the problems of tomorrow.


One more point: just because you see terms like ‘cross-disciplinary’, ‘holistic’ and ‘innovative’, this does not necessarily mean they are being applied in reality. They are often mere labels that writers use to describe their work to deflect attention from its narrowness and its comfortable conformity with established arrangements.


Ray Audette was another writer in this space who has been forgotten in the last few years. In his Neanderthin book he came up with a nice little principle for diet. Talking about a natural diet, he writes:

My definition of nature is the absence of technology. Technology dependent foods would never be ingested by a human being in nature. I determined therefore to eat only those foods that would be available to me if I were naked of all technology save that of a convenient sharp stick or stone.

While people might argue with the details of technology and tools, what I like is the simplicity of his principle. Is there a similarly basic principle that you could offer to explain your approach?

I’m pleased you quoted Ray Audette; he’s another writer I admire. His book Neanderthin was pioneering and remarkable for its time (1999). He developed his synthesis almost de novo and it’s important to remember that when you read Neanderthin.

I use Ray’s principle today when I’m talking with people about evolutionary fitness. It’s still as effective at conveying our ideas as any soundbite I know. I don’t think I could better his ‘sharp stick’ principle for the job it does.

However, there is something I keep in mind all the time, although I have not formulated a ‘media grab’-length principle. But before I describe it, I should say that most people will reject this idea and many of them will find it unpalatable, even repellent. The thought is that humans, just like all other life forms, have evolved to be efficient carriers of genes into the next generation. All these life forms are in desperate competition with each other for energy (that’s the fundamental ‘meaning of life’ – any greater or nobler suggestion is a self-aggrandizing fantasy). The human mind can think of other things, but deep down, out of reach of our consciousness, our lizard brain drives us. My reading about human evolution and evolutionary psychology has helped me situate my ideas in context and put flesh on their bare bones.


Something that I have noticed from some primal / paleo writers is a “romanticism”. The Paleolithic world is presented not as a Hobbesian struggle but as Eden, full of Rousseau’s noble savages. You have touched on this a little in your essay on Romantic primitivism. How do you draw the line between the principles of evFit and Rousseauism / 'romantic primitivism'. What aspects of the modern world do you particularly appreciate?

That’s a sharp observation, Chris. and an important one. Unfortunately, Romantic Primitivism is used as a ‘sneer term’ in polemical debate and is therefore not something that can be debated rationally. No one proudly declares themselves to be a romantic primitivist and so using the term to criticize others stands in danger of being no more than an attack on a straw man. You have heard people say, in many contexts, ‘We can’t go back to living in caves!’ as if that assertion settles the argument. But think about it for a moment, it’s one thing we CAN all do. It wouldn’t be comfortable and many of us would die sooner than we would with access to the appurtenances of civilization, but the shortage of caves is the only real reason why cave dwelling for all is not possible.

There is an emerging and energetic school of primitivist writing (Daniel Quinn, John Zerzan, Derrick Jensen, Keith Farnish) which is inclined to romantic primitivism. I find myself in general agreement with their critique. Where I part with them is that, to my way of thinking, the futures they urge us to consider are just not practicable: it’s the same old Homo sapiens – delineated in relevant ways by evolutionary psychology – which will populate the future. The English writer John Gray , in his New Statesman book reviews and, especially, his own book Black Mass, ignores all political correctness, all wishful thinking and leads his readers to the best understanding going as to the unavoidable constraints on the range of our possible futures.

And the features of the modern world I appreciate? In principle, in the physical realm, there are very few. However, in practice I take my comforts in a measure that is unsustainable if 7 billion people do likewise. Here I am hypocritical, but I would take far fewer comforts if I knew all others were doing likewise. And, having thought this through, I’d be pretty relaxed about doing it if peak oil, economic collapse or a serious pandemic hit us. Dmitry Orlov asks "Are we going to continue destroying the planet, just to be somewhat more comfortable for a little while?" Our species' answer to Orlov is a resounding chorus of "Yes!". In the mental realm, I value freedom of expression and sophisticated written and spoken languages.


At one point with honesty you write “I have to admit that, objectively, my palaeo way is a little more than an absorbing hobby.” Is it ultimately pointless? How far can we approximate a paleo lifestyle in the modern world? Can we do enough to make a difference to our health and happiness?

In contemporary Western society men have hobbies, passions and interests beyond their family far more intensely than women do. It’s our little self-indulgence and it puzzles our spouses. At their worst, these hobbies can be destructive and undermine the well-being of others. In the middle ground are hobbies that do little more than fill in time while we wait to die (computer games, tv soaps, model trains) yet others provide payoffs beyond the realm of the hobby itself (wooden furniture, charity work). My own hobby has, so far, provided me with better than average health and – with all modesty – also gives an example, a benchmark, information and perspectives for others who want to improve their own well-being.


When I was studying philosophy there was a principle that you cannot get an “ought” from an “is”. Saying how something is doesn’t mean that you can say how it should be. Is the whole paleo approach guilty of getting an ought from an is?

Ah, yes; David Hume was the first author I read in my philosophy course. But you’d also remember Samuel Johnson’s response to Bishop Berkeley’s idealism: he kicked his gouty foot against a stone saying “I refute it thus!” My response will not satisfy a philosopher, but I believe that if we know enough that is relevant about what ‘is’, we can then lay out possible alternative courses of action that are not inconsistent with the situation and then select from these what we ought to do – because, otherwise we have little basis for doing anything. I take a naturalistic position and, therefore, am prepared to give priority to the evidence from human evolution over the strictures of formal Western philosophy. I wonder how many hunter-gatherer people let ‘you can’t derive an ought from an is’ direct their actions. One thing’s for sure, their view of what ‘is’, embraced the supernatural and their tribe’s comprehensive legal code and their taboos.


Where in particular would you like to see 'science' catch up with the “paleo approach” or has the case for evolutionary fitness already been made?

The science will never be widely accepted, as it undermines our culture’s assumptions about civilization, instant gratification, silver bullets, political correctness and human nature. Although the science about the link between smoking and ill-health is clear, millions smoke every day; the stage of the science is not the critical determining factor. I am not particularly interested in scientific research which provides further evidence to support the palaeo way. Once you get the paradigm right, new evidence just clarifies the nature of the bricks in the foundation – it does not put them there. For example, there’s been a mass of new evidence coming in over the past couple of years about the benefits of vitamin D. But to me that’s just providing a reductionist description in terms of human metabolism. Anyone working from the evolutionary health principle, without knowing anything about vitamin D, should have been able to work out that sunlight and fresh animal fat – taken as part of a palaeo lifestyle – would be health-giving. Recommending doses in terms of IU per day or minutes of exposure to sunlight is reductionist, linear thinking outside the palaeo paradigm.



Politics

Can we think a bit about politics in a broad sense? I am always faintly amused by the way in which paleo principles – at least in the American blogs – seem to go hand in hand with an aggressive “libertarianism” and individualism. Why do you think this is?

You know, I share this impression, too. But let’s remember that America is a diverse nation, so I wouldn’t want any American reading this to think we were pigeon-holing her. American popular culture is raucous and more brash than the cultures you and I are familiar with. Their history of subduing the frontier lives on in their view of nature as something to be knocked into civilized shape by their technology in order to increase their comforts. Their popular culture also relishes simple ‘solutions’ and black-and-white characterizations (good/bad, weak/strong). Those with a stronger European heritage understand more readily that many problems do not have solutions and we non-Americans are more inclined to accommodate ambiguity and contradiction. With that background out of the way, I see American libertarianism coming out of a simplistic embrace of the obsolete frontier mentality. Although the Americans reached the Pacific then settled the interior and went on to vanquish the Indian nations and create the dustbowl, they still think and behave as if the Earth were limitless in size and as if ‘environmental services’ were infinite and immediately replenishable. As I see it, once the human ecological footprint score surpassed 1.0, our politics, our ethical framework moved into a new phase in which ethical and political choices have to take into account for the first time the planet’s ability to support those choices.

Life in the Palaeolithic was likely to be circumscribed by law, custom, religion, loyalties and obligations. No room there for free-thinking individualists! Ethnographies of contemporary hunter-gatherers confirm that picture. To get a glimpse into the Palaeolithic world, one that is a corrective to macho individualism, I recommend the Inuit movie Atanarjuat.

If you do a search on Erwan’s website (Erwan is French) , you won’t find a reference to obesity. American popular culture, more than any other, is obsessed with body shape and images on American websites are generally representations of the website owner’s ideal or of people in progress along a before and after sequence. One of the most popular search terms which brings people to my website is ‘ideal male body shape’, but they’ll be disappointed to find uninspiring but honest pictures of me there – plus a critical discussion of the recent obsession with male body shape. The American ideal seems to be one of powerful dominance and the macho poses are, to my mind, faintly ridiculous and can also be seen as an expression of Americans’ attitude to other nations or to single mothers in their own population. Americans who are not obese and those who are deliberately losing body fat often present this as an outward sign of their exceptional personal will power and their individual achievement which somehow reflects their superiority over others.


I wondered if it was just an American thing – Erwan LeCorre who is French puts a high value on the social side of exercise – but then an American – Frank Forencich – came along and also stressed the social life, the tribe.

Right. And I mentioned earlier the fond memories I have of the camaraderie of the dedicated crew I rowed with. It’s not just American, of course, but American popular media enables macho individualism to be pushed out into the media, and clearly many Americans find comfort and even delight in doing so.


You seem to have a broader interest paying attention to the environment, the biosphere etc. Should a consistent paleo approach seek to reconstruct a Paleolithic biosphere if we are to attain holistic health?

I wouldn’t want to tell others what they should do or how they should think. What I can do is describe my worldview. And you are right, I prefer to think of ‘healthy people on a healthy planet’ as more than just an admirable frame of reference, but also a guide to our behaviour. I’m actively involved in a number of environmental groups and all my charitable donations go to such groups or to individual activists. Frank Forencich urges us to ‘be a good animal’ and good animals, as we know, don’t foul their nests.

Incidentally, can I clarify a couple of terms here? I see the Palaeolithic as a period in human cultural history (it coincides with the history of the species Homo, which began about 2.6 million years ago), whereas the Pleistocene is a geological epoch (beginning about 1.6 million years ago and covering the ice ages).


As I said in the introduction, paleo has become a fashion now. It is hitting the mainstream with articles in the New York Times for example. Businesses are starting up predicated on paleo approaches.

I may just be a grumpy contrarian, but I preferred it when it was underground and unusual! I noticed that you have traced the history of the movement. What do you make of the “movement” now and where do you see it going in the future?


Don’t worry – there will always be a few people who remain to be convinced! It’s my guess three main strands will develop.

First, the hard core underground who understand something about human evolution and who are prepared to put the time and intellectual effort into developing their own syntheses and applying it in their lives.

Secondly, the academics are beginning to pick it up, but very cautiously, because it is cross-disciplinary and uses a Darwinian paradigm, something the social sciences are reluctant to embrace.

Thirdly, popular culture and commercial enterprises will dumb it down to make a quick buck. We will be criticized as if we belong primarily on a strand which is not the one we align ourselves with. I get the impression cautious publishers try to dumb down the hard core. I’m pretty sure Neanderthin was not Ray Audette’s first choice of a title for his book. I get the impression Loren Cordain’s The Paleo Diet was re-shaped by the publisher to meet what they saw at the market. When his publishers retitled his book The New Evolution Diet, Art DeVany exclaimed in exasperation ‘Hey, I write science books, not diet books!’.

Beware the dumbing down!


As I said, it is also becoming a business. Is there a contradiction here in that businesses are Neolithic? Or is that a stupid question?

Coming from you, Chris, it’s not a stupid question at all. If it came from a reporter on the evening tv news, then it would be a stupid question.

Different people will take the palaeo way in different directions. I mentioned before the American writer Derrick Jensen: he sells a lot of books which are a full-on critique of civilization; he must make a comfortable living from his book sales but I don’t see that this cash nexus has compromised his writing in the least. The internet has expanded the free market of ideas and so for someone to make money out of the palaeo way will require that they produce something significantly different from the information in your blog and the sites you link to.

The most obvious business opportunities lie in the service sector: palaeo life coaches/personal trainers, palaeo cooking classes, palaeo restaurants. There is also a small and growing market for grassfed meat, pemmican and organic fresh foods. I know of one person in my city who works full-time as an organic gardener at the homes of ten different families – keeping their vegetable gardens in shape while they are at work, producing high quality fresh food just outside their back doors. There is also a gap in the market for a book of palaeo exercises, with the emphasis on clear illustrations of each exercise together with its palaeo rationale.


Personalities

If I throw out the names of some personalities – not all strictly paleo - could you give me some brief reactions to them?

Clarence Bass (very influential to me. He that first mentioned Art DeVany on his website and from him I found this whole area).

I regard myself as having graduated from Clarence Bass’ site now, but I still hold his work in high regard. In his early 70s he’s still experimenting (wisely) with his body in a scientific way and reporting the results with honesty, integrity and generosity.


Art DeVany

To me Art is the doyen of evolutionary fitness. He was driven by an illness in his family to apply his considerable intellect to the fields of human physiology and metabolism and then to palaeoanthropology to the point where he can debate as an equal with professionals in all those fields. Clarence and Art make life in one’s 70s sound like even more fun than I am finding it in my 60s!


Erwan LeCorre

I mentioned his video earlier. Anyone who is not inspired by it is probably a lost cause! From the media page on his website you can see Erwan focuses on physical activity and complementary psychology. He gives less attention to diet than do many others in the palaeo movement, yet his contribution is unique and valuable.


Frank Forencich

Frank’s books and classes provide something others don’t: palaeo exercise routines for groups, families, young and old. He made the most of his years in Tanzania and his first-hand knowledge of hunter-gatherer lifestyles permeates his writing.


Tamir Katz

Tamir Katz’s The TBK Fitness Program was one of the first books into the field (2003). He wrote it while completing his medical studies and his chapter on how to evaluate scientific reports is a unique and valuable feature of the book.


Are the any other thinkers that you would recommend people read if they want to expand their understanding of your approach?

It’s a broad field, Chris, and I find that lessons from one area illuminate solutions in others. Apart from writers on exercise, fitness and diet, I would highly recommend books by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis on earth systems science (or Gaia).

Their work is decades ahead of the pack, with pedestrian research plodding along behind them, gradually demonstrating the validity of more aspects of their work. Henry Plotkin’s Evolutionary Thought in Psychology shows just how reluctant the social sciences have been to adopt a Darwinian paradigm. Jerry Mander’s In the Absence of the Sacred provides one of the most accessible expositions of hunter-gatherer world views; he also provides a powerful critique of television. I won’t go on here, but there are many others listed on my site.


Particulars

We have been speaking a lot about principles but I’d like to look at some particulars. I know that most of the things I am going to mention are covered on you site, but for the purpose of people who are coming to this fresh it might be an opportunity to outline your own current position on things.

What do you think about the importance of sleep?

Sleep is often overlooked. The widespread introduction of the electric light a century ago took about an hour of sleep out of the average day. The fundamental issue with sleep is that the sleep/wakefulness cycle is critical to the optimal flow of hormones. So is diet. So is exercise. So are stressors/meliors. So is conviviality and love. In fact I would sum up the recipe for health and well-being as having the optimal hormonal rhythms and that those rhythms should be generated naturally, not with supplements or other medical intervention.


Several people in the paleo world make a lot of intermittent fasting, but I do not see much on it in your writing. What do you think about fasting?

Any one who ‘makes a lot’ of any aspect of the palaeo way probably has it wrong. The beauty of the palaeo way is its holistic perspective. But this means that non-Darwinian, linear and reductionist representations in popular culture need to be addressed and in doing so we ‘make a lot’ of some issues rather than others. Since I switched to palaeo eating I have lost ‘hormonal hunger’ and I have a large evening meal with the leftovers for breakfast. Generally nothing during the day. John Durant, in his recent New York Times interview describes the rationale for intermittent fasting very well. By the way, note that the interview with John appears in the ‘fashion’ pages of the Times! I also don’t drink water unless I’m thirsty. I never drink at the gym, nor for the following hour or two.


I was interested to see your piece on body shape. Posture is an interesting topic. Do you think that the common understanding of good posture is correct?

I think posture is an expression of our being. It’s the way we carry our bodies and is a consequence of our total lifestyle. If you look at Erwan’s video you get a good idea of what a young to middle-aged male should do; posture follows. Palaeolithic people never – or rarely – sat, and they certainly didn’t do anything that required them to use their bodies in the way we do today in front of computer screens.


How important is the social side of life? Friendships, team sports, family life, partying, celebration? Are we properly social animals or lone predators?

We move into evolutionary psychology here and any of the main texts on that topic will give a detailed answer to this question. Humans are also opportunistic and as adaptable as rats and successful feral animals and so will behave in a vast variety of ways. Clearly the enjoyment of conviviality is deeply rooted in our brain’s reward system. Yet people of the same species choose to behave in other ways. I see the current focus on ‘happiness’ as missing the point: I have heard of laughter and delight – outward signs of happiness – on the faces of people torturing animals. We humans take longer than any other species to become self-sufficient in our environment, so we need to live together in reasonable harmony over many years to become fully mature. The precise forms of successful living together will vary, according to tradition, externally-imposed pressures, needs of the immediate family etc., but we can’t deny or even ignore our social needs. We also know that direct interaction with others – rubbing along – is one of the best ways of stalling some forms of dementia.


Can an exercise routine (sorry for the word) replace the life style exertion of the paleo world? What about wear and tear? ( I saw you recommend regular injuries!)

Well, perhaps recommending injuries was a bit provocative. But it’s difficult to imagine that life in the Palaeolithic would have been injury-free. Most day-to-day injuries heal themselves, but we need to be smart and not persist in activities or a diet or other behaviours that cause us pain or which otherwise damage our bodies. People in the Palaeolithic would have been smart enough to do that!

As to wear and tear, I mentioned before ‘industrial drudgery’. Repeating the same movement over and over again is more likely to lead to wear and tear than exercise variety. That’s why I never do more than one set. Rather than five sets of one exercise, I’ll do one set of five exercises, each of which works the same basic musculature, but with different support muscles, different weights and from different angles. In all this, I don’t achieve the lifestyle exertion of the palaeo world, but I can come pretty close – say 80% of the way in terms of the significant variables. And the palaeo way is consistent with the evolutionary health principle. Remember, we were born as Pleistocene children to twentieth century mothers, so there is a lot of ground to recover.


What aspect of the paleo environment should be seek to put right for ourselves first, diet or exercise / activity?

Very early on we need to begin to appreciate the inter-relationships between these two and other behaviours and experiences that affect the production and use of our many natural hormones. And we need to do this under a Darwinian paradigm. Using this approach, it’s clear that – for best results – we should approach all hormone-related behaviours together. Our distinctions between them are – from our body’s perspective – meaningless.

However, that preferred route is often not practicable and newcomers to the palaeo way should progress by the route that attracts them most and not get stuck in a rut of procrastination. Start today, not tomorrow; just start!


I noted your recent experiments with Doug McGuff’s Body By Science approach. Have you now given up on that training mode? Why?

That would have to be one of the most boring pages on my site, Chris, and you are to be admired for having worked through it! Records of other people’s daily exercises or food intake make for pretty uninteresting reading.

I wanted to go into Body By Science as it is presented in the context of human evolution. In the end I found that the limited range of recommended routines was taking away the enjoyment I get from variety out of my gym sessions.

While my present exercise and activity may not be as effective for my metabolic health as the routines recommended by Doug McGuff, I feel they are pretty close. I also came to the conclusion that Body By Science may well suit people who are starting out. However, for those who have worked out their own way of maintaining above average fitness, health and strength, they have less to offer. But don’t take that as a dismissal. I recommend Doug’s book as it will give every reader a greater understanding of our metabolism and of metabolic health.



In Kurt Harris’s recent post on exercise he noted that Walking is an excellent evolutionary activity that we are, simply, evolved to do and doing it is nothing but good. Forencich also stresses the importance of walking. Do you agree?

I do. And I would not be surprised to find that it was walking per se, not light exercise of which walking is one among equally effective alternatives (jogging, indoor rowing, cycling etc.). I try to walk to work (four kilometres) at least once a week and walk always on the grass, not the pavement, leapfrog bollards and otherwise look for opportunities to use the walk as a gym session. I wear shorts and never defer on account of the weather.

There is walking and there is walking. The important thing is not to allow the artificial urban environment to distort our walking into an unvaried and mechanistic industrial drudgery, with each step identical to the one before. We can also use urban walking for our mental health: memorize street names, learn your route by heart so you can predict which building, tree or other feature will be the next one to come into view. I sometimes test myself on this at night, tracing the route in my mind before I fall asleep. But I also try to vary my route every day.

Yup - walking is a great human activity.


Do you see any place for “neolithic movements” in the achievement of paleolithic fitness? One of the examples would be gymnastic moves like the planche. Not something the hunter gatherer would do…but fun in their way?

Sure! And who knows what some young and competitive Palaeolithic men and women did in their abundant spare time? We can be sure they spent more time playing, chatting, bantering – some of it competitive. And I would not be in the least surprised if some, somewhere, did not have planche competitions! Let’s apply Ray Audette’s ‘sharp stick principle’ to exercise: don’t do it if it would have been impossible in the Palaeolithic.

There – the planche is just fine!



Conclusion

Keith, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. Thanks also for all your writings which I have really appreciated over the years. I hope this interview will give point a few more people to your site.

(Thanks also to Methuselah and Asclepius who suggested some questions)

28 comments:

Adam said...

Once again, fantastic post Chris. Your work here I find most interesting. I have many of the books you mention here. First time I learnt of anything remotely Paleo was through a mail order manual for a package called the Spartan Health Regime.

Yes it was a long copy sales message but the information was golden. It put me on the path. That was well back in the 90's.

I liked this post particularly as it was more than just the eating side which I found very useful.

The MovNat video is now my video of the week as well.

Great stuff!

pieter d said...

Chris and Keith,

Thanks for this great interview!

"Once you get the paradigm right, new evidence just clarifies the nature of the bricks in the foundation"

This is so true! That's why I really should not be reading as much on the paleo topic as I do now... But it is probably a part of that typical male hobby Keith talks about...

Thanks again

Zach said...

Chris,
Very inspired to interview Keith. I don't want to detract from the interview's main points, but his comments on libertarianism perhaps were fair to a degree for many, but my libertarianism outlook has its origins from the Austrian economics school that emerged in Vienna coffeehouses and universities, not on the American prairies! But back to the interview, I've been following Keith for quite awhile, and anytime I've seen him pop up for a comment on anything that I've read, I always make a point to read it. I think in addition to his writings, he may be the best "paleo historian" out there, in the sense that he really has written clearly regarding the chronological order of how all of this has developed over the last decade or so. Great interview, hat's off to both of you gentlemen.
Best Regards,
Zach

Bryce said...

Thanks, Chris, for a genuinely fascinating interview from a really interesting pioneer. I very much enjoyed it, and I'm going to give his site a good look through.

I would agree with Zach, however, in that my "libertarian" thoughts stem not from some romantic trail blazing mentality, but rather from the disgust and horror I have for our government's influencing of public health. At every turn, be it through issuing public policy on diet, to subsidizing grain production, to threatening to interfere with health insurance, the State has attempted to make the situation better and has instead exacerbated an epidemic of neolithic health disorders.

I just saw a tv advert (I had to remember to translate "commercial" for folks in the UK) selling a new tax on sugared beverages in New York State. While I think the intention is good - making people healthier - I am nauseated by the idea that it is the State's place to govern what people eat in any way. It seems ok when they tax sugar, or cigarettes, but just wait until they start trying to tax bacon, or butter. It's not as far fetched as it sounds, as I know you are well aware, with the Ban-Butter campaign occurring in the UK.

So I think the libertarian-paleo link really has more to do with people taking control of their health, and in turn their lives, and thus becoming resistant to an outside entity attempting to exert control over those things. The state has proven that, regardless of it's intentions, it can't be trusted to make decisions that lead to our improved health. We need to retain the rights to make those decisions for ourselves.

I believe this return to a traditional way of eating simply precipitates a return to a traditional or classical liberalism, born of in the coffee houses Zach referenced in Germany and Austria.

Thanks for a great post!

Bryce Lee

theorytopractice said...

Wow, fabulous profile, Chris. One simply cannot say enough good things about Keith Thomas; thanks for helping keep his ideas right where they should be -- in the forefront of the ever-expanding genre of “Paleo knowledge”. And I’ll second pieter’s comment; I’m especially keen to Keith’s notion of

“…not (being) particularly interested in scientific research which provides further evidence to support the paleo way. Once you get the paradigm right, new evidence just clarifies the nature of the bricks in the foundation – it does not put them there…”

Spot on. However, this is certainly not to be taken as a denouncement of the study of breaking science – far from it – but rather using the “we need more studies” mentality from preventing/delaying positive action TODAY.

jleeger said...

Great interview. Thanks for sharing!

Chris said...

Adam

thanks. I think i have a copy of Spartan Health Regime as a pdf somewhere on my hard drive. it addresses a lot of good stuff including things like sleep and sunshine that often get neglected.

Chris said...

pieter

thanks - that is a good principle....and there is no need to worry about this hobby

Chris said...

Zach

thanks. There are obviously many shades of libertarianism and many influences on an individual. It may be that the cultural factors that Keith mentions may make you more open to the approach of Hayek and those of his school?

There are always many factors at play.

Keith's awareness of the growth of the paleo movement is interesting to review - he has been in the centre of it for years.

Chris said...

Bryce

Thanks for the comment.

I don't want to get into a debate about Obamacare. I think there are some cultural differences between Europeans and Americans that become very stark in the area of health care. There are lots of factors at play in the debate (e.g. the US spends more per head than the UK but has a lower life expectancy). I hate the idea of people telling me what to eat....mainly because my idea of healthy food doesn't match that of the authorities. However, I am very grateful for the NHS which has saved the lives of my family and friends. The NHS suffers in some ways from its openness and inclusivity in that people take it for granted and waste millions through missed appointments. Then again its inclusivity is what makes it - it is care on the basis of need not ability to pay.

As I said though I think there are massive cultural differences in this area and I think the two paradigms do not easily coincide.....so I don't want to get into an off topic argument about health care.

In some way these differences were what I was trying to bring out with Keith - the range from individualism to an altruistic tribe that might sacrifice for the sick and needy

Chris said...

Keith (Norris)

thanks - as ever - for your kind comment.

There are many useful elements in this interview. I['ve read it through a few times as I was formatting it and there are so many useful ideas and thoughts.

I think your blog is in many ways adding to the "paleo knowledge" of today.

Chris said...

jleeger - thanks

Zach said...

Regarding cultural references and ability to receive a Hayekian point of view, yes, indeed, very well said. You (and Keith) may very well be right on that.

Again, great interview, Keith Thomas is definitely someone I'd want around my campfire (and at my gym!) imparting his experiences and perspectives.

Methuselah said...

Chris, Keith - fascinating stuff. Thanks for taking the time and trouble to put together such a well-considered post.

Chris said...

Mehtuselah - thanks pal.

Richard Nikoley said...

Is it possible that paleo-libertarinaism is more about the fact there were no such things as nation states in the paleolithic, that government is a function of agriculture...and less about American cowboy macho?

Sheesh.

Chris said...

Richard

Keith does say in there:

But let’s remember that America is a diverse nation, so I wouldn’t want any American reading this to think we were pigeon-holing her.

Patrik said...

What an amazing overview.

Marc said...

Chris and Keith,
THANK YOU!!
Nothing short of amazing!

Marc

Skyler said...

Damn POHMS, jealous of our unlimited land, guns, horses, accents, and liberties! ;) ;) ;)

I live in Texas and I'm even sick of it. Which is not to say that I don't want a "big" chunk of land for my own; I'd like to have my friends over to explore such a place. The middle can be met.

Best,
Skyler

Chad said...

Chris, thanks for the interview. Here in the states, I think it's almost a foregone conclusion that an idea, thought of any originality has to be put into "one camp" of politics, which is sad. I know off the top of my head a few people (both liberal and conservative) who don't even think about adopting this lifestyle because it is in the "libertarian" mold, or they think it's "the other side's" viewpoint. Unfortunate.

Thanks again, great pondering essay...

Anonymous said...

One overwhelming impression that I get from this interview is that this Keith cat is really in love with himself. If paleo ultimately means total self-absorption and self-infatuation, I'll pass thank you. Too many of these wanna be cryos to go around.

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

Thanks for the thorough and interesting interview. I was taken by the concept of "industrial drudgery", and don't understand why this should be applied only to the endurance sports. My view is that running, rowing and other endurance sports can only be viewed as drudgery when the competitive aspect is exalted over the utility and pure enjoyment of the act. Further, the concept of competition on a large scale (who is the best out of millions and billions rather than who's the fastest in the neighborhood) takes the whole endeavor into the "civilized" world as opposed to the "paleo" world, based on just how much WORK is required to be the best at any exercise, rather than enjoying it as PLAY. I would guess that the same is true for resistance exercise/gymnastics etc as well. You're not going to be playful and non-industrial in your planning and routines if you want to be the best, no matter what the endeavor is. So one of the other distinguishing features of the paleo approach is a much decreased concern and preoccupation with competition, status and objective measures of performance.

Tyler Micheli said...

A truly remarkable man. Thanks for sharing the interview!

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