It was a great honor and privilege to be invited to speak at the first annual Ancestral Health Symposium at UCLA this weekend, and it was a wonderful experience to meet so many new friends, re-meet so many old ones I am rarely able to see because of geographical distance, and finally meet in person people I've long considered good friends despite theretofore never having formally initiated the friendship with a physical hug or handshake.
I also feel an enormous debt of gratitude to Aaron Blaisdell, Brent Pottenger, and everyone else involved in putting on the conference for their hard work, appreciation of everyone's talents, and support.
The conference was a true success, and here are a few highlights.
A Dynamic View of Ancestry
I am, first of all, thrilled with the choice of Ancestral Health for the title of the symposium and of the society it launched. I like this better than paleo for two basic reasons. First, reverence for ancestors is a popular theme throughout the cultures of the world and is thus clearly intuitive to humans, whereas the Paleolithic period is a modern scientific term with more limited appeal. Second, paleo in the sense of the Paleolithic period implies something static about our past, as if we need to look to one specific period of time to understand ourselves rather than to focus on our continuous history and our emerging future. Ancestral, by contrast, allows us to put as much of an importance on our grandparents as on our (great)345-grandparents, and to trace the emergence of genomic, microbiomic, cultural, and technological evolution that has occurred continuously through our history.
I like ancestral better than evolutionary for similar reasons. The latter is broader and less technical than the term Paleolithic, but it doesn't have the same solid roots and broad intuitive appeal as ancestral across the time and space of human existence.
The term ancestral is, ultimately, very inclusive, and allows for people who put a greater emphasis on the agricultural transition and for people who put a greater emphasis on the industrial transition to work together.
An ancestral health paradigm, the way I see it, can be distinguished from the normative view in modern science simply by stipulating that looking to the diets and health of our ancestors can somehow offer us a framework for deciding how to act in the face of scientific uncertainty, as well as a tool among many for generating scientific hypotheses.
Melissa McEwen's talk emphasized a dynamic view of evolution, showing a great number of ways that genomic, microbiomic, cultural and technical factors have all continued to evolve over time. Her talk brought home the point that humans are not living fossils of the primate lineage but are rather a very unique species, and that there is a great deal of variation among humans in the present, reflecting the many types of evolution that have occurred through our history and continue to occur as we enter from our present into our future. She got a good laugh from the audience when she facetiously suggested we follow some static "Cambrian" diet of 52 million years ago, a much more ancient diet than a "Paleolithic" one. This, of course, wasn't an attack on the paleo principle, but a tongue-in-cheek way of acknowledging that humans never stopped evolving after the Paleolithic.
Framing the Picture
Dr. Boyd Eaton launched the symposium by presenting a general overview of why we should consider our evolutionary past when thinking about our approach not only to our health, but to the moral, ethical, political, and economic questions of our present. I enjoyed Dr. Eaton's talk, though the focus on evolutionary psychology did strike me as incorporating a lot of what Stephen Jay Gould would have called "just-so stories." Many of these seemed plausible, but some — like the peacefulness, strict egalitarianism, and lack of in-group/out-group behavior of our ancient ancestors — seemed less so. It was a nice change of tone, however, to see him using these approaches to justify respecting the environment and caring about each other rather than supporting more base animal instincts like men spreading their seed far and wide and women gold-digging in their search for security.
Different Views on Violence
Tucker Max presented a very different view about the development of peacefulness, suggesting that violence has greatly declined as civilization has progressed. I agree with him, and not just because he could put me in an awful lot of pain if I didn't. Tucker's presentation focused on mixed martial arts (MMA), and he argued that getting in touch with the violent part of our nature can help reduce violence. He gave as an example the fact that police with training in martial arts are much less likely to engage in brutality, because they do not panic when they face a violent situation. Tucker argued that this sense of security leads to increased emotional stability in general.
During Q&A, I asked him if he believed that MMA also helps people learn to use cognitive force to control their thoughts, and whether this contributes to emotional and psychological stability itself. He noted that it took him getting punched in the face to find Zen, but agreed that these systems do teach many important approaches to becoming mentally centered besides preparedness for physical violence.
Politics, Primates, Hunting, and Fruit
One of the most interesting presentations I saw was by Dr. Craig Stanford, who talked about gorilla and chimpanzee diets. Gorillas don't eat just leaves, I learned, but eat fruit whenever it's available. They never hunt, and wouldn't even kill an animal if you half-killed it first and put it right in front of them. They have very little tolerance for animal foods and zoos have been killing them slowly by feeding them these foods. Chimpanzees differ from gorillas both in their hunting and fruit-eating behavior. When fruit goes out of season, chimpanzees migrate until they find more fruit. As a result they eat it year-round. Most of them also do enough hunting for each chimp to be eating some 50-100 grams of meat per day.
What I really found fascinating, though, was the emphasis Dr. Stanford placed on culture, politics, and personality among chimps. One group of chimps does hardly any hunting at all, and we don't know why. In another group, there is one particular chimp who riles the others up for a hunt by virtue of his strong personality. Stanford provided evidence that chimpanzees have created new cultural ways of harvesting particular foods that humans have newly introduced into an area, and one almost wonders whether there may have been some particular chimp in the past who "invented" hunting. After a hunt, chimps use meat not only as food, but as a status symbol, and as a commodity, even trading it for sex.
Speaking of frugivores, I was quite interested to see a comparison between humans and various apes that Melissa showed in her talk. Leaf-eating apes had very large guts, but fruit-eating apes had smaller ones, much closer to those of humans. In showing this, she made the point that humans are adapted to foods with higher caloric density than leaves, such as cooked food, starch, and fat. It is interesting to also note the association between smaller guts and fruit-eating in other apes, and to note that one way humans have increased the caloric density of their diet is to select fruits rich in sugar and low in toxins and aversive tastes. This increase in caloric density is exactly what we need to fuel our large brains, and humans have been eating calorie-rich natural foods such as meat, starch, fat, and fruit for eons before the modern epidemic of obesity.
We're a Bunch of Bad Debaters
The funniest talk I saw was Denise Minger's. I think the last time I laughed that much at a health-related talk was at David Brownstein's talk on overcoming thyroid disorders at the 2008 Wise Traditions. She drew our attention to the paucity of information available on the web for combating vegetarian arguments relative to sources devoted to the opposite purpose, and offered ways to move beyond calling someone a hippie and telling them to shut up and eat meat, drawing attention of course to some of the few good existing web resources. Robb Wolf pointed out during the questions and comments section that there is an enormous number of people who are looking for help, including the 38,000 people who have sent him emails he hasn't gotten to yet, and that it's a waste of time to argue with committed vegetarians. I fully agree with this and I think most of us do — of course we often need solid intellectual arguments like the kind in this talk to help the many people on the fence, who aren't sure what to believe.
Zoos, Obesity, Carbs, Fat, and Other Highlights
I got to see Dr. Cordain present his basic view of the paleo principle, and many of us were delighted to hear him say that he doesn't think saturated fat is a problem in the context of a non-inflammatory diet. Dr. Staffan Lindeberg gave a great presentation on his data from the Kitava Study and paleo trials, but it was especially great to meet him and talk to him in person when a circle of us were discussing Kitava in the hallway and he came up and joined our group.
I got to see Stephan Guyenet present his latest views on obesity, and to handle a little disagreement in the comments rather masterfully. I got to meet the wonderful person behind the mysterious alias "Dr. BG" and to see she and Tim Gerstmar give an interesting talk on treating dysbiosis. Dr. Seth Roberts presented some interesting self-experimentation data supporting the use of flax oil, pork fat, and butter for brain function, while Richard Nikoley presented a more general justification for self-experimentation and shared some of his results as well.
John Durant presented a history of zoos and showed how the concerns over animal health at zoos have paralleled the concerns over the health of contemporary humans, and how these institutions have emerged from promoting relatively oppressive and destructive forms of captivity to becoming places where an animal's natural habitat can be recapitulated. He made a solid case that looking back to the "wild" for any species is a useful starting point in trying to understand how to make that species healthy.
Mat LaLonde gave a talk about the importance of scientific credibility, and showed why a lot of paleo arguments don't really hold water with many scientists. He made a really important point that observations about ancestral health should be used as grounds for generating hypotheses, not confirming them. I would only add that they should also be used as a framework for informing our actions in the face of scientific uncertainty, because there is a lot more uncertainty than certainty in the field of science and we all have to make decisions on a daily basis.
I got to meet Don Matesz, and he's a great, polite, and respectful guy. I didn't agree with everything in his talk but I thought it was, on the whole, quite balanced, and his conclusion was non-dogmatic and very much in favor of listening to your body, which I think is very fair.
There were a lot of talks by some fantastic people that I wasn't able to see, and I look forward to watching the videos once they are online.
Ultimately, the symposium was inspiring and a definitive blast, but left me with a tinge of sadness, wishing I had more time to get to know the many great people I met, but also with a tinge of hope, looking forward to next time.
Read more about the author, Chris Masterjohn, PhD, here.