June 7, 2011

Primal transhumanism

Primal Tanshumanism.

Oxymoron? Maybe.

Burgeoning lifestyle choice for a growing number of futurists? Most definitely.

Look, it’s 2011 and it’s glaringly obvious that we’re still quite a ways off from achieving the much heralded posthuman condition. The sad truth is that all interventions or augmentations currently available are fairly low impact by any measure. There aren’t a whole lot of high tech and sophisticated options available to radically alter human performance, experience, or life expectancy.

So what’s a transhumanist to do? Just sit around and wait for something better to come along?

Hardly. An increasing number of transhumanists are taking matters into their own hands by working with what they got. And by doing so, they're pushing the limits of their genetic potential.

While a significant segment of the transhumanist community is content to let their minds and bodies go to waste in anticipation of future interventions, there is a growing conviction amongst a number of adherents who feel that there is no better time than the present to optimize their bodies using the limited resources available. And strangely, some of these body-hacks involve an apparent technological step back.

Call it Paleo-Transhumanism

Indeed, there are a number of things we can do to extend our capacities and optimize our health in a way that’s consistent with transhumanist ideals—even if it doesn’t appear to be technologically sophisticated. While the effects of these interventions are admittedly low impact from a future-relativistic perspective, the quest for bodily and cognitive enhancement is part of the broader transhumanist aesthetic which places an emphasis on maximal performance, high quality of life, and longevity.

Consequently, anyone who professes to be a transhumanist, but does nothing to improve upon himself, is a poser. These are the people who are waiting for the magic to happen, and by consequence, are neglecting their full potential in the present moment. Transhumanism is something that's applied in the here-and-now; it’s a recognition of the radical present and all that it has to offer.

Sure, part of being a transhumanist involves the bringing about of a radical future, including scientific research and cheerleading. But it’s also a lifestyle choice; transhumanists actively strive to exceed their body’s nascent capacities, or, at the very least, work to bring about its full potential. In addition to building a radical future, a transhumanist is someone who will, at any time in history, use the tools and techniques around them to maximize their biological well-being. And while there are a number of technological interventions at our disposal–things like pharmaceuticals, implants, and hand-held devices—there is an alternative and seemingly old-fashioned approach to bodily enhancement that’s gaining considerable currency in transhumanist sub-cultures.

Much of the fuel that drives this sentiment is the notion that modernity has actually harmed human functioning more than it has helped. Take agriculture for example. While it has (arguably) propelled human civilization forward, it has paradoxically worked to undermine human health. Anthropologists are revealing that, when compared to our Paleolithic-era ancestors, modern humans have less bone density, are smaller, and more disease ridden. Modern foods, most of which are highly processed and infused with salt and sugar, is the primary culprit—as are apparent “natural” foods like whole grains and rice. Compounding this situation is the shift from active to passive existences; modern humans now bask in the glow of their computer monitors instead of the sun. Our bodies were not meant for this kind of sedentary life and we’re now having to cope with a batch of modern diseases.

A solution to all this, it would seem, is adopting a lifestyle that is more suited to our biological needs. While it might sound contradictory to those with a futuristic bent, adopting a lifestyle that more closely approximates that of our Paleolithic ancestors would do more to foster human health than a continuation of modern habits and norms.

Strong and fit is the new geek

Okay, at the risk of sounding like a complete Luddite, I’m not suggesting that you sell your belongings and move into a cave. It’s not like that. I’m still hoping that you cart around your iPad, philosophize about the coming Singularity, and implant magnets into your finger tips. But I also feel that we need to take an evolutionary approach to human health, namely lifestyle choices that place a greater emphasis on primal eating, exercising, sleeping, and other health factors. This is how the modern transhumanist can best unlock her biological potential.

In terms of specifics, these choices include the Paleolithic diet (also called the caveman diet), fully functional interval training executed at high intensity, and 7-8 hours of sleep each night in complete darkness.

Sounds simple, and even too good to be true, but for those of us who live according to these rules the results have been extraordinary.

And when I say us I mean a good number of prominent transhumanists, a list that includes Max More, Natasha Vita-More, James Hughes, Bruce Klein, and Patri Friedman. Max and Natasha in particular have treated their bodies as shrines since the very beginning, setting a positive example for transhumanists for quite some time.

Indeed, being strong and fit is the new geek. Though not a transhumanist by name, author Timothy Ferris’s latest book, The Four Hour Body, highlights a number of techniques and “body hacks” that work to produce what he calls “superhuman” results.

I’m not sure what’s more ironic: that a primitive approach to eating and fitness is the best way to optimize human health and performance, or that computer nerds are catching on and becoming complete bad-asses by engaging in these kinds of body hacks.

Back to basics: Diet and exercise

It's been said that in order to truly comprehend anything in biology it has to be viewed through the lens of natural selection. If we are to improve human health and performance we need to study our evolutionary underpinnings. Our bodies are adapted to a very specific kind of environment, namely the one our ancestors lived in over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. Consequently, because our species has remained largely unchanged since Paleolithic times, we are best suited to live under a very specific set of conditions.

The Paleo-diet is one approach that works to match the specific way our ancestors ate. It's a diet that has gained serious traction in the fitness communities, not because of any commitment to naturalism or Luddism, but because it works. The primal approach to eating is now the go-to diet for many professional and elite athletes. And it's safe to suggest they wouldn't be doing it if it didn't get them results.

Adherents of this diet basically reject any foods that arrived after the onset of the agricultural revolution. To that end, they consume copious amounts of meat (typically free-range, organic, and grass fed) and vegetables, along with some fruit, nuts, and seeds. Primal eaters take a very liberal approach to consuming fats, while remaining wary of gluten, high-density carbohydrates, and sugars of any sort. So, no whole grains, pasta, rice, potatoes, dairy, or processed foods. While it may sound incredibly restrictive, it’s actually not that severe; there’s considerable culinary potential even within those constraints.

But it’s not enough to base an entire diet on a philosophical or aesthetic appreciation of our primal ancestry. There has to be proven efficacy and hard science to back it up. And indeed a growing literature is emerging that both supports and propels this approach to eating. Paleo advocates like Robb Wolf, Loren Cordain, and Mat Lalonde pour through scientific studies revealing the dangers of Neolithic and processed foods while highlighting the benefits of eating whole foods.

Often accompanying the Paleo diet is a fully functional approach to fitness. The old model of going to the global gym, hitting the treadmill, and working on isolation movements in the weight room is increasingly coming to be seen as old fashioned and ineffectual. Instead, there’s a new emphasis on constantly varied compound movements performed at high intensity for short intervals. A functional movement is anything our bodies are meant to do: lift, push, pull, drag, climb, run, and jump. These exercise sessions, which depending on the workout can range anywhere from five to 25 minutes, tend to be both physically and psychologically demanding. But the gains are tremendous.

A fitness model that best exemplifies this approach is CrossFit. It's a strength and conditioning program that combines weightlifting, sprinting, gymnastics, powerlifting, kettlebell training, plyometrics, rowing, and medicine ball training. Founded by Greg Glassman over a decade ago, CrossFit gyms are starting to pop-up around the world. CrossFit's impact has been nothing short of revolutionary; it has turned fitness into an actual sport. Its major claim is that, through its system of tackling all ten fitness domains (cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and accuracy) it produces the best results and the worlds fittest athletes.

As a CrossFitter myself, I can certainly vouch for these claims. When I first started nearly three years ago I could barely do a push-up. Back then a 125 pound deadlift nearly made me pass out. These days, a workout involving a hundred push-ups isn't out of the question. I have a 265 pound backsquat and I’m only five pounds away from a 400 pound deadlift. And this from a guy who spent most of his adult life completely inactive. There's no question in my mind that the CrossFit approach is the best one. At least for me.

Being physically strong is no joke or a petty indulgence. And it is of utmost importance to those interested in extending longevity. I would make the case that physical strength does more to prolong healthy lifespan than any other lifestyle factor available today—including caloric restriction. Studies have shown that strength can add as much as a decade to your life.

In addition to proper eating and exercise, the primal lifestyle also advocates a natural approach to sleeping, which means 7-8 hours per night in the complete pitch dark. Indeed, studies have shown that this length of time is optimal and that any kind of light interrupts sleep in non-trivial ways.

Primal transhumanism...for now

I'm going to conclude with a quick reality check.

As stated earlier, the primal approach is a stop-gap measure for transhumanists until something better comes along. Those looking to optimize their health and performance in the here-and-now should seriously consider adopting this lifestyle.

This approach is certainly a "soft" form of transhumanism and it's definitely no match for what's still to come. Our transition away from Homo sapiens will be accompanied by more impactful technologies—interventions like genomics, cybernetics, neuropharma, and molecular nanotechnology. Once we have access to these technologies we will truly be able invoke the "trans" in "transhumanism" as our species migrates into a posthuman and potentially post-biological condition.

And in the meantime, love your body. It's all you got.


Sean Strange said...

Interesting post, thanks. Of course the body isn't all I've got, I also have a mind. If we combined this with some kind of shamanic mental training, I almost think we could just forget about all this transhumanist silliness and get back to being natural supermen within our existing bodies and minds.

fheyligh said...

For more information, see the Paleolithic Lifestyle page in Wikipedia, and Evolutionary Well-Being: the paleolithic model. Also note that Michael Rose, one of the top researchers in ageing, now recommends the paleo approach as a practical step towards "biological immortality", as summarized on KurzweilAI.net

Leif said...

Some of the anthropological/archaeological assumptions that popularizers of the Paleolithic Diet use are a bit arbitrary, such as the restriction placed on legumes is a bit strange and I encourage everyone to look into the origins of agriculture. Domesticated plants began before the emergence of sedentary agriculture. Semi-sedentary hunt./gatherers would use domesticated plants various zones that they would travel between. Paleolithic diets were much healthier. Don't limit yourself to certain vegetables because others were not present in archaeological sites(The Three Sisters of Mexico: Corns/Beans/Squash were used as a way to complement the inadequacies of each by themselves). As an archaeologist that has the same weight as hedging your bets on the answer to "Whats' It Like To Be A Bat"?

Amara said...

Hi George: I've got a great deal of respect for Tim Ferriss.. enough to try out his diet (which seems very 'Paleo' to me) to lose baby weight and a bit more. It's healthy, consistent, I like it, and it's working, although it's not something I want for the long term because I love fruits and cheeses and it's a hassle to cook two separate meals at every meal (one for me, one for my 2.5yo). I'll recommend it though. I also found very interesting that that the exercise that he found most effective is one with kettleballs.. something I would consider 'primal' in its number of exercised muscle groups.

And let me say that that the 'primal' ideas have come up in other aspects of my life, birthing which I've discussed at some length elsewhere in the transhuman community in the last few years and met enormous resistence, the last time I was called a bioconservative luddite among other nonsense, so I'm shelving it for a while. I'll just say that I think there is a strong undercurrent of fear that comes attached to justify new technologies which I wish weren't there. And a love and trust of one's body is a great starting point to overcome that fear.

cheerful iconoclast said...

If we're lactose tolerant (as many Europeans are), why doesn't the evolutionary theory of the paleo diet support consumption of dairy products? After all, we (apparently) evolved to eat them.

kim said...

Hi -

Did you come to this conclusion after working with a nutritionist specializing in vegetarian diets?

I assume you consulted with vegetarian athletes and tried their recommendations for dietary changes? Like the folks from http://www.veganbodybuilding.com/.

Also, you obviously eliminated soy and carbs before you went back to killing animals for "supposed health reasons?" (What exactly is the evidence for these "perils of soy" you speak of? There are many conflicting opinions on that.)


Jebadiah said...

@ cheerful iconoclast:

You're absolutely right that most of us have adapted to and benefited from milk consumption. It's just the processed, pasteurized dairy from grain-fed cows that causes trouble. And since raw milk from grass-fed cows is hard to find (and illegal to sell in many places), most find it easier to ditch dairy altogether.

Dana Seilhan said...

"Take agriculture for example. While it has (arguably) propelled human civilization forward, it has paradoxically worked to undermine human health."

Any time someone uses the word "paradox," it's a red flag to me that they haven't really been paying attention.

First off, we misuse the word "civilization." We take it to mean any form of organized human society. Actually the word is better used to denote human domestication. And here, words are slippery again. In certain circles you are not allowed to say that humans are animals; in much wider circles, you are not allowed to imply that humans were ever wild. Wildness to most people implies an inability to think or to be social--which flies directly in the face of what we've seen from other social animals, but who ever lets a little thing like reality intrude on a perfectly good fantasy?

Domestication is a slippery term too. I think it can be best defined as rendering the adults of a species incapable of obtaining food, shelter, or both without asking permission. Basically, domestication turns all the members of a species into children. Because what is the dividing line between children and adults of any animal species in which the offspring are born helpless? Besides sexual maturity, I mean? They can get their own food and build their own shelter. That's it. Nothing mysterious.

And domestication takes that away from us. Now all the food is locked up (well, what most of us think of as food) and the land is all owned. And so we are all forced to ask permission from other people just to have what we need to live.

If you think that scenario leads to healthy people, you are very much mistaken.

I can't fathom "transhumanism" would work out much better. I LIKE being human. I figure evolution will take me beyond that in its own time, no need to push for it, and that is just fine with me.