Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

Pepper’s advanced paleo archives: >200 kick ass posts for growing your perspective

Click here for the Introductory Archives.

What follows is a natural extension of the work I’ve done on the last two archives.  My primary aim in starting those archives was to provide to my readers with an overview of the vast wealth of research and work out there showing why an evolutionary perspective is important.  If that list of blog posts doesn’t convince you to give paleo eating a shot, I don’t know what will.

But I also struggled, when compiling that list, with thoughts like: “yes, but…”  For example: I wanted to present a clear picture of weight loss.  But there isn’t a clear picture of weight loss!   Even more controversial is CarbsGood versus CarbsBad, or InsulinOkay versus InsulinBad.  There exist, also, different opinions on ketosis, dairy, macronutrients, hormone regulation, how bad wheat is for non-celiacs, whether or not it’s good to eat fruit, hell, even the metabolic advantage… The point is:  there exists one consensus:  Paying attention to evolution is a good idea.  But what are the particulars?   What are the nuances?  Where is today’s cutting edge and insight? I’m really interested in these dialogues, and I know thousands of you are, too.

Here, I have compiled different positions on ‘controversial’ topics.  Instead of trying to convince you to go paleo, here, I am hoping to open your mind and show you the vast intellectual debate, exploration, and integrity going on out there.  It’s pretty amazing, and it is ridiculously difficult to keep up with, but I do my best.  The advanced archive is, thus, as follows:

Table of Contents:

Evolutionary History

Contemporary Non-SAD


Weight management and body composition: calories in v calories out?

Metabolic Regulation


Raw v cooked

Infectious diseases


Gluten and grains toxicity


Fructose toxicity





Evolutionary history

The case of the missing extinctions

The western diet and lifestyle and diseases of civilization

The health of hunter-gatherers versus agriculturalists

The worst mistake the history of the human race by Jared Diamond

Estimated macronutrient and fatty acid intakes from an East African Paleolithic diet

Early man in UK 780 000 years ago

The evolution of costly traits

Things that get on my nerves: the thrifty gene hypothesis

Ethnobiological commentary: Professor “gumby”

What can the diet of gorillas tell us about humans?

No baked potatoes for ancient Europeans

The new genetics: introduction and Part IV: Who’s in the driver’s seat?

How long does it take for a food related trait to evolve?

Contemporary non-SAD

Nutrition and physical degeneration

The Mbuti of Eastern Zaire

Okinawa: the island of pork

Masai and atherosclerosis

Exercise and body fat and hunter-gatherer activity

The Tokelau Island migrant study

The Tokelau Island migrant study: the final word

SAD versus traditional Japanese diets

Loren Cordain Plant-Animal Subsistence Ratios and Macronutrient Energy Estimations in Worldwide Hunter-Gatherer diets

The Inuit: Lessons from the Arctic

Mortality and lifespan of the Inuit

Cancer among the Inuit

Interview with a Kitavan

Kitava: wrapping it up

Cardiovascular risk factors in Kitava: Part IV

Kitavans: Wisdom from the Pacific Islands

Kitava and Uric acid

Living on Kitava

Leptin and lectins: Kuna

Say hello to the Kuna

Genetics and disease: the Pima

More Masai

Contradicting conventional wisdom: Bantu and Masai

Glucose tolerance in non-industrial cultures

Potato eating cultures

In search of traditional Asian diets

I’m so bored of the Kitavans

The Mediterranean diet: Pasta or pastrami?

Weston A Price and Sub Saharan tribes

The good Scots diet

Thailand: land of the coconut

Merrie Olde England

Koreans and beef

Surprising facts about Japanese foodways

Eating by the seasons in Russia

Australian Aborigines: Living off the fat of the land


9 Steps to perfect health number four: supplement wisely

Multi-vitamins boost breast cancer risk

Any point in antioxidant supplements?

Antioxidants do more harm than good?

Is red wine good for you?

Folic acid

Vitamin D supplementation bad?

The vitamin primer

From seafood to sunshine: a new understanding of vitamin D

Vitamin A on trial: does vitamin A cause osteoporosis?

Copper-zinc imbalance: more problems with plant based diets

The great iodine debate

Vitamin B12: Vital for good health

Vitamin B6: the underappreciated vitamin

Magnificent magnesium

Mineral primer

Are protein supplements as good as advertised?

Adiponectin supplementation: body fat loss

The mechanism of green tea

Vitamin K2: a summary


Fish oil or not?

Mark sisson on multivitamins

Throwing the gauntlet: omega 3 supplementation recommendations

Plants and plant compounds are not essential or magic

Weight management and body fat storage: calories in v calories out?

The China Study: Carbohydrates, fat, calories, insulin, and obesity

Clarifications about insulin, leptin, and reward

Carbsane: Why I eat low carb

Calories, fat, or carbohydrates: why diets work (when they do)

The twinkie diet for fat loss

Non-exercise activities like fidgeting may account for 1000 percent difference in body fat gain

How to lose weight

Spontaneous calorie reduction on low carb diet

3500 calories =? 1 pound?

A calorie is a calorie!

Exercise versus diet for weight loss

Leptin, Insulin, adipose tissue, and regulatory hormone

Is insulin resistance really making us fat?

The body fat setpoint: how to change it

Why we get fat

Carbsane Vs Taubes on Why we get fat

Do other theories dispel the calorie hypothesis?  Carbsane response to Guyenet

Views on insulin and obesity

Fasting insulin and weight loss

Low carb, central adiposity, estrogen, and insulin resistance

Regulation of circulating adiponectin

Atrial Natriuretic Peptide: Another fat mobilization hormone?

The myth of starving cells

Microflora and energy balance

Low carb and leptin

Where does insulin resistance start?  The adipose cells

Growth hormone, insulin, body fat accumulation

Growth hormone secretion decreases with age, but not how you’d expect

Butyric acid: an ancient regulator of metabolism, inflammation and stress response

Insulin, leptin, aging, and health

Leptin resistance and sugar

Leptins and lectin

Physiological insulin resistance

Our body’s priority is preventing hypoglycemia, not hyperglycemia

Intermittent fasting, engineered foods, leptin, and ghrelin

Growth hormone: the fountain of youth

Insulin is a door-man at the fat cell night club, not a lock on the door

Insulinogenic is not hyperglycemic

Insulin and glucagon

Insulin resistance and P1K3

Type I diabetes, adiponectin, and leptin

Fat: the endocrine organ

Fasting insulin and weight loss

Fasting insulin and weight loss on a water fast

Growth hormone, insulin resistance, and body fat accumulation

Stephan Guyenet’s recent thoughts on carbohydrate and reward

Thoughts on obesity inspired by Stephan Guyenet


Short term effects of adding carbohydrate to a very low carbohydrate diet

Dangers of zero carb diets, part IV

A brief discussion of ketosis

The effects of consuming a high carbohydrate diet after 8 weeks in ketosis

Ketones and ketosis: physiological versus pathological forms

Ketosis, methylglyoxal and accelerated aging: probably more fiction than fact

Thoughts on Ketosis I and II

Autism and ketogenic diets

Why a ketogenic diet reverses kidney damage in type I and type II diabetics

Ketogenic diet

Ketosis in a low carb diet

Raw vs cooked:

The China Study: Are raw plant foods giving people cancer?

Raw paleo and food re-enactment

Raw paleo and zero carb: right for the wrong reasons

Raw journey Part I

More raw truth about raw vegan diets

Infectious diseases

Nutrition and infectious diseases

Fats and absorbing endotoxins

Short term effects of adding carbohydrates to VLC diets: endotoxins

Does celiac require an infection?

Heliobacter and glucose



Polyphenols, hormesis, and disease, part II

Polyphenol hormesis follow-up

Mother Earth and polyphenols

Gluten and grains toxicity

Quinoa, millet, emmer and einkorn wheat

Reactions to bread: gluten or fructans?

Eating gluten causes symptoms in some people who don’t have celiac disease

The China Study: Wheat might not be so bad for you if you eat 221 g of animal products daily

Traditional preparation methods increase nutritional value of grains

Wheat: in search of scientific objectivity

Minerals, milling, grains, and tubers

The argument against cereal grains

Avoid poison or neutralize it?

Where are all the healthy whole grains?

Wheat and lactose: no one is tolerant of WGA

Gluten sensitivity: promises and problems


Potato diet interpretation

Potatoes and human health, part III

Weight loss on potatoes

Interview with a Kitavan

Kitava: wrapping it up

Potato eating cultures

Taters, eh?  Saponins in potatoes are possibly important

What’s the trouble with sweet potatoes?

Fructose: controversy?

The China Study: Fruit consumption and mortality

The fructose index is the new glycemic index

The bitter truth about fructose alarmism

Why did we evolve a taste for sweetness?

Fructose, not HFCS: Serenity now, death earlier?

Fructose and the tropics

Paleo and fructose

Fructose in fruits may be good for you, especially if you are low in glycogen

Lipogenesis versus adipose tissue gain: Fructose?


Devil in the milk

Dairy fat and diabetes

Pastured dairy may prevent heart attacks

Cheese’s vitamin K2 content, pasteurization, and beneficial enzymes

Cheese consumption, visceral fat, and adiponectin levels

Lactose intolerance: Often a result of ‘silent’ wheat derived bowel disease

A taste of dairy

How dairy entered the human diet

Dairy and its effects on insulin secretion

Mark Sisson’s definitive guide to dairy

Lactase persistence in Europe

Casein versus gluten


How to raise HDL

HDL and immunity

Cholesterol and innate immunity

The central role of LDL receptor in heart disease

Myths and truths about cholesterol

What cause heart attacks?

The China study: Cholesterol seems to protect against cardiovascular disease

Meta-analysis finds no evidence that saturated fat promotes heart disease

Does dietary fat increase cholesterol or promote heart disease?

Statins and the cholesterol hypothesis, part I

Can a statin neutralize the cardiovascular risk of unhealthy dietary choices?

Dirty little secrets of the fat-heart hypothesis

Coronary heart disease: possible culprits part II

The Choline Smackdown (why you should save your liver and eat cholesterol containing foods)

When your brain is hungry for cholesterol

The diet-heart hypothesis, oxidized LDL, part II

Macronutrients: how many?  Is this even the right way to think about food?

9 Steps to perfect health part 2: Nourish your body, or, not all macronutrients are created equal

The myth of the high protein diet

Low carb diet trumps low fat

Positive and negative feedback on replacing protein with carbohydrates

Can you be lean on a low protein diet?

Protein, satiety, and body composition

Can protein turn into fat?

Dangers of zero carb diets: can there be a carbohydrate deficiency?

No such thing as a macronutrient: carbohydrates

No such thing as a macronutrient: fats

FODMAPs (a carbohydrate)

Carbs deserve a presumption of guilt

Carbohydrates: no dietary requirement but metabolically critical



06 2011

Why eat paleo?

Why, indeed?

For some of us, this is old news.  But it’s always nice to be reminded, and to think deeply about why we live the way we do.  On the other hand, a relatively large quantity of diet explorers have been coming by recently (hello!), and I want to share with them a smattering of  delicious reasons for giving it a try.  Feel free to add on more (or dispute them) in the comments section.   Also, you should perhaps consult my post on perfectionism and expectations in the paleo world. In my opinion, paleo rocks, and nutrition is infinitely important for our well-being, but we should approach all things in life with appropriate expectations.   For information on the diet, check out my “paleo diet” page.  Also, the “links” page is hugely important, as there are loads of good guides and scientific blogs out there that you absolutely must check out if you are interested.  I can help you pick out the resources that are best for you.

Finally, I want to be clear with semantics.  “Diet” here means: way you eat.   Like Richard Nikoley put so well last week in his Raw Vegan Radio debate, “”Paleo” is not really a diet. Rather, it is a framework within which any individual determines their own lifelong, sustainable regime.”   Right.  Eat stuff that seems like a good idea.

A “why paleo” list, in no particular order:

1)  Eating a paleo diet just. makes. sense. Look at all of the ailments and diseases humanity faces.  Overweight, diabetes, cancer, alzheimers, arthritis, irritable bowel, mental illness, heart disease…hell, even myopia. Why do no other species on the planet exhibit the same problems?    Contemporary society has this totally misguided idea that disease is inevitable, that humans today “live longer than they used to” (false), and therefore that we need to use medicine and the pharmaceutical industry to fix all of these inherent, inevitable problems.  Wrong. Why do things go wrong with us in the first place?  Why do we develop cancers?   Why do children have diabetes?  Why does anyone?

We are made out of the food we eat.  Literally.  So if we put food in our bodies that is unnatural or that they don’t know how to handle, they are going to work way out of whack.   A good analogy is this:  say you want to build a house.   Are you going to use redwoods, or are you going to use toothpicks?  Worse, still, are you going to use something right out of a factory, that hasn’t been properly tested, that you don’t know is good for you or not, such as… I don’t know… tar?  No.  You want to use the best stuff out there.  A house made out of inappropriate materials would never stand.  Ever.  So why do the same to our bodies?

2)  Paleo cures ailments. Look at my mother, for example.  Or me.   Or these thousands at Marks Daily Apple.   The science is really quite solid on this one.  If you have a disease of civilization, there is a very good chance you can fix it with diet.  More importantly, however, people are staring to share their awesome stories of recovery, health, and vivacity.

3)  Preventative medicine is better than treatment.  For real.  It’s cheaper, it’s better for you, and it’s more natural. A doctor can give you statins for your heart all you want, but did you know statins increase the risk of other degenerative diseases and organ failure? A heart doctor might not necessarily know that either.  He specializes in one thing only.  How is he supposed to know that his medicines mess with your brain?  Drugs have effects. They might “fix” one part of your body, but they’ll surely mess with another.   Plus they are expensive. Taking care of our bodies now helps us avoid having to fix them in the future.

4)  Sugar is toxic. More than a teaspoon of sugar in the blood is toxic (this is why we have insulin, and why our bodies are so good at storing sugar as fat.)  Know how much sugar is in a can of soda?  Right.  Plus, Cancer feeds off of sugar. More and more people are looking at paleo-type diets to cure cancer, and more and more of them are having success.

5)  A paleo diet stablizes blood sugar levels and gives you more energy. Do you feel tired in the afternoons?  After eating?  Do you ever feel woozy after standing up too fast?  You might think these are all perfectly natural phenomenon, but they’re not.   What’s happening to you is that once you eat carbohydrates, your blood sugar spikes, and in order to clear these toxins out of your system your body releases insulin.  Insulin gets the sugar out of your blood and into your fat cells, and then your blood sugar plummets.  You feel tired, cranky, or dizzy, and sometimes ravenously hungry.    However, if you eat a diet low in carbohydrate, your blood sugar will not spike, so it will not plummet, either.  You will happily exist on an even keel, and you will have loads and loads more energy.  Promise.

6)  Wheat is bad for you. Period.   It steals important nutrients from our intestines and significantly decreases our nutrient supply.  Ever wonder why Americans eat the most dairy but have the highest rates of osteoporosis in the world?  Worst of all, perhaps, wheat creates gut permeability.  Once you have a permeable gut, all sorts of toxins and bacteria can get into your bloodstream.  From there, they can give you systemic infections.  They can also provoke your immune system into hyperdrive, and induce autoimmunity.

6.5)  Wheat and rice are BORING. Once you get over them, you will never miss them.  They have no flavor.  Bread feels like dust in my mouth these days.  So why do we still eat them?  Because they increase opiate sensitivity in the brain.  Grains = drugs.

7)  A paleo diet is the best candidate for a “cure” for leaky gut, the common cause of autoimmune disease. This is because it eschews foods that have recently been introduced to the human diet and cause all sorts of havoc in our digestive tracks (as well as other places).  These are: wheat products, dairy, and legumes. Whole, raw, unprocessed dairy may be okay to eat.  The jury is still on this one. In any case, eschew it if you’re autoimmune.  Use your best judgment otherwise.  The diseases a leaky gut can cause include but are not limited to: Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Alopecia Areata, Rosacea, Celiac, Grave’s, Crohn’s…..

8)  Paleo diets are the most fun diets out there. You get to eat fat, and– fuck!  As much of it as you want.  And protein.  Every animal!   Some carbs if you want.  And big, fulfilling meals.   Check out this phenomenal cookbook and Melissa McEwen’s blog to see what I mean.

9)  Paleo diets are uniquely satiating. Why?  Because eating fat is uniquely satiating, and there’s loads of it on this diet.   Because protein is the most important macronutrient for satiation, and it’s also big on this diet.  Because fructose induces hunger and high insulin levels induce hunger and blood sugar swings induce hunger, and they are all limited on this diet.  If you are a busy human being, this will keep you going without food.  If you struggle with cravings, this will help.  Enormously. That’s the theme of 50 percent of the posts on this blog.

10)  Most people spontaneously lose weight on paleo diets. Eliminating inflammatory foods and sugars, and getting back to normal metabolic processes just does it for people.  Our bodies stop panicking and overproducing cortisol (the stress hormone)  and insulin and inflammatory agents, and then get a chance to reset.

11)  People lean out and look hot on a paleo diet, especially if they’re trying. Eat paleo, throw some heavy lifting in there, and sprint once in a while, and you’ll look like Mark Sisson in no time.  I’m not kidding.  Look at all of the “leaders” of the movement.  They’re all scientists, but they’re ripped, and they’re radiant, and they’re healthy.  Why follow doctor Oz when he’s a skinny fuck with an unhealthy colon?   Or your doctor, who munches on doughnuts between office visits?  Or Gwenyth Paltrow, who looks great, eats a vegetarian diet, and has osteoporosis?  That’s a bit beside the point.  What I’m saying here is: if you want to be ripped, this is the way to do it.  Even if you’re 60.  Gods, I should post pictures of my mom.

12)  Joint pain is almost always reduced on a paleo diet. Check out that post I linked to earlier about my mother.  Inflammatory foods such as vegetable oils and grains irritate our joints.   For example, my knees act up if I’m not being careful with limiting my omega 6 consumption.  Otherwise, I am absolutely pain free.

13)  Stress and anxiety can decrease on a paleo diet.  I’m not saying that paleo will cure the ailments of your life.  What I am saying, however, is that any stress that exists in your system from the food you’re putting in it will go away.  Your cortisol levels will probably fall.  It’s nice.

14)  You get to be proud and indignant on a paleo diet.  Why should I buy a box of “heart healthy” food out of a box, fortified with fiber and what-have-you-other supposed health benefits?  Why promote awful industries?  Why participate in waste?  Eat whole, local, organic foods, and revel in the good you’re doing for yourself and for your local economy.

15)  You get to extend your “mobile years.” Recent studies have shown that while humans are living longer, we are also mobile for fewer years of our lives.   Due to excessive joint pain and obesity an increasingly large amount of time spent in wheelchairs and nursing homes is the American norm.  This is insane.

16)  A paleo diet significantly decreases the risk of dementia. I watched my grandmother spiral into insanity.  If that’s not reason to eschew grains, sugars, and other inflammatory agents, I don’t know what is.

17)  You get to think about ancestral humans in other realms of your life. You realize that you should sleep more.  That shoes aren’t always the answer, and a lot of our pain might come from the unnatural stride they give us.  That a lot of modern “necessities” are really just ways we are trying to recover from the damage we’ve done.  I use little soap, for example.  I wash my hair with natural things.   I brush my teeth only for vanity’s sake, not because I need to. And that’s not weird, it’s just fine.  I am just as clean and healthy as I always was, if not, cross my heart, more so.   I avoid fluorescent lights, and now I sleep better.  I know that “playing” is healthy for me.  I know that stress is bad.  Etc.

18)  Paleo makes phenomenally healthy babies. Regardless of your view on nutrition, you cannot argue against the fact that a paleo diet is the most nutritionally dense one out there.  Check out this comparison of nutrient density of fruits to beef liver. Moreover, did you hear about the ruckus of the French parents who raised a vegan baby and killed it with vitamin deficiencies?  Yikes.  If you’re interested, check out Chris Kresser’s work.  He recently has put together a great online course on “how to make and raise a healthy baby.”    A healthy pregnancy, healthy nursing, healthy early nutrition… it’s all super important for the baby for the rest of it’s life.

19)  Stabilized hormone levels from a paleo diet mitigate the symptoms of PMS.  It’s not normal to be fucked up by your periods.

20)  Paleo diets prevent heart disease. Think the cholesterol theory of heart disease is right?  Think again.  Even conventional doctors are coming around on this one.

21)  You get to eat MORE on a paleo diet if you want. In one study, people ate equal caloric amounts (only 12oo calories!) on high carb versus high fat diets, and those who ate mostly fat lost weight, those who ate equal amounts lost a little bit, and those who ate mostly carbs actually gained weight.  I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon in my own life.  I used to eat a tiny cup of quinoa and some cereal and six grapes for breakfast, then maybe a sweet potato for lunch…. now it’s omelets and bowls full of pork soup and fish filets galore, with an even fitter, more muscled, happier body.

(Edit: Of course there’s lots of contrary evidence out there on this point.  Check out this great comprehensive post over at Carb Sane.  Then eat and see.)

22)  It’s easy.

23)  Bacon.

24) Bacon.

25) Bacon.


05 2011

Taste sensitivity: an adaptive strategy

Editor’s note: My apologies to anyone who read this article between the day I first posted it and February 13.  I wrote it at the end of a couple cracked out sleepless days, and my ability to produce and discern quality writing was vastly inhibited.

I am currently reading the text Food preferences and taste: continuity and change by Helen M. Macbeth.  It comprises all of the papers presented at a European conference on tastes and foods from 1997.  The conference covered a range of topics–from the history of the potato to the glucose sensitivity of great apes–and I’m finding it a fascinating read.   More than that, too, I’m looking forward to engaging follow up studies from the interesting questions they raise.

I just finished the section on taste sensitivity.  What I learned is that cultures vary in taste sensitivity depending on their nutritional needs.  Some taste sensitivities, such as bitterness, are universal across all cultures.  Others, such as sweetness, however, are more spatially varied due to habitat and culture.  This trend applies to non human primates as well.  The unfortunate part is that scientists still struggle to ascertain the extent to which these traits are genetically influenced and the extent to which they are trained behaviors, particularly in cultures in which taste sensitivity varies between genders.

One culture studied for taste sensitivity was the Inuit of Greenland.  The author of this study, Claude Marcel Hladik, focused on salt.  The fact that salt’s concentration in the natural environment varies so much around the world (think coast v: plains)  means that it is a great taste sensitivity to study for more information on comparative genomics.

The Greenland Inuit diet consists primarily of seal meat and fat, with occasional starches throw into the mix.  The seal meat is always boiled in water and not salted.   This is an important practice.  Living off of the sea, it is easy to consume too much salt, and the Inuit are always wary of this.  They safeguard against it with a number of mechanisms, including: not salting their food, using the freshest drinking water possible, and keeping very well hydrated.   The importance of this last point is further increased by the high protein content of their diet.  A diet high in protein induces higher levels of dietary induced thermogenesis (DIT, or TEF, thermal effect of food) which in turn creates a strong need for proper hydration. Therefore, the Inuit very carefully control their food and water preparation.

The most important way for the Inuit to do this is to use the freshest possible drinking water.  They find this water with the help of their tastebuds, which are nearly super human in their salt detection abilities.  The Inuit can discern minute concentration differences water, and they outscore nearly every other culture’s sensitivity by an order of magnitude.

The Inuit obtain this fresh water, traditionally,  in a very particular, almost sacred tradition.   They trek up into the hills where the freshest waters can be found.   They look for the deepest blue-green colors.  Then they test various ices for salt content, based on taste alone.  The colder the material tested is, the more difficult discerning the taste is.  Wow.  Cool.  Sensitivity is key.

This taste sensitivity is vastly more acute in Inuit women than in men (though both genders still are lightyears more sensitive than the rest of humanity).  This is most likely due to the fact that ice gathering is a typically female task.   What this fact doesn’t tell us is the extent to which this adaptation is genetic.  It is possible that women were selected for their ability to discern salt concentrations.  However, it is also (more?) plausible that this is a trained behavior.

What’s more, coastal cultures in Papua New Guinea experience similar effects–they also have salt sensitivities higher than the other, more “normal,” “western,” or landlocked cultures–but not to the same degree.  Hladik concludes that this is because the New Guinea tribes consume less protein than the Inuit, and therefore have decreased hydration needs.  This tells us that taste sensitivities are a direct result of necessity.  Very cool stuff.

Nonhuman primates have no sensitivity for sodium, save for macaques.  This fact is interesting, because it demonstrates a clear link between the macaques and their relatively new coastal habitat.   Other primate species tend to ingest sodium in small quantities by other means, whether by geophagy (consumption of clay) or by eating termites.   In this case, the sensitivity is likely absent because the risk of over-consumption is absent.

What about sensitivity to other tastes?

Hladik looks at newborns to explore innate taste sensitivities.  He doesn’t have much a choice, and in fact anyone who studies taste generally doesn’t have much of a choice, either.  Beyond infancy, cultural norms become increasingly important, and it becomes difficult to discern a genetic predisposition from cultural conditioning.

Newborns of both human and other primate species have a very narrow range of sensitivity to bitter tastes.  Nearly every human being experiences bitterness the exact same way.   The few species that vary outside of this range, such as the primate Callithirx Argentata, have different adapted digestive systems.  They have a low sensitivity to bitter substances because their guts are more tolerant of poisonous chemicals.

Humans, on the other hand, have a very specific intolerance of bitter chemicals.  For this very reason, infants easily identity and have distaste for tannins.  This adaptation prevents against the risk of being poisoned.  Tannins also inhibit intestinal absorption when they bind to proteins, which makes this universal adaptation even more important for health and survival.

The comparison of taste thresholds varies widely among primates for sugars, however.  This is because sugar is far less toxic, for example, than hemlock.  Fructose sensitivity appears to vary based on both genetic and cultural factors.   This is demonstrated in one experiment comparing sensitivity between African tribes.  In pygmy tribes that reside in heavily-fruited forests, fructose sensitivity is fairly low.   Just about all fruits taste the same to them, and they do not actively seek out or have to expend much energy to gather these fruits.  Fruit is one of their staple foods, and is plentifully available, so it is not necessarily prized.  Cultures outside of the forest are much more sensitive to the taste of fruit.  This indicates that some sort of selective pressure for fruit sensitivity is at work outside of the forests, where fruits are scarce and more important to detect and eat.

Non human primates also demonstrate a wide range of fructose sensitivity due to different levels of access to the fruits.  Some primates live among the trees and have great access to fruits, and therefore have a lower sensitivity.  Other primates, such as macaques and chimpanzees, must travel great distances and expend a lot of energy to obtain fruit.  It is thus of paramount importance to them that they consume a lot of fruit, and that they can detect it easily.  This is assured by hedonism.  Macaques and chimpanzees love fruit.

As a final point, positive responses in non-human primates are not limited to sugars.  Chimpanzees in Gabon “obviously take great pleasure in cracking ants under their teeth and reducing them to a juice.”  According to Hladik, “this activity requires attention and skill, and the reward must be adaptive.”  Again, we are pointed to great rewards–this time outside of taste!–for the sake of necessity.

So what does this all mean?  Well.  We have genetic adaptations for certain tastes.  This is really cool. They help ensure survival and proper nutrition.  However, taste is an enormously complicated subject, tied up in biology and culture and tradition, and we still have a lot to work through on the effects of all these things.  This information on sensitivities just gives us a bit of background to our food stories, and helps to contextualize our sense of taste and our cravings.   I like thinking about history when I eat, and this is another cool way to spin on that.



02 2011

Why Objectivism is foundationally opposed to an evolutionary perspective and instincts are awesome

While I’m posting on Objectivism–and I do not intend to do it again–I’d like to point out some components of Objectivism that don’t line up with evolutionary biology.   It serves as a good way to discuss some new and cool behavioral insights science has to offer.

Objectivist philosophy and evolution have, I am finding in my internet searching right now, a fairly well established history of contention.  Rand herself boldly stated that she was “not a student of evolution,” and therefore “not it’s supporter nor it’s proponent,” and also that, “after all, the theory of evolution is only a hypothesis.“  Yet what’s fascinating about this debate is that both supporters of Objectivism, who claim that there exists no contradiction between Objectivism and evolution, and also dissenters of Objectivism, who claim that science trumps Rand’s philosophy, agree that man’s intellect is primed for “triumphing” over evolutionary pitfalls such as instinct.   I am grateful for advocates of evolutionary theory.  It’s cool that they’re engaging the material in this manner.  But I think both camps are wrong to dismiss the powers and mysteries of human genetic wiring.  Science has begun to show the limits of the intellect.  Moreover, the natural state and instincts of man are proving to be more powerful than we ever believed.  These two facts change our conception of man from a hyper rational being into a complicated creature composed of numerous senses and decision making pathways.   I believe that it is this creature–this complex being wired with potential we do not yet fully understand–that we must study in order to contextualize our existence.  It is this creature that we have evolved from.  And it is this creature’s genes that we must embrace if we aspire to figure out the best way to navigate this world.

Why Objectivism is foundationally opposed to evolutionary perspectives part 1: Impulse.

1) Objectivists find it both wrong and stupid to obey an impulse. They believe fiercely in the primacy of the prefrontal cortex, the conscious part of our brains.  The prefrontal cortex is, in essence, the superego. That’s cool. I like to run all of my decisions by my prefrontal cortex, too. But neurologists are finding, increasingly, that our impulses are often much better at navigating life or death situations than our conscious brains.   And even more powerfully, science is showing that our unconscious minds often excel over our conscious minds at making complicated life decisions. The idea is that our conscious minds are overloaded with details, and cannot process all of them as easily as our unconscious brains. Humans who acted on their immediate gut feelings in these studies, rather than dwelling on the choice over longer periods of time–ranging from minutes to days–were happier than those who wrestled with their decisions consciously.  Psychologists and neurobiologists are increasingly recommending that people listen to their guts in order to find true happiness.  If there exists discord in our souls, it is probably not our “premises” that need checking, but rather a greater understanding of our unconscious impulses and how we can best utilize them.  Check out this wonderful paper on the nature of intelligence, and how studies of animal intelligence are reshaping our views.

So what does this say about the primacy of the intellect? Clearly, humans evolved an intellect as a means to an end (like all other functions). It helped ancestral man navigate certain situation, and it has continued to help us create tools and ideas and make the best decisions we possibly can. But the prefrontal cortex is just one part of our brain, and lessons from contemporary psychology seem to be telling us that more primordial parts of the brain are better at making us happy than the prefrontal cortex. In my view, this puts Objectivism at odds with an evolutionary perspective, which considers the history, evolution, and fundamental nature of man to be of considerable importance to psychological well-being.

Why Objectivism is foundationally opposed to the evolutionary perspective part 2: Sense instinct.

Objectivists argue that it was man’s mind that distinguished him from (and made him superior to) other creatures. One specific example Rand cites in The Virtue of Selfishness is that man learned, over time, which plants were poisonous with trial and error.   He used his intellect, and he passed down that knowledge to others over time, which saved both his life and the lives of his family members.  However, this is a vastly simplified statement,and humans generally eschew bitter foods for this reason. (Follow that link on food preferences–it’s fascinating–I’ll review and post on it soon.)  Modern humans have forgotten how to use their tongues and noses. In the modern world, this enormously important sense–smell–has been dulled. We don’t need it, so we don’t use it. I’m going to go ahead and block quote a Salon article on this phenomenon:

In 1991 researchers found that humans have around 1,000 genes coding for different odor receptors. Since each odor can set off more than one receptor in various combinations, this implied the ability to sense far more than 1,000 scents. “Given that mammalian DNA probably contains around 100,000 genes, this finding indicates that 1 percent of our genes are devoted to the detection of odors, making this the largest gene family thus far identified in mammals,” wrote molecular biologist Richard Axel.

But recently other researchers took a close look at those genes and discovered that about 70 percent of them contain stop codons. In other words, the gene — which provides the instructions for making the protein that is the odor receptor — suddenly stops in the middle of the instruction booklet and says, “Oh, forget it. It’s too complicated. Don’t bother making it. It’s not like anyone ever needs to smell enraged saber-tooth cats anymore. I’ll just sit here in the genome and sulk.”

It looks as though humans have very keen sensory input, and, I daresay, instincts, that in the modern world have simply gone dull.  It is not always the mind that saves man.  Another good example of this is the discoveries currently being made concerning the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC gene) and mate compatibility. Objectivists argue that it is, without question, solely the rational mind that determines who we love.  Contemporary neuroscience is teaching us otherwise.  We appear to achieve the greatest love and happiness when we unconsciously use our noses to choose mates with immune systems that complement our own.  FASCINATING.

We  Bodies have great knowledge, and the human organism is extraordinarily complex. A paleo perspective asks that we consider man’s evolutionary history as such. Man was a body first, and evolved a mind a bit later. This means that the mind is one part of the functioning whole. To give it complete supremacy in four billion years of evolution is a bit presumptuous, isn’t it?

Rand tried to use man’s mind to set him apart from the rest of creation. Man is a machine in her philosophy, capable of making Spoc-like decisions that maximize his happiness.I don’t necessarily object.  The intellect is cool, and it’s a part of evolution, and my soul would crumble to pieces without it.  But in order to achieve holistic health, and, even, spirituality, I think it’s important to accept the very real, very programmed, and very unconscious parts of ourselves.  My prefrontal cortex is always going to be in charge, but perhaps it is healthy for me to take a leaf out of evolution’s book, and to occasionally tell my conscious brain to fuck off, shut up and enjoy the ride.


02 2011

Evolutionary Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a bit of a popular meme these days.  Rooted in the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness is defined by consistent awareness of one’s bodily functions, emotions, state of consciousness, or consciousness itself.  Mindfulness is the seventh element of the Noble Eightfold Path, the primary Buddhist path to enlightenment, and has been serving Buddhists for thousands of years.  Additionally, mindfulness has leaked into Western psychological practices, where serenity and presentism are employed to mitigate anxiety and depression.

Traditional Buddhist mindfulness recommends that you pay attention solely to the present.  Much of the pain and negativity we experience in our lives, so the theory goes, is rooted in the past or in the future.   For example: I might be sad because I put my dog down last week.  Or I might be anxious because I am feeling a little unwell, and I am unconsciously more distressed about the possibility of getting more sick in the future than I am about my current pain.  In order to avoid these mental traps, we are told to live in the present.  What exists for you now?  What do you hear?  How do each of your body parts feel?  What types of colors surround you?  If we ask ourselves these questions, we tend to come up with fairly contented answers.   I hear my brother on the phone.  I have a funny itch on my elbow.  I see my mother’s freshly painted watermelon walls.  I like all of these things.  Moreover, if I have a negative answer, such as “my head hurts” at least it is not “my head hurts and I live in constant anxiety of it continuing to hurt.”  Mindfulness releases us from anxiety, which is perhaps why it is so popular in American culture today.

Mindfulness, furthermore, has picked up some less traditional connotations.  We often hear the phrase “mindful eating,” for example.  Just like mindful existence, this practice is defined by awareness.  Where did my food come from?  How did I prepare it?  What does it feel like in my mouth and in my stomach?  These questions are supposed to improve our relationship with food.  Additionally, we hear about mindfulness in human relationships and in performing tasks.  How absolutely concentrated am I on my current situation?  How can I live better and more fully in each moment?

Yet I, along with many others, challenge both the possibility and the benefit of this perspective.  Living and thinking solely in the present alleviates some of my anxiety, but it also prevents me from a more full appreciation of who I am.  Many mindful practitioners try and derive positive emotions from their mindfulness (as opposed to simple negation of the negative), and therefore end up drawing on personal experience.  This is awesome.  We all have histories, and they define literally everything about us.  Our histories extend back to the moments of our births, but they also extend to our parental histories, our grandparents’ lives, and all sorts of complicated societal trends.   Each of these factors have molded who we are.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.  Living a paleo lifestyle means that I am constantly thinking about my evolutionary history.  I wonder often how my life is shaped, and then can be optimized, by my distant past.   I do not mean to suggest that Lucy getting in a fight with some other Australopithicus and causing family drama has shaped my life in any meaningful way.  What I mean is that the genes I’ve received from their copulations have.  I want to discuss the brilliant book Sex at Dawn with you, but it’s so rich and so full of evolutionary lessons that it will take me a number of posts to cover throughout time.   The point is this: if I am programmed to be openly and socially sexual, for example, is that why I’ve often felt so awkward and confused when I’m with acquaintances?  If I’m programmed to live in moderately sized groups of 300 or so, is this why I struggle to be interested in the well-being of larger communities?  If so, knowing the origins of my odd or negative feelings helps me to mitigate them.  Mindfulness, thus– as a constantly evolving  explanation for human nature– helps me to understand myself, to understand society, and to embrace innate humanity.  Knowledge is power, says a lot of people.  Amen, good sirs.  Empower me to understand and love myself.

Furthermore, an appreciation of our evolutionary past informs how I should feel about the present.  If I want to, I can idealize the past.  Living in a communal, altruistic tribe sure sounds lovely, doesn’t it?  And I do fantasize about that sort of life from time to time.   But the fact of the matter is that we cannot ever live in the past.  And we  cannot ever know how nice (if at all) it ever was.  As beautiful as the night sky is, we now have electricity, which is pretty cool.  And as awesome as small social environments are, we now have the opportunity to be enriched by myriads of diverse peoples, which is even cooler.    These bits of knowledge help me to have more gratitude in my life.  I have heard, and have always thought, that being grateful is one of the surest paths to happiness.   This makes sense.  Gratitude => positivity => contentedness.  I have the option of wishing  I lived in different times.  But I don’t have the option of living in different times.  Instead, I have our world, and I have millions years of history to appreciate, and uncountable joys for which to be enormously grateful.

Moreover, thinking about the different living situations people have coped with throughout time compels me to feel just fine about whatever situations I’m dealing with.  Instead of seeing different challenges, such as trekking to work in the snow, as burdens, I view them as just normal parts of my normal life.  If I don’t want ancestral humans to complain about gathering tubers, then I’m certainly not going to complain about whatever food gathering situations I find myself in.  Each society and each life has baggage, and increasing my knowledge of the ways in which different people embrace their own teaches me to embrace mine in turn.

Finally, having a sense of humanity throughout time gives me a sense of the overall, evolving, diverse intricacies of human nature.   It’s a bit grand, and a bit overwhelming, and even a bit transcendent.  If I am a mindful human being in any meaningful way, this is a significant part of it.  And it brings a transcendent sort of joy to my life that centers my happiness every day.  I am no Buddhist and I am no evolutionist and I am no psychologist, but I’m me in the modern world, and that is a-okay.


02 2011