Evolutionary Well-Being: the paleolithic model

by Francis Heylighen 

 

An evolutionary philosophy has direct implications for a happy and healthy lifestyle. By understanding how we as humans have evolved, we will get a much better understanding of how we can function optimally.

Natural selection has shaped our body and mind for life as paleolithic hunter-gatherers (HGs). Hominids have been living in that way for millions of years after they diverged from the chimpansees. Agriculture only appeared about 10 000 years ago in the Middle East, and even later in most other parts of the world. Therefore, our genes have not really had the time to adapt to the lifestyle of farmers or industrial workers: they still prepare us for a life of hunting and gathering.

This means that there is a fundamental misadaptation between our present lifestyle and the one that our genes expect. This discord can explain a host of so-called "diseases of civilisation": coronary heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer, depression, chronic stress, anxiety, ADHD, etc. These diseases needlessly degrade body and mind, while significantly reducing our life expectancy and sense of well-being.

On the positive side, this insight now allows us to improve our quality of life. We first need to better understand how our paleolithic ancestors lived. We can then choose the elements of that lifestyle that are most appropriate to adopt in our present circumstances. As summarized below, there exists an extensive and quickly growing literature on changes in diet, exercise, and contact with nature that are inspired by the paleolithic lifestyle. Many of those have already been proven to increase our well-being, although further empirical tests are of course needed.

 

Life as an adventure

There is an aspect to the HG lifestyle that has received relatively little attention, an aspect that I have called "life as an adventure": the life of a hunter-gatherer is a sequence of smaller and larger challenges, positive as well as negative, with the main characteristic that most challenges are unpredictable, of short duration, and of extremely diverse type and intensity. In contrast, agricultural and industrial societies prescribe a highly regulated life, where tasks and duties are predictable, constant, uniform, and rule-bound.

While HG challenges can be very stressful, e.g. running away from a bear, falling from a tree or crossing an ice-cold river, this stress is typically acute, i.e. intense and of short duration (seconds to hours). The rush of adrenalin is followed shortly by a pleasurable feeling of relief. The stress of modern life, on the other hand, is typically chronic, i.e. of low intensity but long duration (weeks to years). Examples are waiting for an evaluation report, preparing a PhD thesis, or enduring the daily traffic jams. This produces continuously high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which tends to break down muscle, suppress the immune system and promote obesity, anxiety and depression.

The modern approach to tackling challenges is based on formulating far-away goals, detailed planning to reach them, discipline and regularity in implementing the plans, and a strong sense of duty in order to keep on track and stick to the plan. This entails a constant worry about whether you are doing the right thing.

Hunting and gathering, on the other hand, cannot rely on planning, as it is impossible to predict precisely where or when a significant opportunity (e.g. prey to catch, or fruit to collect) or danger (e.g. a predator) will be encountered. This leads to a much more spontaneous, opportunistic style of problem solving, characterized by features such as intuition, improvisation, exploration, adaptation, and play.

There is plenty of evidence that this more playful HG style of living is what our brain was actually selected for, and what it is best at. Moreover, applying this lifestyle stimulates brain and body to further develop themselves. On the other hand, suppressing it, by sticking to unflinching rules and duties, produces chronic stress and its attendant health problems. This means that we would be happier, healthier and more effective if we could live more in the HG way.

That may seem naive and utopian, but the present state of our science, technology and economy perfectly allows such a more relaxed attitude. The strictly disciplined following of rules may have been necessary to build up the wealth we have now. But nowadays our technology has become so powerful that we can delegate that type of activities to machines. It is precisely the following of formally defined rules that machines are good at, while the more creative, "adventurous", intuitive aspects of problem solving are better left to humans.

 

The paleolithic prescription

Here is a summary of the life-style changes recommended to achieve the health and happiness of a hunter-gatherer:

1) eat plenty of the foods HGs ate: meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts, eggs, ..., preferably from natural sources. These contain high concentrations of all the important nutrients that the body needs to grow and repair itself: proteins, fats, carbohydrates (in relatively small amounts), vitamins, antioxidants, minerals and fibers. No need to count calories: with these foods you will quickly be satiated, build muscle, and eventually lose fat (especially in combination with muscle-building exercises).

2) avoid foods that HGs did not eat: all sorts of grain-based products (bread, rice, corn, cereal, pasta...), sugars, milk-based products, most vegetable oils, and highly processed foods with lots of additives, such as cookies, doughnuts, sweets, or hamburgers. These foods contain mostly lots of calories, but very few nutrients, and often plenty of "anti-nutrients" (substances that tend to interfere with your metabolism).

Particularly dangerous  are the foods with a high "glycemic load", i.e. containing lots of easily digestible carbohydrates that are quickly converted to high levels of glucose in the blood. This leads to the release of insulin, which promotes the storage of glucose as fat. A chronic activation of this process produces the "metabolic syndrome", which is the precursor of most of the present "diseases of civilisation", including obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, cancer, chronic inflammation and Alzheimer.

3) skip meals from time to time: HGs did not eat at fixed times of the day, and sometimes went hungry for a day or more, but then compensated by "feasting" with a big meal. The practice of "intermittent fasting" without reduction in total amount of calories has been shown to significantly improve a variety of health indicators, such as cholesterol and glucose levels, triglycerides, and obesity.

4) move regularly according to the principle of power law variation: plenty of rest, lots of low intensity activity such as walking, cycling or swimming, regular medium level activity, and from time to time a short burst of very high intensity activity, such as sprinting, jumping, or lifting heavy weights.

Avoid repetitive, enduring high-intensity training such as jogging or power training several hours a week: such overtraining breaks down rather than builds up muscle tissue, is unhealthy in the long run, and anyway boring and difficult to sustain for the rest of your life. Marathons and similar extreme exertions in particular are counterindicated: the continuing aerobic exertion uses up the proteins in muscle mass, floods the body with free radicals and the stress hormone cortisol, and gives the body the signal to store more fat as energy reserves for future exhaustion.

5) make your exercises as varied and as interesting as possible, taking inspiration from the kind of movements that HGs or children tend to do: climbing, throwing, balancing, jumping, crawling, lifting, carrying, wrestling, ... Instead of using exercise machines that only allow a single type of movement, use a variety of objects, such as stones, chairs, tree trunks, etc., to lift, push or pull: the variety of forces stimulates body and brain to become more coordinated, makes you better prepared for something unexpected, and thus increases your sense of being in control.

6) spend as much time as possible in nature (exercising or relaxing), or at least change your environment so as to make it appear more "natural" (e.g. by putting plants in your office, or a poster with a forest landscape). Dozens of studies on biophilia (our inborn attraction to nature) have shown that this increases mental health, happiness, and recovery from illness.

7) regularly catch sunlight (without getting burned of course): sunlight is necessary for our skin to produce vitamin D, which according to recent research plays a much more vital role than previously thought, e.g. in supporting the immune system, preventing cancer, and building strong bones. Moreover, lack of (sun)light has been shown to be a cause of depression.

This is particularly important in winter, when sunlight tends to be weak. The resulting lack of vitamin D and reduced immunity explains why the "flu season" typically extends over the darkest months.

8) expose your body to the elements: walk (or even run) barefoot, use minimal clothing or supportive material, take hot and cold baths/showers or saunas, don't be afraid to go out in bad weather... The human body is not only made to withstand these physical stresses, it is stimulated by them to become stronger.

For example, barefoot walking strengthens muscles, tendons and general coordination, reducing the probability of developing acute or chronic problems, such as flat feet, knee injuries, or backache. Cold baths have been shown to boost the immune system, while saunas promote the release of "heat shock proteins" that protect and repair damage in the body's cells.

9) don't be afraid of dirt: modern society tends to be obsessed by hygiene, reminding us to constantly wash, clean, shower, and disinfect. However, our immune system must learn to distinguish dangerous pathogens from innocuous germs and own cells ("self'), and to effectively fight the pathogens. To achieve that, it needs exposure to a variety of common micro-organisms. Without such exposure from an early age, you are more likely to develop allergies, auto-immune diseases, and an immune system that is ill-prepared for the really dangerous germs (the hygiene hypothesis). 

Moreover, typical products used for hygiene, such as soaps, shampoos, deodorants and antiseptics, are full of irritant and potentially toxic chemicals. Common soil micro-organisms, on the other hand, live symbiotically on our skin and in our intestines, helping to protect us from serious disease. Epidemics typically do not spread through contact with "dirt", but through social interactions (such as breathing in the air that someone else breathed out a minute ago), helped by weakened immune systems...

10) play, explore and try out new things: don't let your life be governed by routines, plans, rules or expectations, but experiment with new challenges and explore new places, ideas, activities and things, in a playful, spontaneous manner. The best inspiration may come from how children play and explore, always being ready for something new to try. This makes sure that you constantly learn new skills and are ready to take up unexpected opportunities, while increasing rather than eroding your sense of mental and physical capability. New challenges and a playful attitude moreover are a powerful antidote against boredom, worrying, and depression.

11) rest, relax or sleep whenever you feel the need: your body and mind need time to recover from the exertions, repair damage, and build new capabilities. If you can avoid it at all, don't force yourself to follow a tight schedule: you will not become more productive by working longer hours and constantly being on your guard, but merely exhaust your reserves. A good night of sleep, a relaxed game or chat with friends, or a diverting vacation will boost your energy and creativity, making you much more productive in the long run.

12) be in the present: stop your mind from constantly thinking about the past or the future—planning, worrying, feeling guilty or generally being preoccupied with anything except the here and the now. Fully experience and savour the sights, sounds, smells and feelings that surround you.

If this is difficult for you, you may find help in meditation or yoga exercises to quieten and focus your mind. Alternatively, you can pursue "flow" producing challenges (like most forms of involved play or paleolithic-style exercises). These will effectively keep your attention focused on the activity itself (but may leave you less open to other experiences).

 


The results of these interventions should be easy to see in a short time: more energy, less stress, stronger muscles, less fat, reduced levels of glucose, insulin, inflammation and triglycerides, better mood, more good-looking body, less illnesses, better coordination, more self-confidence, ... In short, you will become quickly and significantly healthier and happier thanks to the evolutionary paradigm!

Note that implementing all these recommendations at once may seem like a tall order. Therefore, you may want to go slowly, starting with a few changes here and there. This is no problem: any step in the right direction (especially replacing high-glycemic foods with protein-rich and antioxidant-rich foods, and shifting to a paleolithic style of exercise) will already make you feel significantly better, and thus motivate you to make further steps in the same direction.

Also take into account that your body may not prepared for some of the more drastic changes, such as high intensity exercises, barefoot running, or prolonged sessions in the sun or cold. Just take it slowly, step by step, so as to gradually build up your resistance...

 

Finally let's not forget to

13) care for the next generation: keep small children always in close physical contact with a caregiver (most often, but not always, the mother). This means a lot of carrying, cuddling or breast-feeding, and letting them sleep in the same bed (or at least in the same room). On the other hand, allow them to explore an play freely as they grow older and feel emboldened to move farther away. This nurturing but permissive approach is how HGs look after children. It is also the basis for the "secure attachment" that is necessary for their later social and emotional development, including their feelings of morality and compassion.

Keeping babies out of sight of a carer (e.g. in a separate room) is intrinsically very stressful to them, and absolutely unnatural from a HG perspective: paleolithic babies could not survive without continuous attention from others. On the other hand, keeping older children restricted to a "safe" place (typically their home, playground or school) suppresses their natural drive to explore, exercise and experiment and their need for contact with nature, while giving them the message that the world is an intrinsically frightening place. Plenty of studies have shown that unstructured play in nature is highly beneficial to children.

 


For more details on these recommendations, I refer below to a broad list of papers, books, websites and videos that develop these themes, and provide the scientific evidence. 

 

Websites

Good starting points are the following:

  • Arthur De Vany's site on evolutionary fitness. De Vany is an economist/complexity theorist who  applied his understanding of power laws to exercise, a very inspiring philosophy, as summarized in his essay on evolutionary fitness and an article in the Sunday Times. Unfortunately, you need to pay a subscription to get at much of the material.
  • Mark's Daily Apple: the site of Mark Sisson with a philosophy very similar to the one of De Vany and with tons of freely accessible material on food, exercise, health and life-style. The only disadvantage compared to De Vany is that Sisson is not a scientist, but scientifically his recommendations are sound and based on plenty of research.
  • The Paleo Diet: The site made by the team of Loren Cordain, who is one of the most active and respected researchers on the paleolithic diet and its benefits.
  • Movnat: Erwan Le Corre's "moving naturally/moving in nature" method of exercise inspired by paleo principles. Le Corre, described in one magazine article as "the world's fittest man", is not a scientist, but his approach is based on extensive experience and deep reflection, and convinces by the intuitive elegance of the movements he demonstrates in his videos (see below). Here's another magazine article on MovNat training and the paleo philosophy.
  • Evfit: reflections on health and fitness from an evolutionary perspective
  • Moral Landscapes: Darcia Narvaez's blog on paleo principles of child care and their importance for psychological and social development
  • Getting Stronger: a blog on the philosophy of hormetism, i.e. improving well-being by subjecting yourself to physical and mental challenges
  • For a quick introduction check this popular magazine article on the "evolutionary fitness" movement.

Books

The following are books intended for a wide audience, without a lot of scientific detail:

 

Scientific publications

For the scientific evidence behind these recommendations, here are some of the many references:

Paleolithic well-being

Contact with nature

Paleolithic lifestyle, exercise and health

Paleolithic diet

 Paleolithic Child-Care

  • McKenna, J. J, and T. McDade. 2005. Why babies should never sleep alone: A review of the co-sleeping controversy in relation to SIDS, bedsharing and breast feeding. Paediatric respiratory reviews 6, no. 2: 134–152.  
  • Schön, R. A, M. Silvén. 2007. Natural Parenting―Back to Basics in Infant Care. Evolutionary Psychology 5, no. 1: 102–183. 
  • Ball, H. 2008. Evolutionary Paediatrics. Medicine and evolution: current applications, future prospects.   
  • Hewlett B.S. and M.E. Lamb, 2005. Hunter-gatherer childhoods: evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives, Aldine, New Brunswick, NJ (2005).
  • Narvaez, D., Panksepp, J., Schore, A., & Gleason, T. (2011). The Value of the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness for Gauging Children’s Well-Being. in: Human Nature, Early Experience and the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, New York: Oxford University Press. (Manuscript in preparation.)<!--StartFragment--> <!--EndFragment-->

Benefits of challenge, exposure and adventure 

  • Kyriazis M. (2010.). Nonlinear Stimulation and Hormesis in Human Aging: Practical Examples and Action Mechanisms. Rejuvenation Research, 347–351.
  • Neill, J. T. (2008). Enhancing life effectiveness: the impacts of outdoor education programs. PhD Thesis, University of Western Sydney.  
  • Neill, J. T., & Dias, K. L. (2001). Adventure education and resilience: The double-edged sword. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 1(2), 35–42.
  • Richardson, E. D. (1998). Adventure-based therapy and self-efficacy theory: Test of a treatment model for late adolescents with depressive symptomatology. PhD Thesis, Virginia Polytechnic Institute.  
  • Seery, M. D., Holman, E. A., & Silver, R. C. (2010). Whatever does not kill us: Cumulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability, and resilience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Videos

Here are the breathtakingly beautiful videos of Erwan Le Corre (best watched in high definition), illustrating the Paleolithic lifestyle with just images and music.

 

Here is the first part of the 1980 movie "The Gods Must be Crazy", a humorous look at the contrast between the HG life of the Kalahari Bushmen and modern society: