Evolutionarily Normal

Last Updated on June 14, 2021 by dgvause

Since my early teens, I was brought up with notions of trying to be in touch with self and nature. The writings of Thoreau and Emerson influenced me deeply with their emphasis on living close to Nature and self-reliance. I discovered the Platonic dialogs during my senior year in high school. Socrates’ approach to knowledge via a refined dialectic along with his dictum to know oneself continued this trend. The seed that nature was within and all around us was well implanted when I took Vertebrate Zoology during my sophomore year in college. At the time, I had just discovered running and would often run around Lake Alice on the campus of the University of Florida at the hottest time of the day. In the 1970s, the far side of Lake Alice was a desolate place, more resembling the Everglades than the campus of a major university. I had already begun to fancy myself as a primitive, running across a vast savanna in a remote and wildland.

The concept of evolution was not new to me. I had read and loved Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle when I was 13: I was certainly already a Darwinist. Vertebrate Evolution was structured in an evolutionary pattern. We learned about the current evolutionary state of vertebrates by following the evolutionary tree to traverse the predecessors of current species and how they came to be today. When we came to hominid evolution, it was immediately. The earliest hominids appeared in east-central Africa in environments similar to the current-day savanna. At one point our ancestors descended from the receding trees to forage and eventually hunt on the ground, leaving the ancestors of gorillas and gimps to continue to evolve in trees. Our ancestors began their journey to H. sapiens. They became bipedal, lost their fur, acquired an enormous number of sweat glands. It was obvious to me because I was doing it every day under the hot sun: we evolved, we were born to run.

My earlier philosophical reading had primed me to take the next step: to be healthiest, and, hence happiest, we had to be in tune with nature. We had to be in tune with what we naturally were: runners who traversed the natural landscapes. Thus was born the central philosophical tenet of my life.

Science and medicine have produced an overwhelming sea of evidence now linking lots of exercise and whole, natural foods with health and improved mental states. In his book, Exercised, Dan Lieberman, Chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University used a pair of words that apply well here: “evolutionarily normal”. He argues that the plethora of lifestyle diseases that have exploded since the beginning of the second half of the Twentieth Century, obesity included, are due to not living in evolutionarily normal ways. For exercise, this means not getting as much as hunter-gatherers evolved to do. Most studies of what remains of these groups in modern times indicate that this translates into 5 to 7 miles per day for women and 7 to 9 miles a day for men. The average American walks 1.5 to 2 miles a day. When you couple this with the fact that roughly 60% of the calories in the typical American diet comes from highly processed foods you get the catastrophe in health that nations around the world are experiencing. Of course, there is nothing evolutionarily normal about highly processed foods either.

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