17

votes

Anyone tired of the "what would a caveman do" thinking rather than scientific thinking?

Answered on August 19, 2014
Created May 11, 2010 at 2:06 PM

While I think the Caveman approach is a nice background story, the lead story about Paleo is the how's and what's of this approach helping our bodies recover from modern eating, reduce inflammation, get insulin under control, and optimize our life.

I recently read several posts on salt and alcohol, and rather than look at how it would impact the body, folks used the guess of "I don't think a caveman would have access to salt" as their primary argument.

Anyone else tired of this? What else in the Paleo community gets on your nerves?

510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20888)

on October 16, 2011
at 03:06 PM

I came here to say that. You said it better, so I just gave you an upvote (wish I could give more than one) and didn't add to the noise :)

D31a2a2d43191b15ca4a1c7ec7d03038

(4134)

on January 16, 2011
at 10:10 AM

PFW, I'm glad you posted this.

84666a86108dee8d11cbbc85b6382083

(2399)

on July 07, 2010
at 02:36 PM

Vitamin K2 >>> toothbrush. 'nuff said :D

C1ea79115a062250a7263764797faa30

(851)

on July 07, 2010
at 01:07 PM

The average lifespan includes (is reduced by) early death by trauma and infanticide as a means of population control; it has little to do with survivability of the food-lifestyle.

691f120a3e7a1a036845d105d86c99a3

(3641)

on May 15, 2010
at 12:40 AM

but if we are on a giant turtle, what is the turtle on top of? a giant celestial elephant i think.

485bcefe7f1f7a6df1a293a826bf6137

(2191)

on May 13, 2010
at 02:54 PM

@Aaron Griffin - These producers are HEAVILY government subsidized. That's not capitalism. And even if they were, it's the government that has pushed the food pyramid as it exists today, so looking to the government for the answer is worse.

4145b36f1488224964edac6258b75aff

(7821)

on May 11, 2010
at 11:40 PM

Very true. Good point.

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on May 11, 2010
at 09:25 PM

@pfw: I'm talking more about CAFOs and corn-based diets for everything (including fish!). THAT is driven by profits and nothing more.

4145b36f1488224964edac6258b75aff

(7821)

on May 11, 2010
at 06:57 PM

CW isn't science, it's conventional wisdom, otherwise known as groupthink. Nutritionists aren't scientists, they're board certified mouthpieces. I sympathize with the general sentiment that the popular opinion of things is wrong, but to generalize that to "science sucks because people are stupid" is not valid in my view. @Aaron Griffin: McGovern was motivated by good old fashioned misguided paternalism, not a desire to increase his wealth. I agree that corporate interests generally shift things towards the efficient at the expense of the healthy, but politics are as much a factor.

Eedf46c82d0356d1d46dda5f9782ef36

(4464)

on May 11, 2010
at 06:55 PM

mmmmmmmmm... turtle

4145b36f1488224964edac6258b75aff

(7821)

on May 11, 2010
at 06:26 PM

@AnnaA: I think that's a pretty appropriate use for the Grok metaphor: summing something very complex up into a simple proposition so that you can get on with thinking about the rest of your life. If we had to fully grasp everything we did all the time most of us couldn't flush a toilet! So a simplistic metaphor is beneficial when used properly. It becomes problematic when people forget the fact that Grok is a simplification and start projecting random speculation onto him in order to justify their particular take on paleo.

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on May 11, 2010
at 06:13 PM

Politics did not being us the SAD. Capitalism did. Food companies aren't run by people who actually know shit about food - they're run by accountants and bookkeepers. Cheaper is better!

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on May 11, 2010
at 06:13 PM

While the Grok thing may be a tiresome yet simple way to describe things, I also get put off by the minute detail of how things work and react in scientific explanations regarding diet details. If things are working I don't need to over-analyze why they are.

Ce0b5fd94b1034e96cf710b6f138c29d

(4089)

on May 11, 2010
at 05:31 PM

Personally, I'd be surprised if your average politician could formulate HFCS... You're absolutely right about anthropology, of course, but my own skeptical naturalist empircist take is after having seen the difference between what I'm getting applying caveman logic and what I got listening to CW, I'm not that impressed with nutritionists...

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on May 11, 2010
at 03:50 PM

We're all riding on the back of a giant turtle!

4145b36f1488224964edac6258b75aff

(7821)

on May 11, 2010
at 03:13 PM

Science brought you ever bit of knowledge you have about cavemen. Skeptical empiricism/naturalism didn't bring you SAD, politics did.

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18 Answers

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22
4145b36f1488224964edac6258b75aff

(7821)

on May 11, 2010
at 03:12 PM

Yes. I have grown to intensely dislike the "Grok" metaphor, even though I recognize how important it is for many people to grasp Paleo initially. But I think we run a real risk of letting that get too central to our thinking.

Paleo is a heuristic with which we can solve the Dinner Problem (what to eat for dinner) and which we can use to generate new hypotheses about the world. That's really it: a rough rule of thumb (by no means complete) to figure out what to eat for dinner, and a framework to come up with new ideas to test.

To make this really, really clear: "What did cavemen do in this situation" can only generate hypotheses at best. You can use it to get an idea of what to further investigate. You can use it as you're walking down the grocery aisle and need a quick and dirty solution to the problem of what to put in the cart. You absolutely cannot use it to prove anything.

If you test your ideas with "what did cavemen do" speculation and use that as conclusive, then you've moved away from skeptical empiricism and into mystical dogmatism - a true "paleo principle" mindset leaves you just as mentally constrained as any raw vegan.

There's nothing wrong with thinking from a paleo starting point, but there's everything wrong with failing to test that with actual experiments. That's the essence of science: testing ideas with experimentation. It's an institutional failure that lead us to low-fat idiocy, not a failure of science, and throwing the golden light of knowledge out with the wretched political machinery that constrains it is a bad idea.

So, yes, I agree. I wish people would be more precise in their use of Grok in their reasoning. I think we do paleo no favors when we ground health advice in random speculation about what Grok might have done, because that is truly sloppy reasoning that any paleo critic can easily attack.

D31a2a2d43191b15ca4a1c7ec7d03038

(4134)

on January 16, 2011
at 10:10 AM

PFW, I'm glad you posted this.

510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20888)

on October 16, 2011
at 03:06 PM

I came here to say that. You said it better, so I just gave you an upvote (wish I could give more than one) and didn't add to the noise :)

7
699d8d5bb5d186c23c79aef4f7bf1145

on May 11, 2010
at 05:27 PM

"Caveman", "paleo", and "grok" are just shorthand. They are terms with meanings that are agreed upon so they can be used in discussion in place of more cumbersome descriptions. Without a common understnading of what they represent they are meaningless. I agree they have started to become cliches, but they are still useful.

The real danger in these terms is in how they are used by people who have little or no idea of what we are doing, especially the media. It is easy for lazy journalists to latch on to simplistic ideas like modern city dwellers yearning to live like caveman. Which is not what most of us are after.

5
7f9ec40efd2e7f6e5e5a68be7d135321

on May 11, 2010
at 11:42 PM

Simplifying complex things through the concept of a caveman may open the door to better decisions and, thus, greater health for the population-at-large.

The need for this simplification for the population-at-large is the true issue -- an issue separate from the adoption of Paleo itself, but has everything to do with the intellectual capacity of an entire nation. A completely separate discussion.

Perhaps some people invest their intellectual resources elsewhere and would prefer to see diet and exercise through the eye of a caveman, making life simpler as they focus on the cure for cancer or write the next American novel. Whatever it is, it's not always a bad thing.

But it's the few people who attempt to substitute the true science with a theoretical caveman who are bastardizing the Paleo lifestyle.

Grok, Caveman, Paleo... Don't pass it off as science, but don't ignore its utility.

Best,

2
E35e3d76547b18096a59c90029e7e107

(15613)

on May 11, 2010
at 07:26 PM

I wouldn't say I'm "tired of" it. I think it's a good heuristic and it's a positive thing that people use it as a first rule of thumb. I do very strongly disagree with any attempts to privilege such hypothetical reasoning over nuts and bolts scientific analysis though. When the hard science is available either in terms of rigorous tests showing actual outcomes or in terms of identifiable concrete mechanisms then it's that that counts.

There might seem to be cases where 'caveman reasoning' (e.g. humans would have had to burn their own saturated body fat, for extended periods throughout their evolutionary history) might seem to trump 'hard science' (e.g. SFA->cholesterol->CVD) but clearly enough, in such cases, the science is simply and tangibly at fault. It's also on the basis of hard science that we can recognise that human metabolism is often run primarily on fat, rather than on the basis of typically historical reasoning (e.g. did cavemen eat mostly animal fat, or lots of plants).

2
65125edd5aafad39b3d5b3a8b4a36bb7

on May 11, 2010
at 04:30 PM

It is more officially referred to as "Paleo Reenactment" and I am ever increasingly inclined to shun it in favor of Dr. Kurt Harris's approach of evaluating actual benefit regardless of historical usage.

2
0bc6cbb653cdc5e82400f6da920f11eb

(19245)

on May 11, 2010
at 04:26 PM

It's not a bad idea in principle. However very few people ever seem to bother finding out what our ancestors actually did, on the best scientific evidence we currently have.

A more common trend seems to be projecting back onto paleolithic man what he did or didn't do as a justification for personal opinions. For this reason some people would not do things for which there is evidence that cavemen did do.

Scientific thinking is the only reason we know anything about cavemen at all.

2
89e238284ccb95b439edcff9e123671e

(10299)

on May 11, 2010
at 04:14 PM

Although it is called the paleo diet for something, I understand what you mean. That's why I agree with 'pfw's answer.

One other thing I think people often forget, is that evolution is not about health, it is about replication of genes, about reproduction. And health (or happiness) are only important if they help reproduction. See effects of insulin, caloric restriction on health and reproduction.

A good read on this is the book 'Why we get sick' by Nesse and Williams. (although they are wrong on the fat hypothesis).

2
4310630972b25b6ed4fbd0fe7a7201d0

on May 11, 2010
at 02:35 PM

Regarding the "how's" and "what's":

"What" would a caveman do is a great place to start. And, for many people, that might even be as far as they need to go. If they don't want to eat salt because caveman didn't, that's fine. When I first followed a paleo diet a few years ago, this was as far as I got in my education because I was seeing great results and feeling better than ever. If it was working for me as it was, why would I care what the scientific reasoning was? Because, as Fearsclave said, since science brought us SAD and CW, I wasn't in any particular hurry to understand paleo from a scientific standpoint.

These days, with more and more research in the area, the "how" and "why" are starting to be important (and more accessible) to many of us. When you're trying to convince friends, family, or society at large of the benefits and safety of a "new" way of eating, it's often important to provide scientific backing to what you are telling them. Remember, they don't necessarily believe that CW is false and they believe that it is backed with science of its own. And, CW tells them that paleo, with it's higher fat and lower carb content, is dangerous so they may need that expert advice based on science.

2
Ce0b5fd94b1034e96cf710b6f138c29d

on May 11, 2010
at 02:19 PM

No. Don't forget that science brought us the SAD and CW. It's entirely possible to lose sight of the forest because you're examining bark under a magnifying glass...

I've been running my take on Paleo on caveman logic. It works.

4145b36f1488224964edac6258b75aff

(7821)

on May 11, 2010
at 11:40 PM

Very true. Good point.

Ce0b5fd94b1034e96cf710b6f138c29d

(4089)

on May 11, 2010
at 05:31 PM

Personally, I'd be surprised if your average politician could formulate HFCS... You're absolutely right about anthropology, of course, but my own skeptical naturalist empircist take is after having seen the difference between what I'm getting applying caveman logic and what I got listening to CW, I'm not that impressed with nutritionists...

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on May 11, 2010
at 09:25 PM

@pfw: I'm talking more about CAFOs and corn-based diets for everything (including fish!). THAT is driven by profits and nothing more.

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on May 11, 2010
at 06:13 PM

Politics did not being us the SAD. Capitalism did. Food companies aren't run by people who actually know shit about food - they're run by accountants and bookkeepers. Cheaper is better!

485bcefe7f1f7a6df1a293a826bf6137

(2191)

on May 13, 2010
at 02:54 PM

@Aaron Griffin - These producers are HEAVILY government subsidized. That's not capitalism. And even if they were, it's the government that has pushed the food pyramid as it exists today, so looking to the government for the answer is worse.

4145b36f1488224964edac6258b75aff

(7821)

on May 11, 2010
at 03:13 PM

Science brought you ever bit of knowledge you have about cavemen. Skeptical empiricism/naturalism didn't bring you SAD, politics did.

4145b36f1488224964edac6258b75aff

(7821)

on May 11, 2010
at 06:57 PM

CW isn't science, it's conventional wisdom, otherwise known as groupthink. Nutritionists aren't scientists, they're board certified mouthpieces. I sympathize with the general sentiment that the popular opinion of things is wrong, but to generalize that to "science sucks because people are stupid" is not valid in my view. @Aaron Griffin: McGovern was motivated by good old fashioned misguided paternalism, not a desire to increase his wealth. I agree that corporate interests generally shift things towards the efficient at the expense of the healthy, but politics are as much a factor.

1
5bb8f864226e17a8160e902b385c70ce

(20)

on October 16, 2011
at 01:09 PM

The emphasis on science and the caveman metaphor are just two different levels of magnification of the problem of what to eat. Alan Watts contrasts the two types of thinking in this animation produced by the South Park creators: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXi_ldNRNtM Why get annoyed with either side? The grok metaphor can provide general guidelines for living and create hypotheses to be tested with science.

1
99ac392257e444e014be6d4da6a900e4

(1036)

on July 07, 2010
at 09:09 PM

The point remains the same. People live ~75 years living an anti-grok existence. Grok didn't have the medical advances we have today. Does that mean we shouldn't use them because Grok didn't? Where do you draw the line? Hell, everyone on this message board uses a computer, probably drives a car, lives in an air conditioned home, etc, etc, etc. If you truly want to live like grok, sell your possessions and move to a South American jungle or the plains of Africa. See how Grok really lived. I'm not trying to be a jerk...I just think people are taking this Grok thing WAAAAAAAY too far.

1
A68f24168bc0de414a038037e287b581

on July 07, 2010
at 01:50 PM

Grok metaphor can be a great guidance when dealing with simpler things. cavemen were not some kind of geniuses or gods, they had no idea how to deal with a lot of things or didn't understand why things happened. Their lives were based on intuition and evolutionary behavior, replicated generation after generation... we have lost this intuition and need a guidance to get back to it, to relearn.

BUT I love my science. I learn about paleolithic times from scientific books, I read modern research and so on. I will not give up on brushing my teeth or wearing clothing protecting me from the elements just b/c they didn't have that. I still use my asthma meds and use the help of doctors and a therapist. I know more about cause and effect and am happy with using this knowledge.

I find the paleo lifestyle as the best for human beings, I don't believe in it as if it were a religion, there is no spirituality attached to it, I don't feel superior by following it... and I don't feel the obligation to replicate the lives of cavemen! Science taken critically and with open mind wins in my world.

84666a86108dee8d11cbbc85b6382083

(2399)

on July 07, 2010
at 02:36 PM

Vitamin K2 >>> toothbrush. 'nuff said :D

1
C1ea79115a062250a7263764797faa30

(851)

on July 07, 2010
at 01:05 PM

I find the Grok heuristic more useful than the science, to be honest. The science, while nice to have, seems to act mostly as a feel-good security blanket for most people. If Taubes showed us nothing else, he showed us how easily and how pervasively experts can get things wrong in their scientific fields based on invisible biases and unquestioned assumptions; and for lay-people (I include myself) the problem of judging the science is even worse. If I were willing to devote a great deal of my time to this particular field, I might be able to reasonably judge the science being done as a peer, but frankly I am not willing to devote that time and I think few people are, even among the paleo-blogger crowd. The Grok rule, by comparison, is more general and abstract reasoning about significantly less controversial ideas.

1
0fb8b3d6dcfb279b0f7e050d2d22510f

(4645)

on May 11, 2010
at 06:44 PM

Grok is a symbol- there is more sound science behind Paleo than the grainetarians ever produced.

1
691f120a3e7a1a036845d105d86c99a3

(3641)

on May 11, 2010
at 02:54 PM

My girlfriend is always telling me 'my science' is sometimes a little too far ahead of the curve for her and the rest of the world. I like when CNN puts up a story that says we are right, but it is easier to use the 'caveman' analogy rather than studies because there is just to much accepted CW out there to argue with.

I like to remember that the Earth was once flat and the Sun revolved around us. One day perhaps eating meat will be proven healthy again and eating plants will be frowned upon. Until then, my argument is based on a caveman.

691f120a3e7a1a036845d105d86c99a3

(3641)

on May 15, 2010
at 12:40 AM

but if we are on a giant turtle, what is the turtle on top of? a giant celestial elephant i think.

Eedf46c82d0356d1d46dda5f9782ef36

(4464)

on May 11, 2010
at 06:55 PM

mmmmmmmmm... turtle

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on May 11, 2010
at 03:50 PM

We're all riding on the back of a giant turtle!

0
99ac392257e444e014be6d4da6a900e4

(1036)

on July 07, 2010
at 03:24 AM

I'm pro-paleo/low carb/anti-processed foods but I do find it interesting that many folks are trying to base their entire existence on an era where the average lifespan was ~30 years.

C1ea79115a062250a7263764797faa30

(851)

on July 07, 2010
at 01:07 PM

The average lifespan includes (is reduced by) early death by trauma and infanticide as a means of population control; it has little to do with survivability of the food-lifestyle.

0
424563ee2575f0620ea221badabb40d7

(272)

on July 06, 2010
at 02:56 AM

I doubt that cavemen were brewing green tea, but that won't stop me from drinking it.

0
1c4ada15ca0635582c77dbd9b1317dbf

(2614)

on May 11, 2010
at 02:47 PM

It's just one angle on issues. I wouldn't just think "what would a caveman do?", but would certainly bring it into my considerations of any issue. It has more relevance in certain scenarios (what should I eat?) than others (how shall I get from A to B (cars, planes, trains not very paleo!), so should be used sparingly, but certainly has value.

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