“Genius is eternal patience.” – Michelangelo

Many people new to training, or new to healthy dieting — or even new to the whole ancestral wellness idea — are, by necessity, driven to emulate the actions of those who have forged a path ahead of them.  This is the early part of any new learning curve, and will produce some decent results in the very beginning of the process.  However, “emulating” rarely produces continuing, long-term change and continued progress.  Why?  Because each individual is just that — an individual, with a unique set of genetics and epigenetics that must be managed relative to our interaction in the modern world.

So emulating those who have been successful on a particular path is a great place to start, if for no other reason than to kindle inspiration and forward momentum.  To succeed beyond the “inspiration” honeymoon though, requires other skill-sets.  Most importantly, you’ll need the ability to observe and assess, to intuit, to rationalize and reason.  And maybe even more importantly, you’ll have to be able to determine when you have enough information to act.  Essentially, you’ll have to trust your gut and intuition on some things and forge ahead with less-than-adequate knowledge.  But here’s the thing: actions that are “directionally accurate” are a hell of a lot more productive than sitting on your ass and waiting for someone (or some perfect piece of science) to point the perfect way ahead.  Because “perfect” may never arrive in this lifetime.  Get over it, and do the best you can with the available mix of observational and sound scientific information you have.  And be amendable to changing your mind in light of new information!  For God’s sake, don’t let your opinions ossify!

And because as much as I love and geek-out on science (and I do!), it’s only one tool in the overall kit.  You have to understand the inherent limitations of any tool in order to use that tool appropriately and efficiently.  Same with experience, accumulated (group) wisdom, gut instinct, n=1 experimentation and observation. 

Also, one has to be comfortable asking the question: did the successful person I’m emulating achieve those desired results due to “luck of the genetic/epigenetic draw”, or due to the observance of some sound, scientific principle that can be applied across the board?  Or, was it due to some combination thereof?  And will it apply to me and my circumstance?  And I say “comfortable” because rarely will you be offered a definitive answer. 

Look, my workout regimen cannot be your workout regimen.  My workouts differ greatly from what I prescribe to my Efficient Exercise clients, and each of my clients’ programming is individual unto them.  I ingest a crap-ton of raw, unpasteurized dairy, drink coffee by the gallon (somewhat kidding), and behind-the-neck press and dip with heavy-ass poundages.  Does that mean you should?  No, it only means that I’ve done my due diligence with these movements and substances, assessing my unique, n=1 relationship with them.  Same with my overall workout protocols.  Learn from science.  Learn from others and from observation.  But at the end of the day you have to do your own n=1/Five Ts due diligence with that information.  Be a citizen scientist!

Somewhat within the same realm is something I’ve written on before — that of being completely hamstrung into inaction from lack of credible (read, Randomized Controlled Trials, or RCT) scientific supporting evidence.  Or worse yet, ambiguous evidence.  Or worst of all — being held captive by the yammerings of educated idiots.  Ok, so “idiot” is a pretty strong word; “unwise” is probably a better choice, but you get the idea.

Robb Wolf has written a great piece, here, opining on the same topic.  Quoting from that piece (one of Robb’s best, in my opinion):

…what I AM, is skeptical of the skeptics, the folks who live and die by what is (or is not) in PubMed. Mainstream medicine got itself into a bit of a pickle a few years ago when holding “complimentary and alternative medicine” to some pretty high standards of research validation. I forget the exact number, but 70-80% of what is practiced in your standard hospital or medical office has NO randomized controlled trial (RCT) establishing efficacy. I cannot tell you how many people I’ve run across who will dismiss things like Ancestral Health or gluten free eating due to a paucity of RCT’s , the “gold standard” in medicine… (although even these frequently have huge methodological problems like not keeping people in a metabolic ward for the duration of the study…). These same people think nothing of using methodology which lacks RCT backing (most of standard medical care), yet shoot down new therapy using the same criteria. What they are relying on is, GASP! Observation! That dirty, dirty word to the EBM crowd, yet the very thing which forms a remarkable chunk of the foundation of their practice. I’d call this a double standard but usually that term implies some degree of awareness on the part of the perpetrator. In this situation, there is NO awareness, just an assumption that what makes up current medical practice has been “rigorously studied” when in fact most of medicine has simply been observed to “work” and that was the end of that…

and –

…the Paleo Diet/Ancestral Health concepts were born of observation, an observation that pre-industrial societies show a remarkable absence of the degenerative diseases which plague the developed world. From this observation, various theories have sprung forth (immunologically reactive plant proteins causing Leptin resistance, changes in activity levels altering gene activity, maladaptive sleep patterns,  gut dysbiosis and insulin sensitivity, etc.). We are now in the beginning stages of investigating some of these big picture hypotheses, and using the findings to refine our understanding of human health. It is humorous when I hear people dismiss “observational findings”, as these are the seed-crystal of ALL of science. We observe phenomena 1st, endeavor to construct predictive models 2nd

and –

..modern physics was born a little over a century ago when phenomena were observed that had no model of prediction or explanation. Shallow thinkers with names like Bohr, Einstein, De Broglei, Planck, and Schrodinger hashed out what would become the modern field (no pun intended) of quantum mechanics. It is worthwhile to do a little reading about this time, and the interpersonal conflicts that arose in the physics research community. It was a blood-bath. Personal attack’s, attempts at subterfuge.  Substitute “quantum mechanics” for “paleo diet” or “evolutionary medicine” and we can largely transfer these stories of a century ago to our modern equivalent of the emerging science of Darwinian Medicine…

This is largely in response to the Salon.com article, “Paleofantasy”: Stone Age delusions; Paleofantasy being a book largely dismissive of the Paleo movement, by Marlene Zuk .  Fair enough; we all need to be held accountable, and a large part of that is responding responsibly to criticism.  It keeps us on our toes, and for that I am thankful.

Ms Zuk, though, is apparently incapable of making any real-world decision without benefit of a definitive scientific study to back it up.  This is classic, academic, “failure to launch”.  She’s obviously highly educated and intelligent — but is she in any way wise?  Since she is so dismissive of the Paleo lifestyle, it would be interesting for her to lay-out her own diet and workout regimen.  Backing up her choices, of course, with solid, RCT-backed, scientific study.

And yes, simple observation alone can get you in trouble.  Admiring the finalists in a swim meet, for instance, then thinking that to get a swimmers body you’ll need to training like a swimmer dismisses the genetic element and self-selection at work in the sport itself.  Observe, test, then assess.  Is it really so complicated that we cannot first delve in on our own without specific and “solid” (Evidence Based!) science to cut the path first?

We do have to be careful, as well, not to become mired in minutia.  I can find a bazillion scientific studies/agruments advising against the overhead press, not to mention the (gasp!) behind the neck version — and heavily loaded at that!  And yet, properly performed, and with the right combination of intensity, rep scheme, etc, I’ve found it to be one of the best overall exercises to perform.  Observe, test, re-assess.

Toward that end, here’s an excellent clip from Mike T Nelson discussing, essentially, the paradox of choice.

Because here’s the thing — eventually, you have to eat.  And if you want to grow, you’ve eventually got to get your ass under a bar and lift some heavy-ass weight.  That you might not be doing the exact perfect thing is ok — it’s still a hell of a lot better than being stymied by indecision, and doing nothing at all.

Albert Einstein nailed it in this regard when he said, “logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere” 

 In health, fitness and ancestral wellness –

Keith

 

 

 

 

16 COMMENTS

  1. Historically, at least, science often came after the fact, seeking to understand or explain why something worked the way it did. I believe that the science of thermodynamics evolved from efforts to better understand and optimize steam engines, which had already been built and put into productive use. I’m sure it still happens that way today, at least some of the time.

    As for Ms. Zuk – I haven’t read her book, but the some of the criticism cited in the Salon article seems warranted. Cordain takes the position that 10,000 years isn’t long enough for an evolutionary adaptation. Using her expertise as an evolutionary biologist, she says that isn’t the case. That isn’t an example of someone paralyzed by analysis – it is an example of an expert telling an amateur that he doesn’t understand evolution.

    I likewise wonder how well we really understand what the health of various paleo peoples was, and how that related to how they ate and lived. Pretty much all we have from that era are bones – hard to determine the frequency of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes from skeletal remains, and hard to tell how many of those paleos dropped dead from a heart attack, or went to their grave with plaque buildup in their arteries. So when someone claims an absence of a certain disease in paleo times (more than 10,000 years ago), how exactly did they obtain that information?

    But those quibbles aside I fully agree with the majority of what you say about self experimentation and decision making today. Living has always involved making decisions in the face of incomplete or incorrect information. We must, as a species, be pretty good at it, otherwise none of us would be here having this discussion.

    • Agreed with Cordain and “fast evolution”; dairy, of course, being the prime example. Of course Ms Zuk is well aware that just because some have evolved to deal with dairy has no baring on whether this applies to all foodstuffs. Simple answer – hypothesize, then test. Also, I suspect that it might be more accurate to cite the absence of “diseases of modernity” in modern day HGs, and theorize that the same absence was evident in our ancestors. To the extent that grain-eating Egyptians exhibit artery narrowing/hardening and non-grain eating HGs show no such indications is a pretty good argument, in my eyes, to at least test some theories. To the extent that those “tests” result in substantial fat loss and fabulous health is a pretty good argument that something good is going on.

      But I have to say that I like the fact that we’re being pushed to make valid scientific claims, here. In my mind, it means we’re scaring the crap out of the establishment 🙂

  2. Well, after reading 12 Paleo myths by Matt Stone, one can hardly return to this diet. I personally experienced most of what he writes about. It all starts very well, you are energetic etc…then you start to tweak because things aren’t going well anymore and then you realize you don’t eat paleo, but rather common-sense diet of healthy basis+indulgences, and you are better off. Or you experiment with very low carb and destroy your life for good.

    • Yeah, I’ve had discussions with folks who will fight tooth and nail against the Paleo diet — mostly from an evolutionary argument, but other times from a (lack of) EBM/RCT standpoint. I usually then say, “ok, scrap that — let’s attack this purely from a nutrient density standpoint”. The thing is, we arrive back at the same place, which is essentially a “Paleo” foundation coupled with n=1 tweaking. The semantics make no difference to me, as long as the end game is stellar body comp. results and good health.

      And btw, I really like Matt personally. He’s a very cool and intelligent guy.

      • No, this is targeted to those who oppose a Paleo diet on the grounds that there is a paucity of EBM/RCL supporting the effectiveness and efficacy of such a diet. As if mere observation counts for nothing. Mostly this becomes a battle of semantics (which is a waste of time in my opinion). The only real problem here is in the arena of policy change, which I *am* interested in.

        • I was following a discussion in another forum on climate change, and someone made what I thought was a very good point – observational studies (or epidemiology in this context) often find correlations that are suggestive of a causal link. It is a great way of identifying a hypothesis for further testing (preferably RCT’s). But the science doesn’t really become settled until those hypostheses have been thoroughly tested.
          Of course, science moves very slowly, and we are often caught between a suggestive association and a tested hypothesis. Sometimes you have to chose something while in that grey area.

          The above, I think, is consistent with what you are saying.

          Maybe the cautionary note is not to get too wedded to your choice, because the final judgement may not be quite what you think. And maybe you should hedge your bets a little, rather than going all in on a particular answer. Failure is a good learning experience – unless it happens to kill you!

          It does seem that observational studies have lead us astray at times: the apparent association between high cholesterol and heart disease sent the medical community off on a hunt for ever more expensive and powerful drugs to lower cholesterol. As the RCT’s on the effectiveness of these drugs come in, the results are not always as expected.

          • Totally agree! A client of mine alerted me to an Emerson quote that I posted on Twitter earlier today: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. I always stress that I reserve the right to change my mind in light of new information. I think that’s the best that any of us can hope to do. Especially in an area so complicated as the n=1, human body.

  3. Good piece Keith. I’m Ok with the raw dairy and the copious amounts of coffee. But behind the neck presses? Man have you not read the science?? Next you’re going to tell me you do sumo deadlift high pulls with chains. Take away is find what works for you and forget the haters!

  4. I’ve always believed that you had to find your inspiration first, and then you have to make life your own. Excellent article and a great read thank you so much for posting.

  5. Leo Desforges:
    Yes, I question the need to put nutrient density as a top priority. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s like with training, if your basis is healthy, you can get very far even if you eat small pieces of s*it in between – because nothing is purely great or purely garbage. Ice cream, pizza, McDonalds can be great, while raw milk may kill you. Hard to base this on good/bad lists.
    If you aren’t at least “Mark Sisson 80/20 strict”, then Paleo becomes just another generic mostly real food diet…actually what I recommend…
    For the details, buy the book and challenge your view…it’s 10 bucks.

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