Paleo diet assumption number one

I overheard a young man in yoga the other day saying that he and his wife had been on the “paleo diet.”  She took herself off that diet when she became pregnant.  That’s the good news.  The bad news was that she discovered that she was now gluten intolerant.

I live in a cave, pretty much, so I’d never heard of the paleo diet.  A few minutes on the all-mighty all-knowing internet and I’m now an expert.  Well, good enough for dinner conversation, anyway.

Seems that the diet is supposed to consist of what mankind was eating some 10,000 years before the present.  No grains, no refined sugars.  And apparently no milk, either.  What, no cows back then?  Overall, the diet seems smart – good foods, natural, stay away from the processed junk and sugar.  Except one small thing.

That small thing is the fundamental assumption underlying the paleo diet.  That biologically we are the same species, only 10,000 years later.  Are we?

Absolutely not.  If good old Chuck Darwin proved anything, it was the fact (FACT) that over time, species change.  And we know why they change; it’s called variation and selection.  If the paleo diet people think that we’re the same species over 10,000 years, they simply aren’t looking closely enough.

Ooooh – hate mail from the paleo people.  I’m so scared.  They say we can’t really measure this sort of thing. (We can.)  They say that even if we can measure this, we can’t know what genetic changes really mean for today’s human.  (Dang it.  They’re right about this one.)  What are we to do?

We look to biology for insight.  And one of the greatest insights within the last few years is the discovery of our biome – the mass of living things in and around our body.  A large part of our biome makes up our digestive system, and in an impressive display of cooperation and feedback, our gut not only helps us live within our environment, it can actually enhance our experience.  Without the right bugs, we won’t be as happy.

Which brings me back to the young lady who is suddenly intolerant of gluten.  It may be that her “paleo diet” has shifted her microbiome in such a way so that she is no longer tolerant of grains.  It’s taken thousands of years of her ancestors to develop a relationship with the local bugs to digest those grains – and she’s lost it.  Worse, she can be endangering her unborn child.

And that’s where evolution comes in.  Her ancestors tried eating grains.  Face it.  Her ancestors were hungry, and I’m sure that they ate whatever they could get their hands on.  Paleo diet my foot.  Back then they were starving most of the time!  You caught it, found it, or unburied it, you ate it!  And some of those ancestors tried eating grains.  Luckily, those ancestors may have already had some grain-friendly bugs in their guts.  Guess what?  The grains went down and stayed down.

Those ancestors went on to have some kids.  The kids ate their spaghetti and had their own kids.  And so on and so on until this young lady was born.  Except she decided to go on the paleo diet and has (possibly) lost her grain-bugs.

Moral of the story.  Eat right.  Take care of yourself.  And never, never, bet against Mother Nature.  Whether she comes in the form of evolution, climate change, or the biome, she is one powerful bitch.

Now, how about some garlic pasta?

Confessions of a Mad Man – part 1

It’s true.  I’m mad.

No, not angry.  There’s no one or no thing that bothers me for any reason.

I’m mad, crazy, a believer in things that no one can see.  I believe in things that no one else seems to believe in.

Aliens?  Large bowls of custard?  A long tunnel with a shining light at the other end?

No, none of those things.  The thing that I see that makes me crazy mad is that I believe in the human race.  You.  Me.  Us.  I have a deep belief that says “Our species is capable of greatness.”

It doesn’t sound too crazy at first, but I know I’m in the minority because our leaders, our pundits, our celebrities and our nay-sayers never admit this belief.  All of them are only interested in the here and now, saving their jobs, looking good.  Are they unable to dream, to conquer, to lead our civilization to greater glory?

Probably not.  Our system of choosing leaders is flawed, so that we end up with only those who are good a looking good and protecting themselves at the same time.

Yet I still believe that humanity is capable of great things.  Living among the stars.  Building great cities that blend into their natural surrounding.  A society that cares for the weak and unfortunate, yet offers a firm hand to those who refuse or are unable to assist the rest of us.

Yes, I’m mad.  But it’s the kind of madness that I couldn’t live without.  Would life be worth living if I didn’t believe that we were capable of so much more than what we have today?  Would I be able to go on if I thought that “this is it” and mankind is at its peak?  What’s the point of learning anything if I thought that there was nothing else of greatness left in us?  If I thought these things, then life wouldn’t be worth living.  What would be the point?


Fiery Fears

Pains real. Fears not.
Pains denied, Fears alive.
Pains accepted, Fears rejected.           (anon)

There’s a pair of decent books tackling the tricky subjects of hate and fear. [1] I’ll say more about them later, but Rush Dozier makes one particularly provocative statement; humans are the only species that isn’t innately afraid of fire.

Is it true? An internet search doesn’t tell us very much. Maybe it’s one of those universal truths that modern science doesn’t deem interesting enough to verify. Scientists, like the rest of us, assume that it’s true because everyone else since the beginning of time has also assumed it’s true. I don’t want to make any waves, so let’s agree. Humans are the only species on Earth that isn’t afraid of Fire. We’ll take this as a fundamental truth, and call it axiom number one.

What I mean by innate is that there is nothing about not being afraid of fire that isn’t learned. In fact, what I’m saying is that babies like fire. I’m pretty sure that most parents teach their toddlers to avoid fire. It’s pretty, it’s red, it’s inviting, it goes snap crackle pop, it’s warm, and – WATCH OUT! You’ll get burned! Did this ever happen to you?

This is yet another statement that science should check into, using the same tried and true methods that have gotten us into skyscrapers and airplanes. Since it’s not a scientific fact, let’s make another bold statement; humanity’s lack of fear of fire is totally due to nature. This means that nurturing, or learning, has nothing to do with it.

Any behavior that is one hundred percent nature comes from our program. Our program is something we all know with no training required. Sucking mother’s nipple for food is something we want to do as soon as we get shoved out the birth canal. One hundred percent natural. And there’s axiom number two.

Biologists know that our program is written in DNA. That’s like saying this essay is written using letters of the alphabet. Our DNA program is extremely large, so it is divided into subroutines and extra apps, called genes. These are like the paragraphs and concepts in this essay. We have about thirty thousand genes, and they probably all work together. On top of this our genes have preferences, just like the apps on your phone. The settings are somewhat randomly chosen for us as soon as we’re conceived. There’s about three million settings for each of us. The professionals call these settings SNiPS – for single nucleotide polymorphisms.

Somehow, shared among all people, is a combination of genes and SNiPs telling us not to be afraid of fire. It’s one of the biggest things making humans totally distinct from all other animals. The same DNA, written differently, tells chimps, mice, birds and snakes to fear fire. We lack this trait, and all other animals have this trait. Yet, if you go back far enough in time, we will find an ancestor that links us to all other animals. Somewhere along the line, a bizarre combination of genes and SNiPs gave rise to us, modern man, with a new type of strange behavior. Biologists call distinct behaviors like this, phenotypes.

Here’s the craziest thing about fire. It’s powerful. It cooks meat and veggies so we can digest them more easily and stay healthier. Fire keeps bad animals away. Fire allows us to work when it’s dark outside. Fire changes ordinary Earth into extraordinary tools, like arrowheads, pottery, glass and steel. We are a species and a society born of fire. Yet, we take fire for granted. That’s too bad, because we should appreciate it for the great abilities it gives. So, the first step is to think back in time, to a period when we didn’t have this ability.

Go back far enough, say two hundred thousand years ago, and you’ll see our distant ancestors, hiding in trees, eating fruits and dirt, probably hanging about in small groups. They very likely acted much like today’s chimpanzees – our closest cousins. Let’s call this particular tribe ‘the standing up people,’ or Homo erectus. [2]

Now, as happens in successful tribes, there are babies. One particular baby was born with a set of genes and SNiPs that were very different from all the others in her tribe. It was a difference no one could see, but it was still there. She grows up, safe, sound, and happy. Then comes that fateful day.

The tribe is taking shelter from a storm, lightning and thunder surrounding them. They huddle together. Suddenly, nearby, a bolt of lighting ignites a pile of dead wood, bringing fire to life. The thunderclap, the light, the flare, and the living combustion of wood makes the tribe hoot, holler, and run away. That is, all but one. Our heroine has no fear, and has not learned to be afraid of fire. Instead of running, she gingerly approaches the bonfire rising before her.

She advances, observing everything in wonder. She picks up a long stick whose end is engulfed in flames, noting how it has acquired a smoldering sharpened point; the first hardened spear. Or she may have found a cooked squirrel, the first fast food.

Or, and this is the truly most wonderful moment in our ancestry, perhaps she looked up from her smoking spear and roasted squirrel and sees, across the flickering and snapping wood, another Homo erectus. He’s not from her tribe, and he, too, is not afraid of fire. The moment is right, she and he spend time together. And eventually you, I, and everyone we have ever known throughout history comes into existence.

In that moment, that Promethean portal gave birth to their love, their offspring, and an entirely new species. It’s quite possible that a single blaze sparked the rise of ‘people who think,’ or Homo sapiens. Our heroine was, in fact, Eve, the mother of all humans today.

What makes us so special? Our laugh? Dogs laugh, so not quite that. Our brains? Dolphins are bigger yet, and birds are proving to be pretty darn smart. Wars? Watch insects duking it out sometime. Our tools? Nope, birds and even some insects have those. Our high technology? There’s something to this. Where does all that technology ultimately come from? Fire.

We are a species forged in fire. It never would have happened if we hadn’t evolved the phenotype that describes not being afraid of fire. So, assuming that only one species, Homo erectus, isn’t afraid of fire, and assuming that behavior is one hundred percent natural, then we must conclude that this behavior is one of the most critical factors in differentiating us from all other life. Therefore, what made Eve so special was that she wasn’t afraid. It may be two hundred thousand years too late, but thank you Eve.

Think about that the next time you have to confront one of your own fears. Perhaps YOU could be the start of a whole new species.

[1] Fear Itself – Origin and nature of the powerful emotion that shapes our lives and our world.
Why we hate – understanding, curbing, and eliminating hate in ourselves and our world.     Both books by Rush Dozier. Published by McGraw-Hill, 1998 and 2002 respectively.

[2] Sequencing Y Chromosomes Resolves Discrepancy in Time to Common Ancestor of Males Versus Females, G. David Poznik, Brenna M. Henn, Muh-Ching Yee, Elzbieta Sliwerska, Ghia M. Euskirchen, Alice A. Lin, Michael Snyder, Lluis Quintana-Murci, Jeffrey M. Kidd, Peter A. Underhill, and Carlos D. Bustamante. Science 2 August 2013: 562-565.
Y Weigh In Again on Modern Humans, by Rebecca L. Cann. Science 2 August 2013: 465-467.

Where did Love come from?

Where did Love come from? Why does this even matter? I’ll deal with these issues together, and start off by way of analogy. In order to understand heart attacks, the first thing we do is use all the medicine we have sitting on the shelf and observe the outcomes. In order to prevent a heart attack, we have to learn everything about it: where does it come from, what makes it happen, and what will make it stay away. The same is true for those things that we wish to have, like Love. We must use what we have, learn as much as we can about where it came from, and why it has hung around for so many generations.

First, a note for those who may think Love has been around as long as the Rocky Mountains. It hasn’t. Love is entirely human, as we are using it here. There are other animals that form lifelong attachments, called ‘pair-bonding’ by ethologists, which means that similar behavior has appeared in other species. However, we are only interested in people. It’s likely that ancient humans, like our simian cousins, normally lived in tribes controlled by an alpha male. Love didn’t exist a million years ago, and it may not have existed even a hundred thousand years ago. At some point in time it came to be; Love was created, by man. Since there is nothing in our species that says we have to pair-bond, why is Love around at all? It’s around because one of our early ancestors successfully tried to pair-bond. The odds were against living happily ever after were never good, as they are even today. Then again, living happily ever after didn’t take as long since most humans barely lived to middle-age.

Imagine the following crazy and possibly romantic scenario. You are in a band of hunter-gatherers living on the fringe of the African veldt. You’ve been born with the pair-bond urge, and your body has matured to the point where your hormones are screaming in your ears. You’re ready. Here comes the romantic part. You’re still part of your birth tribe because you’re not old enough to threaten the alpha male or are too much of a drag on your mother. You’re gathering some berries away from the group far enough so that you can hear them in the distance, but not so far that the tigers can take you by surprise. Suddenly you come across another young human, not of your tribe, and of the opposite sex. Bang! go your hormones, and Thump! goes your heart. You have just had the very first ‘Love at first sight’ experience. He sees she, she sees he, and off they go to start their own tribe.

The implications are tremendous. Because these two have committed to each other, they now have a very different relationship than any of the other competing clans. They present a more stable home for their children. They understand each other better than anyone else, and can tend to each other’s needs more efficiently, saving time and making their time together more pleasing. Finally, they are able to start thinking about other things rather than taking care of their hormones; things like housing, higher education for the kids, and civic planning.

How important was this event, this ‘Love at first sight?’ It was big enough such that those humans who practiced it had a big advantage over other humans. And even today it is big enough that almost all of our cultures revere and promote the idea of life pair-bonding in some way. It’s big enough so that most of our entertainment is focused on the same event – that one special moment when two souls meet and overcome obstacles to begin a new life together.