Archives For homo sapiens

Are You Human?

March 4, 2016 — Leave a comment
Still from 'The Brain That Wouldn't Die', 1962.

Still from ‘The Brain That Wouldn’t Die’, 1962.

I’ve had conflicted feelings about civilisation for a few years – I enjoy the products of both agricultural and industrial civilisation as much as anyone AND I recognise that human civilisation has exacted a terrible price both on us and all the other species of flora and fauna on the planet. (It’s hard to read ‘Endgame’ by Derrick Jensen and stay blind to the negatives.)

There are a few fundamental factors that have driven our evolution as humans, including avoiding predators (see ‘Sculpted by Cats‘ by Frank Forencich – and buy the whole book, it’s great), finding food, managing environmental conditions, and gravity. Basically, moving about, and managing external loads and forces (thank you Katy Bowman).

I mention gravity in particular because it would appear, based on listening to an episode of the Tim Ferriss show recently, it appears that some smart people, from Stephen Hawking to Jeff Bezos, believe that the future of humanity will not be on the Earth alone. Not only will it not be on the Earth but that it would be most sensible to get away from gravity all together, so that human life would continue on space stations rather than on planets. Perhaps, like me, you find your internal alarm bells sounding at this – “What about bone density?”, “What about muscle mass?”. Further listening/research suggests that this might be a narrow view of the future of humans. Maybe the future doesn’t involve physical bodies at all. I love how science-fiction this becomes, because I like how sci-fi’s so often questions the nature of existence. Could it be that the future of humanity is as the gravity manipulating “intelligence” in ‘Interstellar’, who don’t appear to have a physical presence. It must be amazing to work in fields where this kind of thing is being contemplated.

Fascinating as this is, we remain physical beings for the moment, and at least for our lifetimes, shaped by our evolution and the factors mentioned before. Our physicality is central to our existence, and to our health. If you’re not utilising and enjoying your physicality it’s as if you’re preparing for this non-physical future that, if it comes, may be centuries or millennia away.



Easy answer….

I first heard the word carnism about a year ago, along with a brief definition: “a term used by psychologist Melanie Joy and others to describe the ideology that supports the use of animals for food, including meat. The argument holds that carnism is a dominant belief system supported by a variety of defence mechanisms and mostly unchallenged assumptions.
At the time it was easy for me to dismiss. As an enthusiastic omnivore I had little patience for what appeared to be an attempt by vegans to stigmatise something I consider to be entirely natural.

More recently I was reminded of the concept and something (probably that the reminder came via someone that I like and know to be both sincere and humble) made me reflect on the concept for a while.

Research suggests that beginning to eat meat 2 to 3 million years ago was what triggered an increase in the brain size of early hominids and made possible the evolutionary jump to homo-sapiens. The excellent “The Story of the Human Body” by Daniel E. Lieberman clearly describes this element of our evolutionary trajectory. Interestingly, other research also suggests that raw diets cannot grow or sustain big brains in a species, thus cooking also made us human.

The concept of meat eating as a belief system seems like quite a big idea. One that separates the behaviour from instinct or socialisation and proposes that viewing animals as food is akin to a religion. A religion that most of us have unconsciously subscribed to.

I’m assuming that the term carnist (a follower of the carnism belief system) is usually intended as a perjorative. Carnivore seems to be a perfectly adequate word to describe a meat eater. That said, if you describe yourself as a vegan it carries a meaning beyond ‘herbivore’ and suggests a belief system – if you base your diet and lifestyle choices on a belief system I guess it’s natural to frame other choices in the same way. So perhaps my knee jerk initial rejection was unreasonable.

Here’s what I’m left with: If the research can be trusted, our brains are as big as they are and thus able to wrestle with philosophical and ethical problems (that our primate cousins appear not to have time for) because our ancestors ate meat. So we owe our very existence, and our capacity (never mind the luxury of time spent doing things other than gathering and chewing) to think deeply about our behaviour, to the practice of eating meat.

Could anyone have coined the term ‘carnism’ without the hominid and human practice of eating meat? Framing language and philosophies to critique meat-eating our actually a luxury afforded to our species by meat-eating. Ironic, no?

Image from Disney's "Wall-E"

Image from Disney’s “Wall-E”

I’ll be the first to acknowledge, if I haven’t on this platform already, that I tend to like research that reinforces my beliefs, and to dismiss that which does not. I know that correlation does not equal causation, yet correlation can still be attractive if it seems to hint that a belief may really be the truth.

It’s always been easy to dismiss studies (I’m referring to studies on humans) whose results I might find inconvenient, because it’s so difficult to account for every variable in any human study, be it lifestyle, gender, size, weight, ethnicity etc. Then we have to consider the possible bias of the researchers, and possible massaging of the results to fit the desired outcome. So, ‘The China Study‘ may appear to show a correlation between plant based diets and reduced mortality rates, but it certainly does not provide proof of any such thing. It seems that, in general, interesting correlations are the best information that we can hope for from human studies.

I’ve recently had a debate, of sorts, via the comments section of a previous post, on ‘neutral spine’ in Pilates exercises, and the relevance, or not, of Stuart McGill’s research into low back disorders. Earlier this year I heard Ido Portal being summarily dismissive of this and other research, into diet for example, as having been conducted on ‘Homer Simpsons’. In other words, if the research subjects do not have a similar lifestyle or diet to his (and have not had for years), then what relevance would it have to him? Subsequently, I heard the excellent Katy Bowman articulating a similar position, in a little more detail.

Just as Erwan LeCorre refers to “zoo humans”, Katy describes us as humans “in captivity”. In effect, post-industrial lifestyles have made us captives of our own inventions. The comforts that have become so normal as to be invisible have robbed our bodies of the inputs that many thousands of years of evolution led them to expect. Many of us have feet that have not touched real ground in years, except through the (desensitising) cushioning of shoes. Frank Forencich wrote an essay that I particularly like, called “Sculpted by cats”. He writes of a time when big cats were far more widespread than they are now, and preying on our ancestors. Thus, those ancestors’ behaviour was in part dictated by sharing the land with their predators, and evolving particular traits or skills as a consequence. As Katy explains, we are now “sculpted by chairs” instead.

Nutrition inputs for most of us have changed almost beyond recognition from those that evolution led our bodies to expect. Simply, we don’t live, or eat in the way that humans have for millennia – we are almost a new species – homo sedentarien? Homo diseasus?. If you have seen ‘Wall-E’ you’ve seen this species depicted.
If you’re interested in being a Homo sapiens, and not being some sort of post-industrial, corrupted-by-comfort variant, then does research conducted on subjects that aren’t like you have much relevance to you? If you move and eat in a way that nourishes your whole body, if you avoid ‘foods’ that promote inflammation, will it fall apart on you? Do you need to be concerned that, like an IKEA kitchen drawer, your joints have a finite number of movements in them (dictated by your genetics, perhaps) before degeneration? Can science tell you much about how to live, eat, play or work if it’s looking in the wrong direction?



This post is really an acknowledgement of some of the ‘giants’ upon whose shoulders I endeavour to stand, to optimise my current world view:

Frank Forencich

Ido Portal

Katy Bowman

“No Days Off”

February 15, 2013 — Leave a comment

A couple of weeks back asked via Facebook “how much self practice do you really put in?”. It’s a really interesting question to ask professional Pilates teachers, not least because we so often seem to prioritise teaching over working on ourselves. When I first started teaching I used to “do” the class that I was teaching, and it took me a while to realise that this was a really good way to develop some bad habits (never mind that my mat was not the optimum place to be teaching from all the time..).

I’ve struggled for some time with conflicting ideas around Pilates teachers’ responsibility to be aspirational figures (see ‘What should a Pilates teacher look like?‘) and, of course, what we do should be more important than how we look. If we finish teaching a class and then adopt a collapsed posture we’re doing a lousy job of reinforcing what we teach. “Do as I say, not as I do” is rarely a powerful teaching message.

One of the consistent messages of primal/paleo lifestyle authors, and indeed Kelly Starrett, my movement sensei, is that it is our responsibility as human beings to optimally express our genes – to be the best version of Homo sapiens that we possibly can be. This seems eminently reasonable to me, and also a great basis for a slightly different question from the one above: “How often should we be trying to be better?” or better yet – “How often should we be practicing being amazing?”

The answer, naturally, is ‘every day’. Hence, there are NO DAYS OFF. Practice making permanent = we become good at what we do often, which brings us back to the post-class slouching Pilates teacher. A state of fitness is not the result of a couple of hours per week of exercise. That may well form a part of fitness, but if we practice being great for 2 hours a week, and then the remaining 110 hours (assuming a generous 8 hours sleep per night) practicing being mediocre, or worse, we don’t need NASA to tell us what the outcome will be.

Typical view of living room floor (tissue paper is for the cats to play with).

Typical view of living room floor (tissue paper is for the cats to play with).

I was unusually reticent about answering the original question on PilatesTree….in part because I know that I can’t pretend to do anything resembling a Pilates class more than once a week. Preferring to answer my own question (“How often should we be practicing being amazing?”). As of this year, I do something in pursuit of being better as often as it crosses my mind, and this means at least every day. I don’t work out every day, but I try to practice something that I need to improve daily, whether that be a skill/movement, or mobility. I’m very lucky to be married to a woman who shares my passions/obsessions, and evenings in front of the TV usually involve one, or both of us rolling various body parts on sundry firm objects, or indulging in mutual ‘quad smashing’ (For a visual on how to do this to a massive weightlifter, or your loved one, click here, and remember: “Foam rolls are for children”).

Talk of my idiosyncratic home life may have me straying off the point. Here’s the thing: Yes, practice Pilates, yoga, boot camp, karate…whatever’s your poison (passion?), at least once per week AND practice being a better Homo sapiens every day. In the middle of a TV show I was watching the other night (I put my hand up here and acknowledge that I was making no effort to be better at the time), I heard the line “Clean water is a human right.” It sounded weird at the time – I think we’re often too quick to award ourselves rights (argh! Rabbit hole! Yes, ideally every living human should have access to clean water). Ethical quagmires aside, could we say that “an optimally functioning body is a basic human right”? I hope so, and if we’re agreed upon that, we have to remember that “with rights come responsibilities”.

We have the basic human responsibility to maintain our bodies in such a way that we are able to best express our genetic heritage.

In acknowledgement of the inspiration for this post, here’s Kelly Starrett. Not my favourite MobilityWOD video (and he no longer advocates icing) but maybe it can serve as a way in to the goldmine for you – he’s ALL about being better at EVERYTHING.