Human Happiness, the Human Condition, and our Hunter-Gatherer Forebears

Bruce Charlton has made his a final proof of his 1999 book Psychiatry and the Human Condition available online in its entirety. The book book is described as, “an optimistic vision of a superior alternative approach to psychiatric illness and its treatment, drawing upon modern neuroscience and evolutionary theory.” From the parts of the book I’ve managed to read so far, this book could well be worth reading in full.

The part I’d like to focus on here is Charlton’s discussion of hunter-gatherers and their relative happiness. The subject of happiness and the human condition from a psychiatry/psychology perspective is of keen interest to me right now as I am just finishing up Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (Also see recent discussion on Is Technology Making us Miserable?).

Charlton’s take is that H-G societies were “leisured and egalitarian” and H-Gs experienced a “Golden Age for humans.” Though I’ve yet to read it all, Charlton says that the “scanty” evidence available to support this statement is “consistent and unambiguous.” I believe part of the evidence is the apparent diminished health of agrarian societies combined with the greater stratification of class and status systems brought about by division of labor. That agrarian societies would migrate voluntarily to cities to partake in the industrial-mercantile society just furthers the argument.

I intuit that the hyper-specialization and -isolation experienced by modern human beings doesn’t fit with our evolutionary programming, even as it provides us with amazing new technology and toys. Having said that, I see no reason a balance can’t be struck between the perks of modern existence (technology) and the biological programming of functional/fulfilling community (family) and a more generalist approach to productive activities.

More on this later. And I have more reading to do. In the meantime, read the two bits from Charlton’s book below, which discuss in detail relative degrees of happiness and whether or not the human condition (which Charlton argues hasn’t been designed to be happy) can be improved.

From Chapter 1, Psychiatry and the human condition

Degrees of happiness

The lifestyle of nomadic foragers involve little forward economic planning beyond the communal decisions over when and where to move camp, and the logistics of hunting and gathering. This means that most problems of life related to the social realm – especially around the question of competition for mates – and this lay behind the power struggles, disagreement, discussions and violence. And the primacy of social life in hunter gatherer societies is what has been the decisive force in human evolutionary history – the main focus for natural selection is within-species, human versus human competition.

In summary, the ancestral hunter gatherers experienced a way of life that was – in world historical terms – leisured and egalitarian, and enjoyed health and life expectancy at a high level. Of the three kinds of society as described by Gellner: hunter-gatherer, agrarian, and mercantile, it is probable that hunter-gatherers had the best life, overall. Hunter gatherer societies are the happiest and peasant societies are the most miserable – while industrial-mercantile societies such as our own lie somewhere in between.

That, at any rate, is the conclusion of anthropologist Jerome Barkow – and his opinion is widely confirmed by the reports of many independent anthropologists who have experienced the alternatives of foraging, agrarian and industrial society. The ‘naturalness’ of nomadic foraging is also shown by differences in the harshness of child rearing practices in different types of society. Child rearing involves varying elements of forcible training that are necessary to prepare children for their social role. Peasant societies typically employ extremely repressive forms of socialization, extreme discipline, restriction, and the use of child labour. Industrial mercantile societies (such as our own) are much less tough on children – but still require many unnatural behaviors (eg. sitting in classrooms or examination halls for long periods of time without speaking or moving). But nomadic foragers are able and willing to give their children even more freedom than the most liberal ‘modern parent’ – and such a relaxed upbringing of unstructured interaction with peers apparently prepares the child properly for the adult life to come.

Another line of evidence is patterns of voluntary migration. When industrial mercantile societies develop, they are popular with the miserable peasantry of agrarian societies who flee the land and crowd the cities, if given the chance. Not so the happier hunter gatherers who typically must be coerced into joining industrial life. My great grandparents left their lives as rural peasants and converged from hundreds of miles and several countries to work the coal mines of Northumberland. They swapped the open sky, fields and trees for a life underground and inhabiting dingy rows of colliery houses. Being a miner in the early twentieth century must have been grim, but apparently it was not so bad as being an agricultural laborer.

From a psychiatric perspective, then, there are sharp differences between ancestral societies and modern societies. In terms of their general social situation modern humans are faced with a wide range of new problems – although we console ourselves that for the bulk of the population life is much better in an industrial mercantile society than in a warrior-dominated medieval peasantry. Nevertheless we now live in a mass society, full of strangers who there is no reason to trust since they are neither family nor friends. Although resources are vastly more abundant, resources are linked to status and there are massive inequalities in their distribution.

This means that there is a much higher proportion of intractably low status people in modern societies than in the societies in which humans evolved. Since status is the most important factor in determining a man’s sexual attractiveness, this is a major source of dissatisfaction. Men will devote enormous effort and take great risks in pursuit of the highest status, but for most people in delayed return economies the odds are stacked heavily against them succeeding.

Improving human happiness?

Even if, somehow, the impossible were achieved and humans returned to the kind of egalitarian, immediate return, foraging societies in which we spent much of our recent evolutionary history – then unhappiness would still be common and intractable. Humans did not evolve to be happy – natural selection rewards reproductive success, not happiness. Happiness is – from this perspective – merely the ‘carrot’ which compliments the ‘stick’ of pain – a lure to draw us onwards, to make us strive – but happiness is a reward that we can never permanently grasp nor enjoy at leisure.

So much for the bad news. Happiness drives us, it is not a permanent state. And this really is bad news because there is little we can do about it, short of changing human nature. The good news is that this might prove possible – at least to some extent. Just as human ingenuity has landed us in the predicament of a sub-optimal modern human life, so the same ingenuity has proved a range of technologies of gratification through which we can attain a variety of surrogate satisfactions. – something that will be discussed more towards the end of this book .

Essentially the broad shape of society and its possibilities for happiness are the way they are for reasons that are accidental, unplanned, and intractable. We inhabit a society that grants few satisfactions and offers limited possibilities of fulfillment. It is also a society in which psychiatric symptoms are endemic and a major cause of human misery. In our favour we have increasing knowledge of the causes of human misery, including the understanding of psychiatric illness, and increased power to alleviate that misery provided by the armamentarium of psychopharmacology. All this understanding and therapeutic potential has arisen within the past few decades, and we have hardly learned how to use it.

My point is that the human condition of Western man is intractable in its fundamentals, but amenable to improvement in important ways. Things are worse than they might be. One aim of this book is to explore some of these means of improvement, and to do this will require an evaluation of the extent and nature of psychiatric illness.

The purpose of this book is therefore to suggest how knowledge and technology might be deployed to ameliorate the human condition. We are not talking about utopia, but we are talking about the potential for significant and worthwhile improvements in well-being for substantial numbers of people. However, power can be used for many purposes. And potential agents for good are almost inevitably also potential agents for harm. The possibilities for benefit from psychopharmacology is, although not universal, nevertheless immense. Whether these benefits can be realized under prevailing social conditions is altogether a different matter.

(H/T Mangan’s via Patri)

Day in the Life of a Hunter-Gatherer…7GZycC&pg=PA180

I have not read much of Loren Cordain’s works, but I stumbled upon a passage from Rafe Kelley’s Natural Athletics blog (here) that appears to be quoted from Chapter 10 of Cordain’s book, The Paleo Diet for Athletics, which just landed a place on my ever-growing Amazon wish list.

The passage is quoted below, as quoted from Google Books and Kelley. It’s a fascinating insight to how some hunter-gatherers still forage for food in modern times. The bit about anthropologist Kim Hill’s experiences ducking beneath vines and branches all day reminds me of a sequence in Erwan Le Corre’s MovNat video (ELC MovNat links here) where Le Corre dashes through the woods weaving a path through the underbrush.

What I wonder (And expect a full-scale blog post on this soon) is how we can find a balance between our extremely specialized modern existence when foraging for food means driving to Kroger and hunting is playing corporate politics and pushing for a raise and our undeniable biological programming that expects us to be active, problem-solving generalists. As far as diet goes, it’s simple enough to suggest exercise should involve cross-training and wide variability. But what about fitness? A one-hour workout session makes for a nice compartmentalized way to look and feel in shape, but it makes exercise an end in and of itself rather than a means to secure our continued existence.

I don’t want to run eight hours a day, mind you: I just want to find a better, more fulfilling balance.

Chapter 10 — The Paleolithic Athlete: The Original Cross-Trainer

Ten thousand years sounds like a long, long time ago. but if you think about it in terms of how logn the human genus (Homo) has existed (2.5 million years), 10,000 years is a mere blink of the eye on an evolutionary time scale. Somewhere in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago, a tiny band of people threw in the towel and abandoned their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. These early renegades became the very first farmers. They forsook a mode of life that had sustained each and every individual within the human genus for the previous 100,000 generations. In contrast only a paltry 400 human generations have come and gone since the first seeds of agriculture were sown. what started off as a renegade way of making a living became a revolution that would guarantee the complete and absolute eradication of every remaining hunter-gatherer on the planet. At the dawn of the 21st century, we are at the bitter end. Except for perhaps a half dozen uncontacted tribes in South America and a few others on the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, pure hunter-gatherers have vanished from the face of the earth. . . .

Very few modern people have ever experienced what it is like to “run with the hunt.” One of the notable exceptions is Kim Hill, PhD, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico who has spent the last 30 years living with and studying the Ache hunter-gatherers of Paraguay and the Hiwi foragers of southwestern Venezuela. his description of these amazing hunts represents a rare glimpse into the activity patterns that would have been required of us all, were it not for the Agricultural Revolution.

“The Ache hunted every day of the year if it didn’t rain…GPS data I collected … suggests that about 10 km per day is probably closer to their average distance covered during search. They might cover another 1-2 km per day in very rapid pursuit. Sometimes pursuits can be extremely strenuous and last more than an hour. Ache hunters often take an easy day after any particularly difficult day, and rainfall forces them to take a day or two a week with only an hour or two of exercise. Basically they do moderate days most of the time, and sometimes really hard days usually followed by a very easy day. The difficulty of the terrain is really what killed me (ducking under low branches and vines about once every 20 seconds all day long, and climbing over fallen trees, moving through tangled thorns etc.) I was often drenched in sweat within an hour of leaving camp, and usually didn’t return for 7-9 hours wi th not more than 30 minutes rest during the day.”

“The Hiwi on the other hand only hunted about 2-3 days a week and often told me they wouldn’t go out on a particular day because they were ‘tired’. They would stay home and work on tools, etc. Their travel was not as strenuous as among the Ache (they often canoed to the hunt site), and their pursuits were usually shorter. But the Hiwi sometimes did amazing long distance walks that would have really hurt the Ache. They would walk to visit another village maybe 80-100 km away and then stay for only an hour or two before returning. This often included walking all night long as well as during the day. When I hunted with Machiguenga, Yora, Yanomamo Indians in the 1980s, my focal man days were much, much easier than with the Ache. And virtually all these groups take an easy day after a particularly difficult one.”

“While hunter gatherers are generally in good physical condition if they haven’t yet been exposed to modern diseases and diets that come soon after permanent outside contact, I would not want to exaggerate their abilities. They are what you would expect if you took a genetic cross section of humans and put them in lifetime physical training at moderate to hard levels. Most hunting is search time not pursuit, thus a good deal of aerobic long distance travel is often involved (over rough terrain and carrying loads if the hunt is successful). I used to train for marathons as a grad student and could run at a 6:00 per mile pace for 10 miles, but the Ache would run me into the ground following peccary tracks through dense bush for a couple of hours. I did the 100 yd in 10.2 in high school (I was a fast pass catcher on my football team), and some Ache men can sprint as fast as me.”

“But hunter-gatherers do not generally compare to world class athletes, who are probably genetically very gifted and then undergo even more rigorous and specialized training than any forager. So the bottom lines is foragers are often in good shape and they look it. They sprint, jog, climb, carry, jump, etc all day long but are not specialists and do not compare to Olympic athletes in modern societies.”

The blockquoted material within the blockquote is from Rafe Kelley’s Natural Athletics.

Is Technology Making us Miserable?…-miserable.html

An article surfaced on sometime in February (I think based on comment dates) by David Wong titled “7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable“. It’s since made the top of Digg as well as making the rounds throughout the blogosphere. The premise of the article is that modern technology is making us miserable, lonely people. Despite the sad subject matter, it’s humorously written and worth the read.

Overall, I think Wong makes some good points. The overarching theme is one of technological isolation.

Captured in Wong’s “#3. Texting is a shitty way to communicate.” the Internet creates the tendency to rely on text-based communication over communicating by phone (better) or in-person (best). This is likely due to the control text-based communication affords — if someone calls you and you answer, you fit your life to their demands. If they email you, you can email them back whenever and put their demands on your schedule. Additionally, we have greater control over what we say in a text-based world, which means that we can shield our emotions better (among other things). Ironically, despite the care people put into wording emails and text-based communication to only say so much, the article goes on to point out how terribly inefficient text-based communication is. I can’t argue with this in the least as I’m daily confronted with my own preference of email over phone calls (even when I recognize the inefficiency) and see horrendous miscommunications resulting from loss of tone, misreading, etc. As Wong notes in his related “#4. Online company only makes us lonelier.”:

There’s a weird side effect to [living in Text World], too: absent a sense of the other person’s mood [experienced through body language and tone of voice], every line we read gets filtered through our own mood instead.

As I’m learning right now in Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, our brains inevitably filter feelings about the past or present (or whatever) based on our current mood. How much more amplified is this when the only communication inputs we receive are text-based?

Continuing my out-of-order analysis, Wong lists the related problems of “#1. We don’t have enough annoying strangers in our lives.”, “#2. We don’t have enough annoying friends, either.”, and “#5. We don’t get criticized enough.” These all relate to our enhanced ability to pick and choose the people with whom we associate over the Internet. The Internet has an amazing power to bring like-minded individuals to the same table where they all reinforce each other’s beliefs, congratulate themselves on their insights, and chide anyone who disagrees with them. This happens big-time in the blogosphere from what I’ve seen. For examples, just find any established political, health, or finance blog. The problem here is that we are empowered to surround ourselves with people who never challenge our beliefs or make us uncomfortable. Change is uncomfortable and the price of sound ideas is constantly holding them to the fire to be tested. How do you do that if you effectively surround yourself with yes-men?

The flip-side benefit, of course, is immense: the Internet enables people with uncommon beliefs to find other like-minded folks.

Also, anyone who has spent any measured time on Internet forums can attest to the wide abundance of annoying people that you simply cannot escape. If you spend any time on forums (and even if you generally avoid them, they are still a fact of Internet life you’ll inevitably encouter), you will encounter annoying people who are nothing like you. Even when you can mute certain forum members, you still can’t completely isolate yourself from people you don’t like.

I’ve got little to say about “#6. We’re victims of the Outrate Machine.” It is probably part of the human condition for us to want to see/read about misery. It makes us feel better about our lives, after all. Sad, but true. So that we see all sorts of gloom and doom sites on the Internet? That’s just par for the course. The only difference is that people with crazy ideas (Conspiracy theorists) are now empowered to find each other and then self-reinforce within their group their own bizarre viewpoints. But perhaps like the abundance of porn apparently reducing violent sex crimes, maybe the ability for wackos to find each other and exchange high-fives about their strange theories will reduce the likelihood of domestic terrorism. Hard to say.

Finally, Wong’s “#7. We feel worthleses, because we actually are worth less.” reminds me of this huge graphical “how to” guide titled “How to not fail at life.” The gist of both Wong’s observation and the humorous graphic guide is that human beings are not hardwired to exist in isolation, doing everything for ourselves, and nothing for our friends. When our friends only exist in digital form, there’s just only so much we can do to engage them. It’s like the 20 birthday messages you get via Facebook. All these people see it’s your birthday and write on your wall. Does it make us feel better? Maybe. It’s possible it makes us feel worse — after all, this sort of communication takes so little effort and is so transparently prescribed as to feel hollow and worthless.

There is probably more to say here, and I’m very skeptical that overall we aren’t incredibly better off thanks to the communication empowered through the Internet. However, Wong’s points are well taken and stark reminders that technology affords us the ability to isolate ourselves, be lazy friends, and pretend to have a “real” life and “real” friends, when in the end, most of our online buddies will disappear just as soon as we stop posting on our forums or blogs or facebook pages. A balance needs to be struck between realspace and our virtual worlds.

Here’s Wong’s conclusion:

It ain’t rocket science; you are a social animal and thus you are born with little happiness hormones that are released into your bloodstream when you see a physical benefit to your actions. Think about all those teenagers in their dark rooms, glued to their PC’s, turning every life problem into ridiculous melodrama. Why do they make those cuts on their arms? It’s because making the pain-and subsequent healing-tangible releases endorphins they don’t get otherwise. It’s pain, but at least it’s real.

That form of stress relief via mild discomfort used to be part of our daily lives, via our routine of hunting gazelles and gathering berries and climbing rocks and fighting bears. No more. This is why office jobs make so many of us miserable; we don’t get any physical, tangible result from our work. But do construction out in the hot sun for two months, and for the rest of your life you can drive past a certain house and say, “Holy shit, I built that.” Maybe that’s why mass shootings are more common in offices than construction sites.

It’s the kind of physical, dirt-under-your-nails satisfaction that you can only get by turning off the computer, going outdoors and re-connecting with the real world. That feeling, that “I built that” or “I grew that” or “I fed that guy” or “I made these pants” feeling, can’t be matched by anything the internet has to offer.

(H/T Patri)

The Importance of Brain Tech and the Limits to Acquiring It

Near my desk there is a stack of unread books (And ebooks). They taunt me. What ideas are they holding, eager to be assimilated and used, but stagnant until I can find the time to read them, tease out the knowledge, and add it to my mental toolbox? There are limits on acquiring brain technology, and it seems they are presently difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.

This is not my stack! — Creative Commons License photo credit: Annie Ominous

There’s an idea articulated in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon that goes something like this: imagine there is a project that will take five years to complete. Imagine further that a technology that could be developed in a year would, once acquired, enable the project to be completed in only two years. Thus, rather than use existing technology to complete the project in five years, it makes more sense to acquire the time-saving technology first.

Reality is considerably less predictable than this simple example allows, but it still illustrates a useful idea: acquiring the right technology first can save time and effort later.

This idea seems most relevant to acquiring brain technology, which I’ll define as the sum of useful ideas, useful paradigms, and knowledge. Modern-day prosthetics, also known as our mobile phones and laptops, are rapidly eliminating the need for this last bit of brain tech. The rote knowledge we need is almost always a google or two away (See the recent grind skill discussion on maximizing Google search). However, these prosthetic devices can’t yet do the work of a useful idea or paradigm.

Functional ideas and paradigms are the programs by which our brains process data. The better the programs, the faster we can process problems and the better our answers will be. The better our brain technology, the better our lives. It is for this reason that I take measures to acquire as much brain tech as possible. This is why I read books, blog (On the power of blogging), and follow my curiosity. It’s all in an effort to boost my brain tech, which I hope will improve my life as it improves my ability to solve problems and understand the world.

It seems simple enough but there are problems: (1) it takes a long time to acquire brain technology, it’s difficult or impossible to know what it is we should be seeking to know (2), and it’s hard to know when our existing brain technology is obsolete (3). I have no good ideas on how to attack the second problem, which is Black Swan-esque and thereby unforeseeable. Awareness that it exists may mitigate our base ignorance but then again, it probably won’t. Regarding problem three, seeking out new brain tech as well as simply sharing our own brain tech with others may help — as far as mundane tasks go, that is driver behind writing about Grind Skills.

I’m left to dwell on the first problem. My solution here is to filter through as much information as I can manage and mine out the useful ideas and paradigms. By filtering information, I usually mean reading books and blogs. On the blogging front, a feed aggregator is a must-have. And as far as reading books, get thee to a library (or!

Reading provides a starting point, but even here there is a problem. The volume of information that must be mined to find a single useful idea is immense. There is a brain bandwidth problem: I can only read so fast. Furthermore, even supposing I’m maxing out my reading speed*, I will inevitably read books and blogs that have broken ideas and paradigms (or none at all). How do I reduce the risk of wasting time and energy spent reading empty datasets (books/blogs)? I don’t know.

One workaround to my own bandwidth limitations is to leverage the bandwidth of others. I do this by surrounding myself with others who similarly seek out useful ideas and paradigms and are eager to share what they know. As far as the Internet goes, there again we see the power of blogging and the importance of a good, share-friendly feed reader. In real space, I think Nassim Taleb’s suggestion to “go to parties” is astute. Socialize (Don’t isolate yourself!)! Otherwise, observe others and ask questions.

These are ground-breaking insights, I know. I’m mostly just articulating a problem that has been on my mind. It’s great that modern technology has improved our understanding of the world and enabled us to outsource at least some of our brain functions to our gadgets (Thereby freeing up some bandwidth). However, it seems to me that the age-old ways to acquire wisdom, which is all brain technology really is, are the only ways we’ve got. Read as much as you can and share your tech with others**. And that’s what I’ll be doing until some other tech comes along and renders this brain tech obsolete.

* Speaking of brain tech, I’ve previously attempted learning to speed read. I’ve had no success with it though.
** I’m optimistic that this latter method (sharing) is being accelerated via the Internet.


Transcending the Authority Complex

In researching Erwan Le Corre’s MovNat (Ref: Le Corre Link Repository) I continue circling back to two related concepts. The first is the idea of the “guru” and the second is human tendency to defer to authority, a problem I’m calling the authority complex.

We homo sapiens—enlightened apes—face a dilemma of awareness. The more we know about the world, the more we realize that we are little more than the by-products of our DNA’s self-perpetuating existence on a tiny planet that could disappear tomorrow without any noticeable impact on our galaxy (to say nothing of the Universe). There’s a sense of futility that arises from this awareness, our existential angst, which is probably why we so rarely think about it.

So we shelve our angst and continue living. It is our biological imperative, after all. It is in this living that we seek answers to all sorts of questions to improve our lives. Do I have kids? How do I best support my family? How can I be a better parent, friend, spouse? How do I increase my wealth (Some ideas)? What should I do with my career? What should I eat? How do I find happiness? What is my purpose? How should I live?

Our hunger for “the” answer to any particular question leads us to seek out gurus. A guru need not be a spiritual leaders (even as many “experts” often a distinct “spiritual” flair); today “guru” means more “expert” or “authority” on any given subject. On the Internet alone, I have plenty of go-to gurus on health, fitness, politics, and economics, all of whom I “follow” on a regular basis via Google Reader. It seems that gurus like to blog.

To some extent, I play the role guru (Don’t we all?). People ask me about diet, the economy, and technology. It feels good to be considered an expert, even as I secretly confess how very little I really know.

Whether we get answers directly from observation of the world combined with introspection/reflection or we turn to others—the gurus, experts, or authorities—our questions will get answered, and this can sometimes be a problem.

“If you meet the Buddha on the way, kill him!” — Zen proverb
Creative Commons License photo credit: woordenaar

If it is answers we want, then it is answers we will receive. Of course, many of the answers we receive from consulting authority, which includes not just the gurus but also established traditions, religions, science, theories, etc., will be right. Unfortunately, many others will be wrong, and the trouble lies in telling the difference.

The tendency of deference to authority is what I’m calling the “authority complex*.” I think we are all affected by the authority complex. We’ve all drank the “Guru-ade” from time to time, and our only assured defense against this problem is awareness that it exists. It reminds me of an idea (probably a bad one) for a bumper sticker stating the imperative to “Question Authority!”

Why? It always comes back to this.

As much as we all want to find truth, many of the most important questions are simply unanswerable with any certainty. Even when we think we’ve figured things out, it is often only a matter of time and testing before our understanding is refined, corrected, and improved. This unanswerable quality applies to all understanding, be it scientific queries or more philosophical questions such as ascribing meaning to our lives. Beyond many questions just being unavoidably open-ended, there is the sense that whatever answers you seek are intrinsically dependent on you and not things that can be prescribed by some one-size-fits-all authority. Even supposing truths are discovered, how likely is it that an authority will be able to convey clearly to others the knowledge they’ve acquired from a lifetime of experience and learning?

Question authority. That is the imperative that arises from awareness of the authority complex. More pointedly, we must be critical of gurus and authorities who claim to have the answers because scarcely any claim is more telling that these so-called experts are no such thing. If you find the buddha, kill him (Nietzsche said something similar in Thus Spake Zarathustra as I recall). The point, as I take it, is that when you think you have all the answers, you most assuredly do not. Any philosophy, religion, or other authority that fails to account for the authority complex is at best incomplete.

Question authority! Question everything. Even if our questions remain forever unanswered, it is the asking that works to define our lives.

Finally, to bring these thoughts full circle, Erwan Le Corre is an emerging guru who seeks to rehabilitate humans suffering from modern day domestication, which is to say he seeks to set human beings free. I wonder if the authority complex is the fundamental barrier to human freedom. Perhaps if we can transcend the complex, even as we fail to find our answers, we might find a freedom that brings us peace.

* My first blog was “autodogmatic,” which is a made-up word that essentially captures the problem of human tendency to defer to authority.

Erwan Le Corre, MovNat, Methode Naturelle, Georges Hebert Link Repository

I’ve been knee-deep in reading everything I can find on Erwan Le Corre’s MovNat, which is an extension and expansion of Georges Hebert’s Methode Naturalle.

In a fantastic example of how the Internet makes our worlds smaller and builds community across large geographic boundaries (See The Power of Blogging), I’ve been able to dialogue with Erwan over email. I can’t attest to his physical fitness (though plenty of others have!), but I can attest to his genuineness of purpose as a philosopher who seeks to understand and express our true nature as human beings. I think I’d say I’m seeking the same thing.

  • More Insight on Erwan Le Corre and the Methode Naturalle — Saved material from a blogger who trained with Le Corre and has a background in parkour (and also CrossFit). Interesting reflection on the core idea, which is natural movement and being a athletic generalist.
  • Reverting to “Le Corre” of Things, Our Nature — A fantastic interview with Erwan Le Corre by Conditioning Research; here, we get some background on Le Corre’s training, the “zoo human” concept, his thoughts on evolutionary fitness, and the social aspect of his philosophy, which is the importance of cooperation (as opposed to isolating/insulating oneself from others). Erwan makes the point that humans didn’t compete with each other in a “survival of the fittest” sense — we existed cooperatively in tribes. De Vany has made this point, as well, which is that in a band of humans, each person had their important role to play as part of the group. It’s interesting to imagine that sort of purpose and compare it to our Corporate-leaning cog-like modern existence.
  • MensHealth covers Erwan Le Corre’s MovNat — Perhaps the article that has spurred the greatest interest in Le Corre and MovNat in recent days, the Men’s Health article titled A Wild Workout for the Real World discusses the concepts behind Le Corre’s MovNat and is told from the perspective of someone who traveled to Brazil and trained with Le Corre.
  • Wikipedia entry on Georges Hebert and Methode Naturelle — As usual, wikipedia offers a nice primer on Methode Naturelle which was a movement started by Georges Hebert, a French navy officer, back in the early 20th century. This covers the basics and is a pretty useful overview of the precursor to Le Corre’s own advancement of the ideas he calls MovNat. Of note, the motto of Methode Naturelle is “Être fort pour être utile”—”Being strong to be useful.”
  • The MovNat website — Obviously, this is the hub of Le Corre’s public MovNat presence. It’s a nice website and I look forward to when Erwan gets a blog up and running!
  • The MovNat video on YouTube — be sure to hit the “HD” button to watch the video in high quality. Anyone want to go to Brazil?!

Related Link on Human Nature and our Hunter-Gatherer, Non-Specialist Evolutionary Roots

I’ll be sure to update this repository if I find anything else.

Update: I’ve been informed that Kevin, a fan of Erwan Le Corre and MovNat, has created a site dedicated to Hebert’s Methode Naturelle. Check it out!

More Insight on Erwan Le Corre and the Methode Naturalle


For all things Erwan Le Corre, MovNat, Methode Naturelle, Georges Hebert that I’ve been tracking, be sure to see this Link Repository

Searching around for more information on Erwan Le Corre, Georges Hebert, the Methode Naturale, MovNat, and parkour led me to extensive and informative post by Rafe Kelley written in August of 2007. Rafe trained with Erwan Le Corre in France and has a background in many athletic endeavors including CrossFit and parkour.

Kelley’s experience in CrossFit is of interest to me because CrossFit is often billed as a generalist fitness regiment. However, my four month CrossFit stint was enough to tell me that, as much as CrossFit may be better than any number of other training styles, it still misses the mark as far as a wholistic, generalist training regiment. Perhaps what bothers me most about CrossFit is the combination of a handed-down-on-high workout routine (centralized, highly structured model) with an ostensibly generalist slant to training. In other words, there’s a dogmatism and borg-like quality to CrossFit which is a huge put off to me. I’d be incredibly curious to know if there are serious athletes who aren’t in some way vested in the CrossFit infrastructure who have converted entirely to CrossFit. It just seems to rigid and one-size-fits-all to me. Sure, one-size may fit most, but I wonder if the rigidity of CrossFit is more about converting the masses and expanding the franchise. Just feels like something got lost in the mass expansion.

Excuse the tangent. The meat of his post is Rafe Kelley’s, which I am heavily quoting below:

This is the post I intended to open this blog with a statement about what I know about the Methode Naturelle as my training in Methode Naturelle is going to be the focus of this blog. Up until this spring my primary training focus had been parkour dating back to march of 2005, before that it was gymnastics though with substantially less dedication, and before that it was basketball and before that martial arts. I am now at the point that I can say that the Methode Naturelle has superseded parkour in my training as parkour superseded gymnastics, for me it is more primal more vital more complete like when I started training parkour I have the feeling of how in the world did I miss this before. Why didn’t I ever follow through on my desire to mix parkour training and self defense and why did I yearn for barbells, kettlebells etc when I had so many rocks and logs available to me, what possessed me to waste beautiful sunny days inside training crossfit?

So I am at the point were wish to dedicate my training to the Methode Naturelle and I wish to also help other people follow the same or a similar path. The complication though is that my understanding of the Methode Naturelle is still very incomplete I hesitate to call my training Methode Naturelle, I think of it rather as Methode Naturelle inspired. Imagine for instance you wanted dedicate your life to Muay Thai training but had only had a four-day seminar on it to base your training on. I do think that the Methode Naturelle is bit easier to explore on your own, the principles are relatively simple though the degree of depth possible is seemingly limitless. So the purpose of this post is to explore what I do infact now about the Methode Naturelle. …

The idea of training to have the essential capacities of our hunter forager ancestors had appealed to me ever since I started parkour. It was my goal to eventually open a school teaching what I saw as the original warrior arts. …

The aim of the Methode Naturelle is to develop a complete and healthy human being physically, mentally and morally through the training of the vital natural capacities of the human species that were necessary for our survival as hunter foragers. … The motto of the Methode Naturelle is etre forte pour etre utile meaning be strong to be useful. The training of the Methode Naturelle is not to reach an aesthetic goal or to win an athletic competition it is to prepare the individual to be a strong useful person capable of helping him or herself and the others around them in wide variety of situations.

The vital movement capacities of the Methode Naturelle are to walk, run, jump, climb, quadruped, balance, swim, lift, carry, throw and defend.

A Methode Naturelle training session should be between 20 and 60 minutes and include as many of the natural capacities as possible (generally). The ideal conditions for Methode Naturelle training are in a natural environment with as much of the body exposed to the elements as possible while maintaining modesty. Which is not to say you cannot train the Methode Naturelle in the city or a gym or with shoes on only that this training is not the ideal.

Training should be daily or close to it.

A Methode Naturelle session maybe natural or methodically which is to say one might simple start moving through there environment looking for ways to practice all of the natural capacities for a given time period or one might instead plan out specific route hitting specific capacities or even build a specific course to train each capacity. The obstacle courses seen throughout the world in military training are derived from this last method.

Training each of the ten capacities alone is not sufficient one must be able to chain them together. That is to train one capacity directly after the training of another capacity so that there is no rest between them. so the body is forced to learn to adapt to moving easily between different capacities. This can be very challenging; each capacity has specific physiological demands, which must shift when moving to a different capacity. Furthermore one should be able to mix capacities to be able to run, swim and balance while carrying for instance, or defend yourself while balancing, or swimming, or while climbing this of course adds yet another layer of challenge.

The Methode Naturelle aims to develop a generalized physical capacity not specializations. That is to say to it is the belief of the Methode Naturelle that the athlete who is able to run fast, but also far, to lift very heavy weights but also to climb, to defend himself but also to swim is more useful then the athlete who is peerless at any one of these activities but incompetent or even just less competent at the others. The Methode Naturelle is expressly non competitive because competitive sport is seen as not useful, friendly games are fine but the expression of excess that is modern sport is contrary to the goal of usefulness both in the aim to win at all costs and in the requirement for excessive specialization. The Methode Naturelle athlete, will never run with speed of the sprinter nor the endurance of the marathoner, he or she will never develop the upper body strength of the gymnast or the fighting mastery of the martial artist, he chooses instead, to be as good as he or she can at all of these things and more because he or she never knows what capacity will be called on, for him or her to be useful. According to the Methode Naturelle the generalist is the most useful athlete.

It seems to me very easy to adapt the Methode Naturelle towards developing specific attributes. I am not sure how Hebert approached this, however Erwan talked about seeking to always train the areas were you are weakest. I think this applies both to a specific capacity and also the duration, volume intensity of the training, so one might need to work on their overall running capacity or might specifically need more endurance, or more speed. This can be adjusted by including shorter or longer periods of relative rest (walking, balancing etc) the key is not to stop moving or rest completely. A Methode Naturelle session composed of lots of relative rest, and many short high intensity movements will develop strength, speed, and power, one were the pace is relatively constant and as hard as possible for the given session will develop cardio respiratory endurance, and stamina. My impression is that the later style of training is considered the more basic and important. The amount of relative rest and intensity of work is just one of the many ways in which you can vary your stimuli to develop a broad overall capacity. For instance perhaps one is very strong but lacking in accuracy and wishes to work on the throwing capacity, for this individual finding the heaviest rock he or she could and throwing it would be much less beneficial then finding rock that was much lighter and casting it at a challenging target. In the Methode Naturelle one should always adapt ones training in such a way as to strengthen your weaknesses.

One of the things Erwan often said about the Methode Naturelle was it was not a conditioning program like Crossfit, or RKC or similar functional fitness programs. The Methode Naturelle is an entire method for the development of the human animal. In modern athletics we often dichotomize practice vs. conditioning, one develops technique the other develops physical attributes. This dichotomy is false though, doing precision jumps will develop strength, power, and stamina for jumping as well as correct technique, while doing dead lifts or squats will not only increase the strength of the legs but also will develop a specific lifting skill. I believe this dichotomy arises because of specialization, for instance sprinting is to specific a physical capacity to develop the entire ability of the human being so in order to be the best sprinter one must also lift, and jump and do various other drills but when one trains for a complete physical adaptation the distinction between skill and condition disappears almost completely, when your goal is simply an overall adaptation does it matter if your ability to climb is more due to finger strength or more due to correct technique? If one continues to train correctly both skill and condition should advance together.

… What I have seen consistently though is that the athlete with a highly developed overall physical capacity will need very little time to learn the skill of the athlete who focuses on technique. Traceurs often seem obsessed with developing the saut du chat technique for instance and there are constantly questions on how to do it. I train gymnasts though and they will do this technique very well with absolutely no training at all simply when given an obstacle to overcome were this is an appropriate technique. In short fundamental training proceeds technical training in importance.

Related Link on Human Nature and our Hunter-Gatherer, Non-Specialist Evolutionary Roots

Making the Most of Google Search [Grind Skills]

Creative Commons License photo credit: TheGiantVermin

Background: the Importance of Search

Excepting the ability to read and write, perhaps the most important skill in our modern digital life is the ability to search the Internet. Using search engines has become an integral part of our day-to-day existence. It’s hard to remember how we got along without the ability to find the most obscure answers to our questions by merely typing a few words into

Though there are competitors to Google Search, Google is so pervasively used that you’ll often overhear someone responding to a spoken question with, “Did you google it?” There’s even a snarky website that generates queries to send to apparently clueless Internet noobs: check out “Let me google that for you.” Yahoo search comes in at a distant second place whereas Google search dominates: some 72% of U.S. searches went through Google in January 2009.

Of course, we so frequently google to find the information we need that we hardly think about how we could be doing it better. Thus, the grind skill (What are “Grind Skills?”) of the day is maximizing Google Search.

Confessing Ignorance and Requesting Help

Before I explain how I make the most use of Google search, I need to reiterate the purpose of discussing grind skills. Grind skills is about show-and-tell: by blogging what I know, you see both what I know and more importantly, what I don’t know. I blog about “grind skills” to encourage a collaborative effort of knowledge-sharing, the end goal of which is to save everyone time by spreading the best practices about the mundane tasks of everyday life.

If there is a Google search technique that you find particularly useful, please tell me about it in the comments to this post or email me at I’ll make updates to this post as any new google search grind skills are suggested!

How I make the most of Google Search

  • Site specific searches — Perhaps one of the most useful Google search features is the ability to restrict search results to a single site or even a single folder on a site. You do this by typing your normal query and then following it with site:[the domain name here].

    For example, let’s say you wanted to find every post on that has the words “evolution” and “carbohydrates.” You’d run this query: [ evolution carbohydrates ]. At the present moment, that query returns about 130 results — that’s not terrible but perhaps we can do better by narrowing down our query even further.

    A quick scan of the top 10 results tells you that can be divided up between the forums at and Dr. Michael Eades blog at Let’s say you only want to see the results on from Dr. Mike. Just change your query to be: [ evolution carbohydrates ]. Suddenly you’ve reduced the results from 130+ to only 56! Even better.

    Staying on the subject of nutrition, I often use site search to quickly consult my go-to health gurus — i.e. doing a mash-up site search on [ insulin sensitivity ] for [ ], [ ], and [ ] all at once by using the string [ insulin sensitivity OR OR ] (Note: “OR” needs to be capitalized!). Pretty nifty, huh?

    Google powered site specific search is incredibly useful. It is a rare day that I ever use a website’s built-in search feature instead of just doing a custom [ site: ] search through google. There are widespread applications of site search and if you have any neat tricks for using site: queries, please do tell!

  • Making use of google’s cache — You may have noticed a link that says “Cached” at the end of your search results. Google frequently caches the websites it indexes. This caching can be useful for two reasons.

    The first is that if you click on the “Cached” link to retrieve Google’s saved version of the page, you’ll find that Google uses bright colors to highlight the terms you were looking for in your search. The cached, Google-highlighted page makes it easy to quickly scan for relevant information without having to use your web browser’s clunky internal search feature (I.e. the one triggered by pressing [ctrl+f]). For an example, let’s say you employ the above-explained site search for [ stochastic ]. From that search, you click on the second hit, which is my post titled Contrarian advice on passion. See if you can find the word “stochastic” in two seconds. Did you succeed? Now use Google’s cached version of the page and try again. How long did it take? Using the highlight feature through Google’s cached pages can save an immense amount of time scanning, particularly on pages where there are hundreds of user comments and discussion.

    The second use of cached pages is that sometimes sites either go down or site owners take down material. Art De Vany had a wealth of public information that I would often search within to find his thoughts on a particular subject. However, around early- to mid-2007 De Vany started changing his site layout, which ended up taking from public view the gross majority of his blog posts. Thanks to Google’s cache of his site, however, I was often able to still get the material even as the original post was no longer being hosted at

  • Math, conversions, and definitions — You may not realize that not only can you type in math equations into google to have them be calculated [ 25*13658945 ] = 341,473,625. You can also have google do conversions between different units: [ 170 lbs to kg ] = 77.1107029 kilograms, or up-to-date currency conversion [ 50 USD to euros ] = 38.1417347 Euros.

    Math and conversion can both be useful, but I use google to define words numerous times a day. To do this, just type [define: (the word) ]; for example, [ define: anthropomorphic ]. Google define can also be successfully used for phrases or idioms: [ define: penny for your thoughts ]. I like using google for word definitions because it typically consults numerous sources and lists the results in a neat, ad-less fashion.

  • Who’s talking about you? — This one is mostly for folks who have their own websites. If you want to find out what other websites are linking to a particular domain, for example [ ]. Like site search, you can get granular and search for specific URL, too.
  • Modifiers you should keep in the back of your mind — You can subtract words from your search by putting a minus sign directly in front of the words you don’t want in your search like [ justin owings -implode ]. Alternatively, you can use an asterisk to signify a wild card such as [ obama site:*.gov ] or use quotes or a plus sign to make sure google doesn’t search synonyms (By default, google will search for synonyms). Good to know in the off chance you’ll need them, these modifiers are all covered in the Google search basics link referenced below.

I’ve a sneaking suspicion there are other techniques I employ with Google search that I’m neglecting to enumerate here. As I think of more, I’ll be sure to update this post.

Are there google search techniques you love but I apparently don’t use? Do tell.

Additional reference documents on Google Search

Grind Skills Reading

The YouTube Demographic for Watching Gross Videos


Warning, the following video is gross.


What feels like an eternity ago (2002) I tried to train my cat to use the toilet. It sorta worked: it’s a long story (See the Link above if you really want to know the details).

Today, the momento of that training lives on in the YouTube video I created back in 2006, embedded above. As of today, that video has been seen by over a million people. Weird.

What I didn’t realize until now was that YouTube has some fairly robust statistics regarding who views your videos. In tinkering around and looking at these stats, I stumbled on this report on the viewer demographics. Note which age-group has viewed the video the most:

The “gross” majority of viewers are between the ages of 35 and 54 with the 45-54 group only barely being inched out by the younger crowd. That means that a majority of people watching Zeke, my siamese cat, popping a squat on my toilet, are middle-aged. That sort of amazes me. Sure, adults are just grown up kids, but I’m wondering if this distribution holds true for other videos on YouTube. Is YouTube’s core demographic the Gen Xers?

It’d sort of make sense; of all the entertainment mediums available for consumption on the Internet, watching videos requires no real tech skills. Perhaps this is just tied to the general population distribution? Or is it that most of this age group is at a desk job pretending to work while actually watching cats poop on the Internet?

Anyone else have video data from YouTube that might shed light on this subject? Other insights?

The Internet is making traditional advertising obsolete [The truth prevails again?]…er-joes-update/

The cheap ability to publish offered by the Internet is incredibly powerful (I wrote at lengthad nauseam about this yesterday in my The Power of Blogging post). In my analysis on blogging, I honed in on the ability of blogging to prevent idea obscurity, encourage idea generation, and amplify the spreading of good ideas. Substitute the word “truth” for “good ideas” and I think Seth Roberts is after the same point, when he discusses how a homemade Trader Joe’s ad posted on YouTube became wildly popular because it tapped into the truth. It captured the widespread feelings Trader Joe’s shoppers have about the positive experience they associate with the grocery store.

You just can’t buy that kind of advertising.

Every publishing mechanism (Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, blogging) that is catching on over the Internet is powerful because it amplifies the ability for good ideas/truth to spread.

Seth’s point about “when science was young” reminds me of what I took from reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything; namely, that some of the greatest discoveries in science came at the hands of enthusiasts/hobbyists who were just following their own interests. The decentralization and ease of publishing the Internet provides is bringing that sort of incentive structure back. Corporate-cronies and information protectionistas best take heed.

Here is Roberts’ take. Note the tie-in for self-experimentation:

I think Carl’s commercial is very important as a glimpse of the future. Long ago, only the powerful could speak to a mass audience — and they couldn’t tell the truth, for fear of losing their power. Then cheap books came along. Instantly a much larger group of people could speak to a mass audience — and, having little to lose, they could tell the truth. The truth, being rare, was an advantage. When science was young and many scientists were amateurs — Darwin, Mendel — they could tell the truth. As science became a job, a source of income and status that you could lose, scientists lost the ability to say what they really thought. For example, David Healy lost a job because he told the truth about anti-depressants. Self-experimentation is a way around this problem because, as I’ve said, no matter how crazy my conclusions I can keep doing it. I don’t need a grant so I don’t need to worry about offending grant givers.