A volunteer of the Ancestral Health Symposium 2012 has criticized the culture of the paleo movement. Richard Nikoley apparently felt attacked and as a prolific blogger immediately wrote a hot tempered post in defence. (In the meantime, the blog with the criticism has been deleted due to the personal attacks and threats.) Richards defensive post focused on the few lines that went over the top.
The demographic at this event was almost all white, child bearing age, healthy, wealthy, highly educated, libertarian, racist, sexist and bigoted.I presume these lines were more provoked by a life of discrimination as by a single symposium.
It is normal to be defensive while receiving criticism. The day after, one often notices that honest feedback is actually very valuable, that it gives rare and precious insight into how one is seen from the outside. The valuable points of the criticism were (i) that she did not feel welcome, as a not wealthy person and also as an older woman. Furthermore, there were (ii) many crackpots at the symposium.
I must admit that I also sometimes find the paleo culture to be rather off putting. The reason I stay is because many good ideas from the paleo community have helped improve my health enormously. The main bloggers are friendly and many focus just on science, which is neutral, but you are often just one click away from the National Rife Association. The community has a strong focus on the health effects of nature, but I never saw a link to a nature conservation group. Paleo is inspired by the life style of hunter-gatherers, but I had to hear about Survival International, an organisation that helps indigenous peoples protect themselves, on the German radio. There is lots of talk about expensive food, supplements and gear, but not about anti-hierarchical strategies used by hunter-gather groups to keep their band egalitarian and strong. Much of the advice is focused on males and it may, for example, well be that the standard routines for intermittent fasting are too heavy for woman.
Survival of the fittest
One reason for the self-centred culture may be a bad understanding of evolution, which is one of the underpinnings of the paleo theory. Many people seem to use quite simplistic Darwinian ideas, where the survival of the fittest is directly interpreted as survival of the strongest, meanest, most intelligent or powerful. Evolution is a much richer concept than that, if only because all these attributes come at a cost and the optimum is thus not the maximum. Especially the evolution of humans as a highly social species is much richer. The first step is wonderfully described by the Dutch comedian Theo Maassen as becoming a refined ass-hole.
When I meet two girls and one is very beautiful and the other not that much, then I am also very nice to the girl, which is not that beautiful, so the the beautiful one thinks: hey, that is a very nice guy.
The next evolutionary step is to internalise pro-social values. Humans have very good bullshit meters and being nice is thus often easier easier as acting nice in a convincing way.
The main feature of humans is our ability to build non-kin coalitions. We do not have such a large brain to solve integrals or study grammar. That is nice, but not worth getting your skull stuck during birth. We have a large brain to judge how reliable other people are and whether they would be valuable group members. If someone behaves aggressively or egoistically, it is relatively easy for us to build a coalition of the willing to kill this person in a joint action from a secure distance (human uniqueness). Of course we also have a competitive side and cheating and lying will never go away (if only because if it would be gone, it would no longer pay to have a large brain to protect ourselves against it), but humans also have a social side, a sense of fairness and a natural tendency to share.
Evolution and health are not conservative or progressive, the simplistic view of evolution in the paleo community makes the spread of our ideas to other groups and continents more difficult.
Food is a topic that provokes strong emotions, probably because you actually put it in your body. It is one thing to repeat the stupid slogan: "Eat less, move more" to someone who is overweight, but it is something else to say that most of the standard fare in the super market, which almost everyone eats, leads to chronic deceases. Quite naturally people feel attacked and become defensive. Thus also naturally the first adopters are people who trust their own judgement strongly. (Maybe even too strongly in those cases where the paleo diet works, but maybe for other reasons as previously thought.) They would be people who are independent and do not fear upsetting their community members. Thus naturally wealthy, academic males are overrepresented. They are the people who do not have to care too much what the neighbours are gossiping.If we want to help more people improve their health, this group will have to become broader. Thus looking at the future, Sara rightly said in a comment: (now removed together with the blog)
This "community" will have to grow up in order to encourage broader participation and interest. ... If this AHS is to survive, wouldn’t it, too, have to grow according to participatory interest?
Now, I do not mean to imply that Richard should become relaxed and polite. There is apparently an audience for his rants. I must say, that I occasionally also find them entertaining, especially when he is attacking pushy public figures (such as bariatric surgeon Dr. Garth Davis or fruitarian Durian Rider) and not advocating to destroy democracy and make every one equal the Cambodian way, equal poverty. But it would be good if the paleo movement had more diverse and also more progressive voices. Richards attack on a normal volunteer and blogger was not a move in that direction.
Low carb crackpots
The other main criticism was that there were too many crackpots at the AHS12, more specifically Jimmy Moore (Living la vida low carb) and Gary Taubes (Good calories, bad calories) and that they would redefine paleo as a low carb diet. She had visited a panel discussion on "safe starches", moderated by Jimmy Moore. (He may not be the most neutral moderator for such a discussion.)
I do not fear that these people will be able to redefine paleo as a low carb diet. Actually, I have the feeling that the support for a low carb diet as necessary for everyone and all the time, is dwindling in the paleo community. (Former fruitarian Denise Minger still eats a lot of fruit and is very popular in the paleo community, even Mark Sisson advocates carb refeeds after weight training, Richard Nikoley eats sweet potatoes, Chris Kresser has no problems with safe starches or fructose in fruits, Stephan Guyenet found "the fact that this debate even took place [...] absurd" and the perfect health diet advocates eating a pound of safe starches every day.)
The summary of the Chris Kresser on the safe starch discussion makes it clear that that are no arguments for seeing a paleo diet as a low carb diet. (Not that low carb may be useful for some, for instance in the beginning of a paleo diet, for people who need to loose weight and need to learn to burn fat.) Actually, I would say that there is not much support for any fixed macro-nutrient ratio. Most solid arguments focus on the quality of food.
Should we exclude crackpots? Maybe if they misbehave and make a fruitful discussion more difficult. Otherwise, I would prefer to stay as inclusive as possible. The community is still small and you need a certain mass to organise a symposium. This was also the reason for the ancestral health symposium to combine the paleo movement with the WAPF crowd (short: eat like your great grandmother). Furthermore, some of the crackpots of today, may be the heroes of tomorrow. The ideas in the paleo community are still developing fast (for instance, one or two years ago, the support for low carb was still quite strong). Thus strong selection from the top is probably not productive. It may be better to let the visitors vote with their feet and trust that they will prefer people with good arguments.
I think it is good to have this discussion and would thus like to thank the volunteer for offering her criticism. That she no longer feels part of the community is a pity and narrows its diversity, in stead of the opening up and the broadening that we need in this phase. That she is being threatened and consequently stopped blogging is simply disgusting.
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- Paleo as part of an inclusive health movement.
- Kickass Womanhood at The Big Fat Paleo Symposium
- Another view on Richard Nikoley's post, plus some more paleo female issues.
- Paleo Drama
- A Tumblr blog on the paleo culture
- My Response Regarding The Critics
- Richard Nikoley kinda apologizes and puts most of the blame on his followers
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