Read an Excerpt
LIVE LONG, DIE SHORT
A Guide to Authentic Health and Successful Aging
By ROGER LANDRY
Greenleaf Book Group PressCopyright © 2014 Masterpiece Living LLC
All rights reserved.
WHERE ARE WE NOW? HOW DID WE GET HERE?
Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
We are a marvel. Many trillions of cells all functioning as one magnificent being. Short, tall, male, female, dark, light, blue eyes, brown eyes, happy, morose, athletic, intellectual, quick, or slow—we are human, Homo sapiens, "knowing man," the only living species in the Homo genus. Our ancestors who most looked like us originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago. If we go back further, to ancestors who looked more like our primate cousins (the DNA of these current cousins is 98 percent identical to ours), it's four to eight million years ago. And if we consider other mammals that may not look like us but with whom we share much—from how we procreate and nurture off spring to how we respond to threats—well, now we're talking several hundred million years.
Max Delbrück, the Nobel Prize–winning biophysicist, tells us that any living cell carries with it the experience of a billion years of experimentation by its ancestors. These ancestors gave us much more than a family tree. The very things that make us distinctly human were unknowingly tested and perfected by them. The successful ones passed down that success to us. How our hearts and brains and lungs and kidneys and guts work, how our bodies respond to certain foods, how we learn, what we need to feel secure and thrive—all these things were refined by our ancestors and passed down to us. These are our authentic traits, in other words, the ones that are truly human, forged by eons of our species' history, shared by all of us, and durable over time despite marked changes in how we live today. You might say our ancestors worked out the bugs and that we are the prize of all those millions of years of trials: a complex, thinking, adaptable and rational being who dominates the world.
And we do dominate the world, right? Sure, our brains and our ability to manipulate our environment allow us to push our weight around and walk with a swagger amongst our fellow creatures. However, we humans can get a bit carried away with ourselves. Jonas Salk saw our existence in perspective. "If all the insects were to disappear from the earth," he said, "within fifty years all other forms of life would end. But if all human beings were to disappear from the earth, within fifty years all other forms of life would flourish." As we have developed the tools to better evaluate the cognitive and emotional capabilities of our fellow mammals, especially primates, we are finding that many higher-level skills and social interactions are not unique to us humans.
Still, consumed with ourselves or not, we are indeed a masterpiece. A being able to communicate complex ideas, to build cities and washing machines and airplanes and space stations and iPads, to write books, to discover the human genome, to invent bubble gum; the tip of the earth's pyramid of living things; the final product of a very long assembly line of trial and error, success and failure, and system refinement. But there's a catch.
With these superpowers we have transformed the earth. In just the blink of a geologic eye, we have moved from caves to skyscrapers, from walking to Segways, from combing the earth for roots and berries and nuts to McDonald's, from spears to nukes, from conversation to texting, from gazing into a fire to multitasking. The speed of that change has been something the earth has never seen before and it is ever accelerating.
Yet our bodies are slackers when it comes to this rate of change. Our physiologic systems do not change that quickly. What we require to be healthy and flourish is not very different from what our ancestors required. We are essentially a 2.0-version human in the 10.0 world we have created. This is readily apparent when we attempt to explain why we are captivated by campfires, storytelling, and even drum circles; why green is a color that soothes us; why we crave to be part of a group and yet are suspicious of strangers; why we are fascinated by animals; why loud noises still startle us and a walk in the woods relaxes most of us. In 1979, René Dubois, in the introduction to Norman Cousins's Anatomy of an Illness, wrote, "Even under the most urbanized conditions, we retain the genetic constitution of our Stone Age ancestors and therefore can never be completely adapted." Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, calls us "analog creatures in a digital world."
This failure of our bodies to adapt at the same rate as we have developed our civilization has resulted in a maladaptation, particularly in areas of health and behavior. This maladaptation has our bodies functioning in a "foreign" world, has our bodies and minds desperately seeking what they need to be healthy and functioning at their best but finding it more and more difficult in a world rapidly moving away from the one our ancestors adapted to eons ago. Joan Vinge, author of the award-winning The Snow Queen, tells us that "humans are upsetting a fragile balance that their own human ancestors established." Jared Diamond, UCLA professor and renowned author of Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel, writes in his latest book, The World Until Yesterday, "In some respects we moderns are misfits: our bodies and our practices now face conditions different from those under which they evolved, and to which they became adapted." And Robert Wright, an evolutionary psychologist, states in his compelling book The Moral Animal, "We are not designed to stand on crowded subway platforms, or to live in suburbs next door to people we never talk to, or to get hired or fired, or to watch the evening news. This disjunction between the contexts of our design (our ancestral environment) and of our lives is probably responsible for much psychopathology, as well as much suffering."
The way we were
We've all heard it, from our grandparents, or parents, or two old gentlemen talking on a bench. It usually starts out with "In my day, we ..." and you can fill in the rest.
"In my day, we walked to school in snow up to our waist," one says.
The other responds, "We didn't even have boots for our feet."
And the final word: "Feet? You had feet?"
It's a caricature, yes, but tales of tougher times are not far-fetched when it comes to our ancestors who lived millennia before us. Remember, these are the ancestors from whom we've inherited most of the physiology, instincts, needs, likes, and dislikes that we think are our own preferences but that are in fact the result of a long history of survival and necessity. So we wonder. How was the life of our ancestors different from ours? Does it matter?
It has only been about ten generations, 250 years, since the Industrial Revolution began to change our world drastically. For four hundred generations before that, approximately ten thousand years, we lived primarily in agricultural societies where we pretty much stayed put, raised crops, domesticated animals, and reaped a dividend of a higher survival and overall quality of life. But for perhaps as much as 72,000 generations or more before that, we were hunter-gatherers. When our distinctly human characteristics were developing, we were essentially nomadic and tightly bound in small groups and villages. Put another way, if all of the time humans have been on earth was one year, then the Industrial Revolution would have occurred in the last hour of the year, our agrarian period would be less than two days, and the hunter-gatherer period would be 363 days! Can we be so arrogant as to think that what we are today, psychologically, physically, instinctually—and what we need to be healthy, happy; what we need to age well—was determined in the last few centuries? In the last few decades? In the last few years? Or weeks? Clearly the environment in which our ancestors lived had a huge impact not only on them but also on modern-day humans, their relatively recent offspring.
So it becomes crucial to our own understanding of who we are and what we need to be healthy and age well that we break out the human family photo album and carefully look at the environment of our esteemed ancestors. What was life like for these hunter-gatherers? What food did they eat? How did they spend their days? What behaviors allowed them to survive and eventually bring us into existence? What were the conditions under which we humans became who we are?
A Day in the Life of Your Great (Times Many Thousands) Grandfather
He rose with the sun that brought light and heat to the day. There was no time, only the passing of the light, full moons, the repetition of seasons, and the birth and death of living things around him. This was the nature of things, and he was at peace with it. He stoked the embers from last night's fire, added wood from the pile the children had gathered, and brought flames to life. The tribe was all rising with him. There was work to do. If they had been successful finding food in yesterday's light, they all gathered and ate the rewards: the nuts, berries, fruits, and wild vegetables. One of the children had found the carcass of a dead deer, and a group of other children had collected what the predator and birds had left. That was a treat they had all enjoyed by last night's fire while the child proudly told the story of finding it.
As the sun arced over the sky, your ancestor and most of the others walked, looking for food. Since they were traveling farther and farther for food, they would soon move the shelters again. The light was getting short, it was getting colder, and they would move to the place where there were small animals and more roots, and shelter from the winds.
Most of his children had lived and he liked watching them contribute more to the tribe. They were raised by the entire tribe and responded to all who guided them, particularly the older women. Their mothers had all lived through childbirth also and were some of the strongest walkers and most successful food finders and gatherers in the tribe.
When an event happened to one of them, it was recognized by all: a birth, a death, a rite of passage, the discovery of a better food area, good weather. They came together and would often sing and dance as a group. The group was the most important thing. Whatever your ancestor could do that would help the tribe, the whole group, that was what he must do. He remembered from his childhood a man who'd been exiled for hoarding food during a meager time. He would never do such a thing.
After spending all the light time walking and gathering food, he looked forward to being with everyone else around the fire, hearing stories of the old and young, but particularly the stories of the elders. He was close to being an elder himself, and tried to learn as much as possible from the current elders so that he could tell the stories of their history and keep the tribe safe and thriving when they depended on him for guidance. He had learned to observe: to notice any changes in the behavior of their brother and sister animals, fish, and birds that might indicate a threat or availability of food; to watch the clouds, winds, and temperatures to predict storms. He was one of the most successful in the tribe at finding food. He could build or find shelter whenever the tribe needed it. These were the skills that were most important for the survival of all, and he was respected by all and would never let the tribe down.
A Peek into Our Past
We can get more than a speculative view of the hunter-gatherer environment through the observations of anthropologists like Hugh Brody and Marjorie Shostak, both of whom lived in current-day hunter-gatherer societies. Brody, a writer, anthropologist, and filmmaker, lived with the Inuit in the Arctic and with the salmon-fishing tribes of the Canadian Northwest. In his book The Other Side of Eden, Brody dispels myths of hunter-gatherer societies as primitive and brutish, nomadic in the sense that they were never connected to place: "The thing about being with the Inuit is that you have a sense of being with the most gracious, most generous, most sophisticated of human beings. So far from being simple, they are very, very rich and complex." Likewise, he describes their culture as respectful to both the planet and its people. Rather than having a drifter mentality, "hunter-gatherers are completely committed to one place because their success depends on their knowledge of the one place and their knowledge is not transferable."
Marjorie Shostak lived with the !Kung San people of the Kalahari Desert in southwestern Africa and focused on the status of women in this hunter-gatherer society, concluding that !Kung San women had higher status and autonomy than women in Western cultures because of their food contributions. 7 Rather than describing primitive people, the observations of these authors give us a rich look into our human mirror and help us understand why we are the way we are. What it is, in fact, that makes us human. Whether we can attribute the characteristics of modern-day hunter-gather populations to our distant ancestors might be debatable, but I believe most would concede that they are culturally as closely connected to our ancestral past as any other group of humans currently living.
Even a cursory review of the literature about current hunter-gatherer cultures leads one to make some general conclusions that are both surprising and revealing.
Hunter-gatherer cultures ...
are egalitarian, with women having social equality with men
are happy, with people laughing freely
have strong safety nets that support the old, the disabled, the young, the unfortunate
are inclusive, with no one marginalized except as punishment for an offense
have sharing as a core characteristic
are in harmony with the earth, relying on renewable resources
Although today's hunter-gatherer cultures are doubtless affected in some ways by modern-day civilization, it seems rational to assume that these cultures reflect, at least to some degree, and to a degree much more than our current society, the culture of our distant ancestors and—because of the sheer predominance of this culture in our overall history—the environment to which we as humans are most adapted.
Our Distant Roots, in Summary
So, what generalizations can we make about our ancestors? First, most of their activities were geared toward survival: their own, that of their tribe, and without their being aware of it, that of our very species. They worked hard for food. In most environments, even when food was plentiful, it took much work to gather and transport it back to the rest of the tribe or village. Whether gathering or hunting, obtaining food required much greater expenditure of energy than it does today. Our ancestors moved—a lot—in search of food and shelter. Because food could not be preserved, there was a tendency to eat heavily when it was available. Even though it was very rare, our ancestors preferred high-fat food, because it was calorie rich and able to sustain them for when food was not available—a trait that causes difficulty today. Their diets consisted of mainly fruits, wild vegetables, nuts, fish, and the occasional meat from a small animal or the leftovers from a predator's kill. Remembering locations for food and water was a critical skill (which explains why our memory for images and locations is much better than for numbers and names). They ate often, foraging for whatever food was available. Sugar, other than that found naturally in foods, was foreign to their physiology.
Exposure to the elements was a major concern, especially in northern latitudes. Infant deaths were very common, and conception and nurturing of the young were a major focus of the entire group, yet they could not preclude the mother's role in gathering and preparing food. Basically, it took a village to survive and thrive. Everyone had a role in this survival scenario. Everyone had a place, a status, and a familiarity with all others in the band. There was a social compact: I help you and you help me. Sharing was core to how our ancestors interacted with each other. Helping others in the group was not viewed as a service but was expected. (My friend Alison McReynolds spent time in Mauritania and was surprised to learn there was no word for volunteering in the language of the village people she worked with.) There was great respect for others in the tribe or village but a suspicion of others not in their tribe, a xenophobia that made sense given that each tribe was competing for the limited resources they needed to survive.
Excerpted from LIVE LONG, DIE SHORT by ROGER LANDRY. Copyright © 2014 Masterpiece Living LLC. Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.