What percentage of your ancestors were men? I’ll give you a hint, it’s not 50%. According to Roy Baumeister, author of Is There Anything Good About Men?, it has been confirmed via genetic evidence that today’s human population is descended from roughly twice as many women as men. Baumeister has called this the “single most under-appreciated fact about gender.” You may be wondering: how can this be?
Not all men bring value to the sexual marketplace, but nearly all females do. To drive this point home, imagine life on two different islands. The first island has 999 men and one woman and the second island has 999 women and one man. Which island civilization could create more offspring and provide the species with a better chance of survival? It becomes obvious that the services of most men aren’t needed, but nearly all females add reproductive value.
While it’s certainly true that it takes a man and a woman to reproduce, one sexually ambitious man can father thousands upon thousands of children in a lifetime, while an individual woman is lucky to have a dozen children in a lifetime. Since most females get to reproduce they seem to be more egalitarian (and less violent) by nature.
In their book, The 10,000 Year Explosion, anthropologists Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending tell us what Genghis Khan’s definition of “supreme joy” was: “to cut my enemies to pieces, drive them before me, seize their possessions, witness the tears of those dear to them, and embrace their wives and daughters!” Apparently, he and his sons seemed to find that last part of the definition especially joyful. According to Cochran and Harpending, “He and his sons and his son’s sons — the Golden Family — ruled over much of Asia for several hundred years, tending to the harem throughout. In so doing, they made the greatest of all genetic impacts.”
These two facts I’ve laid out are obviously very important to consider when analyzing the motivational differences between men and women in the modern world. So what does this tell us about our men today? Well, disheartening as we may find it, today’s men are disproportionately descended from the likes of Khan. The men who lacked this type of sexual ambition (and the ability to compete) often failed to reproduce at all. Their “bad” genes, then, ended up in an evolutionary cul-de-sac.
Most of us rightfully find Khan’s behavior odious. However, Khan (and his ilk) can explain why nice guys finish last in evolutionary terms.
In his essay “Darwin Among the Machines” Samuel Butler wrote: “The machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them; more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.”
So the machines are starting to get really good. If you’re not yet convinced of that, consider the fact that Google’s robotic cars have now safely completed more than 200,000 miles of computer-led driving. Barring any major legal and cultural holdups, it’s possible that jobs like driving cabs and trucks will be obsolete within a decade. That machines are displacing human workers is not necessarily a bad thing though. In many ways, this is a sign of economic progress. However, economic progress often comes with unintended social costs (e.g., unemployment). If we think about humans as racing against machines for jobs, then some of the evidence shows that many people appear to be already losing the race.
As early as 1821, the economist David Ricardo recognized that unpleasant consequences will befall on an economy when machines become directly substitutable for human labor. Historically, however, this hasn’t happened and people who fear that machines take jobs from humans are accused of believing in the Luddite Fallacy. Despite the fears of Ned Ludd (and the Luddites), machines have been a complement to human labor through the entirety of the 20th century. Will this be true in the 21st century though? If not, then machines will likely cause what John Maynard Keynes famously called the disease of “technological unemployment” in his essay “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren“.
An interesting question to consider is the following: exactly whose jobs are the machines going to the take? Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned by studying the “working horses” of the 18th century. In Gregory Clark’s book A Farewell to Alms he wrote:
there was a type of employee at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution whose job and livelihood largely vanished in the early twentieth century. This was the horse. The population of working horses actually peaked in England long after the Industrial Revolution, in 1901, when 3.25 million were at work. Though they had been replaced by rail for long-distance haulage and by steam engines for driving machinery, they still plowed fields, hauled wagons and carriages short distances, pulled boats on the canals, toiled in the pits, and carried armies into battle. But the arrival of the internal combustion engine in the late nineteenth century rapidly displaced these workers, so that by 1924 there were fewer than two million. There was always a wage at which all these horses could have remained employed. But that wage was so low that it did not pay for their feed.
I recently finished reading Erik Brynjolfsson’s and Andrew McAfee’s book Race Against The Machine, which, by the way, was quite good. In one section of the book they make the claim that “It can be easier to automate the work of a bookkeeper, bank teller, or semi-skilled factory worker than a gardener, hair dresser, or home health aide.” This insight is taken from Moravec’s Paradox, which, according to Wikipedia, states that “high-level reasoning requires very little computation, but low-level sensorimotor skills require enormous computational resources.” In other words, jobs that require vision, fine motor skills, and locomotion have been much harder to automate than ones that require fairly straightforward information processing.
I think the 21st century’s draft horses are the workers whose jobs don’t involve any innately human skills, like creativity. Strangely, many of the jobs in danger of being lost to machines would be considered by many to be “white-collar” jobs. For what it’s worth, I take one of Brynjolfsson’s and McAfee’s central claims very seriously, i.e., it’s not wise to try and compete with the machines.
The evolutionary biologist, Steven Jay Gould, once famously said that “There’s been no biological change in humans in 40,000 or 50,000 years. Everything we call culture and civilization we’ve built with the same body and brain.” Nonsense say University of Utah anthropologists Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending. Their book, The 10,000 Year Explosion, dismantles Gould’s claim in elegant fashion by arguing that human evolution has not stagnated, but rather, it has actually accelerated rapidly. In fact, so much so that it “is now happening about 100 times faster than its long-term average over the six million years of our existence.”
If this sounds a bit far fetched, then consider the work of a Russian scientist named Dmitri Belyaev. In the 1950s, Belyaev and his team bred silver foxes by selecting only those individual foxes that showed the least fear of humans. After roughly ten generations of controlled breeding, the domesticated silver foxes showed significant changes in their nature. They no longer showed any fear of humans and often wagged their tails and licked their human caretakers to show affection. In other words, they became dogs.
Now, humans and foxes are certainly different, but if foxes can evolve into dogs in such a relatively short time period, shouldn’t we consider what this might mean for human evolution? At the very least, this should make us consider what happens to our brains, biological makeup, and behavior after major environmental changing events (e.g. the agricultural revolution or the rise of the Internet).
Cochran and Harpending, who run a blog called West Hunter, essentially argue that the adoption of agriculture has dramatically altered the course of human evolution. And there is plenty of evidence to confirm that genetic innovation has run rampant since the dawn of agriculture. For example, the gene that allows one to tolerate lactose appears to have arisen in Europe about 8,000 years ago among the first humans who herded cows and other milk-producing animals.
The authors claim that the lactose-digesting gene quickly spread throughout parts of Eurasia. New genetic variants, like the one that allows people to tolerate lactose, thrived namely because it helped people cope with the challenges an agricultural way of life presented. Is a similar effect happening now to those of us who are constantly plugged-in? I can’t help but think that there are changes going on in my brain from all the information I consume in the modern digital world.
Jared Diamond, for one, has argued that the agricultural revolution was the worst mistake of the human race. Then, there are those who argue that the industrial revolution was the worst mistake of the human race. And now I’m sure there those who argue that the digital revolution was the worst mistake of the human race. Cochran and Harpending, however, ultimately refrain from anthropomorphically commenting on whether or not any of these events are “good” or “bad”. Cochran and Harpending do acknowledge, however, that most hunter-gatherers were egalitarian anarchists. As they put it, “They didn’t have chiefs or bosses, and they didn’t have much use for anyone who tried to be a boss. Bushmen today still laugh at wannabe “big men”. Perhaps we could learn from them.” Touché!
With agriculture came the rise of elites (defined as those who live almost solely off the work of others), who are clearly still a nuisance today. Agriculture certainly enabled the rise of strong governments (although forms of governance arguably already existed). Strong governments need individuals as citizens who can be “tamed” (like the Russian foxes) in order to function properly. Not surprisingly, peoples with little or no exposure to agriculture tend to be less submissive, on average, than members of longtime agricultural societies. As the authors put it: “One possible indicator of tameness is the ease with which people can be enslaved, and our reading of history suggests that some peoples with little or no evolutionary exposure to agriculture ‘would not endure the yoke’, as was said of Indians captured by the Puritans in the Pequot War of 1636.” The authors also remind us that the Bushmen have been described as the “the anarchist of South Africa” for a reason.
As an evolutionary health enthusiast, I found the parts of this book that related to human diet and health very interesting. This book should make open-minded and well informed evolutionary health enthusiasts question some of their own basic assumptions and arguments. Are all grains as bad as some Paleo zealots make them out to be?
Near the end of the book, Cochran and Harpending make the controversial argument that people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent (European Jews) have, on average, evolved a higher level of intelligence relative to other ethnic groups. Politically incorrect as it may be to say, the evidence seems to confirm that human races are truly genetically different at some levels (although they are indeed mainly similar). Back in 2010, it was even confirmed that most of us have at least a little neanderthal in us.
This book is mischievous, humorous, lively, and very educational. In the end, Cochran and Harpending remind us that “history looks more and more like a science fiction novel in which mutants repeatedly arise and displace normal humans –sometimes quietly, simply by surviving, sometimes as a conquering horde.” I think it’s fair to say that without a doubt Steven Jay Gould was grossly mistaken. After reading this book, I’ve only been left to wonder about where exactly evolution plans on taking us.
Jules Evans is a British writer and author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations. His journalism has, amongst other places, appeared in Prospect, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and New Statesman. He’s also the policy director at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London. He writes a blog calledPhilosophy For Life and co-runs the London Philosophy Club. Jules also practices the Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism, which he was kind enough to discuss with me via email for this interview. Follow him on twitter @julesevans77.
First off, I have now read your wonderful essay titled “Why I Am A Stoic” several times. Having grown up in a Western culture, can you explain how you came to embrace Stoicism as your philosophy of life? Is it something your learned in school or after your formal education?
I think I first read Marcus Aurelius at school, but I only really got into Stoicism after university, in my early 20s. It helped me through an emotional crisis and I thought, wow, this stuff really works.
I’ve noticed that people often confuse being a Stoic (capital “S”) with stoic (lower-case “s”). Can you briefly explain the difference?
People often think being ‘stoic’ means not showing any emotion. But the Stoics didn’t suppress their emotions. They understood how emotions arose through our beliefs, and how we can change our emotions by changing our beliefs. So they would deconstruct negative emotions by deconstructing the beliefs that gave rise to them. That’s different to suppression.
Stoicism is a philosophy of life and not a religion. Accordingly, how do you think Stoicism and religion relate to each other? Is it possible that there are both atheistic Stoics and a theistic Stoics?
There definitely are today. Some Stoics are fiercely atheistic. In the ancient world, too, I think there were theistic and atheistic Stoics – I’m not sure Marcus Aurelius or Seneca always believed in God, while Epictetus seems more religious to me.
Many people often think that Zen Buddhism and Stoicism are very similar. In many ways I think they are too. Can you describe what you think the main differences are?
I don’t know much about Zen, but in general, Buddhism has more of an emphasis on compassion and loving-kindness than Stoicism. Of course, Buddhism also believes in reincarnation – so you accept what happens to you not because it’s the will of God (which is what Stoics believe) but because you caused it in a previous life. And if your life is crappy, don’t worry, you’ll have another one – Stoics by contrast are rather reticent about what happens in the after-life. Also, Buddhism has the whole tradition of breath exercises which the Stoics didn’t have. So there are many differences – but some similarities as well, such as the aim of overcoming attachment and aversion, the idea of transcending passion by becoming mindful of one’s beliefs and attitudes.
What kind of people do you think are drawn to Stoicism?
Mainly men, typically middle class, sometimes it’s people who lacked a strong father figure so they’ve needed to construct their own moral code. They’re often pretty individualistic, can be quite libertarian. And a lot of people in public service too. That’s a generalisation – there are many different types of Stoics today.
Over the past few years authors like Nassim Taleb and Tim Ferriss have created some buzz on the Web surrounding Stoicism. Do you think the philosophy is gaining in popularity in the Western world?
Maybe. I think you’d have to mention the way Cognitive Behavioural Therapy brought ideas and techniques from Stoicism to millions of people. That’s how I got into it. I think that has a bigger impact than the occasional mention by Ferriss or others. But the difficulty is the lack of rituals or community in Stoicism. People long for community. And I don’t really see a Stoic community evolving. Personally I’ve moved from focusing exclusively on Stoicism to exploring the whole ‘Socratic tradition’, including other schools like Platonism and Aristotelianism. I think it’s a very rich tradition – but there’s still the question of it lacking rituals etc.
There are several psychological techniques Stoics use to deal with the problems inherent to existence (e.g., negative visualization and self-denial). Do you have any other practical tips for aspiring Stoics?
Find ways to practice with other people. Find ways to socialise and communalise your philosophy. Here in London, for example, I run the London Philosophy Club. I think ethics are much more powerful and real if we share the practice of them with others.
UK Readers can pre-order a copy of Jules’ book here.
Here’s something interesting to consider: if we really care about our loved ones’ best interests, we ought to reconsider giving them gifts other than cold hard cash. I already know what you’re thinking — giving cash, how tacky! How can it possibly be better to give our loved ones cash instead of gifts? This may sound strange to the non-economist, so allow me to explain. Before reading on though, please heed the following warning: I don’t generally recommend taking romantic advice from economists. You’ve been warned.
So here’s the issue: gift giving (non-cash gifts) is often a potential source of what economists call deadweight loss. According to the theory of consumer choice the consumer (i.e., the receiver of the gift) knows more about what will maximize their utility than the gift giver does. Accordingly, if we really care about allowing the receiver of the gift’s ability to maximize their utility, we should only give cash as a gift.
Consider a hypothetical ugly shirt that you received on your last birthday from your great aunt. Let’s suppose that the shirt was purchased from Gap for $39.99, but let’s also suppose that you only value at, say, $10. Now, think of all the other things you might like to do with that $39.99 that don’t involve owning an ugly shirt. The difference between the price of the ugly shirt and the amount you value at it after receiving it is the deadweight loss. Notice that the deadweight loss destroyed almost 75% of the gift’s original value. Your estranged aunt who gave you the Gap shirt could have improved your financial welfare by $20.99 if she had simply given you cash instead of the shirt.
Interestingly enough, I recently stumbled across a paper by the economist Joel Waldfogel called ”The Deadweight Loss of Christmas“. In the paper, he conservatively estimates that the deadweight loss of all 1992 gift giving was roughly $4 billion (yes, that’s billion with a “b”). In Waldfogel’s book, Scroogenomics, he claims that Americans spent $66 billion on gifts in 2007. However, the gift recipients only valued the gifts they received at $54 billion, producing a near $12 billion deadweight loss. Holy smokes!
Here, then, is the interesting question: why don’t people give cash as gifts more often? The reason, I think, is that giving cash signals that one has money and that’s about it. And gift giving is really all about signaling, not helping others maximize their utility as efficiently as possible.
Giving cash may be the best way to ensure that the gift recipient can maximize their utility, but it doesn’t really signal anything of importance to our loved ones. I’m not all that wise, but I am wise enough to know that giving my girlfriend a $100 bill for her birthday is not a prudent thing to do. This is true no matter how romantically I wax poetic about the potential for deadweight loss. Alas, there is more to romance than efficiency!
To put it simply, anyone can give her cash. She expects me to signal that I’m closely in tune with her by showing her that I listen and know what gifts she would like. It’s certainly a possibility that I could make a major financial gaffe when it comes to picking out a gift, but I suspect that my attempt at signaling is more important to her than is my concern that her utility be maximized. Obviously, if I were to spend $100 on a gift that she valued at $100, it still wouldn’t make her any better off than if I just gave her cash. This is because she could simply buy the gift with the equivalent amount of cash I gave her.
Is it possible that gift giving is sometimes purely selfish too? Absolutely! Giving gifts can be used as a means to control people. The gift, then, is not a gift at all, but a way to make the recipient feel guilty and in emotional debt. It sounds sinister and it is. However, I think it occurs more often than most of us realize. I think many parents (both strategically and inadvertently) do this to their kids sometimes. My parents, however, have never done this to me and I’m very thankful for that!
In case I haven’t made it abundantly clear, I don’t think we should give non-cash gifts because we want to help our loved ones maximize their utility. As I’ve mentioned, giving cash is certainly a more efficient way to do that. Rather, I think we should give gifts because they can make for great signals. And sometimes the signals have to be incredibly inefficient or wasteful, otherwise they don’t work. Ultimately, the practice of gift giving is a terribly inefficient and costly way to help our loved ones; however, it’s an amazingly cheap way to signal how much we care.
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Oligarchy, n., a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes.
The United States is ruled by an oligarchy that, despite almost wrecking the world economy, has only grown more powerful and more resistant to change. Perched atop this structure are 13 bankers who are involved with the six mega-banks (Bank of America, JPMorgan, Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley) that have been rendered “too big too fail”. How did this happen? How did the American financial system develop in this way? The answer to these questions is largely the subject of Simon Johnson’s and James Kwak’s book 13 Bankers.
It’s worth noting that the authors do a wonderful job of detailing the numerous financial crises that have occurred across the world (Korea and Russia were particularly interesting case studies). Overall, the book is very intelligible (most of the time) to the lay reader.
Due to the politics and incentives (or lack of disincentives) in our financial system, bankers have been encouraged to engage in high risk investments. Here’s the catch though: when the risky investments work out, the bankers keep the profits, but when the investments fail, we (the taxpayers) take the losses and bail out the bankers. So the bankers have upside with no downside — sounds pretty nice, right?
Although many people blame the advent of derivatives like credit default swaps in the early 90′s as the catalyst for the financial crisis of 2008, the root of the problem dates back much further. Johnson and Kwak, who also write an economics blog called The Baseline Scenario, argue that the origins of the most recent financial crisis dates back much further than much of the surface-level analysis in the news would have us believe. In fact, they believe the roots of the crisis are as old as the beginnings of the United States’ banking history itself. Thomas Jefferson, then, rightly feared what might happen if there were concentrated banking power amongst a few financial elites.
Ultimately, the financial crisis of 2008 wasn’t really so much a financial crisis as it was a crisis in political economy. The fact that these six mega-banks came to control roughly 60 percent of America’s GPD is telling of how large and powerful they have become. Some bankers want us to believe that finance plays an important role in allocating capital throughout the economy and that unregulated finance is important for markets to work properly. After-all, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein has assured the public that he is “doing God’s work”, since banks raise money for companies who employ people and make things. As a general rule of thumb, if someone tells you they are “doing God’s work”, you can be certain they aren’t.
To return to a healthy balance in our economy, the authors recommend that banks be “busted”. Particularly, they suggest that each bank is limited to no more than 4% of U.S. GDP (investment banks would have a lower limit of 2%). Banks, then, could be allowed to fail without threatening the take-down of the entire economy. The best part of this solution is that taxpayers would no longer “have to” subsidize wealthy bankers through bailouts when things turn south.
It’s important to remember that capitalism isn’t about only about incentives, it’s also about disincentives. Bankers are operating in a domain where there is a gross asymmetry, i.e., they are exposed to the upside and immune from the downside. In the end, Johnson and Kwak remind us that not matter how nicely we ask, bankers won’t change on their own accord. As they put it, “Simply asking bankers to behave differently will not work; the solution can only come by changing the rules of the financial system, which requires government action.” In the end, I’m not sure what the correct process to get there is, but ultimately I agree with the authors, the mega-banks do indeed need to become small enough to fail.
There is an old proverb that says: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The road to environmental destruction is no different. Paved roads, after-all, only encourage more people to drive by making driving more pleasant. In his book, The Conundrum, David Owen makes a compelling case that efficiency improvements and green technology will not only fail to cure our environmental woes, they may actually be making things worse. Is it really possible, though, that most of the environmental do-goodery out there is actually making things worse?
First off, it’s interesting to note that Owen concedes many of the highly questionable assumptions that environmentalists desperately want others to accept, namely that global warming is real, that it matters, and that we can do something to stop or slow it down through our actions. Unlike climate skeptics or agnostics (such as myself), Owen proceeds as if these assumptions are true. Accordingly, his book is focused on the internal debate within the environmentalist community.
So how is it possible that efficiency improvements may actually make things worse? The answer lies within the realm of economic logic. Consider efficiency improvements in automobiles, which many environmentalists champion as the sorts of innovation that will solve our environmental woes. Let’s suppose that instead of 30 mpg a new hybrid car gets 50 mpg (this number doesn’t actually matter, it’s the logic that is important). If the number of miles every person drove was fixed, this indeed would provide a net improvement for the environment, but that’s resting on a weak assumption, i.e., that the number of miles people choose to drive is fixed.
As the logic of economics tell us, as the cost of driving a mile decreases, people will choose to drive more miles. Generally speaking, a decrease in the price of a good or service will increase the quantity demanded. Thus with a lower price for driving a mile, more miles will be demanded, which will cause people to buy more fuel. The resulting increase in the demand for fuel is known as the rebound effect.
Essentially this means (at least in many domains) that advances in energy efficiency will lower the cost of the activity, but this in turn will cause people to engage in that activity more. At the end of the day, this often cancels out any savings, either financial or environmental. When the rebound effect actually exceeds the savings, economists call it the Jevons paradox. In the book, Owen refers to this idea as The Prius Fallacy, which is “a belief that switching to an ostensibly more efficient travel mode turns mobility itself into an environmental positive.”
In one section of the book, Owen poses the following question (which is also the title of the chapter): “What Would a Truly Green Car Look Like?” According to Owen it would have, “No air conditioner, no heater, no radio, unpadded seats, open passenger compartment, top speed of twenty-five miles an hour, fuel economy of five or ten miles a gallon.” Again, this is because efficiencies and luxuries only encourage people to use them more by making the activity more pleasant.
I think soup kitchens serve as a great example when explaining this phenomenon. If soup kitchens started serving delicious and quality food in an efficient manner, there would be a problem of people eating there who didn’t really need it, therefore they would likely need to be policed. How do we as a society avoid wasting resources on policing places like soup kitchens? The economists tool for making sure that only really poor people eat at soup kitchens is to make it inefficiently painful to get low quality food. Similarly, the same logic applies to making driving unpleasant. Enough so, at least, to make mass transit, cycling, or walking relatively more appealing options.
Owen reminds us that: “One of our favorite green tricks is reframing luxury consumption preferences as gifts to humanity.” To put this in the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s terms, this is also a form of conspicuous consumption I like to refer to as being conspicuously environmental. It turns out that along with the pretensions in their air they create, the average Prius driving Boulderite or Portlander causes more harm to the environment than does your average Manahattanite. Living in a dense city, according to the evidence, is one of the best things you can do for the environment on an individual level. At one point in the book, Owen lamented the fact (at least environmentally) that he and his wife moved away from Manhattan, a place which he has described as a “utopian environmentalist community”. On average, New York state residents have a far lesser carbon footprint per person than other state’s residents (largely thanks to NYC residents).
Much like the answer to our obesity woes, the general solution to our environmental problems is rather simple: consume less. If that’s the case, then making some things more inefficient (not less) is the answer. But nobody wants to hear that. Westerners (particularly Americans) want the cure-all pills, the crazy workouts, and the conspicuously environmental toys. How many people got rid of their iPad 2 because their iPad 3 no longer worked? As Owens puts it, “How appealing would “green” seem if it meant less innovation and fewer cool gadgets — not more?”
In the end, Owen argues (pessimistic as it may be) that individual decisions like using canvas bags at the grocery store won’t actually make a difference. Riding your bike to grocery store may make you feel better, but it isn’t going to save the world either. Because of the complexities of the economic system, the decision for an individual to voluntary consume less gas (thereby decreasing demand) will only make it cheaper for someone else (assuming the supply is the same). Our best intentions to save humanity and the world often make things worse. As Owen argues, that’s part of the conundrum.
Nietzsche is often attributed with coining the following aphorism: “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” (From what I’ve read, it sounds more poetic in German: Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker). Logician that I aspire to be, this phrase immediately sets off a red flag. Really, “whatever” doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – that’s just not quite true, Nietzsche! What is true, however, is that Nietzsche’s aphorism makes indirect reference to something I’ve become incredibly interested in over the years, i.e., hormesis.
So what exactly is hormesis? According to Stephan Guyenet, “Hormesis is the process by which a mild or acute stressor increases resistance to other, more intense or chronic stressors.” Another way to think about it is that some stressors, in the right doses, can actually be good for us by making us more resilient to future stressors. When it comes to these types of stressors, then, the Aristotelian notion of the golden mean seems to apply; create some stress, but not too much.
The graph below provides a nice illustration of how the mechanism of hormesis works.
Although it has a fancy name, most people are familiar with hormesis. Think about exercising for example, most athletes realize that putting stress on the body through training breaks the body down and then allows it to rebuild itself in order to make it stronger. If you don’t allow for recovery though, you end up causing harm through over-training. However, not enough exercise and you also become weak and cause yourself harm.
Unfortunately, as Nassim Taleb wrote in a recent EDGE.org essay, “Hormesis lost some scientific respect, interest and practice after the 1930s partly because some people mistakenly associated it with the practice of homeopathy.” Homeopathy has very little (if any) empirical backing, while hormesis is backed by rigorous scientific evidence demonstrating its efficacy.
Hormesis is about much more than just exercise though. There are actually many different things that provide hormetic benefits. According to Todd Becker, one who realizes this and actively seeks out hormetic benefits is said to practice the philosophy of Hormetism. In other words, Hormetism is a philosophy of life which is based upon harnessing the power of hormesis in a deliberate and systematic way in order to increase strength and resilience.
In what follows, I’ll briefly share some things I’ve experimented with when it comes to practicing Hormetism. People who are familiar with this blog know that I also practice Stoicism. In my opinion, the two philosophies integrate smoothly with each other and I think Hormetism can be seen as a part of Stoicism.
I’ve already briefly touched on the hormetic benefits of exercise. Here are some further thoughts: I try to spend a lot of time doing low intensity activities, like walking and hiking and I engage in intense anaerobic activities on occasion (think sprints, HIT, or lifting heavy things). I haven’t been on a jog in years.
There is empirical work showing that fasting can help protect against brain diseases. Obviously, correlation doesn’t mean causation, but I also haven’t been ill once since I started fasting regularly (not even the slightest head cold). I’ve been practicing intermittent fasting for years now and have never felt better.
When I fast, I typically like to eat dinner the night before and break the fast the following evening at dinner. I’m still experimenting with working my way up to 48+ hour fasts. Alas, I must confess that I still find the idea of waking up in the morning and going back to bed that evening without a meal a daunting psychological feat, but I’m working on getting over it.
There is a fantastic piece about fasting in the latest issue of Harper’s called “Starving Your Way To Vigor”, by Steve Hendricks (I think the issue is worth picking up for this essay alone). In the piece, Steve wrote about his experience of completing a 20 day fast.
As a kid I have vivid memories of that feeling I would experience after jumping into a chilly pool or lake. At first, the icy water stole my breath and then my senses turned onto a heightened overdrive. Plunging into cold water is uncomfortable initially, sure, but within a few seconds I always felt energized by it. It turns out, this may have been making me healthier and stronger too.
When I take a hot shower I usually feel tired and sweaty afterwards, not refreshed. However, I must admit that I rarely just jump into an ice cold shower either though. Usually I start with a warm shower and towards the end of it I’ll blast myself with cold water. When I first started doing this, I stayed in for a maybe ten seconds tops. Now I’m working my way up to a couple of minutes. The cold water at my house is very cold so I usually experience brain freeze (aka sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia) when I take cold showers.
Eventually, I’d like to work my way up to taking an ice cold swim like the guy in the video below.
Most of us (particularly those of us who like wine) are familiar with the empirical work showing that a glass of wine (or two for men) a day is good for our health. Alcohol is a poison though, so how can this be? Can you say h-o-r-m-e-s-i-s? I personally think that this advice should be amended to say that a glass of wine or two is beneficial to have on some days. I also suspect that there are hormetic benefits from beer and spirits too, but this is just speculation and this belief of mine is grounded more in hope than evidence, since I enjoy a good bourbon and beer now and then too.
Catching some sun is not only healthy, but it makes me feel better. However, getting fried in the sun is not good for you. In Colorado, where I live, it’s very easy to over do it.
Smoking one cigar or cigarette every 72 days may be better for you than not smoking at all. Sounds strange, right? This one is really a moot point for me though. I don’t particularly enjoy smoking cigars and probably wouldn’t do so even if there were health benefits. Non-smokers who live in big cities probably (and inadvertently) inhale enough second-hand smoke to get the hormetic benefits without even trying.
Anyway, with all due respect to Nietzsche, I’d like to correct his aphorism: “Whatever doesn’t Some things that don’t kill me make me stronger.” And that, in short, is why I practice Hormetism.
Here’s an interesting question: are there better and worse ways of reasoning? If you don’t think the answer is a resounding “yes”, then I’d urge you to consider the logical implications of that answer.
On January 27th, 2012 (in the video below) Dr. Peter Boghossian of Portland State University presented an uncontroversial thesis to a packed crowd, i.e., that asking your dog or sacrificing a goat is not a reliable reasoning process that leads one to the truth. Personally, I know very few (if any) people who would object to this claim.
Peter, drawing on this point, goes on to present what should be another uncontroversial thesis, i.e., that faith is a belief producing process that does not reliably lead one to the truth either.
Whatever the reason, this second claim is quite controversial.
It’s important to keep in mind that this latter claim is not an attack on religious faith per se, but rather it’s an attack on faith as an unreliable belief producing process. It’s simply an epistemological claim and one that most pious folks already, at least tacitly, agree to when they dismiss other absurd beliefs that lack evidence.
In his philosophical book, The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton writes, “If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest –in all its ardor and paradoxes– than our travels.” Ultimately, he suggests that most of us are sadly ignorant when it comes to the art of travel and I suspect that’s he correct in that diagnosis. Using his essayistic style and the aid of dead painters and poets, aesthetes, and Romantics, De Botton explores the buzz around travel in wonderful detail. Accordingly, I highly recommend this book.
A while back, but long after this book was published, De Botton tweeted: “Travel agents would be wiser to ask us what we hope to change about our lives rather than simply where we wish to go.” In my opinion, his aphorism smacks of truth and it largely explains what this book is about. Using his keen command of the English language, De Botton explores the philosophy of travel in great depth. He reminds us that we are often given advice on where to travel to, but seldom do we hear why and how we should travel.
Speaking of how we travel, you may be wondering what De Botton makes of things like the airplane. “The plane,” he writes, “a symbol or worldliness, carrying within itself a trace of all the lands it has crossed; its eternal mobility offering an imaginative counterweight to feelings of stagnation and confinement.”
It’s interesting to note that people can manage to be either happy or miserable in the most beautiful locations in the world. The underlying problem with travel, of course, is that you can never actually escape yourself. De Botton shares an interesting anecdote about his trip to the Barbados. He goes on to inform readers that he had inadvertently brought himself with himself to the island. I was reminded that when we travel as a form of escapism, it’s usually to escape something that is plaguing us internally, not externally.
Pascal was an astute observer of the humanity. “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness,” he wrote, “is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” What we find appealing, exotic, and intoxicating in foreign lands may simply be what we secretly long for at home in vain. Perhaps the aim of travel, then, is to learn to become a more sophisticated tourist in your own mind.