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Falling short

by Frank Forencich on August 1, 2015

“Lack of awareness of the basic unity of organism and environment is a serious and dangerous hallucination.”

Alan Watts

What do you see when you look at a human body? If you’re typically modern, you see a stand-alone organism that stops at the outer layer of its skin. You see an individual.

This perspective may well feel normal and familiar, but not everyone sees the body this way. In fact, the original inhabitants of this planet saw the body as part of a much larger whole. Native Americans sometimes speak of the “long body,” a description that refers to the body plus its life-supporting context, especially land and tribe. Implicit in this view is the understanding that our bodies are deeply embedded in the world. The body is far larger that it appears; we are continuous with our natural and social surroundings. Moreover, these connections between body, habitat and tribe are fundamental to our health. To be isolated is to die.

This long body view was universal in primal cultures and it is now being validated by an immense body of modern scientific research. Thousands of studies have shown conclusively the powerful, health-positive connections that exist between individual bodies and the natural world, between bodies and tribes. The interdependence of body, habitat and tribe isn’t just the romantic, mystical musing of native people, it is solidly established, irrefutable scientific fact.

Knowing what we now know about the embedded nature of the human body and the power of context in human health, one might expect that health and medical professionals would be doing everything possible to emphasize and strengthen the connections between individuals and their life-supporting habitats and tribes. But this is not what we are seeing. In fact, the vast majority of our modern health, medical and fitness efforts are aimed squarely at the short body. We practice short medicine, short health and short fitness. We focus almost exclusively on the state of single individuals. We isolate the human body on magazine covers, depicting it as a stand-alone organism with no connections to the living world. We market our health products and services to individuals or those who work with individuals. We hire personal trainers and get excited about a future of “personalized medicine.” We ask our clients about their individual performance, pain profiles, diets and training programs, but almost never do we inquire about their connections to their life supporting systems of habitat and tribe. We are blind to the bigger pictures that sustain us.

Obviously, some of this focus on the individual is necessary and justified. Individuals do in fact suffer illness, disease and injury, but in the main, our exclusive focus on individual bodies actually serves to deepen our predicament and take us away from the comprehensive state of health that we are supposedly trying to create. In this process, we defeat ourselves. We create “health islands” that are ultimately doomed to failure. By promoting the individual as the exclusive focal point for transformation and health, we undercut the very thing that would truly make us whole: a renewed sense of contact with our long bodies.

As it stands, our industry motto might well be “Building a better individual.” But in fact, there is no such thing as “a healthy individual.” We are forever dependent on the health of our environment, our habitat, our tribe. The more individualized our lives become, the weaker our health. We are nothing without context.

Even sub cultures that ought to know better fall short. A conspicuous example is the modern Paleo movement. On the face of it, we might well imagine that this community would be exceptionally sensitive to indigenous world views and the long body orientation. After all, the Paleolithic era was populated exclusively by native people who held big picture, long body views; the short body view would have been considered foolish and even delusional. But in today’s Paleo movement, the primary focus is on maximizing the welfare and performance of the short body. Paleo enthusiasts typically use diet and training programs to improve their individual athletic performance and individual health. In this sense, Paleo is no different than any other mainstream health and fitness practice; it’s just another flavor of modern narcissism, a culture that New York Time columnist David Brooks describes as “the Big Me.”

Of course, we all need to make a living and many of us are paid to assist individuals who are seeking to improve their personal health, fitness and welfare. If we want to pay the rent, we’ve got to serve those needs. But the fact remains that our myopic focus on individuals is not serving us well. We desperately need a more expansive vision.

I am not suggesting that everyone in the health and medical fields give up their day jobs and jump directly into environmental and social activism, although this may not be as crazy as it sounds. Rather, I am suggesting that we relinquish our monomaniacal focus on individuals and broaden our thinking to include the long body.

So whatever you do, keep your eye on the context. Without it, we’ve got nothing.


The human body is not a stand-alone organism. We are intimately connected to habitat and tribe.


Wising up

by Frank Forencich on July 5, 2015

note: this essay originally appeared in Paleo magazine


“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”

Isaac Asimov


By this point in the game almost everyone in the Paleo world is familiar with the idea of mismatch (Or, to dress it up in sexy academic language, “the evolutionary discordance hypothesis.”) The idea is simple: Our bodies evolved in a wild environment and are deeply wired for natural habitat, natural movement, natural sensation and natural human relationships. But for better and for worse, we now live in a radically different world, an alien environment that challenges our minds, bodies and spirits. As a consequence, our health suffers.

Specific solutions to mismatch are diverse and individual, but in a more general sense, what we’re really seeking is a wiser and more humane way of living in this alien world. In other words, our goal is not simply to do things in some particular way, but to become wiser in the way we live. In this sense, our vision is to live up to our species name, Homo sapiens.

Sapience is often defined as the ability to act with sound judgment in a complex, dynamic environment. The binomial label Homo sapiens was created by Carolus Linnaeus in his 10th edition of Systema Naturae, published in 1758. Linnaeus believed that the predominant feature of the human species was wisdom, hence the name sapiens.

Of course, now we know that Linneaus was perhaps, to put it charitably, over-optimistic in his assessment of his fellow man. Maybe he didn’t get out much. Maybe he was being ironic; perhaps his proposed taxonomy was all in jest. Or maybe he had the good fortune to be surrounded by exemplary human beings who behaved well in complex situations. In any case, it is now becoming blatantly obvious that sapience is not an innate quality of our species. Perhaps we are best described as Michael and Ellen Kaplan put it in the title of their book, Bozo sapiens.

Today we see folly all around us. Every day brings some new round of ignorance, some new spasm of destruction and atrocity. For every act of sapience, we seem to perpetrate a thousand acts of blindness. For every act of wisdom, a thousand Darwin awards. And you can forget about the audacious presumption of the annual “Wisdom 2.0” conference of technological “visionaries”– we haven’t even reached wisdom 1.0 yet. And as for the doubly vain-glorious label Homo sapiens sapiens, don’t get me started.

As a species, we are immature; a work in progress. As the saying goes, we know just enough to be dangerous. Indeed, Yuval Noah Harari, in his recent book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, called us “the deadliest species in the annals of planet Earth” and an “ecological serial killer.” At best, sapience is an aspirational label; the most we can say at the moment is that we are Homo not-yet-sapiens.

When pressed, most of us will claim to value wisdom and yet sapience seems to have fallen through the cracks of our modern world. We have no curriculum or training for this essential quality and it’s strikingly absent in our modern conversations, eclipsed by the weight of commercialism, technology, efficiency and incessant activity. Incredibly, no one seems to have time for wisdom anymore; we’ve triaged it out of our lives.

It wasn’t always this way of course. All the great traditions have stressed this quality. But today, our technologically-obsessed culture stands out as a glaring exception. We seem to have lost this essential focus, replacing it with speed, cleverness and mindless innovation.

Clearly, mismatch challenges us to act with more systemic intelligence. And so the questions for our age and all the products of our age: Is it sapient? Is it relevant? Does it perpetuate the mismatch between our bodies and the modern world? Does it contribute further to the destruction of habitat and human community? Or does it illuminate a path to some more harmonious and sustainable future?

What does the Paleo community have to offer this confused and foolhardy species? A great deal we would hope. In a primal environment, survival demanded attention to relationship, especially our relationship to habitat and one another. Habitat and tribe, after all, are our primary life support systems, our external organs. In this context, wisdom was to be found, not in dominating or ignoring one’s habitat, but in learning its subtleties. By paying attention to the rhythms of nature, the hunter brings his body into alignment with the ebbs and flows of light, moisture, plants and animals. It is through learning, watching, listening and feeling that the hunter finds his success, his life and his wisdom.

The good news is that we can still find sapience. It lives in the humanities and the arts, in ecology and most clearly, in the world of health. This is where the Paleo movement might excel. We understand the power of context and the power of relationship. If we can slow down and learn our world, we too might help our species live up to its aspiration.


Are you a genius or a bozo?

April 22, 2015

Life is short, the Art is long, opportunity fleeting, experience delusive, judgment difficult. Hippocrates   In 1983, American psychologist Howard Gardner famously speculated that people have more than on kind of intelligence. In his classic book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Gardner identified 7 forms of intelligence: musical–rhythmic, visual–spatial, verbal–linguistic, logical–mathematical, bodily–kinesthetic, […]

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Blinded by walls

April 5, 2015

  “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” Ralph Waldo Emerson Have you ever been part of a great human migration, a diaspora? As you ponder this question, you might ask yourself about the great migrations of human history: our epic journeys out of Africa, emigrations out of Europe to the New World […]

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Re-wilding our language

March 14, 2015

“I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.” John Muir Every now and then a word creeps into our language and begins to replicate like […]

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