The Diseases of Civilization

Two Types of Cures

If I told you that we already know what causes cancer, heart disease, diabetes, autism, and many of the other bodily and neurological diseases that plague civilization, and therefore not only how to usually prevent them but in many cases even cure them, you’d be forgiven for assuming that I must be deluded, that I must be a quack, a crank, a charlatan. Surely I know nothing of the greatness of Modern Science, and have been led astray by the pseudoscience of Alternative Health. With many billions of dollars allocated toward cutting-edge medical research, and many of the best minds in the world working tirelessly on the problems, it’s absurd to suggest that a loosely organized group of amateurs on the Internet have come up with cures where so many brilliant scientists have fallen flat on their face. To believe that I have the answers can be evidence for nothing more than a sort of arbitrary arrogance, and my methods of thinking about these topics must be more akin to religious faith than to anything that could be considered scientific analysis.

But there’s a complication that may show why my claim needn’t be so shocking: What mainstream medicine is optimizing for is very different from what alternative medicine is optimizing for, even if both groups claim that they’re looking for a “cure”. Simply put, Western Medicine is in the business of diagnosing, treating, and fixing health issues without putting almost any pressure on the individual to change their lifestyle, while Functional Medicine aims to cure health problems even if it requires the person to make deep changes to the fundamental structure of their life. It’s no surprise that conventional medicine is lagging so far behind a bunch of uncredentialed bloggers on the Internet, since its task is much more difficult. Rather than removing the cause of a given disease, and then watching the symptoms fall away; instead, it has to develop a technological method to treat the disease without having the luxury of changing almost anything of deep significance about what caused the disease in the first place. While Western Medicine is like a team of scientists trying to figure out how to make tires impervious to puncture, along with a team of maintenance workers putting in overtime to respond to the constant flood of flat-tire calls all over the city, Functional Medicine is like a guy who tries in vain to get the attention of these people to say: “Wait a minute, how about we simply clean up this sea of broken glass strewn across our roads?”

Medical schools, hospitals, and all of the other institutions that make up the medical establishment; these institutions aren’t somehow isolated from the rest of society, but are rather an integral part of the whole. Strongly controlled by the government but partially left to the free market, the medical establishment can be modeled as a complex organ that has evolved within within civilization for purposes that are largely Statist and economic in nature. When people get sick, the objective is for them to be able to return to being productive members of society as quickly and efficiently as possible. Western Medicine doesn’t suggest that you quit your cubicle job because it’s an unnatural stress on your body, but rather provides you with drugs, surgical techniques, and other technological means to compensate for the unnatural character of your daily life. While an alternative therapy may suggest that you quit coffee, sugar, and sedentary behavior, that would conflict with your role as a cog in the corporate machine, and thus the orthodox treatment won’t ask that you stop using such substances and that you stop spending so much time sitting in front of a screen. It will simply do its best to remove what stops you from feeling like going to work.

Thus I could say: While Alternative Health has nothing to say past what’s already been discovered within the mainstream when it comes to curing cancer with technological means that don’t require that you change anything fundamental about your lifestyle, Alternative Health does know how to prevent most forms of cancer and even how to successfully treat many of them, since it’s able to leverage profound changes to lifestyle. I don’t know “the cure for cancer”, as the orthodoxy would interpret those words; but I do know… the cure for cancer, as those who aren’t beholden to the conventional order would conceptualize such a thing. Likewise, I don’t know “the cause of cancer”; though I do know the cause of cancer. For the mainstream, a cure is a method for removing the disease without interfering with the person’s ability to fit into normal life; but for Alternative Health a cure is any method that will fix the underlying problem. And for the mainstream, the cause is a physical mechanism that can be thwarted with a technological method; while for Alternative Health it’s any mechanism that can be put to an end, no matter how profound the lifestyle changes required by the patient.

An Order That’s Not Without Sacrifice

Cancer, heart disease, autism, and many other common disorders are what we can called the diseases of civilization. They’re the side effects of life within civilization. They’re part of what can go wrong when you participate in the order of society. Caffeine, alcohol, grains, constant consumption of calories (as opposed to periodic fasting), sedentary life, and so forth; these constitute some of the main devices lying at the foundation of civilization, and they’re as volatile as they are useful. While an alternative therapy may suggest that you quit all of these things, and instead eat nothing other than high-quality animals products and non-starchy vegetables while doing intermittent fasting, engaging in an extended fast every once in a while, spending a lot of time in the sun, and moving far more often than sitting in a chair, the unconscious wisdom of the mainstream knows that you wouldn’t be an obedient cog in the machine for much longer if you did that. Western Medicine gives technological means to compensate for the diseases of civilization, while Alternative Health sometimes goes so far as to suggest seceding from a certain aspect of civilization, so the disease no longer has a basis to occur.

There are few models of reality which yield more fruits than the idea that modern humans descend from ancient hunter-gatherers. While we’re not biologically identical to our Paleolithic ancestors, our design is nevertheless to some extent outdated. Both neurologically and physiologically, in many key ways we’re more adapted to the prehistoric world of tribal life, compared to the modern world of civilized existence.

Why would it produce fear to stand on a perfectly sturdy glass floor suspended thousands of feet above a city, while most people don’t find sitting in the passenger’s seat of a card hurdling down a road lined with telephone poles all that frightening, even the first time? As so often happens, this question has no answer until we think in terms of evolution. Our hunter-gatherer forebearers never had occasion to stand on a transparent floor, and therefore our biologically evolved senses don’t have built into them a mechanism that differentiates between (1) seeing a drop to our death underneath us and actually falling down, and (2) seeing such a scene but having no chance of actually falling. Cars, on the other hand, are also unnatural, and for some reason our systems don’t register the severe danger in a visceral fashion. These are both evolutionary novel situations (standing on a glass floor and driving a car), and for this reason our brains misfire: One isn’t actually dangerous but nevertheless produces fear, and the other is much more dangerous yet tends to create less fear, if any. Our design isn’t rational, but evolutionary.

The departure of the human race from the ancestral environment of tribal life, and the subsequent arrival in the new world of civilization, has brought with it myriad problems that have demanded solution.

For example, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were very physically active, while the average person who lives in civilization is largely sedentary. Our bodies are built with the assumption that we’ll be spending a large proportion of every day moving, and quite a small amount of time sitting on anything resembling a chair; yet most people who live in modern society spend a significant chunk of their day-to-day life sitting. Among other issues, the human cardiovascular system isn’t structured under the idea that we’ll be sitting so much, and as a result our circulation has a tendency to stagnate in such conditions. But civilization as come up with a solution: cardiac stimulants. These are substances and practices which approximate the cardiovascular effects of doing exercise or bathing in the sun, and they’re part of the bedrock of civilization. Far from being just a few miscellaneous things that you may use sometimes, they make up some of the most prevalent devices in all of daily life: caffeine, alcohol, capsaicin, sauna, hot baths, hot showers, etc. In the ancestral environment, we simply moved enough to keep the blood flowing; but in civilization we employ a cocktail of cardiac stimulants to compensate for our sedentary behavior, however imperfectly.

And to provide a more complex example, I should mention a different way that we’re maladapted to the present environment, and some of the problems that come about due to this evolutionary discordance. Humans have designed into their brains a system of psychological incentives. Certain things are enjoyable, other things are painful, and the rest neutral. For instance, sex with an attractive partner is enjoyable (because it gives humans the incentive to procreate), cutting into one’s flesh is painful (since it increases the probability of infection, among other things), and a pattern on the floor that we take no notice of is neutral (since it doesn’t matter to the objectives we have programmed into us). But consider that tribal life was much different than life in modern society, and thus how humans had to be incentivized to behave at that time in history was much different than what we need to be incentivized to do now. If enough people followed their primal urges, civilization would crumble. Civilization demands something very different than a hunter-gatherer tribe would have.

In other words:

  • Humans have designed into them a system of psychological incentives that made sense within the context of the ancestral environment. That is, we possess fears, urges, and other such mental phenomena, and these mental phenomena are set up to be triggered in a pattern that would have incentivized us to behave in a certain way.
  • Secondly, life within a massively populated nation running on an industrial economy is deeply different than life within a comparatively tiny tribe using primitive methods to feed its members.
  • Thirdly, cultural evolution took over where biological evolution left off, with civilization discovering many ways to take out biologically programmed psychological incentive structure and shape it into something that works within modern society. Some urges are re-purposed by social norms, while others are altered by civilization-era substances and practices.
  • And finally, many of these substances and practices cause side effects. There are the diseases of civilization. Grains, caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, and many other substances and practices are used to take our primal programming and produce a headspace that’s conducive to life in civilization. But our bodies aren’t perfectly adapted to them, and the result is some of the common illnesses of civilization: cancer, heart disease, etc.

As hard as it might be to tell exactly what’s going on here, foods like grains, caffeine, alcohol, fruit, desserts, and so on have mental effects. They alter how we think, feel, and act. Most people realize that caffeine and alcohol are psychoactive, but it’s much less common for people to think of rice, wheat, cake, juice, and other such foods as having mental effects. The forces of cultural evolution have paired foods with contexts for this reason. For instance, ice cream pairs well with idle fun, while it would be strange to serve ice cream at a business meeting where serious decisions will be made. This is because of its mental effects. It’s good for producing a feeling of arbitrary fun, but not for promoting incisive thinking and deep focus. Although these pairings are starting to break down under the pressure of the chaos of modern Western culture, they’re vital to the functioning of an orderly society.

But let’s return to the simple example of caffeine. Consider that entering dry data into spreadsheets for multiple hours per day for years on end isn’t an activity that would have been familiar to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, is intolerably boring to the sober mind, and thus benefits from caffeine. People who are tasked with such jobs almost always intoxicate themselves with copious amounts of caffeine (along with sugar and other stimulants) in order to make it through the day. This makes it easier for them to do their job, since their mental incentive structure goes from a situation where their brain is screaming at them to stop, to a situation where it’s tolerable to continue. The ingredients for coffee, tea, and other caffeinated beverages were discovered, the methods for producing the beverages were developed, and finally the traditions of drinking such beverages in particular contexts were popularized, because these drinks allow people to put themselves into a headspace that works better for life in civilization. The more unnatural a person’s life, the more likely they’ll abuse caffeine and other such substances. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t need refined-sugar-laden caffeinated drinks to motivate themselves to hunt, wrestle, and have sex.

But where do the diseases of civilization come into play? Essentially, when you abuse these substances and practices (i.e., cardiac stimulants and psychological-incentive-structure changers, among other civilization-era tools), you put yourself at risk of developing one or more of the common diseases that plague civilized life.

For example, we may say that in many cases cancer is the result of a deficiency of fasting within the context of physical degeneration. It’s hard to imagine a hunter-gatherer tribe where its members sat down to eat every few hours, every day of their life. They surely went without food for many hours or even many days in a row on a regular basis, and the result of resting your digestive system is that your body turns on the autophagy mechanism—a mechanism tasked with systematically cleaning up damaged parts in the body, including cancerous cells. But modern humans tend to rely on near-constant consumption of addictive substances which involve caloric intake (e.g., alcohol, grains, caffeinated beverages with sugar). In modern society, most people’s digestive systems rarely get a break. They work overtime for their entire life. When you combine general physical deterioration with a striking lack of autophagy, it’s surely not unreasonable to expect cancer to be close.

For another example, we may say that heart disease can be the result of overuse of cardiac stimulants under the context of physical degeneration. When you push your body to the limit, and then continue putting your cardiovascular system into overdrive with caffeine, alcohol, and even things like sauna, you shouldn’t be surprised when your heart starts to give out. Without such substances and practices, your body would tell you to rest when your heart is struggling to keep up. But when you’re manually pressing on the accelerator day after day, you’re playing with fire. With the pairing of sedentary lifestyles with the use of cardiac stimulants lying at the foundation of civilization, we can make sense of the prevalence of heart disease. Like cancer, it’s a disease of civilization.

Finally, there’s the more complex issue of neurological disorders such as autism, ADHD, and others. Suffice it to point out that an overwhelmingly popular alternative-health protocol designed to treat these disorders not-so-coincidentally involves carefully detoxing from volatile cocktail of civilization-era substances and returning to a more primal lifestyle. These issues happen when the various substances that are used to take the original cognitive parameters built into our biology for the purpose of life in the ancestral environment, and re-organize them to the more conducive to life in civilization, fail to produce a clean shift and instead cause serious side effects. It’s no mistake that people are beginning to realize that certain forms of autism are uniquely useful within the modern world of scientific specialization, and it’s no wonder that many high achievers in civilization teeter on the edge of crippling OCD, ADHD, and so forth. When the culturally evolved cocktail of factors which creates these neurological adaptations goes too far, we see not these powerful forms of autism and other neurological states, but instead forms that ruin the person’s ability to live a competent life.

When one of the most popular protocols for curing these neurological disorders involves detoxing from the exact substances and practices that my theoretical framework identifies as the cocktail of factors used to alter one’s cognitive parameters such that they mesh more effectively with life in modern society, and when the good forms fit life in civilization like a glove (since they allow for high achievement especially in hyper-specialized STEM disciplines), it’s natural to conclude that the bad forms are diseases of civilization. Those people who end up with the purely destructive versions of these neurological adaptations are casualties of the societal order. They’re the collateral damage of a sociological process. They’re the poor souls who were exposed to a particular type of radioactive ooze, if you will, and fell apart rather than developed superpowers.

What to Do

Although there are incisive thinkers who would argue that civilization is no more than a pernicious cancer upon the Earth, and that we should scrap the whole project and return to a primal order, for those of us who don’t subscribe to anarcho-primitivism and instead (sometimes begrudgingly) ally ourselves with Civilization, the goal must be to use these substances and practices to place our bodies and minds in a position to fit into the flow of normal society, while also periodically detoxing from them in order to keep the side effects at bay. Cancer, heart disease, neurological disorders, plenty of other potential symptoms, and plain-old premature aging can be avoided without giving up one’s adaptation to civilization. One may avoid the diseases of civilization without sacrificing a normal social life. In practice, this would mean alternating between employing caffeine, alcohol, grains, and all sorts of other post-Paleolithic devices at times, and quitting all of these devices at other times. More specifically, you’d want to contrast days where you use these tools with days where you rest, with rest being a combination of fasting days and days where you consume only meat and non-starchy vegetables, in either case while taking it easy).

To give an analogy, consider that some men who want to gain a lot of muscle very quickly decide to use anabolic steroids. While steroids are highly effective for this purpose, they also happen to cause a lot of side effects. For this reason, a common practice has come about where these men will go on a steroid round, and then go off the steroids for a while to give their physiology a chance to heal. They use a performance-enhancing drug long enough to get the benefits, and then they detox from that drug for a long enough period such that their body can re-group.

In the same way, we can conceptualize all of the aforementioned post-Paleolithic tools (e.g., caffeine, grains) as performance-enhancing drugs, when you can go on-round for a while to get the benefits, and then you can switch to off-round in order to allow for healing. While most people remain in deep on-round for most of their life, and thus end up with premature aging and all sorts of health problems (sometimes mild and sometimes severe), we may take a different path: We can live like them at times, and secede from the toxic landscape of civilization at other times. This way we can gain the best of both worlds, going on-round when certain kinds of performance are desired and off-round when healing is needed. One-round would include caffeine, alcohol, chocolate, grains, fruit, desserts, and perhaps even tobacco, while off-round would mean nothing but sun, cold showers, meat, and vegetables, punctuated with water-only fasts lasting 3-21+ days at a time.

A key point is that the diseases of civilization are the side effects of the tools of civilization. If you perceive civilization as a sea of toxic sludge, and you want nothing to do with it, I certainly won’t blame you. But most people are attached to their life in civilization, and would like to make it work. Personally, my goal is to participate in society on my own terms. I want to gain the advantages without becoming yet another causality of the volatile order. Fully aware of the dangers involved, I shall use the tools of civilization. But rather than put my fate into the hands of forces outside my control, I will take the wheel myself. While most people don’t know that cancer, heart disease, and so on are the side effects of civilization, and instead see their occurrence as depending on luck and genetics (two factors conveniently outside their control), I realize that this isn’t the case, and that fate is generally up to the individual. Simply put, a balance of on-round and off-round is a balance of participation in society and secession from the toxic order. A balance of on- vs. off-round is a balance of fitting in and stepping out.