Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
12 Apr

When Science Trumps Grok

Picture4 11Who is Grok?

Or, more accurately – what does Grok represent?

He’s no messiah. He’s not a real historical figure. He doesn’t sit on my shoulder at night, whispering post topics into my ear as I sleep.

Grok is simply a starting point for the discussion of human health. His dietary habits, his physical behaviors, his proclivities, his sleep patterns are not technically “his,” because there is no literal him. Grok is just an artifact of our big brains’ propensity to arrange data. We process information by compartmentalizing it, by sticking bits of data together with other bits of data for efficiency’s sake. Mental file cabinets. This makes thinking easier, and it allows higher levels of thought and innovation. The Grok concept is an easy reference point – a figurehead. Everything we know about the course of human evolution, all the fossil records and anthropological literature, is effectively represented by the Grok name. A four letter name that just happens to be easy to remember and easy to type. And you have to admit, it’s a cool visual.

It necessarily follows that the activities we ascribe to Grok (and to our ancestors) are also just starting points for our exploration of optimum modern health and fitness. They form a basic framework of acceptable evolutionary precedents that are innocent until proven guilty by modern science. Our job, as Primal enthusiasts, is to examine evolutionary biology and apply rigorous standards to those precedents to determine whether they are indeed optimal and useful. This is Grok logic – taking “what would Grok do” and looking sideways at it to ensure it passes muster.

We refer to Grok logic for two reasons, here at MDA:

First, it’s a helpful analogy, especially for beginners, to whom I try to attract and cater. If I want to give the quick and dirty blessing to a particular food, exercise, or other helpful concept, I use the analogy. People intuitively get the “what would Grok do” line of thought – the evolutionary angle is the thing that grabs a newbie’s attention right away and provides the light bulb moment where a person goes, “Huh, you know, I never thought about grains like that, but it makes total sense!” The light bulb moment is powerful, and, though the ancestral rhetoric doesn’t trump science where the two conflict, utilizing that power to effect change in people’s health right away is worth it. I may inadvertently create one or two roadkill-eating, neighbor’s cat-hunting, honey-gorging newbies convinced that anything Paleolithic is beneficial, but that’s why I’m writing this post, and why I’ve written others in the past. It’s far simpler to turn a neat phrase that’s generally accurate and clarify afterwards.

Second, it’s useful, and usually quite accurate. Grok logic is just a starting point, as I’ve pointed out, but it’s a damn good one that gets things right most of the time, especially with regards to diet and exercise. It makes intuitive sense that things we’ve been eating for the longest time are also foods to which we are highly adapted. It makes intuitive sense that movements we’ve been performing for the longest time are also movements which our bodies perform best and which elicit the most favorable hormonal responses or gene expression. It makes intuitive sense that our bodies have come to expect a certain amount of sleep, a certain amount of light exposure, based on multiple millennia of certain environmental pressures.

The Primal Blueprint might sound like the classically flawed appeal to nature, at least upon first glance. All this talk of Grok, the Paleolithic, hunting, nature, gathering, unprocessed wild foods, and the limitations and failures of agriculture and modern nutrition often gets the eyes rolling. Throw in a few references to raw meat, bug eating, and loin cloths, and you’ve a recipe for summary dismissal of the whole shebang, especially among skeptics and others with an immense personal stake (career, education, physician relative) in upholding Conventional Wisdom.

But the PB (and other content in the paleosphere) does not commit the naturalistic fallacy, which states that all that is natural is good, and all that is unnatural is bad. That’s far too simplistic, far too dogmatic. Life is made of gray, not stark black and white dualities. Context is everything. We may start with the “natural,” but we discard anything that isn’t also buttressed by science. It’s actually the most rational way to go about things, and the most opportunistic. Humans are classic capitalists (small “c”) – we literally capitalize on opportunities and seize control of a situation where it benefits us – and the Primal Blueprint is all about cherry picking the good stuff from Grok logic and discarding the bad stuff. That which proves beneficial under the glare of science wins out in the end, even if it’s a product of agriculture-enabled civilization. If there’s a proven shortcut to health or fitness here (or a convenience or a hedonistic treat with little downside), I’m taking it.

Take dairy fat, for example. Is butter paleo? Was heavy cream available fifty thousand years ago? Does it matter?

I often discuss the importance of considering the totality of a food, rather than its constituent parts (walnuts aren’t just bags of linoleic acid, etc), but it’s also helpful to understand what makes certain foods acceptable. Why do we prefer tallow, leaf lard, and coconut oil as cooking fats? Is it because they’re paleo? No. Because Grok ate them? Sort of, but not exactly. We prefer highly saturated animal and vegetable fats because saturated fat is what the human animal has been eating for hundreds of thousands of years, making it the fuel source to which we’re best adapted; because our own body preferentially stores excess energy as saturated body fat to be used later for self-sustenance; and (most importantly) because modern science has shown (despite the lipophobes’ best attempts) it to be a supremely healthful source of food energy. Butter (and ghee, and other dairy fats), being basically pure animal fat, a majority of which is saturated, is simply a fantastic way to introduce large amounts of delicious, healthy energy into the diet. Plus, you don’t have to hunt and kill a fat-backed, ornery caribou to get it.

Modern convenience is undoubtedly a good thing, too, even though it isn’t paleo. Buying a stick of Kerrygold butter down at Trader Joe’s takes, what, fifteen minutes and a couple bucks? Compare that to the energy it’d require for Grok to obtain a half pound of pure animal fat.

You might argue that the getting is what made us who we are, that the hunting, the gathering, and the physical labor required for living in the wild was what made humans such remarkable, adaptive creatures. I won’t argue with that. In fact, I’ll readily accept that. I’ll gladly reap the benefits of Grok’s intensely physical existence by choosing a few of the specific movements that science proves generate the most benefit with the least time, pain, suffering or sacrifice. A few hundred thousand years of hard-scrabble living has resulted in a hardy, capable species of hominid, and I’m happy to enjoy the resultant genetics. In the end, that’s what the Primal Blueprint is all about: navigating the modern world with these ancient corporeal vessels, using modern science to chart our progress. It’s important that we all note the genetic realities of our evolutionary heritage, but we can’t stop there. It’s not good enough. If we truly want to live well and live long (longer and better than Grok and your average modern health nut), we have to optimize the application of our anthropological knowledge to the realities, opportunities, and advantages of civilization.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. “navigating the modern world with these ancient corporeal vessels”

    great!

    thanks Mark.

    pieter d wrote on April 12th, 2010
  2. Great post Mark, thanks as always.

    That’s how I see the Primal way of living, it’s getting the best of both worlds, the primal side of our being, and the modern times we live in.

    Nikki wrote on April 12th, 2010
  3. As someone who always loved the science behind the PB but gets alittle turned off by overly romantic stories of cavemen, i really enjoyed this post.
    thanks marc!

    MeatMe216 wrote on April 12th, 2010
  4. Thanks again for a great read. I agree that to life the Paleo, PB, Caveman, or Evolutionary way in 2010 one must be able to enjoy the modern conveniences when possible. I don’t plan to eat clay or bugs just the same as I don’t plan to line my cupboards with boxes of processed food products.
    This puts the PB style of living in a simple context.
    I agree with MeatMe216. “Science” or experimentation is much more effective than dreams of being a caveman or cavewoman.

    Karl MacPhee wrote on April 12th, 2010
  5. Great post. There’s always so much discussion around dairy’s role in the Primal/Paleo diet. Glad to see another way of thinking about ‘newer’ foods and their role in PB life.

    I think some people are reluctant to view dairy as a health food on the Primal diet. Some agree it’s good for gaining weight, but don’t want to go so far as to saying it’s a healthy addition to a Primal diet.

    I myself have found that dairy is helpful. I’ve gone years without any trace of dairy. I added dairy back in the form of high fat homemade yogurt (also cultured butter) and it has actually made a positive difference in my health. It helped with digestive symptoms and blood sugar issues.

    Kat wrote on April 12th, 2010
    • Hey, Kat, I remember you from a couple years back on Heather’s message board. (I was “GaiasSong” over there.) I see you have found your way to primal eating as well. Hope it’s working out well for you… it is for me. This is purely anecdotal, but I’ve come to wonder if some cases of IBS are a symptom of malnutrition. As far as dairy, I’m mainly sticking to ghee, myself (yum).

      Morgana wrote on April 12th, 2010
      • Oh my gosh! So glad to see you doing well! I was very malnourished (think that got worse on EFI) and it has taken a while to build back up. I do tend to get symptoms still if eating too high carb. So I wonder it’s a malnutrition and bacteria imbalance combination. Either way, glad I found my way to Primal eating. I really need to try ghee some time, just been too lazy to make it.

        Kat wrote on April 18th, 2010
  6. Grok is just such a brilliant concept, a great way of getting over a whole myriad of ideas and concepts. At decision points asking yourself ‘would Grok’ somehow brings clarity!

    My brother and I talk in Grok terms all the time now, it appears to be a noun, a verb and everything in between!

    I’m seriously thinking of having Grok tattooed somewhere on my person to celebrate when my brother reaches his goal weight (he’s currently 56 lbs lighter and 6 inches off his waist since December), perhaps I need permission though, is Grok copyrighted!?! :-)

    And I’m not going to debate whether Grok would have had a tattoo … body art has become another way of expressing my true self , just like Groking!

    Kelda wrote on April 12th, 2010
  7. I’m so glad you posted this, Mark. I certainly don’t wish to do everything like Grok did, or I would probably not make it pass my 30th birthday. Logic and ability to fit this lifestyle are two very important variables in this equation.
    I recently heard someone say taking vitamins and supplements is not something a Grok would do. Agreed. But on the same token, the quality of food that was available to Grok was far more superior than what we can get now, even if you grow your own food.
    Just because Grok didn’t have a food processor available, doesn’t mean that it’s a silly idea to use it after you come back from an 8-hour work day and make your family dinner from scratch. Same with milk. Just because Grok didn’t drink it back in the day, doesn’t mean we should simply dismiss the body of science that supports health benefits of raw, unprocessed milk or dairy products such as kefir, sour cream, butter, etc.

    chocolatechip69 wrote on April 12th, 2010
  8. “fifteen minutes and a couple bucks? Compare that to the energy it’d require for Grok”

    Great point. “Getting” is so much easier for us than Grok, and it’s getting harder and harder to make sure what we get so easily isn’t garbage to our bodies. Thank goodness real food is still available.

    As a newbie to MDA, I see the PB as a machete for cutting through the jungle of CW. What I like most about MDA is it’s common sense approach to the knowledge we gain from science.

    Thanks.

    NotSoFast wrote on April 12th, 2010
  9. Amen! The paleo-reenactment tendency among some primal/paleo devotees drives me up the wall. Modern science matters a WHOLE lot more, in my book. In other words, what matters is HOW our bodies function, not WHY they function that way. :)

    BarbeyGirl wrote on April 12th, 2010
    • I agree that our cherished ideas need to pass the efficacy test…they can’t simply be accepted at face value. But focusing on descriptive physiology at the expense of the evolutionary rationale is the very thing that got us into the Conventional Wisdom trap to begin with. It’s not just *bad* science that’s the problem, but more so *ignorant* science.

      fireandstone wrote on April 12th, 2010
      • Thats what I was going to say. Science is what caused all the problems in the first place….well bad or ignorant science. I go by my own eating science. I have slowly found out what I can eat over the years. It turns out my body doesn’t like dairy or grains….I don’t need science to tell me that.

        Aaron Curl wrote on April 13th, 2010
  10. Preaching to the choir on this one. At first I did see this as a more naturalistic thing (nature good, science bad)but after spending time reading the articles, doing my own research and asking a ton of questions (thx for not giving me the boot Mark) on the site it has turned into something so much more.

    This is the first time I have found something that just makes sense to me. Yes the concepts seem like common sense but to have the scientific proof behind the logic gives me more reason to change my ways and try to help others do the same.

    Matt wrote on April 12th, 2010
  11. Great Article Mark!

    The science is what matters. I do think it is great that people romanticise the past, and go to great lengths in re-enactment. I’ve got a few little random things I do or incorporate into my daily life which I discovered from peoples insights when going great lengths in becoming Grok! But your naturalistic fallacy reference is spot on, both natural and unnatural can be great.

    evolution wrote on April 12th, 2010
  12. Great post.

    It got me thinking though: when are you going to write a post on wearing loin cloths? Sounds primal to me!

    Nic wrote on April 12th, 2010
    • We already do in Scotland … it’s called the Kilt, must be the modern day equivalent (adapted to colder climes!).

      And in answer to the inevitable question – nothing, usually!

      Kelda wrote on April 12th, 2010
  13. Yet another great article Mark. I aspire to do what you do!

    AJ wrote on April 12th, 2010
  14. I think there’s a very healthy backlash going on against what seemed to be a growing trend of dogmatism in the Paleo-esque nutrition knowledge space. We may yet escape the religionization of of these very good core ideas on which we all agree.

    fireandstone wrote on April 12th, 2010
    • well said

      josh wrote on November 3rd, 2011
  15. Amen!

    Excellent post Mark. Living exactly like Grok does not make sense in today’s world, but implementing a similar lifestyle makes perfect sense.

    I have been more than 90% primal for a few weeks now, especially for the past week during my experiment and am loving every second of it.

    It will only get better. I can’t wait till I get vibrams to start running barefoot!

    Todd wrote on April 12th, 2010
    • @Todd –
      You want to go barefoot running and you’re waiting for $80-$100+ VFFs?
      Go to http://www.invisibleshoe.com and for $20 you can get a kit to make your own huaraches – same sole material AND you don’t have all that extra stuff surrounding your foot that can give you blisters. (And no, I am not affiliated with them – just ordered my own kit today.)

      JCB wrote on April 12th, 2010
  16. I guess it was cute to pick a word that means “to understand” when helping people understand the ancient bodies modern minds concept, but it’s still a very annoying axiom around here.

    SLS wrote on April 12th, 2010
  17. Great explanation of the whole concept. Too many people out there are guilty of creating a powerful simplifying analogy, then sticking to it past the point of rationality. It makes intuitive sense that the things we are adapted to will tend to keep us more healthy, and that is what people latch onto with Grok. Did Grok have antibiotics? No, but he didn’t have shoes either. As you say it is a starting place and a great lense to judge by in the absence of data to the contrary.

    John Solter wrote on April 12th, 2010
  18. Great article! I love how when refering to something with my fiance, i just say “what would Grok eat?” it makes it so much simpler. In this crazy world, simple is much more preferred.

    Athena wrote on April 12th, 2010
  19. Such a good article. I started eating primally because of the science behind it, not because of the whole return-to-nature thing.

    I have some relatives who are retired biologists, and they bought a large plot of land that is mostly forest, cleared out some land for a garden, pick mushrooms, and hunt wild game. But, they also go into the town for occasional ice cream and drive their car into the city to see a show and eat at a restaurant. To me, that sounds like the perfect primal retirement!

    Deanna wrote on April 12th, 2010
  20. this post is why i love MDA

    Mountain wrote on April 12th, 2010
  21. Great post Mark. The Ancestral lens is the best theoretical perspective from which to view human health. It should serve as the default against which we measure, evaluate, and test any hypothesis. We’re building a society and symposium around this core idea that is currently missing from conventional medical science and practioneering (is that a word?): http://ancestryfoundation.org/Ancestry/Ancestral_Health.html.

    To your health!
    Aaron

    Aaron Blaisdell wrote on April 12th, 2010
  22. Very nice, Mark.

    This is a great philosophy of science essay.

    And, of course, I vote a resounding “Yes” when it comes to this:

    “And you have to admit, it’s a cool visual.”

    It’s very cool symbol / archetype that represents the sturdiest foundation I’ve ever seen in my lifetime when it comes to health and fitness choice architecture.

    Cheers,

    Brent

    epistemocrat wrote on April 12th, 2010
  23. Great post, Mark. One thing I love about the book and the website is that you take the best of both worlds to create a lifestyle that helps us get back to our roots and use what has always worked while utilizing some of the good stuff that “progress” has provided. And Todd…I just got my Vibrams two weeks ago. They are AWESOME! You will not be disappointed. I got the KSO’s, which seem to be the most versatile, IMO.

    Jared wrote on April 12th, 2010
  24. This post made me think of a book i recently finished called “Switch” (which is about “change”). I think that the whole Grok/Primal thing effectively incorporates all of the elements necessary to facilitate change (you might have to read the book to understand why since it might take me awhile here…you don’t want that).

    Anyway, I am a new reader who stumbled across this whole primal thing a week or two. It is fascinating stuff and I am a slowly becoming a bit obsessed with it.

    Without going full on, I’ve been applying some of the fundamentals for the past few weeks (no sugar, no flour) and it really isn’t difficult at all when I compare it to some of the stuff I’ve done over the years. It is pretty cut and dry.

    Aside from the early carb withdrawals, I have to say the difference in the way I feel day to day is noticeable – and thats with a cheat day and few beers mixed in along the way (without the usual dose of guilt).

    I have to get the book so I can really dive in. Anyway, I’ll shut up now. :)

    I justed wanted to say hi and compliment you on an exceptional blog! Its filled with great information and I like your easy-going, no BS writing style.

    Have a good one!

    ckoehler wrote on April 12th, 2010
  25. I share the notion that Grok is a very useful tool to fully verbalize what the PB is all about.

    I personally have a risk-management approach to nutrition. Upon uncertainty (we still have a lot to learn about the inner workings of our body), it makes sense to try and minimize the risk of contracting diet-related ailments by gravitating towards a Paleo/Primal diet.

    At the end it’s all about knowing the risks and how comfortable we are with them.

    I believe that we can safely assume that a normal human being should have no problems with an equivocally-paleo diet (we might not *everything* we ate, but we know with certainty some things we did eat, and which ones we didn’t)

    The safest bet would be to stick to strict Paleo, so it could be argued that the more we gravitate away from it, the more we risk diet-related health problems.

    If there are some good reasons to think that nightshades could be detrimental to health,

    SerialSinner wrote on April 12th, 2010
  26. go ahead, but until the risk better assessed, then cutting them from our diet might not be cost-effective…

    SerialSinner wrote on April 12th, 2010
  27. Great article, Mark!

    Lucas wrote on April 12th, 2010
  28. Great post Mark! That one will be bookmarked & rolled out verbatim to some of the ignorant naysayers who claim Paleo followers are so bogged down in that they miss the science!

    Whilst they get good headlines for their ‘freakshow’ attributes, many of the popular media articles looking at city-dwelling raw meat eating ‘cavemen’ do little to forward the Paleo movement. Not that I’m overly bothered. I see anyone who can look at everything you & others in the paleosphere extol as being face valid, and appreciate the efforts you go to in order to ensure scientific rigor, and then adopt the PB for themselves, as all being part of the bigger Darwinistic picture – survival of the fittest.

    Jamie wrote on April 12th, 2010
  29. I have (so-called) friends that are vegetarians who i don’t mine cooking a few different things when I have a party but it has developed to the point where they don’t seat on my couch because it is Leather. I don’t want to see PRIMAL/Paleo get to that point. Common sense based in good science should be the light. This should not be a cult- religion.

    pjnoir wrote on April 12th, 2010
    • I used to be a “flexible vegetarian” (long story) and found myself surrounded by people who would bring their own food to special occasions such as Christmas and Thanksgiving… but I could never get to that point because I found it to be somewhat disrespectful. Now, when presented with foods on the “do not eat list” or the “limit this list” I can make easy judgements on how to behave in public.

      I have also been around people like those you have mentioned. This was one of the reasons why I began accepting meat into my diet as I didn’t want to be part of a club who had so many rules.

      Living Paleo/PB is so simple and we can easily make adjustments when necessary because we eat well most of the time and it is ok to leave the nest on occasion.

      I agree with you that it is important to see the Primal/Paleo community be one of acceptance rather than one that pushes it’s own dogma onto others.

      Karl MacPhee wrote on April 12th, 2010
      • Exactly Karl. Primal makes for a solid foundation- it can’t be the ceiling. Glad you were easy going. It’s really about respect, isn’t it- in everything.

        pjnoir wrote on April 13th, 2010
  30. Great stuff. I’m new to the primal world, and have come across the rolling eyes response already.
    Thanks for doing what you always manage to do. Straightforward, common sense.

    Mikey wrote on April 12th, 2010
  31. Grok is such useful shorthand for the way things used to be. But what resonates with me about this article is that we are not Grok and shouldn’t just ape his manners. We are Grok’s direct descendants. We must make Grok proud by doing what humans were born to do: adapt to the unique challenges of our time, mastering the truths our ancestors knew while applying innovations they never could have imagined.

    Our filial duty to Grok is to thrive, and in so doing we pave another stone in the road. If we do our best, we might just have the honor of becoming Grok to the people of a distant future.

    Timothy wrote on April 12th, 2010
  32. Great post as usual e life saver!

    Phil R. wrote on April 12th, 2010
  33. Great post as usual! Oops hit the wrong key.

    Phil R. wrote on April 12th, 2010
  34. Brilliant post Mark. You have to be the most switched-on proponent of nutrition out there.

    Matt W wrote on April 12th, 2010
  35. This is so well written. I get so much great information from this site. For instance, I’m going to try making pemmican, after following that link from last weekend. It could be what enables nearly carbohydrate-intolerant me to do a five-day supported mountain bike ride from Durango to Telluride this summer. It may seem like a small thing, but to me that’s freedom from a really difficult constraint placed upon me by my digestive tract. So via this site we get great practical advice, a strong scientific rationale, a philosophical outlook, advocacy and support. Once again I feel lucky to have stumbled upon this site.

    DThalman wrote on April 12th, 2010
  36. With no dinosaurs to outrun and Damage control Master formula I may live a long long long time…as long as I dodge the buses, dont get caught with another groks wife and get out of the cave instead of sitting in front of my 52″ plasma screen television all day. Gee who had an easier time staying alive, me or grok?

    Dusty wrote on April 13th, 2010
    • No disrespect but Dinosaurs were long gone before any stage of man, but I like your point. I was in a bad auto accident in Jan(dude ran a red light at high speed on his cell phone- I did well- he didn’t). But after 18 months of reshaping and changeing my life for the better with Low carb/paleo-primal lifestyle- a split second can snuff you out.

      pjnoir wrote on April 13th, 2010
  37. You won’t find me wearing a loin cloth and chasing a deer on foot but I do believe eating and training grok like is a great way to get in the best shape of your life! We are animals after all and I prefer to believe only the strong survive. Only through great nutrition and great workouts can we survive the urban jungle. Grok on! Thanks Mark for the Grokiest website there is.

    Aaron Curl wrote on April 13th, 2010
  38. Fantastic article! Mark…you are dialed in! You must drive the CW community nuts becuase they can’t poke holes in your information…good stuff!

    Mike Cheliak wrote on April 13th, 2010
  39. awesome post mark, keep it up :)

    Usman wrote on April 29th, 2010
  40. Spot on. We don’t want to replicate the murder statistics of hunter-gatherers, do we?

    Nina wrote on July 12th, 2011

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