Primal Transhumanism

Oxymoron? Maybe.

Burgeoning lifestyle choice for a growing number of futurists? Most definitely.

Look, it’s 2011 and it’s glaringly obvious that we’re still quite a ways off from achieving the much heralded posthuman condition. The sad truth is that all interventions or augmentations currently available are fairly low impact by any measure. There aren’t a whole lot of high tech and sophisticated options available to radically alter human performance, experience, or life expectancy.

So what’s a transhumanist to do? Just sit around and wait for something better to come along?

Hardly. An increasing number of transhumanists are taking matters into their own hands by working with what they got. And by doing so, they’re pushing the limits of their genetic potential.

While a significant segment of the transhumanist community is content to let their minds and bodies go to waste in anticipation of future interventions, there is a growing conviction amongst a number of adherents who feel that there is no better time than the present to optimize their bodies using the limited resources available. And strangely, some of these body-hacks involve an apparent technological step back.

Call it Paleo-Transhumanism

Indeed, there are a number of things we can do to extend our capacities and optimize our health in a way that’s consistent with transhumanist ideals—even if it doesn’t appear to be technologically sophisticated. While the effects of these interventions are admittedly low impact from a future-relativistic perspective, the quest for bodily and cognitive enhancement is part of the broader transhumanist aesthetic which places an emphasis on maximal performance, high quality of life, and longevity.

Consequently, anyone who professes to be a transhumanist, but does nothing to improve upon himself, is a poser. These are the people who are waiting for the magic to happen, and by consequence, are neglecting their full potential in the present moment. Transhumanism is something that’s applied in the here-and-now; it’s a recognition of the radical present and all that it has to offer.

Sure, part of being a transhumanist involves the bringing about of a radical future, including scientific research and cheerleading. But it’s also a lifestyle choice; transhumanists actively strive to exceed their body’s nascent capacities, or, at the very least, work to bring about its full potential. In addition to building a radical future, a transhumanist is someone who will, at any time in history, use the tools and techniques around them to maximize their biological well-being. And while there are a number of technological interventions at our disposal–things like pharmaceuticals, implants, and hand-held devices—there is an alternative and seemingly old-fashioned approach to bodily enhancement that’s gaining considerable currency in transhumanist sub-cultures.

Much of the fuel that drives this sentiment is the notion that modernity has actually harmed human functioning more than it has helped. Take agriculture for example. While it has (arguably) propelled human civilization forward, it has paradoxically worked to undermine human health. Anthropologists are revealing that, when compared to our Paleolithic-era ancestors, modern humans have less bone density, are smaller, and more disease ridden. Modern foods, most of which are highly processed and infused with salt and sugar, is the primary culprit—as are apparent “natural” foods like whole grains and rice. Compounding this situation is the shift from active to passive existences; modern humans now bask in the glow of their computer monitors instead of the sun. Our bodies were not meant for this kind of sedentary life and we’re now having to cope with a batch of modern diseases.

A solution to all this, it would seem, is adopting a lifestyle that is more suited to our biological needs. While it might sound contradictory to those with a futuristic bent, adopting a lifestyle that more closely approximates that of our Paleolithic ancestors would do more to foster human health than a continuation of modern habits and norms.

Strong and fit is the new geek

Okay, at the risk of sounding like a complete Luddite, I’m not suggesting that you sell your belongings and move into a cave. It’s not like that. I’m still hoping that you cart around your iPad, philosophize about the coming Singularity, and implant magnets into your finger tips. But I also feel that we need to take an evolutionary approach to human health, namely lifestyle choices that place a greater emphasis on primal eating, exercising, sleeping, and other health factors. This is how the modern transhumanist can best unlock her biological potential.

In terms of specifics, these choices include the Paleolithic diet (also called the caveman diet), fully functional interval training executed at high intensity, and 7-8 hours of sleep each night in complete darkness.

Sounds simple, and even too good to be true, but for those of us who live according to these rules the results have been extraordinary.

And when I say us I mean a good number of prominent transhumanists, a list that includes Max More, Natasha Vita-More, James Hughes, Bruce Klein, and Patri Friedman. Max and Natasha in particular have treated their bodies as shrines since the very beginning, setting a positive example for transhumanists for quite some time.

Indeed, being strong and fit is the new geek. Though not a transhumanist by name, author Timothy Ferris’s latest book, The Four Hour Body, highlights a number of techniques and “body hacks” that work to produce what he calls “superhuman” results.

I’m not sure what’s more ironic: that a primitive approach to eating and fitness is the best way to optimize human health and performance, or that computer nerds are catching on and becoming complete bad-asses by engaging in these kinds of body hacks.

Back to basics: Diet and exercise

It’s been said that in order to truly comprehend anything in biology it has to be viewed through the lens of natural selection. If we are to improve human health and performance we need to study our evolutionary underpinnings. Our bodies are adapted to a very specific kind of environment, namely the one our ancestors lived in over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. Consequently, because our species has remained largely unchanged since Paleolithic times, we are best suited to live under a very specific set of conditions.

The Paleo-diet is one approach that works to match the specific way our ancestors ate. It’s a diet that has gained serious traction in the fitness communities, not because of any commitment to naturalism or Luddism, but because it works. The primal approach to eating is now the go-to diet for many professional and elite athletes. And it’s safe to suggest they wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t get them results.

Adherents of this diet basically reject any foods that arrived after the onset of the agricultural revolution. To that end, they consume copious amounts of meat (typically free-range, organic, and grass fed) and vegetables, along with some fruit, nuts, and seeds. Primal eaters take a very liberal approach to consuming fats, while remaining wary of gluten, high-density carbohydrates, and sugars of any sort. So, no whole grains, pasta, rice, potatoes, dairy, or processed foods. While it may sound incredibly restrictive, it’s actually not that severe; there’s considerable culinary potential even within those constraints.

But it’s not enough to base an entire diet on a philosophical or aesthetic appreciation of our primal ancestry. There has to be proven efficacy and hard science to back it up. And indeed a growing literature is emerging that both supports and propels this approach to eating. Paleo advocates like Robb Wolf, Loren Cordain, and Mat Lalonde pour through scientific studies revealing the dangers of Neolithic and processed foods while highlighting the benefits of eating whole foods.

Often accompanying the Paleo diet is a fully functional approach to fitness. The old model of going to the global gym, hitting the treadmill, and working on isolation movements in the weight room is increasingly coming to be seen as old fashioned and ineffectual. Instead, there’s a new emphasis on constantly varied compound movements performed at high intensity for short intervals. A functional movement is anything our bodies are meant to do: lift, push, pull, drag, climb, run, and jump. These exercise sessions, which depending on the workout can range anywhere from five to 25 minutes, tend to be both physically and psychologically demanding. But the gains are tremendous.

A fitness model that best exemplifies this approach is CrossFit. It’s a strength and conditioning program that combines weightlifting, sprinting, gymnastics, powerlifting, kettlebell training, plyometrics, rowing, and medicine ball training. Founded by Greg Glassman over a decade ago, CrossFit gyms are starting to pop-up around the world. CrossFit’s impact has been nothing short of revolutionary; it has turned fitness into an actual sport. Its major claim is that, through its system of tackling all ten fitness domains (cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and accuracy) it produces the best results and the worlds fittest athletes.

As a CrossFitter myself, I can certainly vouch for these claims. When I first started nearly three years ago I could barely do a push-up. Back then a 125 pound deadlift nearly made me pass out. These days, a workout involving a hundred push-ups isn’t out of the question. I have a 265 pound backsquat and I’m only five pounds away from a 400 pound deadlift. And this from a guy who spent most of his adult life completely inactive. There’s no question in my mind that the CrossFit approach is the best one. At least for me.

Being physically strong is no joke or a petty indulgence. And it is of utmost importance to those interested in extending longevity. I would make the case that physical strength does more to prolong healthy lifespan than any other lifestyle factor available today—including caloric restriction. Studies have shown that strength can add as much as a decade to your life.

In addition to proper eating and exercise, the primal lifestyle also advocates a natural approach to sleeping, which means 7-8 hours per night in the complete pitch dark. Indeed, studies have shown that this length of time is optimal and that any kind of light interrupts sleep in non-trivial ways.

Primal transhumanism…for now

I’m going to conclude with a quick reality check.

As stated earlier, the primal approach is a stop-gap measure for transhumanists until something better comes along. Those looking to optimize their health and performance in the here-and-now should seriously consider adopting this lifestyle.

This approach is certainly a “soft” form of transhumanism and it’s definitely no match for what’s still to come. Our transition away from Homo sapiens will be accompanied by more impactful technologies—interventions like genomics, cybernetics, neuropharma, and molecular nanotechnology. Once we have access to these technologies we will truly be able invoke the “trans” in “transhumanism” as our species migrates into a posthuman and potentially post-biological condition.

And in the meantime, love your body. It’s all you got.


  1. I’d take the modern conception of the paleo diet and those mentioned that promote it with a grain of salt. Food rots and we don’t know as much about ancestral diets as some purport. Further I believe that much of the improvements reported by those eating a “paleo diet” are short term improvements due to balancing and removing junk foods. Longer term testimonials tend to be negative which suggests the modern conception of paleo diet is imbalanced.

    From the wikipedia article:

    The evolutionary assumptions underlying the Paleolithic diet have been disputed.[18][21][22][30] According to Alexander Ströhle, Maike Wolters and Andreas Hahn, with the Department of Food Science at the University of Hanover, the statement that the human genome evolved during the Pleistocene (a period from 1,808,000 to 11,550 years ago) rests on an inadequate, but popular gene-centered view of evolution.[22] They rely on Russell (2001)[68] to argue that evolution of organisms cannot be reduced to the genetic level with reference to mutation and that there is no one-to-one relationship between genotype and phenotype.[22]

    They further question the notion that 10,000 years is an insufficient period of time to ensure an adequate adaptation to agrarian diets.[22] For example, alleles conferring lactose tolerance increased to high frequencies in Europe just a few thousand years after animal husbandry was invented, and recent increases in the number of copies of the gene for salivary amylase, which digests starch, appear to be related to agriculture.[citation needed] Referring to Wilson (1994),[69] Ströhle et al. argue that “the number of generations that a species existed in the old environment was irrelevant, and that the response to the change of the environment of a species would depend on the heritability of the traits, the intensity of selection and the number of generations that selection acts.”[70] They state that if the diet of Neolithic agriculturalists had been in discordance with their physiology, then this would have created a selection pressure for evolutionary change and modern humans, such as Europeans, whose ancestors have subsisted on agrarian diets for 400–500 generations should be somehow adequately adapted to it. In response to this argument, Wolfgang Kopp states that “we have to take into account that death from atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease (CVD) occurs later during life, as a rule after the reproduction phase. Even a high mortality from CVD after the reproduction phase will create little selection pressure. Thus, it seems that a diet can be functional (it keeps us going) and dysfunctional (it causes health problems) at the same time.”[70] Moreover, S. Boyd Eaton and colleagues have indicated that “comparative genetic data provide compelling evidence against the contention that long exposure to agricultural and industrial circumstances has distanced us, genetically, from our Stone Age ancestors”[12] however they mention exceptions such as increased lactose and gluten tolerance, which improve ability to digest dairy and grains, while other studies indicate that human adaptive evolution has accelerated since the Paleolithic.[71]

    Referencing Mahner et al. (2001)[72] and Ströhle et al. (2006),[73] Ströhle et al. state that “whatever is the fact, to think that a dietary factor is valuable (functional) to the organism only when there was ‘genetical adaptation’ and hence a new dietary factor is dysfunctional per se because there was no evolutionary adaptation to it, such a panselectionist misreading of biological evolution seems to be inspired by a naive adaptationistic view of life.”[22]

    Katharine Milton, a professor of physical anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, has also disputed the evolutionary logic upon which the Paleolithic diet is based. She questions the premise that the metabolism of modern humans must be genetically adapted to the dietary conditions of the Paleolithic.[18] Relying on several of her previous publications,[74][75][76][77] Milton states that “there is little evidence to suggest that human nutritional requirements or human digestive physiology were significantly affected by such diets at any point in human evolution.”[18]

    Evidence suggests the diet of Stone Age humans did include, in some form, the refined starches and grains that are excluded from the paleolithic diet. There is evidence that Paleolithic societies were processing cereals for food use at least as early as 23,000 years ago,[78][79] 30,000 years ago,[80] more than 100,000 years ago,[81] and perhaps as early as 200,000 years ago.[82]

  2. While I do agree that one should make attempts to advance their level of fitness and diet that their lifestyle and health can support, I think it would be foolhardy to suggest that one diet is supreme over another. One of the objective of transhumanism movement is to guide our actions by evidence base information, things that science has proven to be so. The latest consensus in medicine on diet based on the highest level of evidence, systematic review, is that the best diet is the one you are willing to follow–in the end, eating in moderation seems to be the best way to go. So I support paleo diet if that is what you are willing to follow but others have had similar success with their own variations. I do agree that the cross training seems to be the best workout in getting one to their optimal fitness but as another person alluded to above, not everyone has the fitness or physical ability to do it. According a large study done in Europe, any level of increase physical activity will improve ones overall health. So just do what you can and eat in moderation until tech allows for infiltration of your body with nano machines to release you from the limitations of biology.

  3. Exclusionary comments demarking those who do not follow your dietary and nocturnal set of ideals as poseurs is only harmful. If you have already decided that only the strong and fit deserve to get the future transhumanist enhancements, you deny those of us who are aging, who have crippling medical issues, who have genotypical body structures that do not fit societal desires, those of us who would seriously benefit from transhumanity just to be able to do normal everyday things. The point is to make your own life better for yourself so you can live the life you want, not to prove how much better you are than everyone else. Such judgemental desires do not help; some cannot live as you do. While I am glad your program is working for you, many would suffer unduly trying to conform to your plan. Your plan would have devastating effects on my own life and metabolism – because of the work that I do as well as genetic anomalies that I cannot change. This reads less like a transhumanist suggestion and more of a diet/exercise infomercial.

  4. Is there any country in which brain surgery on healthy consenting persons is legal, e.g. to implant BCIs or electrodes to be controlled by the user?

  5. Here is excerpt from article “The History of Human Height”
    Currently, the average height of men worldwide measures in at 5 feet, 9 inches. Turn the clock back 1000 years and the average height then was… [suspenseful organ sound] …5 feet, 8 inches. So in the last 1000 years we’ve grown an inch? Not quite. In around the 1600′s when our health and sanitation hadn’t yet caught up to the size of growing cities, human height was averaging 5 feet, 5 inches.
    So height in increasing with time, not decreasing.

    • If the comparison is to the height of paleolithic people, you have to go back a lot more than 1000 years. In this part of the world, you have to go back more than 10,000 years, to pre-agricultural times.

  6. We can and should consider fellow transhumanists transhumanists even if they’re willing to wait for safe and effective interventions that can coexist with their chosen lifestyle. I’d even be willing to extend transhumanist to those who only modify themselves once their birth hardware places them in a life threatening situation – in other words reactive instead of proactive enhancement. We can argue about who is ‘more’ or ‘less’ supportive of transhumanism, but I’d rather talk about advancements to humanity than pecking order within transhumanism.

    Second, over generalizing modern disease and how to solve it is poor form. There are people probably reading this article suffering from modern disease and your disregard for survivor bias and age at death in your Paleolithic comparisons and the advancement of modern medicine’s side effect of a less fit but still alive populace might not be obvious to the casual reader. To suggest a lifestyle change could have prevented their morbidity is likely to cause undue mental stress in those patients where such a change would not have prevented their disease.

  7. I would like to acquire the ability to switch off or reduce strong physical pain at will. In other words, I want physical pain to become voluntary, independent of the physical context. Currently, all I’ve got are painkillers and physical avoidance of noxious stimuli. I’d like it to become a general ability for me without these crutches.

    How would you do that?

    • Sorry for your pain. One way to get some relief could be to try meditation. Do a search on meditation and pain. Turns out that meditation actually is efficient as a means to better handle physical pain.

      • Thank you for your reply. I am not actually a sufferer from chronic pain, occasional strong headaches excluded. The question is a more philosophical one. We are all used to the fact that the world, or our brain states, can inflict pain on us, and all we can do is either to avoid the stimuli, or to find an external remedy like medication.

        However, this is not necessarily a fundamental property of pain. I could imagine having a mental “admin mode” or “management interface” that lets a person choose their own pain sensitivity dynamically. This could either be done with technological enhancement, or hypothetically designed as a heritable natural ability written into the genome. As a general philosophical point, it should work even if you find yourself restrained in a torture chamber, or otherwise incapacitated. The ability not to feel pain against one’s will could be seen as an expression of the individual person’s fundamental autonomy. I think we are too used to the status quo of involuntary consciousness and mental states – this is why transhumanists are the only ones you find seriously discussing such ideas.

        I too have heard that meditation can indeed reduce pain sensitivity. I would suspect, however, that this may only hold to a certain level of intensity, and/or it may depend on a genetic pre-disposition… after all, there already are individual differences of pain sensitivity linked to different genotypes.

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