My wife got pregnant for the first time when she was a grad student in evolutionary biology. One of her professors told her she looked to the other primates for child-rearing role models. After all they’d been doing it successfully for millions of years by the time Dr. Spock came along.
I’ve tried to apply that primate ethic across all areas of life in the years since, following the reasoning that if it served humans well for 200,000 years — or even 10,000 years of somewhat “civilized” life — it’s probably of more value than those habits we’ve picked up during the last century. Our brains, bodies, and hearts did not evolve for many of the activities that consume our time today, which may help to explain the rampant depression, aggression, and general dissatisfaction that plague our modern selves.
So in the interest of creating a blueprint for a more Stone Age life, here are some helpful hints:
1. Avoid rectangles. The 90-degree angle may exist in nature, but if so, it’s a rare and mostly microscopic phenomenon. This is why the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey” was such a find. After a quarter million years of doing just fine without them, we have surrounded ourselves with straight lines and corners, and we’ve cocooned ourselves within cubes within cubes within cubes. As if our desks, tables, chairs, walls, and cupboards are not enough, most of us spend way too many minutes and hours staring into rectangles or poking them with our fingers and thumbs. Our ancestors would think we’re crazy, and it’s bringing us more pain than pleasure.
2. Get outside. It follows that the best way to rid ourselves of rectangles is to spend more of our hours outside the confines of our various cubes. We evolved to live the majority of our lives under the sun, clouds, moon, and stars, so we are not well adapted to artificial light, smooth floors, or climate-controlled environments.
3. Spend time with animals. We are fortunate to live in a rural area, where we are caretakers of two dogs, a cat, 17 chickens (or more in the spring), two horses, and two goats. I love to sit in a chair in the evening to watch the goats devour buckthorn and the chickens fly into their trees for the night. There’s also nothing more amazing than a 1000-pound animal letting you ride on its back. For thousands of years, life was a zoo. Our primate cousins were surrounded by bird song, insects, and fellow mammals — friends, foes, and food. As our ancestors became sedentary and civilized, they domesticated other species for companionship, work, and dinner. Most humans until recent times lived among goats, sheep, cows, horses, dogs, chickens, ducks, or pigs. It’s in our nature to be zookeepers, so there is great joy in feeding them, petting them, and riding them. Butchering and cleaning up, not so much, but it is the price you pay for a happy human life.
4. Walk. A daily walk is the only anti-depressant most of us need. Many years ago I read an essay by Kosuke Koyama titled “3-mile-an-hour God,” which pointed out that in the Hebrew scriptures, Yahweh led the Israelites on a 40 year walk in the wilderness. Walking is in our nature — especially outdoors. We also may have evolved to run, but it hasn’t been quite as essential over the last few thousand years. The residents of “blue zones,” those regions where people are more likely to live to be 100 (as described by author Dan Buettner), are not big on cardiovascular workouts, but they do tend to walk. Pumping iron in a gym or running on a treadmill while watching Netflix is all well and good, but it hasn’t passed the test of time. It’s only been a century or two that we’ve traveled faster than a horse can gallop. Part of our craziness may be due to the fact that we haven’t had time to adjust to speed, so the more time we spend going 60 in a car or 500 in a plane, the more we need to practice other Stone Age behaviors.
5. Eat whole foods. I’m not a big paleo diet guy because I think it’s often based on a masculine fantasy that human life was more about chasing big game than it was about digging in the dirt and picking vegetables. I’m also fine with bread, gluten, sugar, and pretty much everything else in moderation, and I admire vegetarians and vegans (though I haven’t made that leap myself). The paleos and I agree, though, that the best foods are those with the fewest ingredients, especially those with one: fruit, vegetables, nuts, meat, grains, seeds. The worst foods, I’m pretty sure, are the ones with a Latin laundry list down the side of the box.
6. Speaking of digging in the dirt … gardening and foraging clearly make the list of timeless human activities worth pursuing. I’m not a good role model on this one, but I do pick a batch of fiddleheads and tap the maples most years in the spring, make applesauce in the fall, and plant a poorly-tended garden in the summer. I also find lamb’s quarters tastier and easier to grow than spinach or lettuce.
7. Don’t read so much. I love to read, and I’d never tell anyone to give it up (just ask my kids), but we don’t have to be slaves to it, and in fact, reading can keep us from a more essential human activity: talking to each other. Books are not essential to human happiness. The Internet (including blog posts like this one), even less so. Many vibrant cultures thrived without books, though not without oral tradition. We lived just fine without reading and writing for most of human history, but not without speaking and listening. Read in moderation; talk in excess. (Or doing both in excess is probably okay, too.)
8. Turn off the music. Silence is golden, and recorded music is only 100 years old. This may not sit well in an earbud society, but it’s crazy to live with a constant soundtrack. In fact, playing music in the background may actually cheapen it; focused listening is more respectful of the art and artist than continuous hearing, and it allows more time and attention for silence, wind in the trees, waves crashing, brooks babbling, and bird song. I love music, but it’s best enjoyed live or savored in small servings.
9. Just do it. Sex, of course, predates the primates, the rectangle, language, music, and even legs. The most important modern convenience is therefore birth control. We no longer have the luxury of being fruitful, multiplying, and filling the earth. It’s already past its carrying capacity, so enjoy the modern luxury of the vasectomy.
10. Swim. Water is life. It’s where we all came from. We need to drink it, stare at it, and splash around in it as often as possible — especially in rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, and oceans.
11. Climb. We owe it to our primate relatives to use our opposable thumbs for their original purpose. In the absence of a good climbing tree, we can be satisfied with a ladder, a hill, a mountain, or a building. It’s natural to get up high and survey our surroundings.
12. Have a beer. We’ve been doing it for several thousand years, and some argue that it’s what made us settle down into agricultural communities. I won’t call it essential, though, and it’s inherently dangerous, so as with other dangers like books and music, enjoy it in moderation. We tell our kids that nothing good happens after midnight, and we should tell ourselves that nothing good happens after the third pint, the second martini, or the first bottle of wine.
13. Sleep a lot. A friend and I once spent three months camping, fishing, foraging, wandering around, and sleeping a lot. I’m pretty sure our ancestors did the same. Life outdoors is intense and tiring. The eight hours of sleep rule is a guilt trip imposed by religious and corporate interests. Relax and enjoy life. Sleep when you’re tired. Get up when you’re not.
I’m sure there are more I haven’t thought of, but any human activity can be put to the same test: If it’s been around for ten thousand years or more, it’s probably essential for a happy and healthy human life. If it’s less than a century old, it’s probably not. Generally speaking, the older the better, e.g. walking is better than driving, sex is better than pornography, books are better than movies, beer is better than meth, and pistachios are better than chips and dip (as painful as it is to admit it).
Most of us — myself included — are not going to move to a wigwam or get rid of our cellphones, but when modern life starts causing us more stress than satisfaction, our bodies may be telling us to get outside, go for a walk, talk to someone, get our hands dirty, or savor a drink of water.