Books evolutionary biology Science

Impressions of “A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life,” by Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein

Recently I read A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century by husband-and-wife team Heather and Bret, recently professors at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. In the context of evolution, biology, and sociality, Heying and Weinstein hey present what I once learned to call a “granola,” or might be termed a “whole” (in the original sense of “Whole Foods”) or “Burkean Conservative,” view of health and wellness. If you have ever heard someone advocating organic foods along the lines of “this is what your grandparents would have called ‘food,’ you have met someone with their general perspective.

Bret and Heather even explicitly reference “Chesterton’s fence,” the change-management thought experiment by the author of The Man Who Was Thursday and Orthodoxy. Imagine there is a seemingly nonsensical feature, such a fence built along a road. Can it be removed? Only, Chesterton would argue, if you understand the sense of the feature. Why was the fence built there, and what disaster does its presence prevent?

From nutritional supplements (which presume successful deconstruction of the benefit of healthy foods) to emotionally “safe” college campuses (which presume successful deconstruction of the benefit of a liberal education), Heying and Weinstein share a broad-based distrust over potentially dangerous experimentation in our lives. When applied to politics, they criticize both the left and the right for rapid and often thoughtless experimentation — for liberals, this is more likely to involve ignoring the law of unintended consequences, and for conservatives more likely to ignore negative externalities. Who pays for this new law, or the costs for this new product, is often an unanswerable question, yet not knowing the answer rarely slows down such innovation.

Heying and Weinstein share an “evolutionary toolkit,” which is to say, an adaptionist or functionalist perspective, as a way of evaluating novel situations. “What is the function of this thing, how does it help?” could be asked for the appendix whic was once thought useless but is now known to be an internal biome). The same question could be asked for darkness (once thought as a worthless condition of inactivity or vice, now understand to be critical to the circadian rhythm) or even time (which can be thought of as a period between wanting and receiving, but can also be the process by which “spontaneous” remission occurs). The authors urge we ask this question for other things, too.

This perspective helped me understand how Heying and Weinstein managed to get swept up in what appears to be two unrelated cause celebres – the student protests at Evergreen State and their current status as thoughtful skeptics of the mRNA covid vaccines. In both cases, some novelty is introduced as an unalloyed good and presented as effective because previous systems (say racism, or traditional vaccines) have been deconstructed, and the worthless, slow, or inefficient parts of them discarded. Such as approach goes against the granola / whole / Burkean ethos they bring to a range of questions in this book.

The authors also use a granola / whole / Burkean approach to what might be called other ways of knowing. An example is astrology, a subject widely regarded as bunk and “debunked” as early as Augustine. But the authors present medical data showing that birth location and birth month are important predictors in health, psychological, and behavioral outcome for a wide variety of conditions. To a good order of approximation, traditional methods of astrology may present a tapestry of findings, beliefs, and biased conclusions not easy to discard. Much like science, except evolved for a particular society in a specific space with specific constraints. (Heying and Weinstein describe themselves as atheists; hence I assume they would be unimpressed by Joseph Ratzinger’s partial defense of astrology – at least regarding the prediction of the birth of Our Lord, astrology was right).

In the last chapter, the authors present “the fourth frontier,” a broad idea of replacing economic growth with sustainability as a goal for society. While much of their thought has found a home outside its original “granola” confines, this chapter seems to be an exception. The consequences of such a change would be dramatic, and it does not appear to fall within the general Burkean approach. In any case, the authors do not operationalize the goal. It is hard to know what to make of it.

Lastly, this may be one of the best-presented audiobooks I have ever read. Since leaving Evergreen State, Heying and Weinstein have run their podcast, The Dark Horse. Their experience on The Dark Horse has given them a lot of experience presenting information, reading texts, and audio production. The authors read the book in alternating chapters, and both Heather and Bret have excellent voices. The experience is terrific, and other authors planning on reading their own books hopefully will follow their example.

I read “A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life,” by Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein, in the Audible edition*.

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