Is nature enough?

The mainstream of Chinese medicine, as canonized in the Yellow Emperors classic, is largely about using nature as a guide to achieve excellent health and long life. The classical text begins by describing how people were able to maintain balance in ancient times with lifestyle alone but that now we need some therapeutic interventions, particularly in the form of acupuncture. However, what is implicit throughout the rest of the text is that one will always fall back out of balance if one does not address the causes of disease.

Built-in to this Confucian take on what began as a Taoist pursuit is the assumption that one will go through phases of life from birth to growth to maturity to decline and finally death. One can go through the stages gracefully or not, but one will decline and die even under the best of circumstances by the age of 100 or so. When you fall out of balance due to lifestyle factors, acupuncture can temporarily bring you back, and right lifestyle can keep you there, at least temporarily, but ultimately you will decline and die. And, this decline will begin around the age of 50.

This mainstream Confucian tradition has lived side-by-side with Daoist alchemical traditions that reject the necessity of decline and even death. I don’t believe that there’s any evidence of anybody has ever avoided death, but I suspect that there are many people from both Chinese and Indian traditions who have used an alchemical approach to ward off many of the effects of aging and greatly extend their life spans. Alchemy, with regard to longevity and immortality, is nothing other than biohacking by another name. Paul Chek and Ben Greenfield were actually talking about this on Paul’s recent podcast.

If you have studied the traditions of alchemy, you start to see some interesting parallels with the modern biohacking phenomenon. A serious and well informed approach to both pre-modern alchemy and modern biohacking often involves the use of very refined substances that have been isolated from their original source. To me, this sounds very similar to the nutraceutical approach to biohacking. Within alchemy circles, there are well known historical incidents involving the use of substances that turned out to be very dangerous, at least in a dosages in which they were being consumed.

This is also similar to the world of biohacking, in which some people are experimenting with off-label uses of potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals. It is a remarkable non-coincidence that in both ancient and modern times, mainstream “authorities“ always point to the more extreme approaches and events to dismiss the entire enterprise out of hand. You see the same thing in East Indian culture with regard to the path known as Aghora tantra. The radical biohacking experiments of the Tantric yogis are often referred to as the left-hand path and are considered anathema within mainstream Brahmin society. In the world of professional debating, this is considered a strawman attack.

The perspective that there is no greater health and longevity benefit to be achieved than that which can be accomplished through the consumption of the right foods, right medicinal plants, and right exercise and that there is no place for molecular and genetic level interventions has almost a religious quality to it. The position seems to be rooted in the idea that unadulterated nature exists to benefit humans, and the proper use of nature will provide all of the benefit that humans could possibly need for long life and good health. However, evolutionary biology has proven a long time ago that nature does not exist for humans nor does nature care about humans in any way whatsoever. It is God or angels that supposedly care about humans. Let’s not conflate those ideas with what science has proven to us about nature and evolution.

We know that the mechanism of evolution is at least partially at the level of the selfish gene. Genes want to reproduce themselves, and organisms are a vehicle for that reproduction. So, all nature “cares“ about, if we can use that word very, very loosely, is making sure one generation is able to reproduce to the next generation. Once you have successfully reproduced and raised your offspring to maturity, nature couldn’t care less what happens to you. Everything else is culture.

Let’s take a major leap and say that a culture that promotes health and longevity past seven decades is beneficial to the continuity of the human species up to a certain point. It’s pretty clear that if most humans lived for hundreds of years, there would be many ramifications that would not necessarily be helpful to the continuity of the species. Great wealth would be accumulated by those who lived for centuries. There would be no particular reason to reproduce because replacements would not be necessary. Those children who were born into such a world would have virtually no chance of ever catching up with those who have been alive for hundreds of years.

So, it makes sense that even if there is an evolutionary benefit to the continuity of the species for humans to live 7 to 10 decades, there is no evolutionary benefit for people to live for hundreds of years. As a result, nature may very well provide the right materials necessary to reach the age of 100, as is indicated in the Yellow Emperors classic. But, to break through this barrier and achieve great health in old age or even live for a very extended period of time would seem to necessarily entail greater intervention from the human mind.

For those whose only interest is the optimal health one can achieve within a natural lifespan that will inevitably end in death by the age of 100 or so, a whole foods and herbs approach may be sufficient. However, given the nutritional depletion of our soils, the toxicity of our environment, our lack of exercise, high stress levels, and general dissatisfaction with life and work, as well as people being far displaced from the geographic areas in which their ancestors lived in recent generations, I doubt even that. 

So, I think an objective and rational consideration of all of the facts suggests that some level of intervention based on a modern understanding of genetics and nutrition at the molecular level is probably necessary to achieve the lifespan described by the yellow emperor. To exceed or even greatly exceed that lifespan in a state of optimal health would seem to absolutely require going beyond what unadulterated nature has to offer.