From the paleo diet to the “ancestral health” craze to the criminals leading the anti-vaccine movement, we live in neoprimitivist times, in precisely the manner sketched by William Gibson. A disturbingly large segment of society has adopted a highly skeptical and antagonistic relationship to the main tributaries of modernity. But as in The Peripheral, these people are not opting out of modernity, going off the grid or deciding to live in caves. Instead, they are volunteering for “another manifestation” of modernity, living in the modern world, without being entirely of it, or even understanding it.
Having finished William Gibson’s new book The Peripheral only last week, this essay was timely for me. But the primary premise is something that is not new. There’s a certain psychology where otherwise reasonable people reject the things that they don’t have the will to understand. I don’t mean the will to learn. I’ve known several people that reject fundamental science because it conflicted with a personal belief system that they refused to modify.
The paleo diet is used by Potter as one example, but diet fads go back centuries and most (if not all) are based on self-delusion muddled with science factoids.
Potter constructs many interesting (and delectably cynical) scenes. The article is worth reading, simply for the small joys passages like this provide:
The problem is you can only be authentic as long as most of the people around you are not, which has its own built-in radicalizing dynamic. You start out getting an organic-vegetable delivery service once a month, then you try growing chickens in your urban backyard. Then the next thing you know, your friends have gone all-in on paleo, eschewing grains, starches, and processed sugar and learning how to bow-hunt wild boar on weekends.
But he sums up the problem in one sentence in the middle of the essay:
This is magical thinking. We have become obsessed with invisible or undetectable features of our micro-environment, the alleged negative effects conjured out of statistical anomalies, anecdotes and ignorance.
Magical thinking is something we are great at. When it’s helpful we call it imagination. When it’s harmful we call it ignorance. Perhaps our society has developed just enough understanding of the world to no longer discern between science and magic. Or care to.