Seth Roberts: An Appreciation

Seth Roberts died on April 26. He collapsed while hiking near his Berkeley home. The cause of death was occlusive coronary artery disease and cardiomegaly.

Seth was one of the leading figures in the ancestral health and quantified self movements, and one of the editors of the Journal of Evolution and Health. It is fitting, therefore, that the day following the Ancestral Health Symposium, there will be a memorial for Seth at UC Berkeley. The memorial was the idea of Nassim Nicholas Taleb and will feature talks by Taleb, Tucker Max, Tim Ferriss, Gary Taubes, and John Durant.

Many of his friends have offered tributes, and I can second their praise. Saul Sternberg: “I would judge him to be the most interesting and original thinker I know.” Aaron Blaisdell: “His warm companionship, unique intellect, insatiable curiosity, and infinite creativity will be missed.”

Seth was a special person – one of a kind. Few scholars can match his creativity. Anyone who loves ideas quickly became his fan.

Seth and I discovered each other at the same time – at the first Ancestral Health Symposium at UCLA in 2011. We began reading each others’ blogs, and began an occasional correspondence. When Shou-Ching and I did a revised edition of our book for Scribner in 2012, he contributed this blurb:

“The sanest overview of what to eat I have ever seen. If you are going to read only one thing on the subject, read this.”

It was characteristic of Seth that he sent me a private message, “I want you to know I really mean it.” I’ve just now noticed, and am flattered, that PHD is the only ancestral community blog on Seth’s blogroll.

He was a fascinating conversation partner, but generally demanded more information than he gave. Andrew Gelman in his reminiscence of Seth wrote: “Seth was always interested in what people had to say. His conversational style was to ask question after question after question after question.”

When he and I were together, he always steered the conversation to a favorite topic: “Why is modern science so unproductive?” Biomedical science transitioned to its modern form about 1950, when chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes became the major killers. Yet, after 60 years of effort and, currently, $30 billion per year in federally funded biomedical research and $50 billion per year in pharmaceutical industry R&D, medicine has failed to cure any major disease, and has generally failed to elucidate causes. At AHS 2013 in Atlanta, Seth and I sat together at lunch and ended up staying an extra hour, missing talks, to discuss why that has been so.

I suppose he chose different topics of discussion with different people, and chose this topic with me because I brought a broad perspective to the issue, having been a physicist at MIT, Berkeley, and Harvard; a vicarious participant in my wife’s biomedical research career; and a practitioner of personal science to fix my own health issues. I had also had practical business experience and knowledge in economics, so I had some ideas about what institutions and cultures enable work to get done effectively.

Seth and I were both fans of personal science, and were optimistic that the ancestral health and quantified self movements could generate scientific knowledge. However, Seth trusted and relied upon the personal science approach more than, perhaps, anyone ever has. Above all, Seth treasured his own experiments.

This was both strength and weakness. It made him extraordinarily creative. From the food-flavor appetite retraining method of the Shangri-La Diet, to his tactics for improving sleep and mood, to his methods for improving reaction time, he repeatedly discovered new influences upon health.

He was also a careful experimentalist. I found his data trustworthy – it had the ring of truth, and often led me down fruitful pathways. For example, Seth’s “faces therapy” introduced me to the role of social interactions in entraining circadian rhythms. (See my blog posts here and here for more about faces therapy, including links to Seth’s blog.) Here is some of Seth’s data, as I present it in a talk at the Perfect Health Retreat:

Seth Roberts 01 - Faces and Mood

Notice that when Seth stops looking at human faces, his mood is worsened only on the second day, not the first. And then when he resumes, his mood does not improve on the first day, but only on the second.

To detect such an effect, and reproduce it, is a mark of a skilled experimentalist. Mark Twain once said, “We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.” Now imagine if burns from the hot stove afflicted Twain’s cat only after a two day delay. She might never make the association, and continue sitting on hot stoves for years.

Why the two-day delay? The obvious answer is that circadian rhythms in the body decay in 24 to 48 hours. And that is indeed the case. Here is another slide from that same talk at the Retreat:

Seth Roberts 02 - Circadian Decay

The amplitude of the gene expression cycle in circadian genes is cut in half every day without stimulus. Within a few days, amplitudes are too small to fulfill clock functions.

The moral: We need to stimulate our circadian rhythms daily, or at worst every other day.

Reading Seth was like that. Almost every finding Seth made, sent me to the literature, and led to new discoveries. But the conclusions I drew from his experiments were often different from his own.

For Seth the lesson of his faces therapy was that he needed to look at human faces in the morning, and avoid them in the evening. A friend of Seth’s, Ellen Rosenthal, wrote, “It was actually quite hard to see him face to face. He had discovered that exposure to human company (he usually described it in terms only of the human face) was a harmful practice if carried on in the evening.”

For me, the life-changing lesson was that I needed to exercise – another circadian time-giver – every single day.

There was rarely a single, unequivocal interpretation of his experiments. If the Shangri-La Diet worked by breaking flavor-calorie associations in the brain, was it better to retrain the brain by eating flavorless calories, or flavorful non-calories? Or perhaps the diet needed to be more diverse and variable, and so less prone to triggering Pavlovian eating. Experiments to clarify what was going on were never arranged, so far as I know.

The weaknesses of Seth’s approach to science show up best, I think, in how he ate. Although he considered ours the “sanest” diet book, he didn’t eat our diet. He prized his own experimental results above all else. If an experiment persuaded him that eating something would improve his health, he ate it.

To my mind, this led him on a somewhat fanciful peregrination through dietary parameter space. His approach risked two pitfalls:

  • In any complex optimization problem, a sequence of small improvements does not lead to a global optimum, for the same reason that climbing ever upwards does not lead to the top of the world’s highest peak. Odds are, it leads to the top of a small hillock from which there is nowhere to go. Without a larger view of the landscape, enabling one to find the vicinity of the highest peak, there is no way to guarantee a good outcome through a series of experiments.
  • Even a local optimum – the top of our small hillock – may be unreachable if one cannot accurately assess health. Seth’s experiments typically lasted days to weeks. But most modern health problems take 60 years to develop. So there was no way for Seth to directly appraise whether his diet would generate good health or poor health; he had to appraise its effect on readily measurable, quick-adjusting biomarkers. But how do we know those biomarkers are reliable indicators of overall health?

It is because of these two problems that our book, Perfect Health Diet, rejected experimental approaches to dietary science, and relied upon novel approaches grounded in evolutionary biology, and molecular and cellular biology.

But Seth was wedded to experimentation as a scientific methodology. This worked well as long as he was using sleep quality as a biomarker, since sleep quality is close to 100% correlated with health. He entered riskier ground, I think, when he selected reaction time as a biomarker to optimize. I doubt this has a simple relationship to health; I suspect one can improve reaction time while damaging health. And when optimizing this biomarker led him to consume large amounts of butter on top of large amounts of flaxseed oil, I think he should have recalled the arguments of our book, and been more persuaded by them than he was.

We never had a chance to discuss this issue. There were always topics other than diet to interest us when we were together.

Ironically, had he lived we might have discussed this by now. Seth and Bryan Davis of the Ask Bryan Podcast were launching a podcast devoted to stories of personal science, and had selected me to be their first guest. The day after Seth’s death, Bryan wrote, “Did you record that interview? I hope so. I sincerely hope so. Perhaps the final recorded words from Seth?” Alas, it will never be.

Seth had as much influence on this blog as any one. A Google search of this blog for his name yields 741 hits, more than almost any one else.

Seth was – and this is the highest praise I can give – a true scientist. He loved the truth, and worked ardently to discover it. He was creative and insightful. His death is a grievous loss.

Leave a comment ?

52 Comments.

  1. Lovely Paul. Thank you for being you. You remain a good man and an inspiration.

  2. Thank you, Paul. What a tribute to Seth, and an act of your own untainted goodness. Good men and women comprise our hope.

  3. Thanks for this tribute. I miss his writings and personal encouragement so much! 🙁

  4. How much flaxseeds is too much?
    I have a big tablespoon of seeds to be ground with my green smoothie every morning,
    is that too much?
    I don’t use any of the oil at all, and hardly ever use butter…

    • Hi Jacquie, It’s difficult to know how much flaxseed is too much, but I wouldn’t do more than one big tablespoon.

      • I thought saturated fat (butter) is benign, even at high levels?

        • Nothing is benign at high enough intakes.

          • i like what you say about global optimization.

            i wonder, in the multi-dimensional non-linear configuration
            space, health, longevity & performance (may be some others axis) are not exactly parallel, perhaps even orthogonal?

            Seth was a very creative thinker & shall be remembered fondly.

        • Keven Lambert

          Cmp,
          We must be thinking back to the same reading as each other, I really thought even at high levels, saturated fat was harmless and burned off as carbon dioxide… I know I have tons of respect for Paul and I have added safe starches into my diet because of him. I have a hard time focusing sometimes on my work and other things, and I have found ketosis really helps me a lot. Since Perfect Health Diet, I have tried this with starches and MCT oil and butter, hope not too much… I most days have 4 or 5 TBS butter and 1 or 2 coconut or MCT … is that pushing the safe limit??? I have a family that needs me, I would hate to be doing something that is hurting me

          • Hi Keven,
            As I recollect, per PHD approx 50% of calories can come from saturated fat and 5 tbs of butter is about 500kals so thats well within range. Coconut and MCT are not saturated so total fat intake is fine. Think Paul is making the point that technically anything can be toxic at high enough levels, even water, but sat fat is the least toxic macronutrient, excess carb or protein is worse.

        • Keven Lambert

          Cmp,
          I do not want to take up your time but my MCT oil is 100% saturated as is most of coconut oil. I am very interested in this oil consumption topic, hope to see much more on this soon. I know from experience, I do much better on a high fat diet vs one high in sugar and carbs from fruit

          • My mistake Keven coconut oil is high in sat fat, but check out PHD for the skinny on fat. Good luck 🙂

      • Thank you, I will mix 1/2 with chia seeds just in case!

  5. That was a very well written and thoughtful tribute.

    I’ve recently been reading about what seems to be the widespread mislabeling of olive oils throughout the world, and it seems one of the worst culprits is anything labeled Extra Light Olive Oil. It seems that sometimes these oils aren’t made exclusively of olives and that there is a huge amount of corruption and subterfuge in the industry. The other oils in there could be anything. I know Seth advocated the use of Extra Light Olive Oil. This might be something to look into regarding his unfortunate health troubles.

    http://www.foodrenegade.com/your-extravirgin-olive-oil-fake/

    Thank you so much for this peak into the life of this unique man.

  6. The best and most thoughtful tribute I have read yet on Seth’s passing, thanks Paul.

  7. Loss of a great man. He had a lot to teach us though so lets move forward with the inner knowing that we have that real food and healthy habits are best. I’m so happy he was doing something he loved when he passed. What a perfect way to move on to eternal health and peace. Namaste, Seth. And thank you Paul.

  8. ……and do not harm the olive oil and the wine…..Rev 6:6. Sound advice indeed. Unfortunately, those whose motivation is money are not paying attention. As Ghandi stated, there is enough on this Earth for Man’s need, but not for Man’s greed.

    Virtually everything is adulterated or meddled with in some way. The earth – the key to our health, is being plundered left, right and centre of its life-sustaining minerals and trace elements. Food growing areas are rarely, if ever fed and restored. Excessive hybridisation and manipulation is undermining what was once perfect food, turning it into Frankenfood. Pollution, parasites, and chemicals are doing the rest.

    How can we possibly expect to be well when our food isn’t food anymore? There is bad food, and there is better food, but it is almost impossible to find GOOD food anymore (unless money is no object). Because in our lifetime we’ve never eaten un-meddled-with food, we don’t know what REAL food tastes like!

    Counterfeit products may have a veneer of legitimacy, but they have no substance or quality of the real thing. The modern tomato looks like a tomato, but is a nutrient-devoid hologram….. Ironically, those that produce these foods are not only damaging others, but also themselves and their families.

    Adulteration of olive oil is sadly just the tip of the iceberg….

  9. Regarding the point “Why is modern science so unproductive?”, maybe someday a blog post on this topic.

  10. Hi paul. Do you think that women with hashimoto’s can have resistance to lose weight? I can’t wait for your ebook on weight loss!!
    Since it is an autoimmune disease how bad it is to eat nuts and seeds for someone with hashis? And which seeds do you think are better? I’ve heard chia seeds have more benefits but I’m worried seeds are unhealthy because of the flaxseed thing.
    And because of the thyroid.

  11. Great post Paul, thanks for sharing. I recently read his book after his passing and found Seth’s approach to losing weight interesting, but it did seem a little bit lacking in the broader picture of overall health. Sorry for your loss of a good friend.

  12. Wow so Seth died of coronary artery disease? He was so young and striving for health. This is sad and also perplexing, without wishing to be intrusive or morbid… How could this happen? Is sat fat a big bogey afterall? Thank you for your considered and thorough epitaph.

    • Keven Lambert

      Jennifer,
      I too have had that question cross my mind since this untimely death has took place in our world. I have a high consumption of saturated fats in my diet. I am still willing to bet saturated fat is pretty harmless for the most part compared to other nutrients in our food. I know we all have the same goal on the forum which is good health, when something like this happens it brings many questions to mind.

      • “He consumed large amounts of saturated fat on top of large amounts of flaxseed oil”

        I believe that saturated fat amplifies the absorption of PUFA. If that is correct, it makes what he was doing seem even more risky.

        • Keven Lambert

          Ellen,
          That very well could be a factor. I also think that sometimes even in perfect situations, storms still a rise and life throws curve balls no matter what you have in mind. I believe that we still have so much to learn in so many areas.

    • From what I read in his blog, his high-level of mercury may have been a factor.

  13. “Why is modern science so unproductive?”

    Now you’re starting to sound like Ray Peat. Maybe you should send him an email. 😉

  14. Has anyone read the Blue Zone by Dan Buettner? The long lived race doesn’t just depend on what they eat, but also their state of mind and lifestyle….and their spiritual aspiration.
    It takes all to bring about a total wellbeing, Obsessive Complusive Disorder OCD in any one area stresses the organism, cos we lose sight of the whole perspective, what born dies….
    Meanwhile, we give ourselves the best shot we can while around,

  15. Thank you for this warm tribute to Seth.

    I find it strange that everyone focusses on the flaxseed/butter consumption and ignores the honey/sugar intake in later experiments.

    • Keven Lambert

      Suzanne,
      You could very well have a valid point, sugar and fructose might be a key player. I am not that knowledgeable about his work to know what was going on. Having a high consumption of fat in my diet, and seeing something like this happen, just makes one want to cover all angles.

  16. Hello Paul, in your tribute to Seth Roberts you mentioned sleep and its strong correlation to health. I’m 56 years old and for the past 25 years(because of my job) I get around 4 hours of sleep a night and maybe 2 more hours in the afternoon. I purchased your book and have followed its dietary recommendations as it makes the most sense for me. I also exercise approx. three times a week and flat out feel great with no health issues. My question is will my sleep patterns hurt me down the road?

    • Hi victor,

      I think 6 hours of sleep per day is rather minimal, and it’s undesirable to get so much of it in the daytime. I think this schedule can be expected to shorten lifespan by a few years. So you should think about how important your night work is to you, and whether you have alternatives.

  17. “I think he should have recalled the arguments of our book, and been more persuaded by them than he was.”

    May i ask what about chapter 12 The Safe Fats: in your book?

  18. When and how could we know, when the reservoirs for 135,000 calories of SaFa and MUFA are full?

  19. Paul,
    A very gracious and compassionate remembrance of Seth. I was not familiar with his health advice or practice of such, but I was absolutely appalled when I read an arrogant, self-righteous comment on a website about his death. Everything is not about diet; although the negative comment assumed Seth’s diet caused his demise. There are so many variables involved in health and contributing factors that predisposes one to early death (genetic/epigenetic/environmental/socioeconomic etc). It appears that Seth had a meaningful, rich life and influenced and engaged many people.

  20. Suzanne I’m sure eating a tablespoon of honey and a couple of fruits everyday in the months leading up to his passing wasn’t what killed him. This whole fructose phobia is ridiculous, it’s probably even more ridiculous than the saturated fat causes heart disease hypothesis.

    I did PHD for about a year and I can say for certain that I feel much better consuming a more even ratio of sugars to starches. On a low-zero sugar diet, I felt miserable and tired all the time.

    Sugary foods, like most things are probably only harmful in excess. I’m sure you could eat as much fruit as want and wouldn’t have any health issues.

    Also, if sugar is so fattening then why are all these frutarians lean and why is Robert Lustig obese?

  21. Remembrances | Seth Roberts Memorial - pingback on July 21, 2014 at 4:07 pm
  22. Paul, thanks for letting me know about your Seth Roberts tribute. I added a link to the Memorial site (it’s at the bottom of the page). Sorry about the delay.

    http://www.seth-roberts-memorial.com/

  23. Problem med självexperiment - Ursprungsliv - pingback on December 26, 2014 at 4:10 pm
  24. Perfect Health Diet Evolving?? - pingback on March 19, 2015 at 5:27 pm
  25. When he and I were together, he always steered the conversation to a favorite topic: “Why is modern science so unproductive?” Biomedical science transitioned to its modern form about 1950, when chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes became the major killers. Yet, after 60 years of effort and, currently, $30 billion per year in federally funded biomedical research and $50 billion per year in pharmaceutical industry R&D, medicine has failed to cure any major disease, and has generally failed to elucidate causes. At AHS 2013 in Atlanta, Seth and I sat together at lunch and ended up staying an extra hour, missing talks, to discuss why that has been so.

    I suppose he chose different topics of discussion with different people, and chose this topic with me because I brought a broad perspective to the issue, having been a physicist at MIT, Berkeley, and Harvard; a vicarious participant in my wife’s biomedical research career; and a practitioner of personal science to fix my own health issues. I had also had practical business experience and knowledge in economics, so I had some ideas about what institutions and cultures enable work to get done effectively.

    This is also one of my favorite topics and I think I know the reason. Once feds started financing research with grants, the emphasis was in getting grants, not curing disease.

    When I was working in academe, I saw it more and more and although I’ve been out of it for over 20 years, I imagine it’s only gotten worse, not better and I’m not surprised when I read about breakthroughs coming from the UK or other European or Asian labs and seldom anything from the US.

  26. Great cartoon!

    Apparently, we are not alone — only widely spaced out, literally as well as figuratively.

    😎

  27. Coming to this thread late I hasn’t realised Seth had died. I first discovered him via his Shangri la diet book. Condolences to those here who knew him. Reading through the comments though it seems many are concerned with macronutrients as opposed to liking at the other factors such as fasting (rise in stress hormone cortisol and adrenalin) and insomnia (also a rise in cortisol). Whilst man is able to go through brief fasting periods, I’m sure prolonged periods of fasting would affect heart muscle, not just a wasting of muscle elsewhere. Stress hormones are elevated in fasting not just over exertion. That with the addition of PUFAs (inflammation) could very well have been an issue. Whilst he saw improvements in his health introducing butter, PUFA fat being kept in the diet would not have been helpful.

    His questions about why allopathic medicine was so ineffective have me asking the question of a lot of things RE diet and what we do to lose weight and be healthy. Everyone questions the type of fat, not the low calories and their effects in heart muscle over prolonged period here or lack of sleep.

    I would question the seed oil. Nowhere in nature would we ever have consumed flax oil easily. I blame nutritionists who hype these oils without even thinking in practical or common sense terms. That and our lack of ability to accept stress in any type onthe body is bad over prolonged periods no matter how it occurs. We’d rather blame it on things like mercury even though the diet has not been optimal, or the person lacks good quality sleep, and putting the body under excessive stress without adequate nutrition. Sad. Just a low protein intake has the body turning to muscle to get glycogen if calories are low and the body doesn’t discriminate. Heart muscle is not immune where it comes to being wasted.

    We know now people under tremendous stress and doing marathons who are extremely fit can just die. But we don’t think about fasting as a form of stress.

    • Hi CountryGrrl,

      Good ideas, but Seth died of cardiomegaly (enlarged heart) which is not likely to arise in protein deficiency (which shrinks muscle). Cardiomegaly is due to excessive oxidative stress (from either intense exercise or excess calorie intake, especially excess saturated fats and polyunsaturated fats) combined with antioxidant deficiencies (e.g. vitamin E, selenium, glutathione, C, zinc, copper).

      Best, Paul

Leave a Comment


NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Trackbacks and Pingbacks: