Seth Roberts: An Appreciation
Seth Roberts died on April 26.
collapsed while hiking near his
The cause of death was occlusive coronary artery disease and cardiomegaly.
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
was a special person - one of a kind.
Few scholars can match his
Anyone who loves ideas quickly became his
and I discovered each other at the same time - at the first Ancestral Health Symposium at UCLA
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
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
was always interested in what people had to say.
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.
and I were both fans of personal science, and were optimistic that the ancestral health and quantified self movements could generate scientific knowledge.
trusted and relied upon the personal science approach more than, perhaps, anyone ever has.
Above all, Seth
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
mood does not improve on the first day, but only on the second.
Seth Roberts 02 - Circadian Decay
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Perhaps the final recorded words from Seth?
Alas, it will never be.
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.
was - and this is the highest praise I can give - a true scientist.
loved the truth, and worked ardently to discover it.
was creative and insightful.
death is a grievous loss.