The Human Body Is Too Complex For Easy Fixes

Moreover, it’s hard to truly know what the many apparently redundant systems within our bodies have been optimized for. One alternative approach to handling all of this biological complexity is to use general rules of thumb. Comparatively simple guidelines have sometimes been passed down from generation to generation, such as adhering to traditional diets like the Mediterranean or Japanese. In one study, four basic lifestyle factors—smoking status, BMI, diet, and physical activity—were found to reduce the onset of major chronic diseases, including cancer and diabetes, by a massive amount. This simple, moderate kind of approach is also seen in the elegant dictum of the food journalist Michael Pollan, who advises, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” or the haiku for how to run a fast marathon, from the Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist Michael Joyner: “Run a lot of miles / Some faster than your race pace / Rest once in a while.”

When it comes to biology and nutrition, while there is no doubt so much more to learn (and not everything that stands the test of time is necessarily correct), an incremental tinkering approach, tempered by a lot of humility, might be much more effective in the long term than the quick fixes of biohacking. Still, while these rules are straightforward, they’re not always the easiest to maintain. Perhaps that is why I was tempted—as are many others—by the search for ways of overcoming the trade-offs that are our evolutionary heritage.


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Even in the face of the folly of biohacking, it needn’t be Luddism all the way down. There is still a place for massive data sets and complex models and machine learning and tech start-ups. But they’re only going to be effective in the long term when the massive complexity of biology is taken into account. For example, the chef Adam Melonas runs Chew, an R&D lab that is at the cutting edge of food science. The way he frames the company’s approach to food seems to strike the right balance between technological ambition and humility. Rather than claiming it’s going to reinvent food by turning eating into a problem of macro- and micronutrient intake, Chew aims to combine everyday ingredients with advanced technology and tries to come up with healthier and more sustainable products.

Or take Zymergen, one of several companies using artificial intelligence to speed up the scientific process. Its machines search for microbes that produce specific chemicals for such things as drugs or biofuels. This approach to science can be controversial: Sometimes, it’s not possible to immediately, fully understand how a microbe produces a specific chemical. But such complex systems demand an iterative understanding, as opposed to instantly and completely figuring out the biochemistry. They don’t operate under a misguided assumption that a system can always be understood and engineered into submission.

My son now sleeps better, so I’m no longer teetering on the edge of insanity. I’m still not the biggest fan of slumber—think of all the books or television you could catch up on while everyone else is asleep! But I’ve come to recognize that my search for a magical cure is not going to result in some simple fix. Hubris versus humility is an ancient story. As long as biohacking does not give in to its overconfident tendencies, it will be better able to internalize the best of the advances made about the human body and the subtleties of its operation.

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The Human Body Is Too Complex for Easy Fixes
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