The Caveman Effect: What CrossFit and Vegan Fundamentalists Share with ISIS. – Fitlosophy

By Ciaran O’Regan

NOTE: The FitLosophy series will at wide-reaching philosophical concepts through the lens of the fitness world.

(All credit to for the original image with which I took the biscuit when making the meme.)


Mongo is a human hunter-gatherer who lived about 40,000 years ago. Mongo and his tribe of less than 150 people (see #TheDunbarNumber…) basically move around following herds of migrating animals as this is a big part of their food supply. Mongo’s tribe split their time between brief periods of hunting and gathering followed by chilling at camp making tools and clothing, preparing food, and having plenty of sex for enjoyment as well as group cohesion (see “Sex At Dawn” by Dr. Christopher Ryan…).

Mongo and his people, of course, experience difficult situations such as food shortages or delightful encounters with Saber Tooth Tigers. Overall, however, they have a really meaningful day to day existence simply because they are living in accordance with their evolutionary biology.

Mongo is however from an era of human existence that would mean he is labeled a “caveman”. I do not know about you, but any cave structure I have been in is usually a cold, dark, moldy, and miserable kinds of place and are not all that pleasant. As such, associating Mongo and his kin with living caves is associating them with a cold, dark, moldy, and miserable kind of existence which probably couldn’t be further from the truth from what we know about hunter-gatherer lives (important reminder: see “Sex At Dawn” by Dr. Christopher Ryan…). Why would Mongo be labeled a “caveman” however? Did Mongo and his tribal kin live in caves?

Maybe, sometimes.

In all fairness though when you think about it from a common sense perspective, apart from a potential handful of cave rich areas worldwide with Swiss cheese looking hillsides, how fucking common are caves that can fit 150 people in them that you will be able to find EVERY night you get to a new location while following the aforementioned migrating herds? Probably not too common right? So if not in caves, where did they live? Well:

“Most hunter-gatherers are nomadic or semi-nomadic and live in temporary settlements. Mobile communities typically construct shelters using impermanent building materials.” – Wikipedia

The key bit is “impermanent building materials”, with the key word being “impermanent”. You know what usually doesn’t go away over time? A fucking CAVE! And it is this inherent resilience of caves that is precisely why Mongo and his kin are called cavemen. This is because stuff Mongo and his buddies would have drawn or scratched into a cave wall is obviously far more likely to survive long enough for us to find than the “impermanent building material” they built their dwellings with. This is the Caveman Effect.

“An example of selection bias is called the “caveman effect”. Much of our understanding of prehistoric peoples comes from caves, such as cave paintings made nearly 40,000 years ago. If there had been contemporary paintings on trees, animal skins or hillsides, they would have been washed away long ago. Similarly, evidence of fire pits, middens, burial sites, etc. are most likely to remain intact to the modern era in caves. Prehistoric people are associated with caves because that is where the data still exists, not necessarily because most of them lived in caves for most of their lives.” – Wikipedia

So what the fuck have Crossfitters, Vegans, and ISIS have to do with the caveman effect?


JOKER: “How will you know if someone you meet is a Vegan/CrossFitter?”

VICTIM: “I don’t know how?”

JOKER: “Wait 5 minutes and they will fucking tell you!”

VICTIM: Responds with a laugh/snigger/pitiful sigh/shake of head/etc.

Those of us in and around the fitness and health world have probably heard jokes like this thrown around for years. I would hazard a guess that the reason these jokes are so common, is because they are based on stereotypes that bare some validity due to our personal experience with people from these communities causing them to resonate with us.

However, this is essentially a selection bias. This is because the quiet majority of people from these communities we meet who do NOT shove their fundamentalism down our throats go unknown to us. This then skews our perception of the % of people from these respective communities who are in fact militant in their ideology.

This is a perfect example of the Caveman Effect. Just like caves containing data from Mongo and his buddies survived longer than the “impermanent building materials” they used thereby leading us to associate them with caves and label them as cavemen: stereotypes about the obsessive nature of Vegans, CrossFitters and other fitness related tribes develop due to the militant ones making themselves ridiculously conspicuous and the non-militant majority just going about their lives without trying to preach some dogma.

This is the exact same fucking concept that applies to ISIS!


Due to people in ISIS acting the prick and doing horrible acts in the name of Islam and the media operating with the standard “if it bleeds it leads’ approach, it is easy for all Muslims to get lumped into the one stereotypical category. This is just like Mongo’s homies being labeled cavemen simply because the majority of data on them comes from caves. Just like we did not find evidence of Mongo’s “impermanent building materials”, we do not hear stories about the quiet majority of Muslims. This issue is magnified due to the fact that our brains are hard-wired to create stereotypes to categorize people into large groups. We categorize people based on identifiable differentiating factors such as skin color, religion, sports team, etc. This is due to the limitations of the aforementioned Dunbar’s number (which you really should learn about if you want to understand a key aspect of social psychology….).

While we repeatedly hear about ISIS being made up of Muslims, something we do not hear too much about is the actual structure of ISIS and who is pulling the strings and why. This beast of an article in Speigel Online, for example, details the command structure of ISIS in Syria from top to bottom as laid out in documents found in the house of a now deceased former Iraqi colonel called Haji Bakr. An interesting aside about Bakr is that when he died they found shitloads of documents in his house relating to military planning and structure, but no Koran or religious texts. Hmmmm, is it not thought provoking that a key leader of an organization supposedly motivated with religious ideology has no religious texts in his house, but instead has a shitload of detailed plans on how to step by step take over a country? I will leave that one with you. But I digress.

Below is a description of ISIS activities in Syria in a single sentence. I issue a challenge to you to read it all in one breath ;)…..

ISIS is basically an organization mostly led by coldly calculating power-hungry former high-ranking Iraqi military men who are leveraging the religious fundamentalism of extremist Muslims by puppet mastering a Muslim cleric figurehead called Baghdadi and recruiting non-Syrian Muslims from all over the world through clever internet marketing designed to manipulate rudderless disillusioned people who are lacking a meaningful purpose and direction to their lives.

Did you get it on 1 breath?

These ISIS leaders are basically a just a shower of nutcases who claim to be “Muslim” but are in fact just leveraging a bastardized version of the ideology to further their own ambitions. And, since these power hungry lunatics and their once rudderless and unfortunately disillusioned followers are the most outspoken and loud in their actions, they become proxy representatives for the Muslim world by by extension.

Since ISIS activities are probably the most common Islam-related data source the western world gets, I really feel it was important to highlight to you what ISIS actually is so that we can be aware of the potential to have our opinions on the religion skewed by the Caveman Effect.

But if the majority of Muslims, CrossFitters, and Vegans are just regular people however just going about their days trying to make better lives for themselves and those they care about just like all the rest of us – what makes the extremist minority different?


What is fundamentalism?

Or as the Urban Dictionary says….

Hunter Maats also absolutely nails it with this description…

I will 100% admit that Fundamentalism is a really attractive concept for our small ape brains. The idea that there are these really simple solutions to difficult problems is very attractive as it allows us to surrender our personal responsibility and decision making over to some single source. The alternative to fundamentalism is to be constantly seeking personal growth and development to reach higher levels of consciousness and understanding by entertaining information from a wide variety of sources.

But how does fundamentalism apply to Vegans and CrossFitters?

I do not want to bash CrossFit at all as I genuinely think it has been one of the most important Black Swan Events in the history of fitness. Before CrossFit, the standard narrative for years with fitness was that guys played sports or lifted weights like a bodybuilder would, and women walked quickly or did fucking step aerobics. CrossFit has done more to make super effective training modalities such as barbell and gymnastics strength training sexy and appealing to the masses than any other single entity. The CrossFit movement has also done a great job of producing a well-needed highlighting of the importance of positive lifestyle habits such hard exercise, nutrition, sleep, and potentially most importantly; a sense of tribal support and encouragement for people around these habits.

Similarly, with Vegans, there is elements of community and tribal support around positive traits such as environmental impact awareness around food production and a desire to limit the suffering of animals that are hugely important. I especially respect vegan athletes who manage to succeed at a high level as there is so much discipline and attention to detail needed to ensure that physical performance is not affected when avoiding animal products such as; the organization skills needed to plan and prepare their food, meeting not just protein but specific amino acid requirements, B6 and B12 requirements, iron requirements, long chain Omega 3 fatty acid requirements, etc.

The Vegan and CrossFit fundamentalists I am talking about are the ones who see their respective ideology as the one and only way to do things at the expense of acknowledging the fact that they are simply acting in accordance with a methodology, and, when it comes to methodology Harrington Emerson said it best….

“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” – Harrington Emerson

This fundamentalist mentality is not just in the CrossFit and Vegan community, but is present in many of health and fitness communities such as Ketogenic people, “If It Fits Your Macros” people, Paleo people, Yoga people, etc.

However, just like the rudderless and disillusioned people who are lacking a meaningful purpose and direction to their lives that are easy for ISIS to manipulate, there are also people of the same type who find their respective fitness or health niche and take it too far. Some reasons for this may include;

  1. They previously struggled with health issues such as being overweight and this particular methodology worked for them to get healthy.
  2. It fills some hole in their lives by providing a sense of tribal affiliation (a lot of what people find great about any of these fitness niches is the sense of community and the idea that you are part of a larger tribe not just in their immediate local, but around the world. That is why people often use language to identify themselves AS a certain thing rather than say they DO a certain thing. For example, you will often here something like: “I am a vegan” rather than something like “I eat vegan” or “I eat a vegan diet”.
  3. They get extremely fond of the feelings of superiority or elitism that goes with feeling like they have it all figured out and no one outside of their niche does.
  4. They really enjoy the feelings of being in an ideological echo chamber constantly surrounded by confirmation bias and tribal affirmation while avoiding the discomfort of having their views questioned and disproved (I previously wrote about ideological extremism here…).

So how do we avoid The Trappings of Fundamentalism?


Accept that no single person or resource has all the answers and adopt the mentality of a Mixed Mental Artist….

“Mixed Mental Arts is about evolving better and better culture drawing on the best of all times and places and learning everything we can from humanities mistakes. It’s bringing the principle of agile development used by software developers to evolving cultural software. We move fast and we break beliefs.” – Hunter Maats

Fitness fundamentalism, just like religious fundamentalism, is a way of grasping at simplistic solutions to complex issues. Our brains are small and limited while the world is big and complicated. As such, we find ourselves consciously and subconsciously clawing at simplistic models through which to view the world as the whole thing is far far far too complicated for us to fully understand in every minute detail. These limitations of our little ape brains are something we are unable to control. What we can control, however, is how we view the fact that our brain does have innate cognitive limitations and then adopt the mentality of a Mixed Mental Artist so that we do not close ourselves off to true growth and personal development in whatever endeavor we partake in. Basically, we all need to accept the magnitude of our own ignorance.

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” – Socrates


NB* This piece was originally published on


One Comment

  1. Kevin McNamee Reply

    This is excellent stuff. I’ve really been digging Ciaran’s thoughts on the facebook page too. I’ve been doing crossfit for a number of years, and the best thing that it did was spark an interest in me to get more information about natural movement, olympic weightlifting, BJJ, nutrition, food chain logistics, and generally how to work on my physical self in the most effective ways possible. Ciaran’s piece put into words what I’ve been thinking about for a while. Great read.

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