When I saw Paleofantasy on the shelf at the bookstore, I got excited. “Finally, another Clan of the Cavebear!” I was disappointed to discover that Paleofantasy is not a fictionalized novel about paleo peoples. Rather, it is a pop-cultural, non-fiction book about how the paleo craze (that has been growing for some time now) is allegedly based on a false understanding of evolution.

The first premise of the paleo craze (of which Rewilding is definitately a relative if not, driving force) is the idea that our culture, over the last 10,000 years or so, has changed faster than our bodies (or more specifically, DNA). The second premise is that this means our bodies are not designed for the differences in culture of the modern era, but more suited to our prehistoric, or “paleo”, past. The third premise is that because of premise one and two, we should three: mimic our ancestors lifestyle to attain maximum health and well-being. This triad of premises has led to all kinds of pop cultural fads, but three stand out more than others: diet, exercise, and sex/family. Books like “Born to Run” encourage bare foot, long distance running. Books like “The Paleo Diet” inspire readers to cut out grains and starches from their diets. Books like “Sex at Dawn” have many people questioning their marriages and monogamy. These books, along with hundreds of others, posit that modern human life goes against our biological human nature.

Sixty-one pages into Paleofantasy I had to stop. I looked back at the pages I’d read, filled with highlighted sections, notes in the side margins, and folded “dog ears” in the corners. Clearly I’ve been reading over this with a fine tooth and comb. Marlene Zuk is a college professor of evolutionary biology turned decent pop cultural science writer. If you were unfamiliar or new to any of the “paleo” ideas, you could easily be tricked by this book. Quite easily in fact. It’s hard to argue with someone when they are so skillfully able to slip their subversive premises by you. It’s similarly hard to continue reading a book that bases all of it’s counter-points on a foundational strawman. If your initial premises are incorrect, than all of your points are going to reflect this. I gave up after 61 pages. Let me share with you why.

The main premise of her book is to show that humans have evolved in the last 10,000 years and that great evolutionary changes actually can happen very quickly. So when people say we have “caveman DNA living in a technological era” it’s not quite true. She presents a lot of evidence that our DNA has changed quite rapidly since the development of agriculture and civilization.

This, however, is a strawman argument against paleo lifestyle: no one is actually saying our DNA hasn’t changed. No one credible anyway. What she doesn’t understand, is that the “caveman DNA living in a technological era” comment is meant to be an anecdote. Of course DNA has changed over the last few thousands years. Anyone who would claim otherwise would be rather foolish. She doesn’t so much argue the basic premise of the paleo craze: that humans haven’t evolved much in the last 150,000 years. Her argument is more like, “Sure, we haven’t changed much, but we have changed, and more importantly, are still changing.” To this I would say, the paleo craze doesn’t disagree and it lies more in a misconception of the author, a misrepresentation of the basic premises, an unclear understanding of the full picture.

Her second premise is that there was never any time in human history where humans were a perfect spicimen of evolution. If there is no static point of human evolution, why would you ever strive to be like a previous version of yourself? Why pick 10,000 years ago? Why stop there. Why not pick 100,000 years ago? In her mind, it makes about as much sense as projecting how humans will be living in 5,000 from now, and try to eat that way/exercise that way/fuck that way right now.

This again, is a genius commentary on Paleo Diet proponents like author Loren Cordain, whose paleo diet is a one-size-fits all diet of lean meats. The reality of the paleo diet is that there is no such one-size fits all. Paleo peoples everywhere ate quite differently. There were however, basic principles of diet that are not present in modern times, and people are suffering for it. The author of Paleofantasy doesn’t really talk much about the science of why paleo is healthier though, instead she focuses on her (inaccurate) perception of the paleo lifestyle, based on specific examples of a few authors who clearly don’t speak for the evolving movement.

“The paleofantasy is a fantasy in part because it supposes that we humans, or at least our protohuman forebears, were at some point perfectly adapted to our environments.”

“To think of ourselves as misfits in our own time and of our own making flatly contradicts what we now understand about the way evolution works–namely, that rate matters. That evolution can be fast, slow, or in-between, and that understanding what makes the difference is far more enlightening, and exciting, than holding our flabby modern selves up against a vision–accurate or not–of our well-muscled and harmoniously adapted ancestors.”

“Although we can admire a stick insect that seems to flawlessly imitate a leafy twig in every detail, down to the marks of faux bird droppings on its wing, or a sled dog with legs that can withstand subzero temperatures because of the exquisite heat exchange between its blood vessels, both are full of compromises, jury-rigged like all other organisms. The insect has to resist disease, as well as blend into its background; the dog must run and find food, as well as stay warm. The pigment used to form those dark specks on the insect is also useful in the insect immune system, and using it in one place means it can’t be used in another. For the dog, having long legs for running can make it harder to keep the cold at bay, since more heat is lost from narrow limbs than from wider ones. These often conflicting needs mean automatic trade-offs in every system, so that each may be good enough but is rarely ever perfect.”

“…Wanting to be more like our ancestors just means wanting more of the same set of compromises.”

“Recognizing the continuity of evolution also makes clear the futility of selecting any particular time period for human harmony. Why would we be any more likely to feel out of sync than those who came before us? Did we really spend hundreds of thousands of years in stasis, perfectly adapted to our environments? When during the past did we attain this adaptation, and how did we know when to stop?”

Clearly she doesn’t understand that the paleo trend doesn’t reject this idea. Yes, humans with ancestors who have drank milk over the last few thousands years have evolved to digest it more thoroughly than other humans. Who cares? My ancestors have that gene. When I eat dairy and get sick, when I eat grains and feel horrible, I’m not holding an image of my ancestry up. I’m feeling like shit because milk gene or no, it’s still not there. Is she suggesting that I should just suffer through life with diahrea so that at some point in the future humans will be able to safely digest hormone and puss filled milk? Should we start eating uranium, in spite of any suffering, because in a million years we will be able to eat it without dying? In spite of the fact that humans have evolved, science still says that the paleo diet leads toward better health than the agircultural diet. Nowhere in the book does she examine the overwhelming evidence that supports this. Rather, she nit picks particular aspects of the driving philosophy behind the paleo lifestyle that don’t exactly hold up. This however is misleading. Even though the story of why Barefoot Running (for example) may not be completely accepted, it doesn’t change the overwhelming studies suggest that it’s better for you.

Nowhere does paleo lifestyle say that “humans aren’t evolving” or that there is a “perfect” state of humaness. Rather, the idea is that, we haven’t changed in a great enough way. To use her metaphor about dogs, we are like Tundra wolves, placed in the sahara desert. Or a Chiwawa in the artic. The paleo diet isn’t just good for people. Domestic cats can survive on grain-based cat food. But their health greatly improves when they are given a “natural”, carnivorous diet. Some may have evolved to digest grains better than others… But wanting to be more like their ancestors seems pretty fucking smart to me, since their bodies are still designed for the older “set of comprimises”. This is not about DNA, or evolutionary biology. This is observed science of what makes cats that are living today, healtheir. The paleo craze may have a few flaws in its story, but it doesn’t change the results.

There are so many variables that have changed and that are always changing that our bodies have come no where near adapting to these changes. Of course the author doesn’t make the leap of ecological concern: that the modern culture we are living in is insanely temporary. Our culture is destroying the biosphere at a rate of 200 species extinctions a day. I’m not worried about adapting to milk. I’m worried about humans (and all other-than-humans) adapting to the radiation that will be released into the atmosphere when the nuclear power plants meltdown during the collapse of industrial civilization. At least one aspect of her book gives me hope: according to the research, evolution can happen very rapidly.

She seems more preoccupied with understanding the timeline of evolution than the suffering of an individual. She waxes poetic about all the advancements in technology that are allowing us to see the rate of evolution. This is meaningless to me, the lactose intolerant guy, who can’t eat dairy, doesn’t want to eat dairy and has ceased eating dairy.

There is clearly a middle ground with paleo. It’s not an “accept all aspects of paleo culture” since we will never be quite clear about what that was, but an adapt the most reasonable and scienfifically-backed ideas. Like, geez. Gluten is bad for you. Of course the author talks about how there was a time when humans didn’t eat meat and were not adapted to eat meat. Those first several thousand years of meat eating were probably a bit uncomfortable as our bodies adjusted. Perhaps as uncomfortable as I am when I am hunched over a toilet (a device that has been shown ignores the posture our bodies have evolved to poop in) and shitting my brains out from a couple of beers the night before. Yeah, the bowells of people using toilets may have evolved to make them get fewer hemroids, but not by much. Squatting is still better.

The most annoying thing is that she has some really great points. Points that perhaps should be brought up more in conversations about paleo lifestyle. It’s unfortunate that she doesn’t quite get it. Her points would only strengthen the paleo community. I’m sure that it will only continue to expand and incorporate a lot of her points about evolution. Much of what she says is not contrary to the science behind paleo. This is the most ironic part of her book. It feels a bit schizophrenic.
Really though, it took 55 pages in to find the most obvious premise guiding this woman: sociopathy. While talking about the agricultural revolution, she drops these gems.

“While a larger population has obvious drawbacks, including overcrowding and high demand for resources such as clean water, it also has a sometimes overlooked benefit: more fodder for natural selection to act on.”

“What this means is that the population explosion after agriculture, despite its well- known drawbacks, also carried some important positive changes that may have been overlooked. Cochran and Harpending also believe that human intelligence increased dramatically once groups became larger, via the same more-tickets-in-the- lottery mechanism. Adam Powell and colleagues at University College London suggest that group size, not necessarily related to the birth of agriculture but among early humans in general, was the key to the uptick in cultural and technological complexity, and evidence of long-distance trading emerges in the archaeoligical record.”

A benefit? A positive change? This language reveals the authors world view. Benefits are subjective. Positivity is subjective. Who benefited and how? What makes this “positive” to the author? Who cares about so-called “intelegence”? Why should that matter to a scientist? If “Evolution is continuous, but it is not goal-oriented,” if evolution is simply a game of trade-offs then it is neither “positive” nor “negative”. It simply is… Human culture dictates world view and world view decides what is “positive” or “beneficial”. Clearly, the hunter-gatherers who were slaughtered at the hands of civilization would disagree that population growth of their neighbors was a “positive” change.

But okay. Fine. Let’s look at this evolutionary scale of trade-offs from a humane perspective. We are trading Dolphins for humans who have adapted to using iPads. We are trading the Amazon Rain Forest for humans who can digest milk. We are trading 200 species a day for humans to be able to build a resistance to the Black Death. We are trading the entire biomass of the planet for the production of more humans… “But at least um, we’ll like evolve a bunch and shit.” Whoever could think there was a “positive” side to this clearly has no empathy and is a sociopath. Clearly this book was written by a professor of evolution with a boner for civilization.

“The paleofantasy is a fantasy in part because it supposes that we humans, or at least our protohuman forebears, were at some point perfectly adapted to our environments.”

Looking back at one of her main premises, it becomes pretty obvious where her misunderstanding comes in. The paleo lifestyle does not suppose that humans were ever perfectly adapted to our environments, but rather, our culture was making a more equal trade off with the environment and this in turn was a healthier lifestyle for all. Don’t believe me? Just ask the dodo. Oh wait. You can’t.

Check out Mark’s Daily Apple for  a better review from a major proponent of the Paleo Lifestyle.

5 Comments on “Paleofantasyfallacy”

  1. Great piece of writing Peter! I find these kind of arguments (in her book) so infuriating. “Here let me take this concept, whittle it down to its most extreme and simplified form and show why it’s flawed.” The book is also just a function of the publishing industry’s love of sensationalism. Most of the time they just want you to buy the book, no matter that it’s a crock of lukewarm shit.

  2. I would say that rather than population size driving toward more intelligent people in the world leading to higher levels of technology it is the other way around. Ms Zuk’s argument about population does not track with the timeline of human population. The invention of agriculture did not result in the population growth we see today. It allowed in a very modest linear growth which would double about every 4 thousand years at the pace prior to the mid 1700’s when the population was 500 million. It’s not like Newton invented agriculture. Technology that allowed us to tap 300 million years of fossilized sunlight was necessary for our population to balloon to such obnoxiously crowded levels. That is why in the late 1700’s, with the adoption of steam technology for industrialization, human population goes from linear to logarithmic. Even linear growth was causing many parts of the world to feel resource strain at the time with the technology and energy available (wood/coal for heating, man/animal for work), but logarithmic growth has turned our culture into a runaway freight train careening toward a cliff although the initial boon of technology and newly exploitable resources masked it for the majority of the population.

  3. Pingback: Paleofantasyfallacy | Doomstead Diner

  4. It appears likely that evolution is a player in human change, and that civilization is cyclical and synced to the 24,000 yr “precession” (orbit?) cycle. The nadir of this cycle was appx 500AD, thus it is possible (likely even) that civilization in 4000BC was more advanced than now. Evolution votes when there is a dieoff, but those surviving dieoffs (paleo types mostly) are not necessarily best adapted for the following civilization. Dieoffs also appear to be cyclical (~36-3700yr) If one accepts the biblical history, (poor, but it’s what we have) there have been two massive dieoffs in the last 8k yrs (plus several lesser ones) and we are cyclically due for another massive one.. If so Mother Earth gets to “clean house” and the surviving paleo types begin the cycle anew.

  5. @Loki: do you have some sources regarding civilizations older than 10 000 BC?