This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
I guess I’m kind of late to the party on reviewing this book, but I actually haven’t noticed a lot of reviews of it, which is surprising given the amount of buzz the articles about it generated. I also suspect some reviewers didn’t actually read it, since they seemed abnormally fixated on defending their paleo diet, when the book only has two out of ten chapters devoted solely to diet and covers many other topics.
Like Marlene Zuk, I am also quite critical of some of the movements that use (and mis-use) evolutionary logic like the paleo diet. So I wanted to like this book.
It has its good moments, but is overall in need of a good editor. It could be much shorter. And much less meandering.
Much of the skepticism is directly towards the frequently-inane postings on online discussion boards, which I a have the misfortune of being very familiar with having moderated one of the most popular until I rage-quit in annoyance.
While a lot of people get dumb advice on internet discussion boards, do they really define these movements? While they are fun strawmen to take down easily, most people don’t take such posts seriously. What they take seriously is the often scientific-sounding books written by various gurus, often with many letters, legitimate and not, preceding and following their names. While she mentions them, it’s only in passing. Her “paleofantasy” seems to consist mainly of cacophony of crowd-sourced internet discussion.
Not to say you won’t learn anything from this book, but it hardly challenges the status quo, which makes the hysteric reactions of many against it and the author seem all the more ridiculous. A lot of it reminds me of the excellent The Beak of The Finch or The 10,000 Year Explosion. She covers many methods that evolutionary biologists use to understand evolution, why they matter, and common misconceptions about them.
But if only people were talking about evolution when they were talking about the paleo diet. Talk about actual evolutionary biology and you might be met by some of the silent crickets that Zuk studies. Only 54% of paleo dieters in a recent survey accept evolution as a fact.
But it’s beyond that the increasing specialization in of academia becomes a limitation. Zuk specializes in the evolution of crickets, which yes, does have surprisingly broad applicability, but she spends a long time on that and other similar research that I think a skeptic would find irrelevant and unconvincing. I read The Beak of the Finch, which discusses this type of research in length, in high school, and it didn't stop me from adopting the paleo diet narrative. I think the most common problems with the “paleo” worldview come from anthropology. For example, misinterpretations of isotopic studies, coprolite fossils, and paleopathological surveys are used very often to justify “paleo” diets.
On the cultural anthropology side of things, people often seem very confused by terms like “hunter-gatherer” or “forager.” Rather than elucidating the complexity of historical humans lifestyles, the book muddles this further in parts. If you were confused about this before, you’ll stay confused, and a clarification would improve her arguments anyway. For example, whether or not the Yanomani (of the Chagnon controversy) are relevant to revealing some aspect of hunter-gatherer “human nature” is pretty questionable considering that while they do forage and hunt for some of their food, they are horticulturalists, a lifestyle that probably not much older than agriculture. Same goes for Jared Diamonds extrapolations from the horticulturalists of Papua New Guinea in The World Before Yesterday.
This is also common in Paleo diet books– authors like Cordain cite starch-cultivating horticulturalists like The Kitavans when convenient, while recommending a diet that bears little resemblance to theirs. I noticed recently that paleo guru Art De Vany’s blog header has a picture of some imposingly muscular tribal warriors. The site doesn’t seem to say anything about them, but I knew they are Asaro “mudmen” of Papua New Guinea, who are horticulturalists and grow many crops that De Vany would view as unhealthy. It is a shame to see them exploited to promote his diet and as of late, extensive advertising of his own supplements.
Fuled by sweet potatoes, sugary fruit, and peanuts they grew in their forest gardens
If you are confused, for almost all of the paleolithic humans were nomadic hunter-gatherers with primitive weapons. There are really no people today who practice this lifestyle. If agriculture is a drop in the bucket of human history from a relative perspective, even the innovations of the Middle and Upper Paleolithic, are similar in relative timescale. These innovations included better weapons- the atlatl and later the bow and arrow, which would have affected hunting significantly. They also included the culinarily important pottery and grease-processing (smashing up bones to make a fat and protein rich broth). I made this crappy timeline that gives a vague idea of some of these innovations in human history. What time do you choose as the optimum?
Our ancestors’ diets clearly changed dramatically and repeatedly over the last tens, not to mention hundreds, of thousands of years, even before the advent of agriculture.
Even the few representatives of nomadic hunter-gatherers that exist on the planet use these relatively modern technologies, like the Hadza’s bows.
I don’t think these groups of people are irrelevant to health discussions though, if anything, these people show that diversity of lifeways in which our species has been able to thrive, a thread that seems constant no matter the time. And every lifeway has involved trade-offs. For example, while rheumatoid arthritis, which is common in industrialized first world cultures these days, seems to have been rare in foraging cultures, osteoarthritis seems to have been more common.
And in the end while it’s fascinating to think about how so much we are familiar with is “new” in their scale of geologic time, Zuk rightly points that evolution works faster than many might imagine.
I think the sections on lactase tolerance, which talk about in how many places and ways humans acquired this trait, are fascinating. But left also many unanswered questions that show just how far we have to go to understanding human evolution.
Interestingly, about half of the Hadza people of Tanzania were found to have the lactase persistence gene—a hefty proportion, given that they are hunter-gatherers, not herders. Why did the Hadza evolve a trait they don’t use? Tishkoff and coworkers speculate that the gene might be useful in a different context. The same enzyme that enables the splitting of the lactose molecule is also used to break down phlorizin, a bitter compound in some of the native plants of Tanzania. Could the lactase persistence gene also help with digestion of other substances? No one knows for sure, but the idea certainly bears further investigation.
But while she mentions a little elephant in the room, which is our microbiota. Of “our” cells, bacterial cells outnumber “human” cells ten to one. And they have had a lot more generations to evolve than “we” have.
Microbiologist Jeffrey Gordon says, “The gut microbial community can be viewed as a metabolic organ—an organ within an organ . . . It’s like bringing a set of utensils to a dinner party that the host does not have.” 44 As our diets change, so does our internal menagerie, which in turn allows us to eat more and different kinds of foods. The caveman wouldn’t just find our modern cuisine foreign; the microbes inside of us, were he able to see them, would be at least as strange.
I like that she takes on the common narrative of “people were really healthy until they became farmers and then they shrunk and had bad teeth etc.” The reality is while some of the earliest agrarian cultures did seem to suffer compared to their predecessors, it wasn’t all about the food and people by and large recovered. Besides, if we were going to pick diets based on bone and teeth health, we might as well pick the pastoralists like Masaai, who tend to be much much much taller than any hunter-gatherers.
Then a funny thing happened on the way from the preagricultural Mediterranean to the giant farms of today: people, at least some of them, got healthier, presumably as we adapted to the new way of life and food became more evenly distributed. The collection of skeletons from Egypt also shows that by 4,000 years ago, height had returned to its preagricultural levels, and only 20 percent of the population had telltale signs of poor nutrition in their teeth. Those trying to make the point that agriculture is bad for our bodies generally use skeletal material from immediately after the shift to farming as evidence, but a more long-term view is starting to tell a different story.
Many paleo diet books present our species as that of fragile creatures rather than what we really are, which is the consummate omnivore resilient and adaptable enough to thrive on a large range of foods. A curious being, that was travelled far and wide and tasted many things, rather than being defined by fear and a narrow food exceptionalism. I’ve even seen people, some of them fairly well-known bloggers, on Twitter and Facebook discussing buying an island where “paleo dieters” could be free from “non-foods” like grains and the people that eat them. It’s not as bad as blog posts from paleo dieters travelling in foreign countries who talk about how difficult it is to explain their special food to the local people. Traditional cultures are venerated, maybe even exploited, unless they don’t fit the paleo narrative.
The question is whether the various forms of the paleo diet really do replicate what our ancestors ate.
Unfortunately Paleofantasy focuses on this absurd strawman of dietary replication and only begins to scratch the surface of neurotic botany of many paleo writings. Books that fret about whether or not “nightshades” grew in Paleolithic Savanna Africa and their plant chemicals, while blithely consuming other classes of similarly alien plants with other potentially problematic chemicals. Because that’s what plants are– bundles of chemicals that can be friend or foe depending on amounts and contexts.
The skeptics she cites aren’t much better than the internet commenters representing paleo. They include the Ethnographic Atlas, a survey of modern populations, that she claims puts to “rest the notion of our carnivorous ancestors.” Or the U.S. News & World Report’s rating of diets.
It doesn’t take an evolutionary biologist to understand what the paleo diet has become, especially in alliance with the low-carb diet promoters, industrial supplement companies, or the standard dieting-culture food fear mongerers. It functions not as an attempt to use evolutionary biology to understand the human diet, but has become a social engineering scam to sell mediocre books, processed powders, and other crap. It was only about evolution in the beginning, mostly it’s just a diet in caveman clothing now.
Paleofantasy has just come along for the ride. It’s not going to convince very many people caught in the scam. It’s just going to make those who haven’t feel smug. At least it might teach a few people about evolutionary biology.
And I liked the section about attachment parenting, which is surprisingly rational about the matter, a welcome break from so many writings that either are almost religious about it or decry it as some kind of upper middle class fad.
The evolutionary psychology section is also not as critical as I thought it would be from the reactions of those are are enamoured with the subject.
There is a long section on barefoot running, which talks about how some paleo diet proponents like Art De Vany think we did not evolve for long-distance running and other evolutionary fitness advocates like anthropologist Dan Lieberman think is it a critical part of our evolutionary heritage. I think this highlights the fact that the past is so hazy that it’s pretty easy to use it to support a whole host of contradictory arguments.
It’s a shame Zuk tilted at internet idiot windmills and not at the far more sophisticated arguments that are dressed up as science. I sometimes wonder if publishing companies don’t want authors to criticize other authors. They have 199 Paleo Fried Chicken Recipes (I made that up, but it’s not that far out) and other book-like products to push before people get bored.
These books are also relentlessly shallow shadows of some of the earliest texts in the genre of using the deep past to better understand how we should live. Recently I was struck by the similarity in the cover of The Primal Connection: Follow Your Genetic Blueprint to Health and Happiness and the late Paul Shepard’s Coming Home to the Pleistocene.
I read Coming Home to the Pleistocene when I was twenty. While I certainly don’t agree with everything in it, it is beautifully-written and thought-provoking. It challenged the way I thought about the world. Paul was not afraid to espouse controversial ideas, unlike the books from the diet industry that turn the original ideas into drivelling Flintstones platitudes in order to appeal to everyone. I suspect people will still be reading Shepard in a decade when all the paleo publishing bubble books languish in the bargain bin.
Zuk says in closing that “I am all for examining human health and behavior in an evolutionary context, and part of that context requires understanding the environment in which we evolved.” I agree with this. I think evolution is important and will continue to improve our understanding of our world. And I eagerly await a book that more fervently challenges common misconceptions about it.
Sweden is a relatively small country and as such they don't have that many native TV shows. They seem to fill in with some assorted American and British shows. It was there where I was exposed to British-style reality TV and I lost my Anglophilia. Instead of high tea and Jane Austen, there was "five ton mum" and "real life 40 year old virgin!" I guess one of the more interesting shows is Tribal Wives. The premise of the show is that a British person goes and lives with a tribe. Some anthropologists have called it exploitative, but it's reality TV, not an ethnography. Some episodes do actually seem like they are exploiting hapless tribes from all over the world, but I noticed a Kitava one on Youtube yesterday(multiple parts, click the links in the sidebar). Not much about food, but it's kind of interesting. You might note that there are plenty of plump women around the village. Perhaps the diet has changed in the decade plus since the Kitavan study.
She said she didn't miss creature comforts, including electricity, as her life simplified. “The whole island revolves around yams, the islanders' staple diet,” she said. “I ate them boiled, chipped and roasted. The tribespeople spend a lot of time working out new ways to celebrate the yam.”
*by yam, she means true yam(Dioscorea), which the subtitles mistranslate as sweet potato
On this one, the British woman gets upset because she isn't allowed to wear pants. On the one about the Afar (a pastoral culture) the British woman gets upset because of child marriage and female circumcision. Pastoral societies are generally much harder on women than horticultural ones. In another episode the British woman is upset about a forced marriage in the pastoral Himba tribe.
Much like the excellent book Nisa, this show puts a human face on the lives of women that professional ethnographies can't really approach. I think that between the two sources, it's clear that women in these cultures tend to be more socially constrained and threatened than some primitivists would like to think. Domestic violence, abandonment, and social persecution are real dangers. Like Price's search for vegan tribes, the search for matriarchal tribes has been in vain. But people who study these cultures often say these women are happier than most women in our society. Whether that is true remains to be seen.
Had this book been written in a less academic tone, I think the Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, could have been the next Guns, Germs, and Steel. The thesis is fascinating enough that had it been enhanced by more stories, it could have been the sort of book to suffuse cultured conversations at dinner parties. But if you are willing to read what is essentially a school book, I definitely recommend this. It has changed my ideas about many things and I could easily do several posts on it.
One of the best-titled books ever, in my opinion, is Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. In the Bible, Leviathan is a gatekeeper of hell and the Book of Job portrays him as being something like a sea-dragon.
To give a very rough summary, Hobbes said that in a "state of nature" human life was "nasty, brutish, and short." To live a better life, we make a social contract with Leviathan— the state, and must endure its abuses as the price of peace.
But those who have delved into the paleo diet probably have read of evidence that shows that humans in nature did not live miserable lives, just as Jared Diamond's excellent The Worst Mistake in The History of The Human Race.
And it all-encompassing state is in fact a very recent invention. As Scott notes
Avoiding the state was, until the past few centuries, a real option. A thousand years ago most people lived outside state structures, under loose-knit empires or in situations of fragmented sovereignty." Today it is an option that is fast vanishing.
Why would people want to avoid the state? Isn't it the bringer of roads and all kinds of nice things? Well, that's debatable even now, but for most of history that state can be seen as a highly repressive extractive entity that people fled for very good reasons. When I talk of oppressive governments in this post, I'm not talking about it in the somewhat-trivial modern form of OMGWHYdoIhavetopaythisannoyingtax, but what amounted to serfdom or outright slavery. For most of the history of government, slaves were a must to support the state.
After Stephan's talk at Wise Traditions, a girl asked despondently if any group of people had ever chosen to go backwards. Actually, many tribes we consider to be primitive remnants of stone age tribes are actually descendants of people who chose to flee oppressive governments and give up settled agriculture in the process. Scott gives many examples of such tribes both in SE Asian and in the Americas. In most instances the border between settled and unsettled was blurred due to slave raids in the hills, military conscription, government expansions, and other events. These populations may not have been genetically distinct, but they chose a very different way of life.
The histories of such people have largely been lost because few of them posess writing, though Scott gives evidence that some of these tribes once did and gave it up in response to oppression. For these people writing represented something that state used to create records used to tax, indebt, and enslave people. Once they fled to the uplands, they had no need for it.
This is particularly relevant to this blog because these tribes developed an agricultural system that helped them resist the state and provided them greater health then their governed counterparts. It's interesting because when I first started studying agricultural economics, we were told how horribly backwards a "shifting cultivation" AKA slash and burn agricultural system was. We were told that agencies and governments should make an effort to replace it with settled agriculture. From an anthropological standpoint, shifting cultivation is really a form of horticulture rather than agriculture. The difference is that horticulture involves many shifting plots of varied crops rather than the land-ownership settled field monocultures that are characteristic of agriculture. There are other differences. Gene Expression recently had an excellent post on the social implications of plough vs. hoe agriculture. Horticulture generally involves hoes.
Ultimately this goes back to the foragers & farmers debate. I have argued for years that the “traditional” and “conservative” values which emerged after the rise of agriculture, and crystallized during the Axial Age, are actually cultural adaptations to existence in the Malthusian mass societies which arose as the farmers pushed up against the production frontier. As the world “filled up” there was a necessary switch from extensive to intensive agriculture, and social controls needed to be more powerful so as to keep the masses of humanity in some sort of meta-stable equilibrium. The rise of institutional religions, conscript armies, and national identities, all bubbled up as adaptations to a world where a few controlled the many, and the many persisted on the barest margin of subsistence.
I luckily had one very intelligent professor who asked his students to consider shifting cultivation in a different light. There is much evidence that it's not as detrimental to the environment as other forms of agriculture and that most of the problems blamed on it have other causes. Scott argues that horticulture allowed many tribes to resist onslaughts of the state and that this is the reason that it has been portrayed so negatively.
Horticulturalists generally enjoyed better health because their diet was more diverse, but also because permanent human settlements, particularly cities and towns, were places where human, animal, and crop disease and pestilence flourished. Greater concentration generally equaled greater disease. Cities were population sinks, where humans labor was extracted, but human death rates were high enough that many governments relied on raiding the uplands for slaves to replenish their base*. Slavery was required to keep people in agrarian states because there:
were positive reasons for preferring hill swiddening or foraging to wet-rice cultivation. So long as there was plenty of open land, as was the case until fairly recently, swiddening was generally more efficient in terms of return to labor than irrigated rice. It offered more nutritional variety in settings that were generally healthier. Finally, when combined with foraging and hunting for goods highly valued in the lowlands and in international commerce, it could provide high returns for relatively little effort. One could combine social autonomy with the advantages of commercial exchange. Going to the hills, or remaining in the hills if you were already there, was not, in most circumstances, a choice of freedom at the cost of material deprivation.
Horticultural crops favored by these people were fairly easy to plant surreptitiously and leave alone to be collected later such as sweet potatoes, cassava, and yams. At more secure sites they planted bananas, plantains, dry rice, maize, groundnuts, squash, and vegetables. Sounds a lot like the Kitavan diet right?
These crops also were perfect for resisting the state because they had staggered maturities rather than one big harvest, dispersal of cropping into small hill gardens rather than large fields, and root crops can remain in the ground for some time until harvested. This meant less vulnerability to military raiding and pillaging. Such a chaotic form of agriculture also was more difficult to keep records on and thus to tax.
In general, roots and tubers such as yams, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and cassava/manioc/yucca are nearly appropriation-proof. After they ripen, they can be safely left in the ground for up to two years and dug up piecemeal as needed. There is thus no granary to plunder. If the army or the taxmen wants your potatoes, for example, they will have to dig.
It's no coincidence that root crops have been favored by other state-resisting people outside of Asia as well, such as the Irish. The major difference was that Irish potato growing was less well-suited for the environment of Ireland and the use of field monocropping of just a single crop had serious repercussions. Other state-resistant Europeans crop up in the book as well, though cold-weather state-resistance was in the form of pastoralism rather than horticulture. The Highland Scots, the Cossacks, the Swiss, the Welsh, and Montenegrins went through many periods of resisting the encroachment of the state.
The introduction of new world crops like the potato and sweet potato/yam had a large impact in Asia as well, contributing to the flight of populations in New Guinea and the Philippines to the hills in response to colonial expansions. Cassava had an even greater impact, as it can be planted by nomadic peoples, left alone, and then harvested up to three years later. The leaves can also be eaten and it can survive even if the foliage is destroyed by fire. It earned the nickname "farina de guerra", which means "flour of war" because it was so relied on by hill guerrillas in Latin America.
Tropical horticulturalists also took advantage of the forest's fish, game, and wild plant populations. This quasi-forager lifestyle has led some to mistakenly label them hunter-gatherers or to erroneously portray them as stone age remnants.
Many of these Southeast Asia hill cultures cultures resisted state-integrated Eastern religions like Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism or they have their own unorthodox versions of these religions. But American Baptist missionaries have found many takers for their religion. Perhaps because the Baptist form of Christianity has its roots in Southern hill culture, which has its own reputation for rebellion. When I think about my own ancestors, many of them ended up in this country because they were resisting the state. I'm the descendant of deported Scottish rebels and Puritans fleeing persecution by the state-sponsored Church of England. I still have some "hill relatives" that eat mostly wild food. I always joke that if the apocalypse happened I'd survive by joining them :)
Much like my view on Sex at Dawn, I'm not sure how this history weighs on how we should live today. It does challenge many preconceptions that many of us have about history and the role of the state. And also about foragers. I talk to a lot of people who assume jungle horticulturalists are "paleolithic tribes" when a lot of them have had much influential contact with civilization and might have farmed in the past. It's clear paleo dieters can learn a lot from them, but they are still just analogues.
Their diets are very intersesting, as they are similar to what I eat and what is recommended by sites like The Perfect Health Diet.
Sadly, many of these tribes continue to be persecuted by their respective governments, particularly in Burma. It's hard to share recipes from these tribes because most of them are so busy running from troops that they don't have time to really cook. I don't really view any government as benevolent, but it's clear that in America we are somewhat lucky that ours at least pretends to be.
*cities are once again population sinks, but this time due to low fertility rather than high death rates. What are the implications?