Evolution is True, Evolution is Important
I want to explore the evolution of the evolutionary nutrition concept and how evolution was lost from it.
An early variant, The Stone Age Diet, by Walter L. Voegtlin, shows up in the record in 1975, but whether this carnivorous book is an ancestor of later variants is questionable, so it's hard to consider it an ancestor. A more likely candidate would be the paper written in 1985 by Dr. Boyd Eaton and Dr. Melvin Konner, Paleolithic nutrition. A consideration of its nature and current implications. While elements of the paper seem dated today, it was a pioneering collaboration between a medical doctor and a medical anthropologist.
This paper explored how evolutionary concepts could shed light on modern health problems. It was not just a paper about eating well, it was about eating well in the context of human beings having a long evolutionary history, one shared by many other species. And that the selection pressures faced during the long evolution of primitive species to humans could tell us things about diseases, particularly chronic degenerative diseases, humans face today. It was unapologetically a Darwinian paper. It has been cited 964 times.
Around this same time, in 1980, Paul Ewald, a zoologist, published Evolutionary biology and the treatment of signs and symptoms of infectious disease, which explored the implications of host-pathogen adaptations and the "potential importance of determining whether signs and symptoms are adaptations of the host, of the disease organism, both, or neither." The main focus was on acute disease. This paper is considered one of the first in Evolutionary Medicine.
Around this time, the Konner/Eaton team turned their work into a book for layman. Adding Konner's wife Marjorie Shostak to the slate of authors, in 1989 they published The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program of Diet & Exercise and a Design for Living. The book drew extensively from the fossil record of hominid evolution, as well as Konner and Shostak's own fieldwork with the !Kung, one of the last foraging societies that exists today (Shostak's books on this fieldwork are also a great read). It mentioned the word evolution 40 times. They also published a commentary together in 1989 Stone agers in the fast lane: chronic degenerative diseases in evolutionary perspective (PDF).
In 1991, evolutionary biologist George C. Williams and psychiatrist Randolph M. Nesse published a paper titled The Dawn of Darwinian Medicine, another pioneering work in Evolutionary Medicine that outlined methods for applying evolutionary biology to modern medicine, such as understanding "iron deficiency" as one of many potentially costly adaptations to a war between ancestral vertebrates and pathogens that has gone on for millions of years.
Many people seem to think that an adaptationist approach is based on the assumption that organisms are perfect. This is a misconception. It is true that the adaptionist holds the power of selection in high regard and is skeptical of explanations that take quick refuge in proposed defects in the organism. Paradoxically, however, the adaptationist is also particularly able to appreciate the adaptive compromises that are responsible for much disease. Walking upright has a price in back problems. The capacity for tissue repair has a price of cancer. The immune response has a price of immune disorders. The price of anxiety is panic disorder. In each case, natural selection has done the best it can, weighing benefits against costs. Wherever the balance point, however, there will be disease. The adaptationist does not view the body as a perfect creation, but as a bundle of compromises. By understanding them, we will better understand disease
The Eaton/Shostak/Konner team continued to refine their approach over time. The last paper they wrote together was An evolutionary perspective enhances understanding of human nutritional requirements in 1996, published after Shostak's death, along with her book recounting her last journey to visit the !Kung, Return to Nisa. 1996 also saw the publication of Nesse and Williams' book for layman about Evolutionary Medicine, Why We Get Sick (mentions evolution ~78 times).
Eaton and Konner started collaborating with exercise physiologist Loren Cordain and medical doctor Staffan Lindeberg. Cordain became particularly prolific on the subject, publishing a wide variety of academic papers and inspiring a Ray Audette's Neanderthin in 1998, which mentioned the word evolution 14 times. His own diet book, The Paleo Diet, was published in 2001 and mentions the word evolution roughly 11 times. Around this time you start to see intersection between the work originating from the Eaton/Konner paper and Evolutionary Medicine, with the original 1999 compilation Evolutionary Medicine edited by Wenda Trevathan containing Paleolithic nutrition Revisited by Konner, Eaton, and Boyd Eaton's son S. Boyd Eaton III. Nutrition was always part of both approaches and bringing them together influenced many later books and papers on the subject of evolutionary nutrition.
As you can see, the whole foundation of this was always Darwinian Evolution, the idea that humans share a common ancestor with all life forms.
Unfortunately, many Americans reject this. A recent survey found that only 39% of Americans accept evolution as fact. One of the reasons for this is in America, evolution has become politicized due to forms of powerful Evangelical Christianity that started promoting a reactionary anti-science form of Biblical Literalist Creationism (when I refer to Creationism, I refer to this) in the 1920s. Welding significant political power, they have managed to suppress the teaching of Darwinian evolution in public schools.
I have pointed out that Creationism and Creationists are harmful and incompatible with evolutionary nutrition. On Paleohacks, Karen from Paleo Periodical referred to this when she said: "I'm seeing the accusation that someone doesn't "believe" in evolution more and more, which strikes me as intolerably elitist (I say "believe" because I don't think evolution cares what you think about it)."
It's only elitist because Creationists have succeeding in making sure that most Americans are ignorant of evolution. There is no "believing" in evolution, there is accepting scientific evidence. And while you don't need to accept evolution to eat real food, evolution is the foundation of the paleolithic diet concept. So it is disturbing to see Creationists like Jimmy Moore framing debates within the paleo diet community. Over the past few years, he has moderated panels on paleolithic diet debates, published "state of the paleosphere" articles, and generally positioned himself as a person with clout in the "paleosphere." At some point he stopped just putting out podcasts with various paleo voices and instead stepped over a line into shepherding the paleo movement, which alienated many science-based paleo writers like Dr. Kurt Harris and many others, some who simply stopped describing themselves as "paleo" in lieu of a being part of a movement gutted of all meaning.
I do get hatemail for saying this and expect to get more. The latest letter said "Who cares if Jimmy Moore doesn’t believe in evolution? Truth is, there is not much to this Paleo “thing”. Exercise, eat like a caveman and reap incredible benefits." If you need a story about cavemen to tell you not to eat crap and that sprints are good exercise, I think we have a problem. There is already a "real food" movement among Christians. Go to Wise Traditions and you'll meet many of them, though a paleo dieter might have trouble convincing them of their common quasi-religious precept that grains are the devil. I think it's great when people start to eat real, whole foods. And there are many reasons to do so that have nothing to do with human evolution (even if a lot of the science behind them is based on evolutionary models).
But I also think that evolutionary models are important in biology and are the future of understanding what makes our bodies tick. It is more than about eating meat, fruit, and vegetables, it's can help us develop sophisticated treatment protocols for all kinds of diseases. It is sad for me to see that suppressed and stifled for marketing purposes. As Staffan Lindeberg said:
Why does the same thing happen to a piece of food after it has been swallowed by humans of different ethnicity? Why is the anatomy and physiology of the gut virtually identical in a Chinese and an African? Why do all human have the same endocrine system and metabolism? You know the answer: because we share an ancestor from way back when. The experts estimate that our latest shared ancestors lived around 200,000 years ago in Africa.
Before that, during millions of years of evolution, the digestion and metabolism of our primate ancestors had been fine-tuning how it uses the available food substances in the most beneficial manner possible. Nobody would doubt that the best food for the human species would be the kind of food that was available in those days, rather than those that were introduced long after the construction of our physiology. Funny that nutrition authorities never say it loud.
Our primate ancestors have been consuming fruit, vegetables, nuts and insects for 50 million years or more. Meat was successively added, with a probable increase around 2 million years ago. Underground storage organs (roots, tubers, bulbs, corms) possibly become staple foods 1-2 million years ago. The variability was large: single plant foods were rarely available in excess, which reduced the risk of adverse reactions to bioactive substances in plant foods.
I think loss of this is one of the reasons why more and more books are published on paleo that either contain nothing about evolution at all or have evolutionary narratives that seem pulled out of thin air. If the caveman stories are just stories, I suppose it doesn't matter to people much whether or not they resemble the Flintstones more than they do science. Paleo Diet guided by those who don't care about evolution is low-carb dressed up in a sexy leopard skin coat. By far, it's not Creationists who are wholly responsible for this, there is also a secular anti-intellectual slant that overemphasizes self-experimentation and scoffs at reading about science or at those who point out certain "facts" about evolution peddled by gurus are not based on anything but fiction.
The loss is ours, as the difference between caveman stories that tell us not to eat garbage and the adaptationist evolutionary approach is enormous. The former does rely on reenactment of some golden age in which humans lived according to our design. Is it any coincidence that this resembles the story of Adam and Eve? In contrast, the adaptationist approach is one in which species are constantly under pressure and must adapt. Some of these adaptations are imperfect and even costly. It is possible we can do even better by thwarting some of these adaptations through modern technology. Evolutionary medicine isn't just about eating like your ancestors, it's possibly about outrunning some of the adaptations that cause things like aging through pharmaceutical or even cybernetic augmentation. It's not regressive like some calls by various authors like Lierre Keith to give up our technology and return to the Stone Age, it's cutting edge, even daringly post-human.
We have the opportunity to be on the front lines to show that evolution is important to humans now, that evolution, by enhancing our understanding of ourselves, can improve the way we live.
Some have also accused me of discriminating against Christians. As far as I'm concerned, Jimmy is welcome to learn more about biology and join the millions of Christians who are not anti-science. I made that journey myself, having been educated in Creationism as a child, with such anti-science absurd books like It Couldn't Just Happen. I was reading the reviews for that book on Amazon and it's interesting how many other people grew up with that book, but later learned more about evolutionary biology. Some became disillusioned atheists, others realized you don't have to be a Creationist to be Christian. Christians have been fighting Creationism for a long time. A notable example is Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky, who wrote the essay Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution in 1973 response to anti-evolution Creationists:
Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts. ...the blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness.
It's funny awhile back someone recommended that I just attend some less extreme churches than the ones I grew up in, just to see what it's like to go to a church that doesn't spend time preaching against homosexuality or evolution. Because at that point, that was really the only Christianity I knew. I really enjoyed going to those churches and met a lot of wonderful people, people who generally do not take Genesis literally, people who do not reject evolutionary biology and in fact some who work as evolutionary biologists! I also have learned much about the history of Early Christianity through attending Orthodox churches and it was stunning to me to realize how divorced modern Evangelical Christianity is from those roots or understanding how the Bible was put together by humans. I also came to question many things "paleo" dieters accept almost religiously as facts. Did you know that the monks on Mount Athos live long lives free from modern disease thanks on a diet that is pretty much vegan and high in grains? It is possibly partially due to ancient Christian fasting traditions.
I think American Creationists (and people who think Christianity requires such nonsense) could use some history lessons on their religion, the Bible, and on life itself. As priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said "Is evolution a theory, a system, or a hypothesis? It is much more it is a general postulate to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems much henceforward bow and which they must satisfy in order to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light which illuminates all facts, a trajectory which all lines of though must follow this is what evolution is."
If you are interested in learning more about how human evolutionary origins shape us today, some great books for anyone to read are Your Inner Fish, Written in Stone, Why Evolution is True, Why We Get Sick, or Before the Dawn, especially if like me, you did not learn much about evolution in grade school. Talk Origins is also a good resource.
In academia, Evolutionary Medicine continues to thrive. It has a society and many different conferences. It is also too bad that so many interesting and relevant evolutionary medicine/nutrition resources are so expensive. Many books on the subject cost upwards of $100 each. Two extensive papers were just published on the subject. One is $45, thank goodness the other is free, which is very unusual. But why aren't these folks publishing writings for laymen like the original pioneers of evolutionary medicine and nutrition did? As we discover more and more about how humans evolved, books become outdated quickly, so perhaps they should consider blogging rather than books.
I'd love to see more writings for laymen by them and more writings not afraid to mention evolution and even to educate readers about it. I think such interactions would not only be beneficial for us, but for them, since I feel the online community in particular can generate hypotheses faster than in academic publishing. You can see some academic researchers, like anthropologist Miki Ben Dor, drawing on hypotheses that have primarily been pushed by the online community like the idea that larger amounts of fat might have been more important in hominid evolution than previously thought.
Edit: here is a great editorial written by Randolph Nesse and Detlev Ganten recently:
The human body is a living archive of evolution, written in our genes, cells, and organs. The line is continuous to the beginning of life on this planet, so nature is inherently conservative. Sequences that are ancient parts of our genomic heritage tend to persist. Those important for survival and reproduction change less over the eons, so genes important for basic functions are generally “old” genes. The basic mechanisms that regulate cellular metabolism, cell division, and gene duplication are fundamentally the same as those occurring in unicellular organisms at the beginning of life on earth 3.5 billion years ago. Likewise, the molecules, cellular functions, organs, complex organization of muscles, bones, sensory organs, and nerves in vertebrates derive in an unbroken line from ancestors millions of years ago. Much of modern man's biology dates back to the origins of life; a complete understanding of this biology can only be appreciated with an evolutionary perspective .
We are not "designed", we are "adapted," and adaptations can be incomplete and imperfect. It matters less what our ancestors ate, than what selective forces were at play and how we adapted to them. Such a paradigm can help us see the costs and benefits of something like getting large amounts of calories from meat, which humans are definitely not perfectly adapted to, which is possibly responsible for such diseases as hemochromotosis.
Edit: Also worth reading is evolutionary biologist Michael Rose's 55 Theses on using evolutionary biology to improve your health, particularly in understanding (and possibly beating) aging.