Paleofantasy

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.