So this is my review of the new book Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live. It’s been making the rounds for a few weeks now, and although some other people have already weighed in, I’ll add my two cents. At the outset, I’d like to make very clear that I actually agree with a decent portion of Marlene Zuk’s individual arguments. Though it may surprise you to know that Mark Sisson agrees with the most prominent paleo debunker du jour on several topics, I’m not saying I support the overall product or her final conclusions. In fact, Paleofantasy is an odd, meandering book whose ultimate purpose I’m not really sure I truly understand.
There are two main problems with the book, as I see it. First, she’s working against a straw man. Many of the arguments she debunks, like “eyeglasses aren’t paleo” or “the paleo diet was carnivorous,” seems to have been dug up from some random Internet commenter or drawn from fringe camps. In other words, they aren’t arguments people like Robb Wolf, Chris Kresser, Paul Jaminet, or me (or our readers) are making. Second, many of her counterarguments or “nuanced approaches” are the very same ones we’ve been exploring at length for years! After reading the book, John Durant tweeted “Paleofantasy shouldn’t have been a book in 2013, it should have been a blog post in 2010,” and that’s as good a description as I can think of.
It’s all very uncontroversial:
There is no one paleo diet.
Who’s saying that? Humans have spanned the globe for millennia, surviving and even thriving in environments ranging from tropical to temperate, from arctic to near-aquatic, all the while subsisting on the wild foods available to those regions. Same basic diet of animals and plants, different configurations.
Evolution doesn’t just stop and humans didn’t just reach a state of perfect adaptation back before agriculture from which we’ve never progressed.
Sure. I talked about how we’re still “evolving” last year, even mentioning Zuk’s favorite topics – lactase persistence (35% worldwide, which is far from 100%) and amylase production. She discusses a few more recent changes, like malaria resistance, adaptation to high altitude, and earwax differentiation, but that’s it. If she wanted to, I’m sure she “could keep adding to the list” and mount an overwhelming case for widespread genetic adaptations to grain consumption, chronic stress tolerance, and sedentary living, but she’s saving up material for the next book. Or something. Either way, I’m not very convinced by her “list” of rapid evolutionary changes, especially considering most of them have little to do with the mismatches we discuss in this community and none of them are even present in a majority of humans.
Zuk is also quick to misrepresent “our” arguments so she can swoop in and take the sensible position – positions the ancestral health community has long occupied!
In her exercise chapter, she characterizes paleo exercise proscriptions as “short and intense” and “literal-minded,” mimicking activities like “having to run down a rabbit for dinner.” We type away at our computers on caveman forums, spend a little while lifting weights and running sprints, and sit back down. Then, Zuk explains that contrary to our reenactment fantasies, the real problem and the real divergence from our past is that modern humans sit too often. It is our inactivity, our hours and hours spent doing nothing physical that hurt us. What we should be doing is lots of slow moving, steady low-level activity like walking, hiking, gardening, yard work, house work, rather than sitting all day and trying to make up for it with a hard gym session. Hmm - where have I heard that kind of stuff before? Why hasn’t the ancestral health community addressed this pernicious force in our lives?
Later, she rightly claims that paleo authors are suspicious of endurance training, mocking my position that the idea that “natural selection redesigned our simian shapes to run the Boston Marathon is… ludicrous.” As support for her claims, she cites Louis Liebenberg’s persistence hunting studies (PDF) with the Kalahari bushmen of Botswana where men would go on hunts lasting “two to five hours, with an average running speed of 6.3 kilometers (about 4 miles) per hour.” Those are fifteen minute miles. If you were running the Boston Marathon at a 15 minute-mile pace, you’d finish in six and a half hours (roughly). That’s an easy run (fast walk?), especially for someone who’s reasonably fit. You could hold a conversation at that speed. You could get up and do it again the next day at that pace. That’s not chronic cardio. That’s not a competitive time for an endurance athlete – the dogged pursuit of which is precisely what I’ve always warned against. It’s easy aerobic activity, the kind I promote!
Even when she acknowledges the potential utility of an evolutionary approach to analyzing health or current environmental “mismatches,” they are glossed over or relegated to a single sentence buried in a paragraph. Zuk spends an entire chapter explaining how traditional child-rearing, with its extended family members available for childcare, extended breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby-wearing, parental “indulgence” of crying babies, is likely the biological and evolutionary norm for human infants, citing Dr. James McKenna’s extensive research on the benefits of the aforementioned methods… and then ends the chapter by saying “most children grow up fine” so let’s not bother with it. Let’s just keep on keepin’ on.
In response to the idea that limiting artificial light at night and getting plenty of natural light during the day might improve sleep and preserve our circadian rhythms, she asks “is this really the solution to our health problems?” She creates an argument that we are all apparently positing – that smashing light bulbs and waking up at dawn are the cure to all our health problems – and then proceeds to dismiss it, to laugh it off. And yeah, it’s ridiculous to say that unnatural light is the cause of all our health ills… but who’s saying that? Who’s making this argument but her? And on that note, what about the negative effects of artificial light at night? Aren’t they worth investigating? Isn’t the data we already have fairly compelling?
(If you notice me asking a lot of questions in apparent exasperation, it’s because I’m puzzled and exasperated and driven to inquiry by some of these “arguments.” Forgive me.)
A worrisome theme starts to emerge: that the past is murky and we need more data so let’s not make any sudden changes to the way we live, especially not if they’re couched in evolution. I disagree. Whatever most people are doing isn’t really working for most people, whereas whatever we’re doing (whether it’s a paleofantasy or not) seems to be working.
To her credit, Zuk doesn’t throw out the idea of evolutionary mismatch altogether (although you could have fooled me). She just rails against “denouncing modern living as unsuitable to our Stone Age genes,” calling for research into “just what parts of that life send us too far out of our evolutionary zone of tolerance,” as if she’s stumbled upon some revolutionary concept. Really, though, we are exploring and identifying the specific aspects of modern life that trigger a mismatch. We are gathering data. Academics and scientists and bloggers and lay individuals are figuring out, in fits and starts and lurches and self-experiments and clinical trials and study analyses, just what works about modern life and what does not work. We’re not resting on our laurels, on our assumptions.
So we kind of agree, even though it appears she doesn’t know it.
I don’t necessarily blame Marlene Zuk for her failure to comb the ancestral health community’s tomes, read all the blogs, study the comment sections (although she seems to have a fondness for anonymous blog commenters), attend the symposiums and conferences (although much of the material is available online for free), and explore the message boards. There’s a lot of material to cover. It’d probably take years to really do a thorough job. But if she hoped to publish a relevant critique of the community, she probably should have understood its actual claims instead of erecting a straw man for easy defeat.
In John Hawks’ favorable review of the book, he says that we must “play with hypotheses, explore their predictions and try very hard to falsify them.”
I completely agree. I think Zuk agrees, too, and I think I may have divined her ultimate goal with this book. In her 2009 NY Times piece on the same subject, she said “we shouldn’t flagellate ourselves for having modern bodies, and we shouldn’t assume that tweaking our diets or our posture will rescue us from all our current ills.” She thinks people are rushing headlong into such dangerous lifestyle changes as giving up grains, sugar, and seed oils without doing their due diligence.
You’ll have no arguments from me. Assume nothing, test/tweak/research everything. It’s not like I’m sitting here typing away, conjuring up fantastical stories about the past and making big lifestyle proscriptions based on said stories. Those success stories are actual success stories from actual people. Those studies cited are actual studies from real journals. I suppose you could make the argument that all these folks losing weight and gaining muscle and getting off meds and regaining their lives after adopting a Primal way of eating, living, and moving cannot definitively establish the lifestyle was the precipitating factor. They can’t “prove” it works. It could all be a big dream.
A big paleofantasy. I could be making this entire world up in my head as I go along, a lonely brain in some amniotic sac with electrodes attached, my entire history and the blog and the books and my relationships all constructs of my mind. I don’t think I am, though. I think this is real, flesh-and-blood stuff.
Are improved blood sugars, better blood lipids, a hundred pounds of weight loss, newly emergent abs, steady midday energy, improvement of autoimmune disease, and new leases on life paleofantasies? No.
Are sitting in front of an LCD screen until 2 AM, spending zero time in nature, living off of Cheetos and Coke, walking under a thousand steps a day, and working 20 hour days at a miserable job evolutionary mismatches with drastic health consequences as shown by current science (and hinted at by anthropology)? Yes.
And that’s what it comes down to in the end: results. We got ‘em, and people recognize that.
Have you read Paleofantasy? What do you think? Let everyone know in the comment board, and thanks for reading!