Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet and How We Live by Marlene Zuk

Camilla Power enjoys a demolition of prelapsarian pseudoscience

April 11, 2013

As someone who suffers recurrent palaeofantasies (don’t ask), I’m a sucker for this book’s title. The idea of exploring the strange things that 21st-century Homo sapiens gets up to in the name of living more like “cavemen” promises to be fun. And Marlene Zuk has impeccable credentials as an evolutionary ecologist of animal signalling, with a Darwinian feminist twist.

The problem starts with those evolutionary psychologists who propose that our “Stone Age minds” stopped evolving long ago in some ill-defined timespace known as the “Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness”. This gets popularised - either down the pub, or through trashy pop-science books, blogs and online forums - as manifestos for living as closely as possible to the way we used to as Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers. This, the palaeocultists claim, will make us happier, healthier humans.

Zuk, knowing that humans, like other animals, continue to evolve in response to their changing environments, aims to sort the palaeocult wheat from the chaff - or rather the ripe berries from the bitter tannins. (Never mention wheat to a palaeofantasist!) The full weight of her authority on evolutionary genetics bears down like a sledgehammer cracking these palaeonutters. Of course she’s right, but you can’t help feeling she’s a bit of a spoilsport.

Her pop-sci spoiler technique is to pick up a few quotes from Cavemanforum.com or Paleochix.com, replete with spelling mistake (sic), and then to pull apart these straw men. So, “Cow milk is designed to make baby cows fat quickly. Guess what it does to humans?” is the feed for a chapter discussing the relatively rapid evolution of lactase persistence in human populations - that is, the ability to digest milk past early childhood. Similarly, Zuk offers chapters in which she defends farming against Jared Diamond’s “worst mistake in human history” tag; examines the prodigious pork-belly-eating feats of wannabe cavemen; and considers the rock-toting exercise regimes designed to beat the effects of “too much sitting”. Speaking from experience, I’ve never seen more people sitting around than in a hunter-gatherer camp - and their favourite food? Honey! Men will risk death for carbs.

Zuk’s rebuttals are intelligent, informed and instructive, but listen to the lament she quotes from Cavemanforum.com: “It sounds stupid but I’ve starting (sic) to feel like agriculture really was the biggest mistake we ever did. Of course we can’t bring the times back, but in a strange way I wish we could. The solutions to our problems lay there. Not just food. I feel like we messed up, and we’re paying for it.” Doesn’t this cri de coeur call for a different response? Zuk carries on crunching gene sequences, like Deep Thought in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, coming up with the answer “42” to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything.

The caveman bloggers don’t seem to be yearning for palaeobathrooms and middens. But, a social anthropologist would ask, what are people yearning for? What is fuelling this prelapsarian pseudoscience? This would tell us as much about ourselves as it would about Palaeolithic hunters. If people want role play and fantasies shared on social media to help them fight the fat, what’s wrong with that? As a health prescription, “Live like African hunter-gatherers” isn’t bad. If you stuck to it, you’d practice gender egalitarianism and excellent anger management; you’d walk around the landscape with your best mates during a three-day working week; keep in regular touch with relatives, sing, dance and tell lots of jokes. And you’d never have trouble finding a babysitter. Zuk’s chapter surveying literature on the human family as a cooperative childcare enterprise is one of her best, revealing our flexibility. A nuclear set-up of mummy and daddy alone with the kids is scarcely standard.

In the arena of disease and pathogens, which arguably have had more effect than any other organism on human history, Zuk is an expert. She is eager to demonstrate trade-offs between genetic resistance to HIV and susceptibility to West Nile fever, but surprisingly never touches on the evidence for effects of reproductive life history on breast cancer rates. Emulating hunter-gatherer choices of when to have a first child and how long to breastfeed - hard as that would be in our work-bound existences - probably would improve our health prospects. Is there a thread about this on Paleochix.com?

Oh, all right then, since you asked - my personal palaeofantasy involves sexual revolution in the Stone Age, with a proto-proletarian alliance of women and subordinate men overthrowing the rule of alpha males. Sad to say, Zuk doesn’t dissect that one.

Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet and How We Live

By Marlene Zuk
W.W. Norton, 304pp, £17.99
ISBN 9780393081374
Published 13 April 2013

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