Marlene Zuk is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Minnesota. She has an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education excerpted from her upcoming book Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live. Here’s a snippet:
…it’s reasonable to conclude that we aren’t suited to our modern lives, and that our health, our family lives, and perhaps our sanity would all be improved if we could live the way early humans did. Our bodies and minds evolved under a particular set of circumstances, the reasoning goes, and in changing those circumstances without allowing our bodies time to evolve in response, we have wreaked the havoc that is modern life.
In short, we have what the anthropologist Leslie Aiello, president of the renowned Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, called “paleofantasies.” She was referring to stories about human evolution based on limited fossil evidence, but the term applies just as well to the idea that our modern lives are out of touch with the way human beings evolved and that we need to redress the imbalance. Newspaper articles, morning TV, dozens of books, and self-help advocates promoting slow-food or no-cook diets, barefoot running, sleeping with our infants, and other measures large and small claim that it would be more natural, and healthier, to live more like our ancestors.
To think of ourselves as misfits in our own time and of our own making flatly contradicts what we now understand about the way evolution works—namely, that rate matters. That evolution can be fast, slow, or in-between, and understanding what makes the difference is far more enlightening, and exciting, than holding our flabby modern selves up against a vision—accurate or not—of our well-muscled and harmoniously adapted ancestors.
The paleofantasy is a fantasy in part because it supposes that we humans, or at least our protohuman forebears, were at some point perfectly adapted to our environments.