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.
Ms. Zuk enjoys setting up straw men, then knocking them down. Decide for yourself. She’s a good writer. And men, there’s that picture of Raquel Welch again.
This argument for embracing evolution ignores the fact that species evolve through the premature death and infertility of unfit members.
What makes sense for the species might be something that individuals would be better to ignore.
In the comments I’m noted as a “scientist.” Clearly we need to get better communication out there!
I haven’t read the book. I think the point she makes about ad hoc speculation and ‘just so’ stories is reasonable. This can be a source of fantasy, or just bad speculation. I think there is a difference. But to say we were perfectly adapted in the past is false. It seems we were better adapted, and the fact is we only have indirect evidence…modern day hunter gatherers and the fact that itworks for a lot people. It may work for the wrong reasons as well. This happens all the time in science and medicine, as you know Dr Parker. But as a doctor you will take a good result with a bad reasoning process any day, although you would like both to be true. Unfortunately, omniscience is not a promised result of science or anything else on life…
Well put, S.