We have seen the future, and it sucks.

Misguided Nostalgia for Our Paleo Pasts

23rd February 2013

Read it.

Because we often think about evolution over the great sweep of time, in terms of minuscule changes over millions of years, when we went from fin to scaly paw to opposable-thumbed hand, it is easy to assume that evolution requires eons. That assumption makes us feel that humans, who have gone from savanna to asphalt in a mere few thousand years, must be caught out by the pace of modern life, when we’d be much better suited to something more familiar in our history. We’re fat and unfit, we have high blood pressure, and we suffer from ailments that we suspect our ancestors never worried about, like post-traumatic-stress disorder and AIDS. Julie Holland, a psychiatrist writing in Glamour magazine, counsels that if you “feel less than human,” constantly stressed and run-down, you need to remember that “the way so many of us are living now goes against our nature. Biologically, we modern Homo sapiens are a lot like our cave woman ancestors: We’re animals. Primates, in fact. And we have many primal needs that get ignored. That’s why the prescription for good health may be as simple as asking, What would a cave woman do?”

You can tell by this that the author is female and probably a pain in the ass about it.

Marlene Zuk is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Minnesota. This essay is excerpted from her book Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live….

Female? Check. Academic? Check. Blue State? Check. Pushing a new book? Check.

It’s hard to escape the recurring conviction that somewhere, somehow, things have gone wrong. In a time with unprecedented ability to transform the environment, to make deserts bloom and turn intercontinental travel into the work of a few hours, we are suffering from diseases our ancestors of a few thousand years ago, much less our prehuman selves, never knew: diabetes, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that for the first time in history, the current generation of children will not live as long as their parents, probably because obesity and associated maladies are curtailing the promise of modern medicine.

Occupy Fashionable Leftist Memes About How the Sky Is Falling? Check.

Some of our nostalgia for a simpler past is just the same old amnesia that every generation has about the good old days. The ancient Romans fretted about the young and their callous disregard for the hard-won wisdom of their elders. Several 16th- and 17th-century writers and philosophers famously idealized the Noble Savage, a being who lived in harmony with nature and did not destroy his surroundings. Now we worry about our kids as “digital natives,” who grow up surrounded by electronics and can’t settle their brains sufficiently to concentrate on walking the dog without simultaneously texting and listening to their iPods.

Gratuitous swipe and people who refuse to prefer Wednesday to Tuesday merely because it is Wednesday? Check.

Given this whiplash-inducing rate of recent change, 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.

Ah, but you would be wrong, Neanderthal Breath, and she (who is smarter and more credentialed than you) is going to Explain It All To You.

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. A corollary to this notion is that we are good at things we had to do back in the Pleistocene, like keeping an eye out for cheaters in our small groups, and bad at things we didn’t, like negotiating with people we can’t see and have never met.

All of which has a lot of evidence to support it, although that evidence won’t even be mentioned, much less refuted, in an academic sneer piece like this.

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. We apply this erroneous idea of evolution’s producing the ideal mesh between organism and surroundings to other life forms, too, not just to people.

Uh, oh. Sounds like the Sierra Club to me.

It’s common for people to talk about how we were “meant” to be, in areas ranging from diet to exercise to sex and family. Yet these notions are often flawed, making us unnecessarily wary of new foods and, in the long run, new ideas. I would not dream of denying the evolutionary heritage present in our bodies—and our minds. And it is clear that a life of sloth with a diet of junk food isn’t doing us any favors. But to assume that we evolved until we reached a particular point and now are unlikely to change for the rest of history, or to view ourselves as relics hampered by a self-inflicted mismatch between our environment and our genes, is to miss out on some of the most exciting new developments in evolutionary biology.

In other words, I’m a Progressive and Change Is Good! Why am I not surprised.

One Response to “Misguided Nostalgia for Our Paleo Pasts”

  1. ErisGuy Says:

    “What would a cave woman do?”

    Obey the patriarch.