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Using evolution to dispel pseudoscience about the past

By Michael Zimmerman - posted Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Pseudoscience is rearing its head again and its proponents are creating a new fad. This time the ridiculous belief is that we would all be better off if we lived liked our distant ancestors, the cavemen of yore.

Indeed, the "Caveman Diet," a regimen in which proponents attempt to eat only those foods our relatives ate in the Paleolithic Era (from about 2.6 million years ago to 10,000 years ago) is fairly common. Similarly, there are many who believe we're better off barefoot than with shoes, exercising as if we're hunting big game on foot and living in caves rather than in cities.

There's lots of money to be made by enticing the gullible. Consider this sentence from an Australian web site promoting "The Caveman Power Diet:" "It's not just a way to lose weight, it's a healthy approach to making your body indestructible [sic]." Indestructible? I guess some people don't realize just how short life spans actually were back then!


Zuk does a wonderful job of exploring and exploding the nonsense inherent in these positions. As she points out, the basic premise of the caveman lifestyle has been well articulated by Arthur De Vany, author of the blog called Evolutionary Fitness.

De Vany, like so many of the paleo followers, 'begins with the premise that our bodies and minds are adapted to an ancient environment that passed more than 10,000 years ago," and that "by understanding the hunter-gatherer adaptation and incorporating the activity and eating patterns of our ancestral life-way…we can live a natural and healthy life.'

Zuk shows us, with great wit and scrupulous attention to cutting edge science, that this basic premise is wrong on many levels. She explains the elementary points of evolutionary theory and uses it to demonstrate that all organisms, humans, pre-humans and non-humans alike, are always attempting to do the best they can in a changing environment and evolution never yields either perfection or a final end product. False nostalgia for a perfect past that most assuredly wasn't perfect is hardly something that should shape our daily lives.

Why, she asks, should we believe that those cavemen were living in perfect harmony with their environment but we're not? "We are both always facing new environments, and always shackled by genes from the past. After all, those Paleolithic ancestors were still dragging around genes they shared with hamsters and bacteria."

Central to the pseudoscience of the caveman mythology is the belief that evolution is such a slow process that modern day humans are locked into living in a 21st century world with caveman genes. In fact, as Zuk explains and demonstrates with multiple examples including the evolution of lactose tolerance and the ability Tibetan natives have of living at extraordinarily high altitudes with very low oxygen pressure, at times evolutionary change can occur far faster than that. As she puts it:

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 that 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.


As an evolutionary biologist, Zuk who teaches at the University of Minnesota, makes it clear how important it is to have a robust understanding of evolution if we want to comprehend how we function biologically in the modern world. And she makes it equally clear that embracing pseudoscience, even those ideas that are fun and catchy as well as those seeming to be intuitively obvious, will, more likely than not, lead us far astray.

Paleofantasy is due to be published in March. Take a look at it when it comes out; you'll not be disappointed. It's a compelling read that will encourage you to think differently about you, your future and your ancestors.

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This is a review of Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live, Marlene Zuk (Norton, 2013).

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About the Author

Michael Zimmerman is the founder and executive director of The Clergy Letter Project.

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