Evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk's new book is Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live.
From her Q & A with Alison George for New Scientist, reprinted in Slate:
What is driving the tendency to idealize the way ancient humans lived?--Marshal Zeringue
There is this caricature that organisms evolve until they get to a point when they're perfectly adapted to their environment, then heave this big sigh of relief and stop. Anything that happens to them after that is disastrous.
You see this attitude in what can be referred to as "paleo-nostalgia"—the notion that we were all better off before agriculture, or civilization, or the Industrial Revolution. It's not to say life has been unmitigatedly getting better. But it's more helpful and accurate to see that all organisms are constantly evolving. There has been no point in our past when we were perfectly adapted to our environment.
I'm not dismissing the idea that you need to look at our evolutionary heritage to think about what's best for us healthwise. But when you start plucking out pieces in an oddly specific way, you can run into trouble.
Are paleo diets, which usually involve eating lots of meat and avoiding grains or dairy, examples of this type of specific selection?
These are predicated on the idea that there was a certain way humans ate 100,000 or 15,000 years ago—the era people want to hark back to varies. I think everybody agrees that we evolved eating certain things and we're going to be very unhealthy if we subsist on Diet Coke and Cheetos. But it gets...[read on]