Yesterday’s Times science section had a really interesting article by biologist Marlene Zuk about caveman nostalgia:
Maybe our woes arise because our Stone Age genes are thrust into Space Age life. That beer gut? It comes from eating too many processed carbohydrates; our bodies evolved to eat only unrefined foods, mainly meat, and we get out of kilter veering from our ancestral diet.
Food allergies and digestive woes? We, like other mammals, aren’t meant to consume dairy products after weaning. When politicians fall from grace after committing adultery, some commentator will always point out that such behavior has evolutionary roots: weren’t the best procreators alpha males with roving eyes?
In short, we have what the anthropologist Leslie Aiello called “paleofantasies.” She was referring to stories about human evolution based on limited fossil evidence, but the term applies just as well to nostalgia for the very old days as a touchstone for the way life is supposed to be and why it sometimes feels so out of balance.
Zuk empathizes with these fantasies — it’s not irrational, after all, to feel wistful about an imaginary pastoral utopia free of aspartame or graffiti or mortgage payments, where we all ate whole local foods and got regular healthy exertion traipsing around the unspoiled wilderness. (One tends to elide the fact that it was also free of plumbing, shoes, and Barack Obama, and we all got regular healthy exertion running for our lives from giant fucking ground sloths.) But, she says, it is irrational to imagine that modern humans are still maximally adapted to that life. Evolution’s a slow process, but not so stubbornly slow that we haven’t adjusted at all in the last 55,000 years.
We just recently had a great time kicking apart a friendly soul who came by to tell us that we must all be unhealthy because there were no fat cavemen. And it’s not the first time we’ve taken down pseudo-Darwinian bullshit on the blog (evo psych being a particular bane, not because we see it more but because we hate it the mostest). But this article really helped crystallize for me what bugs me so much about the paleolithic model of healthy behavior: It’s actually opposed to human development. It relies on the idea that the species reached a state of perfect adaptation some millenia ago, and that any change from that state is a fall from grace. First of all, this is way too teleological to be scientific — the idea that there is no culmination of development, just a state of constant adaptation, is kind of fundamental to the theory of evolution. Second, and relatedly, this miscalculation assumes that we’ve fucked up somehow by availing ourselves of things like agriculture and leisure time. But when your environment changes and your species changes with it? That’s actually what evolution is.
This, of course, leaves open the possibility that we might be evolving to be a bit fat. Being in the “overweight” category is clearly adaptive, and our current environment privileges many things over the ability to outrun a ground sloth. Some fat people have parsimonious metabolisms or gut flora that can suck every bit of energy out of everything we eat — these are handy qualifications in lean times, not strictly necessary for many of us reading this but an excellent raft to buoy fat genes through history. It’s not impossible that the future of the human race looks less like Camilla Belle and more like… um, the past of the human race. (Don’t tell me a gorilla ain’t fat.)
Unsurprisingly, some people find this terrifying — which I think is partly to blame for this nostalgia for an illusory time when life was an exercise program and you couldn’t help but be thin (at least if you didn’t want to be sloth kibble). But evolution doesn’t really give a shit whether you think it’s pretty. And it certainly doesn’t give a shit if you think it was perfect 50,000 years ago and should have quit while it was ahead — evolution, by definition, does not work that way. It’s foolish to try to anticipate it or evaluate it except in retrospect (I certainly have no idea whether fatness will be the new thumbs, my point is just that it’s not impossible). And it’s dumb as balls to ask it to put the brakes on. Bemoaning modern foodstuffs, eating the “caveman diet” (mostly meat and berries, because grain sprang into existence with agriculture apparently), and waving your flint-knapped knives at bloggers because “there were no fat cavemen” is not only pointless, it’s retrogressive. Might as well fling poo at Rembrandt because he didn’t paint cows on a wall.
Folks, it’s all right to be modern. Some of us would be less fat without modern inventions like refined sugar, free-trade economies, automobiles, and diets. Some wouldn’t. But either way, we coexist with these inventions — that’s the environment we have and the one we adapt to. It’s fruitless to imagine yourself as a paleolithic creature in a hostile modern world — we’re not fucking Vogons, our species didn’t stop adapting as soon as it came into being. Imagine if some australopithecine had gotten all misty about the days when everyone lived in the trees and nobody tried to walk on two legs, which is clearly terrible for your knees and not what we apes are adapted for. Foolish monkey! An unpredictable future in response to a changing present is basically the point of evolution. We should embrace it — not pretend that it halted at some point in the hazy past.