The Jeff Wise Blog

Fat, Drunk, and Broke? Don’t Blame the Caveman

Spare a thought for the most abused demographic in the US today: the Pleistocene hunter-gatherer. These plucky ancestors, who scurried across the earth from two million to 12,000 years ago, have lately taken responsibility and blame for seemingly every aspect of modern life.

Cavemen-bashers would have us believe that because our brains evolved in a world where hunting and gathering were requisite skills, not juggling frequent flier points or angling for a promotion, we’re ill equipped to deal with modern life. We want to be good, but our brains are forever subconsciously pulling us back to our cavemen ways. Marital fidelity? Not in our genes. Peaceful co-existence? Not adaptive for life on the savannah.

Lately, Pleistocene hunter gatherers seem to be getting an especially harsh ragging on behalf of the obesity epidemic. If the last time you stepped on your bathroom scale it broke, the common wisdom seems to be, just blame the atlatl-wielders.

In the May/June issue of Psychology Today, Leyla Muedin argues in “The Way We Were” (p. 51) that “our bodies are best adapted to what our Paleolithic ancestors ate.” Back in the good old days, she writes, “over the course of a year, you might eat 100 different types of fruit and vegetables… but you wouldn’t drink any milk or consume any dairy products.” She quotes S. Boyd Easton, an anthropologist at Emory University,who wrote in a recent editorial in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that “the dietary and lifestyle difference between then and now account for most of our chronic diseases and cancer.”

How is this absurd? Let me count the ways.

  1. Hunter gatherers do not, as a rule, enjoy robust health. They must endure the vagaries of the natural world without recourse to the food stores we slovenly civilized folk take for granted. Rather than eating a varied diet, indigenous people have to make do with whatever handful of foodstuffs happens to be available, if any. The uncomfortable reality of hunter gatherers is that they frequently starve to death. The average life expectancy of a Paleolithic hunter was less than 30 years.
  2. Our ancestors did not evolve for any particular environment, for any particular diet. Premodern humans lived in a huge variety of settings, from the arctic tundra to tropical jungle, from remote Pacific islands to high-altitude deserts. There is no such thing as a “hunter-gatherer diet.” Think you need to eat a lot of nuts and wild grasses? Tell it to an Inuit.
  3. We didn’t evolve during the Pleistocene. By which I mean, we didn’t evolve just during the Pleistocene. Our 23,000 genes are the legacy of 3.7 billion years of evolution; the Pleistocene era accounts for less than 0.1 percent of that. Much of our metabolism dates back to the days when were amoebas. (We are insanely hardy buggers!) And what’s more, we continue to evolve. A gene that allows us Europeans to digest milk sprang up about 7,500 years ago in the wake of the domestication of cattle. I’m of European descent; why shouldn’t I consumer dairy? I evolved for it!
  4. Nobody’s a perfect fit. Yes, we live in a different world from our ancestors. But so does every organism. Nature is a dynamic and unpredictable place, and every organism has to constantly adjust. Our environment is different because we have changed it, but we are not unique in that regard. A general evolutionary principle is that behavior precedes adaptation. An organism begins to exploit a new resource, and then changes to exploit that resource better. Thus, a duck is only going to start growing webbing between its does after it starts mucking around in the water. Perfection is a moving target.
  5. For a bunch of misfits, we’re doing pretty well. Yes, we’re a nation of tubbies. But our life expectancy is high and continues to climb. A person born today can expect to live to 78 – two and a half times longer than a cave man. So where’s the dysfunction, exactly?
  6. Cavemen have enough problems. Angry mammoths, giant cave bears, angry spirits – the last thing they need is a bunch of whiny descendents giving them posthumous grief. So let’s declare a moratorium. No more ragging on Pleistocene hunter-gatherers.

Filed under: Self Control

5 Responses

  1. Don Wiss says:

    I find your response to the article to be absurd. By paragraph:

    1. Two fallacies in the first paragraph. First there is no evidence that they often starved to death. No more so than you see wild animals in their natural undisturbed environment starving to death. Population stabilizes at the level for the available food. It wasn’t until farming where we could grow more food than we needed that population increased and we become dependent on a bountiful harvest. Second there is no evidence whatsoever that they only lived until 30. The math doesn’t even add up. It took until age 15-16 to become sexually mature. Then nine months to make a baby. If you were dead before age 30 you would be dead before your first child was raised. To sustain population you would need to be able to bring several kids to sexual maturity in order to compensate for the ones that died in accidents or were eaten by wild animals. What evidence does exist shows that when they died they had bones comparable to today’s 40 year olds. What this means is that by eating the paleo diet their bones didn’t degenerate like ours do now.

    2. What we know is there were certain foods not eaten at all. And a universe of foods that people ate from depending on what was available where they were located. Optimal foraging theory says that we would have eaten what is most easily obtainable at that locale. This is why the paleo diet simply has “in” foods and “out” foods. We don’t know how much of each “in” foods were eaten.

    3. That’s right. Until we developed tools 2.5 million years ago (allowing us to kill and eat animals) we ate insects. The high protein and nutrition that they provide would have been needed for us to have developed into such brainy creatures. The ability that Europeans evolved for digesting dairy is simply that the lactase enzyme now sticks around past infancy. So we can digest milk sugar. This doesn’t mean that dairy proteins are good for us. Each species has milk that evolved for that species. Cows are herbivores. We are omnivores.

    4. Yes, but it takes far longer than 10,000 years to make small evolutionary changes. And you need to give natural selection free reign. These days we are able to treat all sorts of problems caused by our Neolithic diet which allows people incapable of handling these new foods to continue to procreate.

    5. Our life expectancy is high as we spend billions on medical costs to treat problems that wouldn’t exist if we were eating the paleo diet. We could live even longer. And age without all these ailments.

    6. Yes, they had a hard life. Only the lucky ones lived to a ripe old age.

  2. chenier1 says:

    I have to agree with Don Wiss, with the added grumble that the link you cite doesn’t actually say that ‘The average life expectancy of a Paleolithic hunter was less than 30 years.’

    Links which don’t say what the linkers say they say are plentiful on the Web but scientists are usually expected to adhere to rather higher standards.

  3. Anna says:

    There is so much garbage information or “research” (context driven by the sponsors).
    I can imagine an infinite court hearing where one party is advocating vegan-ism (no animal or dairy products) or vegetarian diet (occasional dairy) and another omnivore diet – endless theater.
    I can only speak from my own experience.
    Firstly, I’ve been a vegetarian for over 5 years – I do occasionally eat cheese products, but really trying to minimize it. I educate myself about nutrition & eat a lot of wholesome organic or farmers market food, i.e.: fruit, beans, veggies & whole grains. I feel so much better now in my thirties (I even feel younger) than when I was in my twentieth. I have much more energy now to support my extremely busy & demanding life style. I do software development by day & teach yoga by night.
    Secondly, I felt horrified when I saw how animals are processed / treated at the farms when I took a road trip with my boy-friend across country a few years back. There is so much unsanitary practices & violence. I don’t want to support this industry.
    Thirdly, non-violence is one of the components to the road of self-realization. Isn’t it the ultimate goal of life to know ourselves & to see things what they really are?!
    In any event, I understand, it’s not a path for everyone. I think the key is to take the self-responsibility for our actions & stop the blame game. Ask questions, experiment, dig into it…ultimately, it’s all a personal choice…
    Would you still eat your meat after you’d meet it?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

Also by Jeff Wise

%d bloggers like this: