Paleofantasy: what evolution really tells us about sex, diet & how we live – Marlene Zuk

 

Paleofantasy: what evolution really tells us about sex, diet & how we live - Marlene Zuk

W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN 10: 0393347923

It’s common now to read complaints and warnings about modern life that trace the root of our problems with work, health and relationships to a mismatch between our evolved selves and the contemporary environment.

As a professor of ecology, evolution and behaviour, Marlene Zuk is certainly not disputing the fact that we are evolved creatures. Indeed, she argues that we’re still evolving and is keen to spell out what’s amiss in the various popular ideas that she identifies as paleofantasy.

Zuk undermines notions of ancestral harmony with nature ruined by the advent of agriculture, as argued by Jared Diamond and others. By supporting larger populations, agriculture has boosted evolution, with perhaps 3,000 new adaptive mutations arising in Europe in the last 50,000 years.

Contrary to claims that “we didn’t evolve to eat cheese or drink milk”, Zuk explains that the relatively recent evolution of lactase persistence amounts to a co-evolution between our genome and our cultural practices – niche construction – with various nutritional benefits.

The book ranges widely, covering exercise, relationships, family, childhood and the division of labour between male and female, young and old. Zuk takes issue, in the final chapter, with Steve Jones’ claim that human evolution has stopped, at least in the West, noting that cultural changes only offer new possibilities for natural selection: birth rates still vary worldwide.

Since “we did not evolve to be in perfect harmony with our environment, whether in the Pleistocene or otherwise” (p.234), Zuk urges us to give up our paleofantasies. This very readable guide to smarter evolutionary thinking will be a great help to anyone trying to debunk the Flintstone fads in our midst.

Paul Taylor