Sometimes all you can do is laugh. I love this new piece at Time: Should you eat like a caveman? It's a perfect example of how this whole paleo concept can be sensationalized — by the press AND by practitioners. But it's important to take these issues head on because as this paleo approach grows, this type of thing is going to happen more often.
It all went down at the De Vany book-signing a couple weeks ago. After the talk, this smart, sexy, firebrand of a reporter approached me about the potential conflict between Dan Lieberman's research, which points to the importance of endurance running in human evolution, and some of the paleo community, which tends to emphasize the role of high-intensity, "move like your life depends on it" exercise in human evolution. A good question, which we proceeded to discuss. But it quickly became clear that she was looking to stir up some controversy. The end result, an article that portrays paleo as an ideology that holds the following silly beliefs:
- Evolution stopped 40,000 years ago
- There was one single paleolithic diet and lifestyle
- Women did not contribute very much to the tribe
What's odd about the article is that we offered up nearly every counter-point she uses to de-bunk the ideas above. Mainstream media, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
Evolution did not stop 40,000 years ago
I can't think of a single paleo blogger or author or claims this. When the reporter asked about whether there has been continuing evolution, particularly in regards to diet, both Robb and I said, well, yeah, of course. Robb pointed out that indigenous tribes, like the Pima, will get diabetes in their teens and 20s eating a modern diet whereas people of European and Middle-Eastern descent won't get diabetes until a decade or more later eating the same diet.
There is no one, single paleolithic diet and lifestyle
Duh. Hunter-gatherers had all sorts of different diets depending on time, geography, season, and culture. Does anyone think the Inuit ate the same thing as the Hadza? And moved in the exact same ways? Or that these modern hunter-gatherer tribes perfectly represent the paleolithic? The paleolithic was a long period of time. There is no one "paleolithic diet".
That said, it's a common technique in mainstream peer-reviewed evolutionary psychology to talk about an Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), an environment containing the selection pressures that led to specific adaptations. It's a theoretical construct, to be sure, but a useful construct nonetheless. Lieberman does the same thing when he talks about persistence hunting in some ancient savannah habitat from long ago.
And trying to reconstruct "the" diet of a species is something we do for all kinds of animals, not just humans. I think the burden of proof is on people who want to treat Homo sapiens as exceptional. We certainly have found ways to be generalist omnivores, but that's not to say there isn't a set of foods that we are better or worse adapted to. What would be completely unbelievable from an evolutionary standpoint is if we weren't better or worse adapted to certain foods — now that would stretch the imagination.
Women are essential providers to the tribe
If I got annoyed at one point in this article, it was the one that implied we held misogynistic views:
"Meanwhile, it's likely the gatherer members of the hunter-gatherer community — who tend to get less attention from Paleos, despite having provided up to half of Paleolithic calories — walked up to 9 km (6 mi.) a day, often while weighed down by babies and food."
Again, the reporter's counter-point is based on what we told her. That gathering wouldn't have been some walk in the woods, but carrying pounds and pounds of plants, getting heavier as you go, toting a baby, digging up roots, walking miles. And we pointed out that gathering often includes catching small game and collecting seafood. Not to mention lots of evidence that hunter-gatherer societies were more egalitarian than most people assume.
Nearly all reporters have to depend on conventional wisdom to do their job
Because mainstream reporters are writing for the mainstream, they tend to reflect conventional points of view. This reporter did a good job of not putting too much conventional wisdom in her piece, but consider her brief "stated as fact" health views:
"There's no doubt that something is way off about our collective health; rampant rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes make that self-evident. And there's no doubt that this is a direct result of our high-fat, high-calorie, sedentary lives."
This is just another natural stage in the movement as it starts to attract more attention. Now let's see what Nightline does tonight…