I read this book not because I’m planning to go on the Paleo diet but because I thought (correctly) that it would affirm my general belief that the world has been screwy since the Industrial Revolution. (The world was screwy before the Industrial Revolution too, but that was caused by lead poisoning. Lead poisoning and Christianity.)
I’m a sucker for any book that argues that the world would be a much better place if human beings had never decided to crawl out of the primordial soup and grow legs. Seriously – any book. I even read the one about the talking gorilla. John Durant’s The Paleo Manifesto is primarily a diet book intended for people interested in following the Paleo Diet, but he spends a good bit of time on evolutionary biology and on how and why the human diet has changed over time.
I’m going to run through a lot of facts rather quickly, and I’m not always going to stop and tell you all the logical connections between the various sets of facts. I will say that Durant explains the step-by-step logic of his theories about 80% of the time – which means that the remaining 20% of the time I was left with some wild theory on the page in front of me and very little evidence to back it up. That’s not good, of course – but I was pleased that in most cases Durant’s logic is credible and easy to follow.
The Paleolithic Age was really, really long. All of recorded human history, from the first scratchings on cave walls to this blog post, which I am not even finished writing yet, is nothing but a blip next to the Paleolithic Age, and Paleolithic humans were, for the most part, strong, robust, and healthy. Durant, who holds a degree in evolutionary biology, gets his facts from fossil and archaeological records and from studying the few tribes still extant that live the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Paleolithic humans were tall. They spent most of their days moving around, mostly in pursuit of food. They valued family and community, and Durant specifically asserts that they had a lot of sex. Men and women lived in harmony; gender roles were prescribed but balanced, with both sexes sharing the work of running a household, or a cavehold or whatever. Paleolithic humans rarely suffered from infectious diseases or from the stress-based illnesses like heart disease and cancer that plague us today. Infant mortality was high, but once a child grew to his/her adult height Paleolithic lifespans were actually quite long: longer than those of any groups of human beings until relatively recently.
Then something horrible happened: we stopped hunting and gathering. Some Paleolithic genius figured out that plants and animals could be domesticated, and life has pretty much sucked ever since (this, by the way, is also the central premise of the book about the talking gorilla). Infectious diseases became widespread as people lived in unhealthy proximity to their own poop and dead bodies. Gender roles became more defined, and the notion that woman should stay home while men worked outside the home became the norm. Life spans became shorter. Slavery became widespread, as did human sacrifice and capital punishment. Society became more hierarchical. And of course, the human diet became more grain-based and therefore more unhealthy.
Durant walks his readers through two more large-scale shifts in human lifestyles: the transition into the industrial age in the 18th and 19th centuries and then into the information age in the late 20th and early 21st. He even makes some interesting connections between computer hacking and the human diet. By far my favorite section of the book, though, is the chapter on the ancient Hebrew dietary laws as laid out explicitly in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. I’ve enjoyed the more arcane passages from these books for many years and often call upon them for comic relief. Leviticus can pull me out of just about any funk – “and if a gecko falleth in thy water-bucket, it shall be unclean for one fortnight” and that sort of thing. I like everything about this statement – I even like the ambiguous pronoun that makes it impossible to know for sure if the gecko or the water-bucket is the thing that’s unclean.
But seriously – Durant’s book does a fantastic job of analyzing the Hebraic dietary laws (which Muslims follow also, by the way). These laws prescribe ritual hand washing and the scrupulous cleaning of dishes and spaces used to prepare food. These books of the Bible seem to be written by someone who understands germ theory – even though they predate the modern discovery of viruses and bacteria by several millennia. Durant writes, “Taken as a whole, the knowledge of hygiene contained in the Mosaic Law is nothing short of stunning. It correctly identifies the main sources of infection as vermin, insects, corpses, bodily fluids, food (especially meat), sexual behaviors, sick people, and other contaminated people or things. It implies that the underlying source of infection is usually invisible and can spread by the slightest physical contact, while taking into account the different physical properties of solids, liquids, and gases; the passage of time; open and closed spaces; and different types of materials. And it provides effective methods of disinfection, such as hand washing, bathing, sterilization by fire, boiling, soap, quarantine, hair removal, and even nail care” (62).
To make this discussion even more interesting, Durant connects these insights about the dietary laws with the fact that Jews were often blamed for medieval plagues because Christians noticed that Jews didn’t get sick as often as Christians did. It helped, of course, that Jews in the middle ages often lived in ghettoes, and most individual Jews did not come into physical contact with gentiles very often, but what quarantine did not do to keep medieval Jews so healthy, the dietary laws may have. It’s a theory rather than a proven fact, of course, but it’s really compelling.
I love this stuff. I am ready to sign on – can I get a Ph.D in this stuff? I’m ready to build my life around the quest to prove that a bunch of ancient desert nomads knew more about health than the Centers for Disease Control. This is it – my purpose.
As you may have noted, I’ve been a bit sarcastic in this review. This is partly because I really don’t know how to review a book about evolutionary biology, so I’ve resorted to the point-and-grunt method – “I like this part and this part and this part…” – to cover up my insecurity. It’s also because I read this book a couple of weeks ago and may not remember its details as well as I wish I did. But I mean everything I said about loving the more speculative aspects of evolutionary science and wanting to learn much, much more about the various forks in the road of our development as a species. It’s also true that I am often preoccupied with how wrong our world is in so many fundamental ways. This book helped me to attach some specifics to many of my suspicions, and I appreciate this book for that reason.
I have one general question, though, that this book didn’t address. In simple terms, evolution is driven by sex and death, in the sense that individual organisms that have the most sex (and produce the most offspring) before they die are the ones whose traits are passed down, so individuals whose traits make it easier for them to live long enough to have lots of offspring will pass these traits on to some of these offspring, leading to gradual fine-tuning (or “improvement,” if you will) of the species. But the thing is, this book isn’t about the improvement of the species; it’s about the opposite. I know that many of the traits that have led to human progress are not directly connected to diet – opposable thumbs, the growth of the cerebral cortex, bipedalism – and I know that the changes in human life as we left the hunter/gatherer lifestyle behind and became farmers did not necessarily stop us from passing our traits to the next generation. The fact that slavery became widespread after the Neolithic Revolution didn’t stop human beings from reproducing. Shorter life spans didn’t impact evolution, since human beings still routinely lived at least into their thirties, having become sexually mature in their teens.
Is it possible that evolution has led humans toward greater and greater unhappiness? If happiness is equated with naivete, and I’m not claiming that it is, then unhappiness – or guardedness, or paranoia even, might help us survive long enough to pass along our predisposition toward surliness and depression to multiple offspring while our more happy-go-lucky brethren fail to notice the dangers and traps in their environment and die young. I am grossly oversimplifying, of course – but I enjoy playing with these sorts of ideas, just as I enjoyed reading this book and recommend it enthusiastically.