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Book review: Paleofantasy, by Marlene Zuk

There is a widespread belief that many of our modern ills, physical and mental, result from a mismatch between our genes and the artificial environment that we have created for ourselves. Books, magazine articles, TV programmes, and numerous websites popularise the view that we were shaped over many thousands or millions of years to live a hunter-gatherer existence in small groups, yet now we live in huge cities with millions of inhabitants. In this 'unnatural' environment we encounter an abundant supply of food and drink of kinds that we are not evolutionarily adapted for. A critical point in our path to all this was the adoption of agriculture a 'mere' ten thousand years or so ago. The path to salvation lies in returning to the habits and diets of our palaeolithic ancestors.

This is an intuitively appealing story, but is it true? According to Marlene Zuk many of the assumptions on which it is based are questionable. While not rejecting the importance of evolution in shaping us - quite the opposite - Zuk picks the presuppositions of the 'paleofantasists' to pieces and shows how ill-founded many of their ideas are. In me, this prompted the thought that the current enthusiasm for life in the palaeolithic really a modern version of the myth of the Noble Savage or a secular version of the legend of the Garden of Eden. [More]


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