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Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live

Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live

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by Marlene Zuk

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“With . . . evidence from recent genetic and anthropological research, [Zuk] offers a dose of paleoreality.”—Erin Wayman, Science News

We evolved to eat berries rather than bagels, to live in mud huts rather than condos, to sprint barefoot rather than play football—or did we? Are our bodies and brains truly at odds with modern


“With . . . evidence from recent genetic and anthropological research, [Zuk] offers a dose of paleoreality.”—Erin Wayman, Science News

We evolved to eat berries rather than bagels, to live in mud huts rather than condos, to sprint barefoot rather than play football—or did we? Are our bodies and brains truly at odds with modern life? Although it may seem as though we have barely had time to shed our hunter-gatherer legacy, biologist Marlene Zuk reveals that the story is not so simple. Popular theories about how our ancestors lived—and why we should emulate them—are often based on speculation, not scientific evidence.

Armed with a razor-sharp wit and brilliant, eye-opening research, Zuk takes us to the cutting edge of biology to show that evolution can work much faster than was previously realized, meaning that we are not biologically the same as our caveman ancestors. Contrary to what the glossy magazines would have us believe, we do not enjoy potato chips because they crunch just like the insects our forebears snacked on. And women don’t go into shoe-shopping frenzies because their prehistoric foremothers gathered resources for their clans. As Zuk compellingly argues, such beliefs incorrectly assume that we’re stuck—finished evolving—and have been for tens of thousands of years. She draws on fascinating evidence that examines everything from adults’ ability to drink milk to the texture of our ear wax to show that we’ve actually never stopped evolving. Our nostalgic visions of an ideal evolutionary past in which we ate, lived, and reproduced as we were “meant to” fail to recognize that we were never perfectly suited to our environment. Evolution is about change, and every organism is full of trade-offs.

From debunking the caveman diet to unraveling gender stereotypes, Zuk delivers an engrossing analysis of widespread paleofantasies and the scientific evidence that undermines them, all the while broadening our understanding of our origins and what they can really tell us about our present and our future.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In thoroughly engaging and witty prose, Zuk (Sex on Six Legs), a biologist from the University of Minnesota, dismantles the pseudoscience behind nostalgic yearnings for our caveman days. As she so well notes, “Paleofantasies call to mind a time when everything about us—body, mind, and behavior—was in sync with the environment.” Zuk makes it clear that no such time ever existed—that’s simply not how evolution works. Whether she’s shredding the underlying premises of the paleo diet, the paleo exercise regimen, or the structure of the paleo family, she does so via cogent discussions of the nature of evolution and accessible elucidations of cutting-edge science. Zuk explains that all organisms are engaged in a never-ending attempt to do the best they can in a changing environment, and evolution never yields either perfection or a final product: “We are both always facing new environments, and always shackled by genes from the past. After all, those Paleolithic ancestors were still dragging around genes they shared with hamsters and bacteria.” She goes on to demonstrate the ways in which humans are still evolving, citing differences in earwax characteristics around the globe as evidence of our continuing journey. Though the jury’s still out on what humans will be like further down the road, Zuk’s is an informative and entertaining pit stop.15 illus. Agents: Wendy Strothman and Lauren MacLeod, the Strothman Agency. (Mar.)
Richard Wrangham
“Marlene Zuk’s quest to understand prehistory is an elegant guide for the perplexed. Paleofantasy cuts through a confusing tangle of facts and claims to give us a trustworthy road map to the glorious problems of who we are and where we come from.”
Frans de Waal
“We tend to idealize our ancestors, as if they had the perfect life and perfect diet. In highly readable style, Marlene Zuk downplays our paleo-heritage. Not only did we change culturally, we are also genetically a different animal.”
Cordelia Fine - Wall Street Journal
“Ms. Zuk’s nutritionally rich scientific fodder will certainly bring intellectual benefits far greater than those provided by the pseudoscientific confections with which we are so often tempted.”
John Hawks - Nature
“Zuk ably presents a skeptical and light-hearted view of a long list of palaeofantasies and supposed solutions.”
Laura Miller - Salon
“Briskly dismisses . . . misunderstandings about how evolution works and . . . offers a lively, lucid illustration of the intricacies of this all-important natural process.”
“Zuk’s take on the many controversies and uncertainties surrounding evolution is both wise and measured.”
Carl Hays - Booklist
“In this illuminating overview of state-of-the art evolutionary science, [Zuk]
debunks this utopian ideal and demonstrates that not only have humans continued to evolve since our foraging days, but some of those adaptations have been remarkably swift.”
The Daily Beast
“Zuk doesn’t deny that an understanding of evolution can provide important insights into human behavior and health. But as this informative book demonstrates, the work of using evolutionary logic to explain human traits is more like multi-variable calculus than simple arithmetic.”
Liz Belliovskaya - Brain World Magazine
“In her witty and well-researched prose, Zuk debunks these pseudoscience-based conceptions and proves that humanity did not have “a time” like the kind depicted by these fantasies; evolution has always been and will continue to be a key player in our species’ future.”
Catherine Woods - Science Magazine
“Paleofantasy is not another self-help book offering answers on how to eat, exercise, or love better in our evolving world. Instead, Zuk emphasizes that we can approach these aspects of our lives differently based on our genetic makeup.”
Midwest Book Review
“With its healthy analysis of lifestyles and changing, evolving habits, Paleofantasy is a top recommendation not just for science holdings, but collections strong in culinary history and evolution.”
Margaret Quamme - Columbia Dispatch
“Like the best science writers, [Zuk] finds a broader context for everyday experience and makes difficult concepts easier to understand.”
Stratton Magazine
“Paleofantasy is a fascinating and accessible read that I had trouble putting down.”
Kirkus Reviews
Zuk (Univ. of California, Riverside; Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love, and Language from the Insect World, 2011, etc.) takes on those who say we are ill-suited to modern life because we are trapped in our Stone Age bodies. That's pure "paleofantasy," writes the author, and a denial of evolution. Humans emerged in the Pleistocene, beginning 1 million years ago, and have continued to evolve since. Zuk cites dozens of studies of changes in gene frequencies (the mark of evolution) when our genomes are compared with ancient DNA. One classic example is the ability of many adults to digest milk, thanks to the retention of a working lactase enzyme. Prior to the birth of agriculture and the domestication of animals—only a few thousand years ago—the lactase gene was turned off in early childhood. Adaptations to living at high altitudes are also recent, and genetic analyses show that Andean dwellers accomplish it differently than Tibetans. These and countless other examples attest to the continued interactions of our species and cultures with nature and the environment, with consequences that affect diet, disease risk/resistance and lifestyles. So it makes no sense that we should eat the "paleo" diet of meat and root vegetables like hunter-gatherers, run barefoot (as in pursuit of game) or take as models of sex behavior what our primate friends do. Zuk is particularly sharp in this area, pointing to how diverse sexual behavior is for chimps, bonobos, gorillas, gibbons and orangutans. The mistake that the back-to-paleo folks make is the belief that human evolution stopped at some point thousands of years ago. Zuk explains that evolution (in all organisms) can and does happen by genetic drift (an isolated group may, over time, concentrate particular genes), by gene inflow (when new groups mix with an existing group), by mutation (gene errors) and by natural selection, which looks at traits associated with greater reproductive success. Nothing beats good hard data to debunk myths, and Zuk offers plenty.

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Meet the Author

Marlene Zuk is a professor of ecology, evolution and behavior at the University of Minnesota. The author of Sex on Six Legs, she lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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