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Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live [Kindle Edition]

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 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.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1371 KB
  • Print Length: 337 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (18 March 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Australia Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B007Q6XM1A
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #183,161 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)

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Amazon.com: 3.7 out of 5 stars  70 reviews
409 of 472 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars What this Book Really Tells Us about Evolution and Diet 17 March 2013
By Brian Brookshire - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This book really deserves two ratings--one for the evolutionary science and one for its coverage of the paleo diet.


Paleofantasy has a lot to offer you if you are interested in evolution in general and human evolution in particular.

Zuk's central argument throughout the book is that evolution is a continuous process that didn't stop for humans in the paleolithic and that different traits evolve at different rates. She places particular emphasis on the fact that sometimes evolution can act very quickly, even in as little as a few generations. Of course the idea of rapid evolution is not new--it was termed "punctuated equilibria" in a 1972 paper by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould.

Even as an avid reader of evolutionary science books, I was treated to several new examples of rapid evolution at work such as:

-The alternating increase and decrease of beak size in the same population of finches due to changes in weather and food availability
-Changes in breeding age and size of guppies due to placing them in environments with different levels of predation (an example of "experimental evolution")
-Decreases in fish size and breeding age as a result of human fishers continually removing the larger fish.

Of course the question we all really want the answer to is not just could rapid evolution happen in humans, but has it happened?

The answer is yes, and Zuk gives many examples including:

-Blue eyes were only thought to have arisen 6,000 - 10,000 years ago
-Rapid selection of the CCR5-D gene variant that makes some people immune to HIV
-Lactase persistence (production past the age of weening of the lactase enzyme that digests lactose in milk) is only dated back to about 7,500 years

Perhaps even more fascinating is that she describes ways that different populations of humans have independently evolved the same adaptation in different ways! The ability to digest milk into adulthood, for instance, arose as lactase persistence in some populations and increases in lactose digesting gut bacteria in others.

For the science of the book, I give it 5 stars. I was thoroughly entertained and learned a lot.


Zuk's points about the fallacy of the magical 10,000 year barrier between us and the environment our genes were supposedly adapted for, the variety of diets different groups would have eaten during the paleolithic, and even the flawed notion of "perfect adaptation itself" are all well taken--and certainly correct.

However, in reducing what is actually being said by people in the paleo community to a monolithic, one-size-fits-all diet, Zuk commits one of the same fallacies that she sets out to debunk.

She references some of the well-known paleo advocates, but, troublingly, the primary source of what paleos are doing seems to be blog comments and internet message boards (long recognized as bastions of "intelligent" discourse...).

Moreover, she rubs many of us the wrong way with her continual characterization of people following the paleo diet as extremists who look down on using modern prescription glasses, donate blood to simulate regular blood loss, and eschew vegetables (in fact, many paleos claim to "eat more vegetables than a vegetarian").

Certainly shenanigans do go on in the paleo community, but at its core the conversation isn't, "was this food eaten 10,000 years ago?" but "is this food nutritious and does my body respond well to eating it?" The arguments for what exactly makes this so for a particular food are more nuanced than whether or not Grok ate it.

Lactase persistence, for example, is already well known in the paleo community. Mark Sisson advocates "n=1" individual testing in acknowledgment of the fact that we aren't all adapted equally to the same foods. The pre/post-agricultural era consumption of a food is only one clue to whether your body will respond well to eating it--not the final word.

Although Loren Cordain's formulation of the diet was rather strict in regards to dairy and grain consumption, ideas in the paleo community have, well... evolved since then.

Citing evolution of lactase persistence and increased amylase production--while very interesting and correct in their own right--as enough proof to categorically relegate the paleo diet to paleofantasy simply won't do. I would also like to have seen a nod to any research on gluten digestion--arguably the bigger concern with grains in the paleo diet.

As for paleo exercise, Zuk's conclusion that we are born to run based on adaptations like shorter heel bones and taughter tendons than our evolutionary cousins is convincing. However, one is baffled by citing these adaptations, persistence hunting, and the Endurance Running hypothesis as evidence that rejection of "chronic cardio" is against the science.

The average speed this book cites in a persistence hunt is 4 mph. Those are 15 minute miles, which is the speed of a brisk power walk at best. Allowing for tracking the more likely scenario is light jogs interspersed with walking and stops to examine clues to where the animal has gone. This bears no resemblance whatsoever to the modern activity of hours of continuous running at 2-3 times that speed--which is the type of "chronic cardio" activity that Mark Sisson and others are really speaking out against. Arguments against this type of chronic cardio include oxidative damage, increased cortisol (stress hormone), and drops in testosterone--not just that Grok didn't do it.

As for what the science actually tells us about diet, the conclusion I would reach is that on average we are still "better" though not "perfectly" (since we never were to begin with) suited to pre-agricultural era foods than post-agricultural era foods, with some of us faring better or worse than others with the newer foods. For example, the figure from this book only puts lactase persistence at 35% worldwide, with 80% the highest figure quoted for a population. This means that even in populations extremely well adapted (comparatively) to milk, it will cause digestive issues in 1 in 5 people. Compare that to a food like beef or blueberries where digestive issues are extremely rare.

I give this book 2 stars for its coverage of the paleo diet.


Marlene Zuk takes us on a tour of recent findings in evolutionary science touching every corner of our lives from diet to exercise, love, and family life. Fans of evolutionary science will no doubt find Paleofantasy a page turner. For this reason alone the book is worth reading.

However, members of the paleo community will likely be disappointed if not offended by Paleofantasy. Zuk seems to go out of her way to highlight fringe extremists of paleo, while missing the nuance of what is really happening in the community. Which is unfortunate, because this book positions itself as antagonistic to the very target market it should have been written for. Though if you have sufficiently thick skin, you should still read it anyway.

Overall I give this book 5 stars for the science, 2 stars for coverage of the paleo diet, and an overall rating of 3.5 stars. Since Amazon doesn't allow half stars I've opted to round down to 3.

[Full disclosure: I consider myself a member of the paleo community, though I have also publicly blogged about things paleos believe that aren't quite right (do a web search for "7 Paleo Fantasies" if you're so inclined).]
160 of 185 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fun, easy read on evolution & humans. Crappy reviews from disgruntled "paleo lifestyle" adherents? 9 May 2013
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
I feel compelled to write a review because this book is an interesting, fun popular science exploration of recent human evolution, and is NOT deserving of the three-star aggregate review shown above. That sort of aggregate would typically be reserved for books with the sort of editorial issues that render a book unreadable. The sort of vitriol spewed in the many one-star reviews is often awarded to books with overt racism or other or blatantly offensive themes. Instead, the author dared to to use a common term in it's proper scientific context, a term many of these one-star reviewers apparently believe they, and they alone, have ownership of. This review will therefore cover first the book itself, and then, if you are interested, a little "review of reviews".

Zuk's writing style is similar to that of Mary Roach (another author known for bringing science to the public) - breezy, accessible, funny (sometimes corny), and full of illustrative case studies. The difference is that Zuk is a scientist herself, and so she is able to use examples from her own work and feels comfortable challenging other scientists head-on, which is kind of fun. As a professor, she writes carefully, avoiding making beginner mistakes such as interchanging correlation and causality or the trap of mistaking evolution for progress. She does sometimes reference common misconceptions about evolution as portrayed in mainstream media, but usually that's just a quick jumping off point for in-depth explorations of why the speed of evolution varies, or what exactly genetics can't tell us about evolution. It was a fun book, and I learned some new stuff.

Now, as to the early reviews...

Based on the low reviews, I expected a lot of deliberate baiting of the "paleo community" in this book, but that wasn't what I found. I therefore have to assume that several of the one-star reviewers just didn't read the book ("Paleo is changing lives!!!"), while others were disappointed that it wasn't written for, or at least at, them. The problem is, paleo, paleolithic, and other variants are recognized scientific terms, not the exclusive property of adherents to the "lifestyle". Zuk does focus on mainstream media perceptions of the "paleofantasy" and the work of other scientists rather than engaging directly with strict paleo adherents. I judge that to be appropriate, as engaging with adherents of a small fringe movement could deligitimize the scientific core of the book. It would also miss the wider audience for whom that those derided Glamour and New York Times articles are written.

The book may not change the minds of any paleo die-hards, but it could save the rest of us large amounts of money and time in our misguided attempt to get healthier by living like our ancestors. Meanwhile, Zuk's recommendation to get off the couch is free.
93 of 106 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Review of Evolutionary Biology with One Not-So-Minor Problem... 7 April 2013
By Peter B - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Writing a review of this book almost requires writing three separate reviews.

The bulk of the book is a research wrap-up of various evolutionary biology and paleontology topics, such as the development of lactose tolerance. This is the part of book that shines and while there might not be that much new for the folks that read a half dozen paleontology journals a month, most laypeople interested in these topics should really enjoy this part of the book. Personally I found the author's writing style in these parts of the book to be similar to Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers (an excellent book by Richard Sapolsky, an author I highly recommend): a lot of research presented in a condensed but very readable format, enjoyable with a gentle sense of humor, and presenting a balanced view of the evidence. I'll leave it up to others to quibble with the specific science, but for this portion alone I would recommend the book.

The author supplements the above discussion by giving her personal opinions on the above topics. Here I am somewhat less enthusiastic but I would still give the author the thumbs up in general. Her message here seems to be to "slow your roll" when it comes to interpreting paleontological evidence, and most of her takedowns of certain myths and poor reasoning are in my opinion appropriate (who actually holds these opinions is another matter). The paleo community at large is a pretty vast, heterogenous place so depending on where you look these fallacies will show up more or less often. The most common one I see is the notion that we have a solid understanding of how Paleolithic man lived; it would be nice if cavemen had left us their FitDay journals but we are more often stuck with a few piles of bones and rat middens. You also can find plenty of bad logic out there, such as the reasoning that because people got shorter and sicker after agriculture that grain consumption was necessarily the culprit (I would agree with that in part although I find the disease theory stronger, either way this is a classic correlation versus causation problem not really an issue with paleo reasoning per se). Some of her conclusions I did find to be a bit of a stretch, for example that lactose tolerance developed in a portion of humanity somehow makes concerns about milk consumption complete nonsense. While it weakens it a bit by showing that humans can and are evolving to adapt to a post-agricultural diet, the fact that most people do not demonstrate lactose persistence as well as concerns with proteins and hormones in milk make that argument sound rather overdone. And while I think I get her point, I don't really agree that the Paleolithic period is not a better reference than earlier eras.

Then... there is the rest of the book. These are the portions of the book that are causing most of the paleo folks to lose their minds. For some reason, the author deemed it necessary to spend time selectively quoting online forums and then follows that up with an almost willful misinterpretation of a lot of writing by thought leaders in the paleo community (her comments on Mark Sisson and chronic cardio are probably the worst but there are plenty of stinkers here). I found it all very strange. It was like her editor thought her first draft wasn't controversial enough so they hired some intern to spend an afternoon trolling paleo websites to find ridiculous quotes for her book and then insert the word paleofantasy every couple of pages. Even that word sounds out of place when compared to the rest of the book, where you almost might mistake her for someone attending the Ancestral Health Symposium - heck at times she basically advocates a cautious paleo reasoning. She also gets her information about the paleo community from some pretty unorthodox sources: her first quotes are from Glamour magazine and the New York Times, apparently bastions of paleo thought I was not aware of. While if you look hard enough you are going to find some of the nonsense she is railing against, like a lot of people have said the more serious discussions going on are addressing the concerns she has and have been doing so for years. It's all very frustrating and doesn't even make sense as a marketing ploy. I don't know how many times I read "I was going to read this book but then I read the reviews..." in the last couple of days. I have to think that the I-hate-the-paleo-diet-so-much-I-am-going-to-read-a-300-plus-page-book-that-rips-on-it market is pretty niche, maybe I'm wrong.

Anyway if you can hold your nose through the more noxious parts of the book (which are fortunately relatively brief) I would still recommend the book. No one is taking away your grass-fed beef jerky. You won't have to cancel your WOD or uninstall f.lux from your computer. If the unfortunate parts of the book piss you off enough that you don't want to give the author your money, that's fine too. Either way I wouldn't waste your time being mad about it, I don't think that's what Grok what do.
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Informative and entertaining 5 May 2013
By Jo - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The author gives a very reasoned response to the desires some people have to go back to a better time before nasty things like bread and dairy entered our diet. She explains how most of us have evolved to be able to digest these foods without doing nasty things to ourselves. She doesn't criticise those who wish to eat like our ancient ancestors - just points out the inaccuracies endemic to a lot of these believes.

What I found most interesting was her statement that there was no "perfect time" when humans where completely at one with their environments. That there was no one palaeolithic environment at all but many. Humans just adapt and get on with things in spite of the imperfections within themselves and their world

She writes about lot of other issues of evolution as well - the hows and the whys of sexual characteristics and immune responses, for instance.

Well worth the read.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Evolution stops for No Man or Woman 16 July 2013
By The Red Queen - Published on Amazon.com
Yes I have read something other than snippets from blogs about "Paleo" diets such as "The Perfect Health Diet" book. So I find Zuk's book (a phrase that is quite entertaining to say out loud :-) an excellent pragmatic counter-balance to prescriptive "Eating by the Rules" which are supposedly dictated by our genetic inheritance.

If you enjoyed "Your Inner Fish", you will likely groove on this book as much as I did. Enjoy! I heartily recommend for examples of evolution linked with concepts such as "drift" "sweeps" "bottle necks" as well as the more familiar "natural selection" contextualized.

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