The way we weren't: U of Minnesota biologist debunks myth that humans peaked in Paleolithic era

Mar 05, 2013

Have agriculture, technology, diet and lifestyle changes put humans out of touch with the way we evolved? And would we be healthier and happier if we lived, at least to some extent, the way our Paleolithic ancestors did?

The abundance of Paleo diet and lifestyle recommendations suggests the answer is yes. But University of Minnesota Marlene Zuk is skeptical. The Paleo ideal is a myth based on speculation rather than science, she says. As a skilled writer with an engaging sense of humor, she does an informative and entertaining job of debunking this myth in her new book, "Paleofantasy: "What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet and How We Live," to be published by W.W. Norton on March 11.

Paleo proponents claim that humans fully evolved as hunter-gatherers and that the development of agriculture triggered a downward spiral, causing disease and social conflicts. But that, Zuk says, is a paleofantasy without scientific basis.

"There's widespread misunderstanding about how evolution works, particularly how fast it happens," Zuk says. "To think of ourselves as misfits in our own time and of our own making flatly contradicts what science has revealed about the way evolution works; namely, that we can adapt over just a few generations."

Genes continuously appear in and disappear from the . Some remain for millions of years, others for much shorter periods, Zuk says. Evolution is a series of compromises and tradeoffs because genes have more than one function, and interact in complicated ways.

"By focusing on how we were in Paleolithic times, we overlook the ways we've changed since then. in and genetics are helping us understand how change happens, and which parts of the genome change quickly vs. slowly. Understanding that difference in people as well as other organisms is much more interesting to me than trying to hew to a version of how our ancestors might have lived."

Some of the work Zuk and her students have been doing on crickets found in Hawaii shows that a completely new trait, a wing mutation that renders males silent, spread in just five years, fewer than 20 generations.

If we want to learn from evolution, Zuk says, we should study rapid evolution rather than "holding up our flabby selves against a vision – accurate or not – of our well-muscled and harmoniously adapted ancestors" to understand how we have adapted to relatively recent changes in our environment and how we may continue to adapt as our environment changes.

Zuk is a professor of ecology, and behavior in the University of Minnesota's College of Biological Sciences. Her previous books include "Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love and Language from the Insect World" and "Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can't Learn About Sex From Animals." She frequently contributes topical articles about biology to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and other mainstream media.

Explore further: Walking fish reveal how our ancestors evolved onto land

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Same-sex behavior seen in nearly all animals

Jun 16, 2009

Same-sex behavior is a nearly universal phenomenon in the animal kingdom, common across species, from worms to frogs to birds, concludes a new review of existing research.

Recommended for you

Team defines new biodiversity metric

Aug 29, 2014

To understand how the repeated climatic shifts over the last 120,000 years may have influenced today's patterns of genetic diversity, a team of researchers led by City College of New York biologist Dr. Ana ...

Danish museum discovers unique gift from Charles Darwin

Aug 29, 2014

The Natural History Museum of Denmark recently discovered a unique gift from one of the greatest-ever scientists. In 1854, Charles Darwin – father of the theory of evolution – sent a gift to his Danish ...

User comments : 7

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Maggnus
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 05, 2013
From a purely intuitive (and therefore non-scientific viewpoint; take a hint Zephyr) this makes sense to me. Any vestiges of our hunter/gatherer ancestors would likely be suppressed given the much higher chance of survival populations using farming would have enjoyed.

Likely wouldn't take too long for it to go the other way, if we ever had to.
Lurker2358
1.4 / 5 (8) Mar 05, 2013
Invention, knowledge, and technology are not "evolutions". Humans have not changed fundamentally throughout recorded history.

"Discovery" is what has influenced human existence for all known records since the oldest cities and monuments were made up until now; not genetic mutation.

Discovering fire doesn't change genetics. It just changes the tools available to our brains. Same thing can be said for metallurgy and domestication of animals.

We are not genetically different from people 3 to 10 generations ago, and yet we have cumulative technology (discovery) which would be shocking to them. This has nothing to do with evolution. It's the same brain solving the same problems with different tools, nto as a matter of necessity or biochemical changes, but due to multi-generational cumulative knowledge and technology.
Modernmystic
4.3 / 5 (6) Mar 05, 2013
It all hinges on how quickly evolution, and specifically evolution of traits that change social behavior can change.

If, like the crickets, its "rapid" then I'd have to lean towards the bent of the article. If its not then obviously our biology needs to catch up to our social development much as our social development needs to catch up to our technological development. All three of them do seem to be out of sync. and have been getting more and more rapidly out of sync. especially the last two respectively over the last 100 odd years.
Maggnus
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 05, 2013
@Lurker - Perhaps. I see a chicken and egg problem in your proposition though.

Discovering fire does not change genetics, but overcoming an innate fear of fire might. That is to say, those who avoided fire perished before passing on their genes whereas those who embraced its use had kids.
cyberCMDR
not rated yet Mar 05, 2013
Crickets can't learn and pass on adaptive techniques that can mitigate evolutionary pressures. Not really a valid measure (20 generations), unless there was no way for humans to mitigate the selection pressures of the time.
Squirrel
1 / 5 (7) Mar 06, 2013
Return to scientific racism--if evolution of the key traits that make us human stopped in the Middle Paleolithic then every human has the same basic humanity. The racial differences between us are no more than different colored versions of the pc. But if evolution continued then race evolution occurred to different traits and Hitler and his ilk might be right. Zuk studies crickets not humans-- the books claims have such toxic implications that evidence must be very strong--if not Zuk will bare the responsibility of setting off again evils as happened in the early part of the twentieth century on the basis of "science" that turns out to be anything but science.
xeb
1 / 5 (3) Mar 06, 2013
Always a merit in books with extravagant, exotic etc. and broad theses - if enough competent.
Trait appearance, selection, stability is important even in case of just 200k y of human evol. However it woud be very misleading to overestimate this dimension of factors.
Clearly and short: environmental elements that function within passage of procedural schemes for handling, maintaining etc. ("inventions") quickly form a distinct level of regular phenomena. Tools, narrow cooperational procedures (e.g. coordinated setling/moving), wide coop.proc. (e.g. group decision-making rules, "social structure") etc. easily move in intra-/extra-group phase space(e.g. conflict domination, first empires) and constrain (top-down causation without emergence(self-ECO-organization)) individual cognition/behavior. Humans did open resources reservoirs and it allowed e.g. religions living "on them" to spread no matter the genes. And today technology demands direct engineering of it's carriers (eg augmn realt)