13

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How would you refute the arguments of 'Paleofantasy' by Marlene Zuk?

Answered on September 12, 2014
Created March 11, 2013 at 5:31 AM

For a taste of Zuk's arguments:

http://www.salon.com/2013/03/10/paleofantasy_stone_age_delusions/

My thoughts: It seems like Zuk is attacking a straw man here. Thinking about our diets from an evolutionary perspective gives us a framework in which to form educated hypotheses. The way an intelligent person applies paleo-based thinking is by forming theories, not by creating an absolutist belief system. Zuk does nothing to invalidate the application data we have about the past in a logical fashion.

If Zuk's point is that some people are applying evolutionary concepts blindly without verifying results or considering evidence, then her book title should have been: "Some People Are Stupid" and left it at that. If she wants to launch a counter to the paleo movement then I think she's fallen flat on her face.

--

I've got a copy of this book on the way, but would definitely like to hear others opinions as well. Please indicate if you've read the book.

68655ec9711d207d69a63ebf96b37573

on March 13, 2013
at 08:27 PM

? Plant eaters have long intestinal tracts, meat eaters have short ones. Look at the cow - herbivore - 4 stomachs. Gorillas have longer intestines than humans, spend a lot of the day eating plants, and can synthesise some essential amino acids that we can't. A shortened intestinal tract describes an evolutionary shirt TOWARDS eating a more carnivorous diet, as meat is high in energy and does't require so much intestines to be digested. More room, then, metabolically, for the brain

32f5749fa6cf7adbeb0b0b031ba82b46

(41757)

on March 12, 2013
at 03:15 AM

Seems to be a lot of us chemists around here.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on March 12, 2013
at 02:21 AM

I'm a similar statistical aberration for 6 years now. If I persist I probably add 5 years to my lifespan. Most dieters look at the side benefits of fitting into jeans or getting cut instead of the main benefit.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on March 11, 2013
at 11:44 PM

The fact is, you're emulating an ancestral way of eating and you're seeing health benefits by doing so. You could call it paleo, or maybe you could call it historical, but claiming evolution is probable overreaching on Cordain's part. And he got caught in a position that's tough to defend.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on March 11, 2013
at 07:24 PM

But a shortened intestinal tract describes an evolutionary shift away from eating a carnivore's diet. Where do you draw the line?

Medium avatar

(10611)

on March 11, 2013
at 07:20 PM

I'm a chemist Matt. What I cite is from reading Origin of the Species and Evolutionary Biology. Darwin's name lives on as the selection coefficient, which describes breeding to trait. That's how we got fast greyhounds. They're all just dogs for sure, but some dogs are faster than others because they were bred to trait. That's what it appears to me Darwin meant by evolution in the first place.

32f5749fa6cf7adbeb0b0b031ba82b46

(41757)

on March 11, 2013
at 06:53 PM

That poor strawman is getting beat up, first Zuk, now you...

32f5749fa6cf7adbeb0b0b031ba82b46

(41757)

on March 11, 2013
at 06:46 PM

I am not a trained biologist, but it hardly seems legit to call the spread of a trait that was originally present in a population as evolution. It's a smidge of evolution at best, more appropriately a change in phenotype.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on March 11, 2013
at 04:57 PM

It's unfortunate that Cordain made evolution central to his argument. Ancestral behavior may or may not have anything to do with evolution.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on March 11, 2013
at 04:51 PM

Cordain and Taubes are the image paleo has. She's responding to their dogmatism.

Medium avatar

(39831)

on March 11, 2013
at 04:47 PM

It's pretty easy to understand: Selling books that attack marginal populations makes $$$

Medium avatar

(10611)

on March 11, 2013
at 04:09 PM

Selection pressure IS evolution. Dobzhansky and Darwin, whether studying fruit flies or racing dogs, are not looking for shifts in traits over more than 10-20 generations. Zak is no different. From the standpoint of classical evolutionary biology Cordain is wrong.

96440612cf0fcf366bf5ad8f776fca84

(19413)

on March 11, 2013
at 02:31 PM

Probably a paid shill for the cereal industry As we always say here, "it's not a historical re-enactment."

A08b210e4da7e69cd792bddc1f4aae4b

(1031)

on March 11, 2013
at 05:56 AM

+10 for "The way an intelligent person applies paleo-based thinking is by forming theories, not by creating an absolutist belief system". I really don't understand why there are people so hell bent on 'disproving' Paleo that they would expend the considerable effort writing a whole book in the attempt to debunk it -- have they really got anything to fear about what I choose to eat?

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14 Answers

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7
9a5e2da94ad63ea3186dfa494e16a8d1

on March 11, 2013
at 12:16 PM

I haven't read the book, but it sounds like Zuk is just suggesting that evolution can happen in a few thousand years. There are some documented cases of this in humans, basically any evolution that has happened in a way that humans can record has happened in a few thousand years.

I am not sure that this disproves the Paleo "schtick" though. It seems like common sense to me that if humans evolved over ~250,000 years but only adopted certain diets and behaviors over the past 10,000 years, that they have not had a chance to adapt as well to the latter. Which doesn't mean that each and every human hasn't evolved, but that some have and some haven't.

Everyone probably knows someone who can drink milk without any kind of problem, and also someone that has a severe adverse reaction to it. This shows the spectrum of adaption to consuming lactose. The same is probably true of wheat, though this has come to light relatively recently.

Taking the same thought further, there is very little chance that humans have adapted to foods and behaviors that have been introduced within the past 100 years, such as Crisco, Twinkies, sitting at a desk all day in front of a computer screen, sitting in cars for 1-3 hours per day, etc. It seems like common sense that these things aren't good for us either from an evolutionary perspective.

8
7e1433afbb06c318c4d90860d493c49d

(5959)

on March 11, 2013
at 01:34 PM

No amount of debunking is going to change the fact that the paleo diet has been absolutely life-changing for me. For the better part of two decades, I had bought into all the Ayurvedic/new-age dogmas about the idealness of grains and beans as the basis of a healthy diet, when starchy foods are the absolute worst dietary staples for my particular physiology. For all I know, the effectiveness of the paleo diet for me has nothing at all to do with evolutionary biology; maybe it's just a broad spectrum elimination diet that coincidentally happened to perfectly eliminate the foods I need to avoid. Evolutionary biology or not, for me it works, and that's all that matters.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on March 11, 2013
at 04:57 PM

It's unfortunate that Cordain made evolution central to his argument. Ancestral behavior may or may not have anything to do with evolution.

7
32f5749fa6cf7adbeb0b0b031ba82b46

(41757)

on March 11, 2013
at 10:54 AM

I haven't read the book, but based on the review you posted, Zuk wants to contend that evolution can occur quickly and the article gives three examples from Zuk: transplanted crickets who stopped chirping, lactase persistence, and blue eyes. Doesn't take a genius to try to explain all three. All three traits (quiet crickets, lactase persistence and blue eyes) existed in the wider population as a small minority fraction. Upon some selection pressure (predation, dairy farming, and aesthetic pressure), the minority fraction grows or becomes dominant.

That said, there is widespread adaptation to grain-based diets, paleo folks need to acknowledge that.

32f5749fa6cf7adbeb0b0b031ba82b46

(41757)

on March 11, 2013
at 06:46 PM

I am not a trained biologist, but it hardly seems legit to call the spread of a trait that was originally present in a population as evolution. It's a smidge of evolution at best, more appropriately a change in phenotype.

32f5749fa6cf7adbeb0b0b031ba82b46

(41757)

on March 12, 2013
at 03:15 AM

Seems to be a lot of us chemists around here.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on March 11, 2013
at 07:20 PM

I'm a chemist Matt. What I cite is from reading Origin of the Species and Evolutionary Biology. Darwin's name lives on as the selection coefficient, which describes breeding to trait. That's how we got fast greyhounds. They're all just dogs for sure, but some dogs are faster than others because they were bred to trait. That's what it appears to me Darwin meant by evolution in the first place.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on March 11, 2013
at 04:09 PM

Selection pressure IS evolution. Dobzhansky and Darwin, whether studying fruit flies or racing dogs, are not looking for shifts in traits over more than 10-20 generations. Zak is no different. From the standpoint of classical evolutionary biology Cordain is wrong.

5
Medium avatar

(10611)

on March 11, 2013
at 04:41 PM

Zuk is entitled to whatever she can earn from her book, but I expect a fairly limited audience. Who would care other than smirking vegans and angry paleos?

The benefits of paleo are not judged by evolutionary criteria, nor as reenactment either. It's an emulation, the best we can do in a modern age. Maybe it is quixotic. However the paleo ideal of ancestral lifestyle has benefitted many of us in measurable ways. Lower blood sugar, TG's,blood pressure, etc, etc. are not paleo fantasies.

4
04b157684e2dcfa867ff15db95145652

(325)

on March 11, 2013
at 08:45 PM

I haven't yet read the book, but did read a few posts about it. For me, it's a whole lot of "meh" and I moved on. I know that paleo/primal does have that fantastical "Grok/Caveman" image associated with it and that's what she is (seeming) to poke her stick at. And sure, they may or may not be evidence about anti-nutrients and not being ideal adapted to eating certain foods...

But I didn't change the way I eat and adopt a paleo/primal lifestyle because evolutionary biology says "This is the way we have evolved to eat." I changed my lifestyle because my old lifestyle was killing me. Cutting out certain foods makes sense to me on a nutrition/calorie level: grains and legumes are simply really high calorie and don't give me as much bang for my buck (or my calorie intake) as eating protein, non-starchy veggies and healthy fats.

The way I explained it to a friend of mine who is solidly in the "The science behind paleo's aversion to grains sounds stupid and crazy" camp is this: by cutting out the grains, I get to eat so MUCH MORE meat, fish, eggs, veggies and other foods that honestly taste better and are more filling (and FULfilling) than rice, bread, pasta, chips, or other snack foods.

So, some lady says we can evolve faster than 10k years. Great. That's fabulous for her and her studies and evidence. It doesn't change anything about MY reasons for making these changes.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on March 11, 2013
at 11:44 PM

The fact is, you're emulating an ancestral way of eating and you're seeing health benefits by doing so. You could call it paleo, or maybe you could call it historical, but claiming evolution is probable overreaching on Cordain's part. And he got caught in a position that's tough to defend.

4
96440612cf0fcf366bf5ad8f776fca84

(19413)

on March 11, 2013
at 02:50 PM

It's very simple. If the author were correct, everyone would have adapted to eating grains by now and the word "Celiac" would not exist, nor would anyone suffer from it, myself included.

No matter how skeptical, she cannot refute that one minor fly in her ointment.

Paleo was never a historical re-enactment, and while I thoroughly enjoyed watching "I, Caveman" - I'm not about to go live in the wilderness and hunt game with an atlatl.

It might be cool to learn to make stone hand axes and all that, but I'm not going to make it a priority. Much easier to go on the web to say northstarbison.com and order a dozen pounds or so of tasty food.

3
7bf306ada57db47547e9da39a415edf6

(11214)

on March 11, 2013
at 08:48 PM

I wait for the commentary to show up in my feed reader: The Fantasy of Paleofantasy

Besides, I've managed to do what is a known statistical impossibility- lose weight (113lbs) and keep it off for two (three & counting) years.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on March 12, 2013
at 02:21 AM

I'm a similar statistical aberration for 6 years now. If I persist I probably add 5 years to my lifespan. Most dieters look at the side benefits of fitting into jeans or getting cut instead of the main benefit.

3
68655ec9711d207d69a63ebf96b37573

on March 11, 2013
at 11:38 AM

For the "quick evolution" examples she gives - lactase persistence requires only a change in a single gene (keeping the galactosidase enzyme switched on), which is pretty easy, evolutionary speaking. Blue eyes, similarly, involves a minimal number of gene changes. Evolving from a meat (ie. protein and fat) based diet to a carb based diet requires changes in the entire physiology!

This writer clearly knows very little about the evolutionary process. I'm amazed this even got published, or perhaps not given how much bad science gets bandied all over the media

However there are some adaptations to a neolithic diet - for example, increase in salivary amylase. Populations who have been exposed to the modern diet for shorter time spans (e.g. Australian Aborigines) suffer notably more from the effects of modern diets (heart disease, diabetes, obesity etc)

Medium avatar

(10611)

on March 11, 2013
at 07:24 PM

But a shortened intestinal tract describes an evolutionary shift away from eating a carnivore's diet. Where do you draw the line?

68655ec9711d207d69a63ebf96b37573

on March 13, 2013
at 08:27 PM

? Plant eaters have long intestinal tracts, meat eaters have short ones. Look at the cow - herbivore - 4 stomachs. Gorillas have longer intestines than humans, spend a lot of the day eating plants, and can synthesise some essential amino acids that we can't. A shortened intestinal tract describes an evolutionary shirt TOWARDS eating a more carnivorous diet, as meat is high in energy and does't require so much intestines to be digested. More room, then, metabolically, for the brain

3
39311794c054f89a226f33e1afd08721

on March 11, 2013
at 05:42 AM

Zuk's holding us to her one and only use of the word "paleo". It wouldn't take much research for her to realize that we've outgrown the term as applied to the paleo diet community and it's more of a brand new homonym for the English language now. We stole the term from her people, she'll have to accept that before she can break out of the straw-manning rut.

Medium avatar

(10611)

on March 11, 2013
at 04:51 PM

Cordain and Taubes are the image paleo has. She's responding to their dogmatism.

2
F5a0ddffcf9ef5beca864050f090a790

(15515)

on March 12, 2013
at 10:27 AM

I am not going to read the book - I don't need to. I wish I could say something more or less scientific to comment on the book, but I don't think it is worth my time and effort. The only words that come to mind are, "Haters are going to hate". I don't like this saying but it's true.

It is very important for me to determine the reason why somebody does something. What was her purpose as she was writing the book? What was her driving force? Was she writing it with an intent of helping other people, or showing them the way to eat healthier, or just to herself heard?

I really admire Charles Darwin. As soon as he published his evolutionary book, he retrieved to his own estate in the country so he did not have to respond to all the accusations and explain how he came to his conclusions. He had been waiting patiently for thirty years before publishing the book. Why? Because he knew - people were not ready.

Are people ready for Paleo? My answer is yes. There are more and more sick people in this world, more kids with ADD and ADHD, more autistic students, more acne-prone teens, more celiac patients. And unless we address the core knowledge - the evolution of our species, homo sapiens, we will never be able to solve those mounting health problems.

All sientists need to do nowadays is to bring the correct, relevant and up-to-date information to masses, like Mark Sisson and like many of Paleohackers, I am sure.

I haven't learned anything from that article. I actually think that what drives both the author of the book and the author of that article is either "I had to write another book/article and I thought this topic would be interesting" OR a need to raise their self-esteem because it is just so easy to do it at the expense of others.

If they could write anything important to rebuff Paleo and use some concrete and valid evidence, they would have done so. Everything they mentioned was already covered by the Paleo community.

I hope that her next book is going to be devoted to some groundbreaking research that benefits humanity as a whole.

2
43f469552cfd3be73fc88a9821b14986

on March 11, 2013
at 08:30 PM

It takes a significant period of time to alter genetic evolution, but epi-genetics, which may be even more significant, in turning on and off our genes can happen in real time.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVECAlT4AXY

2
77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on March 11, 2013
at 07:06 AM

I would bet my life, literally, that she's never tried a month paleo

96440612cf0fcf366bf5ad8f776fca84

(19413)

on March 11, 2013
at 02:31 PM

Probably a paid shill for the cereal industry As we always say here, "it's not a historical re-enactment."

1
52ad7ee5eef0d7339d0977bd7a2ceb8a

on March 14, 2013
at 02:57 PM

i agree with raydawg. no matter what type of analytical arguement (that i have seen) from the evidence she has, you can't deny the existence of gluten-free products, celiac disease, farting from eating a bean burrito and the fear of too many carbs and sugar in one's diet for weightloss.

this stuff is fact; not talking about what grok did. this is just the stuff that works for us.

however, i do also agree with BigBallsStan. i just don't think its likely that we were full on carnivores. (thinking hunter gatherer)

as for the fact of us just including like... a little bit of grains and beans and what not into our diets. i think thats fine because it can be so that most or some of us can digest it well enough. we probably don't give our bodies (and evolution even if minimal) credit enough. we're not going to die, or get cancer, if we eat a tortilla once in a while. (unless you can't take gluten or whatever)

just my thoughts on this whole thing.

1
1d0687585913b77fb1016976a649d005

on March 11, 2013
at 03:07 PM

I agree with her. Like OP said, its a framework to fit hypotheses. But everyone overlays their personal prejudices against certain diets. Many paleo dieters have extremely high meat and protein intake and rarely eat fruits or vegetables. Unfortunately they also need lots of heart, blood pressure, cholestorol, etc medication.

Sure some Paleo people think they are healthy, but unless you are closer to the 80/10/10 diet, you are fooling yourself to think ancient man lived on a diet of steak and chicken.

32f5749fa6cf7adbeb0b0b031ba82b46

(41757)

on March 11, 2013
at 06:53 PM

That poor strawman is getting beat up, first Zuk, now you...

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