The paleo diet—loosely understood as eating how we imagine humans ate before the advent of agriculture—is wildly popular. It has tapped into something, although I’m not sure what.
Whatever it is, however, it involves our creeping discontent with technological modernity, our desire to strip life down to its caveman essence (granted, in some ways but not others), and a vague notion that humans are behaving in unacceptably artificial ways.
We are, in other words, out of touch. We need to be more natural. Somehow or other, though, natural, at least for a bearded and barefoot cohort, has come to mean not only riding bikes with no gears and running without shoes, but also eating what you can forage and/or hunt. It has been on more than one occasion that I’ve seen listed on the menu of high-end restaurants the name of the establishment’s “forager.” Portlandia lives.
And so does bad science. A critical assumption driving the paleo craze is that humans have, in their everyday activity, exceeded their evolutionary capacity. We are, it is said, acting in ways that we haven’t evolved to accommodate. Our increasing rates of Celiac disease, for example, are supposedly due to the fact that we “weren’t meant” to eat wheat. Same with lactose intolerance and milk. “We weren’t meant,” in fact, is the defining phrase of this weird little fad. (By the way, I recently asked a gastroenterologist why rates of Celiac’s were on the rise and he said, “They’re not. It’s just a lot easier to test for.”)
This assumption of genetic lag, however, is not borne out by the evidence. Researchers are, as recently summarized by the Chronicle of Higher Education, looking into ancient DNA. In so doing, they are “revolutionizing our ideas about the speed at which our evolution has occurred, and this knowledge, in turn, has made us question the idea that we are stuck with ancient genes, and ancient bodies, in a modern environment. We can use this ancient DNA to show that we are not shackled by it.” Humans, in other words, are “meant” to do what we do. Our genes are right behind our actions.
Granted, this research is probably not going to stop dingbats writing in Glamour from declaring that “the way so many of us are living now goes against our nature. Biologically, we modern Homo sapiens are a lot like our cave woman ancestors: We’re animals. Primates, in fact. And we have many primal needs that get ignored. That’s why the prescription for good health may be as simple as asking, What would a cave woman do?”
Were it only so simple. Humans evolve with our environment—that’s what’s natural. Instead of thinking about how we were meant to eat, as if we were frozen in time or detached from the world around us, wouldn’t it make more sense to ask how we want to be? This distinction seems important. It frees us from the anxiety of feeling out of sync with a non-existent golden age of harmonious environmental interaction while challenging us to think how we might use our rapidly evolved frontal lobe to eat in a way that incorporates something the paleo fantasy excludes: compassion.