Thursday, April 18, 2013

We Are Not Cavepeople.

Longtime readers of this blog may remember my love affair with the book The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond.

As part of my lifelong quest to study every aspect of my favorite subject (myself), I turned to Diamond after a year of Thursdays with Breakaway.  I was primarily interested in what he had to say regarding the biological basis (triggers) for attraction, and he was quite helpful in that respect.

[I remember my senior year of college, while walking with my friend Megan, I confessed a crush and she veered off the sidewalk to melodramatically dry heave in response.  This would be neither the first nor the last time that someone responded to a choice of mine in such a manner, but after reading The Third Chimpanzee, I was reassuringly equipped with the defense that such things really were out of my logical control.]

Those were the days. [1]
As I discussed at the time, my (since curbed) tendency to try to kill the males in my life through alcohol poisoning had a surprisingly reasonable explanation.  In fact, most of my behavior had a reasonable explanation.  Evolutionary theory provided a tidy backdrop for psychoanalyzing myself.

What was a little murkier, though, was how I was supposed to use my primal instincts to navigate the modern world.  Things are so complicated these days! I remember thinking.  Surely it wasn't this difficult for cavemen!

There has been an onslaught of nostalgia recently – which I have enthusiastically followed – for The Days Before Modernity.  What was life like for all those billions of humans who came before us? Surely in these contemporary, plugged-in, plastic-and-concrete days, we’re out of sync with the natural order of things. Right?

It’s not just me trying to rationalize my social circle.  It’s the barefoot running movement, advocating a more “natural” way of running.  It’s the Paleo diet fad, pushing the foods we “evolved to eat.” Perhaps most controversially, it’s the recent flurry of arguments against monogamy, because we’re “supposed” to mate with multiple partners throughout life.

Because of this, I was extremely interested to read Marlene Zuk’s Paleofantasy, which claimed to be a rebuttal of all these recent arguments for returning to our caveman roots.  Despite my fascination with it, admittedly this movement was long overdue for a dissenting voice.

Unfortunately, Paleofantasy wasn’t quite the denial that I anticipated it being.  A sizable portion of the book was dedicated to summarizing books and articles I’d already read, and as for pointing out more extreme examples of people subscribing to ridiculous theories, Zuk almost uniformly chose to quote anonymous commenters on message boards and websites.  (Why text space was wasted on non-experts spouting off online, I have no idea.)  She also steered clear of drawing too many conclusions.  In the chapter on exercise, for instance, she talked at length about the book Born to Run, seemingly acknowledging Christopher McDougall was probably correct in what he wrote, but then backing off in the last few paragraphs of the chapter to assert that none of us can say there’s any one right way to exercise.  (Pick a side, woman.)
Inaccurate, but iconic. [2]

And yet the waffling was perhaps the entire point of the book, and in a lot ways, it’s actually a pretty good one.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing to look to our ancestors for ways to live. But in doing so, it’s important to remember that you are not a caveman.

As Zuk so aptly pointed out, there were no “good old days” when man lived in perfect harmony with nature.  It's impossible, then, to replicate something that never existed.  And even the things that did exist can't necessarily be recreated.  Like the Paleo diet - the food today just isn't the same, can't be the same.  Neither is your gut or the bacteria that live in it (meaning that even if it were possible to eat an authentic caveman meal, it quite literally wouldn't go down well). 

Also, environment and culture play huge roles in personal development.  If there were one right way to run a society, then every society on earth would be the same, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.  There is evidence both for and against the biological advantageousness of monogamy, for example, which means that taking a firm stance one way or the other is something shaped by what works within the context of one’s own life and times.  There is no hard scientific evidence that “reveals” universal standards.  Nor can the "slowness" of evolution be used as an excuse.  Evolution can happen at a much faster rate than we give it credit for.  Suggesting we haven’t had “time” since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago to change in any meaningful way is incorrect, as is our anthropocentric tendency to look at evolution as “goal-oriented” (i.e., it makes no sense to say any of us were "meant" to do anything).  

In conclusion, man is a complex animal who has, thus far, only been able to figure parts of himself out.  Because of this, I'm only going to get so far in analyzing my own life based on biological tendencies, and maybe I (and the rest of the pack) should focus more on how I can best utilize my body and mind in the world that I do live in.

Summary:  You’re not a caveman.  You don’t live in prehistory.  Don’t blame your genes for your disinterest in buying padded running shoes (or inability to keep it in your pants). 

Do take care of yourself and live the best life you are able in the time you’re alive.

It may not have been all I was hoping for, but Paleofantasy added some much-needed balance to this debate.  And if there's one thing everyone can agree on, it's that a huge advantage of living a modern life is the luxury of being able to speculate about the past in the first place.

Sources: Picture 1Picture 2.


  1. Hahahaha love the end: don't blame your genes ...

    As I am not a big fan of my own species as you already know, what can I say???

    Annie Sasha

    1. I find some comfort in remembering that I am just another life form on this planet (I occasionally need to be reminded that the world doesn't revolve around me - ha!). But I will say that there are a lot of unlikable people in the world and it definitely makes me question intelligence as the "pinnacle" of evolutionary achievement!!

      (I don't think anyone who reads this blog finds evolutionary biology half as interesting as I do, but I seriously love trying to figure out what makes people behave the way they do!) (Except unfortunately, there isn't always an explanation. :-/)

    2. oh I am a big fan of the evolution as a theory, and trying to figure out how it really works... what system is backing it

      intelligence can't be the pinnacle - OR all animals around us are more intelligent and just know better how to treat the planet and steer clear of us

      well, when we come here the world does revolve around you ;)

      Annie Sasha

    3. Hahaha, I hadn't thought of it that way! :D

      Yeah, there's definitely something to be said for our species using our "intelligence" in such unintelligent ways. Life will certainly continue on this planet long after we're gone, which makes you think twice about what's really "smart" in terms of survival.