The Paleo delusion, and a delusion about that delusion

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Today at lunch I listened to the latest Point of Inquiry podcast, which was an interview of Marlene Zuk about her new book on common delusions about evolution and the paleolithic life style.  These misconceptions usually run along the lines of assuming that since we evolved to be hunter gatherers, that we should live like those hunter gathers did.

Aside from holding misconceptions about how those hunter gatherers actually lived, for example believing that they never ate starches, which Zuk discusses isn’t necessarily true, there’s also the normative leap that we’d be better off, perhaps more virtuous in some way, if we lived like they did.  This also, of course, ignores the stark reality of how short and brutal life was in the stone ages.

Zuk’s book sounds fascinating, and I’m seriously considering reading it.  But Zuk mentioned something that I think establishes a different misconception in many people’s minds.  Her remarks indicate that she doesn’t hold this misconception, but I’ve run into a number of people who do, and many of them might not catch the caveats she used in the discussion.

It involves how much we can know or not know about human nature by examining stone age life.  Zuk talks about the fact that evolution didn’t stop when we took up agriculture some 10,000 years ago, mentioning things like the evolution of adult lactose tolerance, blue eyes, and other developments.  And that’s definitely true.

But too many people mention those developments of the last few thousand years, and then fold their arms as though they’ve established that nothing can be learned about human nature by looking at Paleolithic life.  We’ve evolved since then, the reasoning goes, so nothing about stone age life gives us any insight into human nature.  This ignores one simple fact.  The Paleolithic lasted for 2.6 million years, while the period since then has been about 10,000 years, less than 0.4% of the Paleolithic time span.

So, yes we have definitely continued to evolve after the end of the stone ages (which incidentally haven’t yet ended for all of humanity), but to assume those 10,000 years completely obviate the prior evolution across millions of years isn’t logical.  We are not our stone age ancestors, but we’re fooling ourselves if we think our mental instincts, intuitions, and desires still aren’t substantially the ones forged on the African savanna across all those millenia.

We have to use a lot of caution when making conclusions about humanity from what we learn about both modern and ancient hunter gatherer life, but saying it doesn’t tell us anything about the human condition is as big a misconception as the one Zuk is contesting.

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10 Responses to The Paleo delusion, and a delusion about that delusion

  1. s7hummel says:

    is known that gravity, so obvious, and the most inaccessible to the understanding of human reason! but of course it is not the point to catch a rabbit, but to chase him! but undoubtedly it seems that once we will return to this topic (gravity). and don’t talk about ignorance in the face of such a great mind like yours!

    Like

  2. amanimal says:

    “… we’re fooling ourselves if we think our mental instincts, intuitions, and desires still aren’t substantially the ones forged on the African savanna across all those millenia.”

    Absolutely ‘SAP’, and as Connor Wood at Science on Religion(at Patheos.com) commented in reference to evolutionary psychology earlier today in fact:

    “… unless we take seriously that our brains were created by evolution, we’re not taking evolution seriously.”

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    • Thanks amanimal! I haven’t seen that post from Wood yet. Sounds like something to check out.

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      • amanimal says:

        That quote was actually from the ‘comments’ section rather than a post. He’s doing a series right now on the history of the academic/scientific study of religion if you haven’t checked in lately. This week’s which will be #4 should be up soon.

        Also just discovered some recent activity at:

        http://godknowswhat.wordpress.com/

        Like

      • amanimal says:

        Some weirdness going on trying to post a comment …

        That quote was actually from the ‘comments’ section rather than a post. His blog isn’t featured on the home page anymore, and his most recent post didn’t appear at all.

        Also just discovered some recent activity at:

        http://godknowswhat.wordpress.com/

        Like

      • amanimal says:

        That quote was actually from the ‘comments’ section rather than a post. His blog isn’t featured on the home page anymore, and his most recent post didn’t appear at all. He’s doing a series right now on the history of the academic/scientific study of religion if you haven’t checked in lately. This week’s which will be #4 should be up soon.

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        • amanimal,
          I replied to your email, but just for anyone reading, the spam folder ate those other comments for some reason. I just unspammed them.

          I’ve read a couple of posts in Conner’s series, including the last one. They are indeed interesting. I’m subscribed to his RSS feed, so I’ve seen his stuff. Weird that Patheos stopped featuring it.

          That blog looks interesting. Thanks!

          Like

          • amanimal says:

            Ah, OK … when I registered my protest the reply I got was that they rotate spots on the main page – disappointing though as the only exposure for it is the main list of blogs where it’s one of dozens.

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          • Don’t feel too bad for him. Just being on Patheos gives his blog a tremendous amount of traffic.

            Liked by 1 person

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