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.