In her book Paleofantasy, Marlene Zuk addresses multiple assumptions and misconceptions that people have regarding their Paleolithic ancestors. She addresses multiple aspects including sex, their ability to consume different kinds of food and how they lived as well. She essentially discusses evolution in terms of how fast it works, especially in the case of humans. The author provides information on many concepts of evolution, citing studies to explain different points. This paper provides a detailed review of the book.
The book tackles common paleofantasies, including diet, reproduction, exercise, and love. The author uses the book as a starting point to start a different discussion regarding human evolution. some of the concepts explained in the book include gene flow, genetic drift, and natural selection. Through the entire book, Zuk critiques ideas that humans adapted well to a Paleolithic environment or that any rapid environmental changes would indicate a mismatch between our genes and the environment. She points out that there was never a time when humans complete adapted to their environment because evolution does not result in stasis (Zuk, 234). She compares a human adaptation to a broken zipper that works in some places and fails in others (Zuk, 8).
The author focuses on the last 10 thousand years, analyzing some of the latest work on human evolution. One hypothesis here is that most modern populations have greater chances of improved mutations. She critiques multiple paleo-lifestyle arguments, concluding by addressing claims of possible slowing human evolution. I agree and disagree with different parts of the book. The author is right in her analysis that the majority of young people with long-agricultural ancestry have a good adoption to extensive consumption of foods like rice and wheat (Rose, and Rutledge, 15). This could be due to the fact that natural selection is most powerful during the younger years, giving the individual sufficient time to adapt to certain kinds of foods. The author, however, fails to point out that the effects of natural forces of selection fade out during adult age. A long sustained selection probably builds an extensive adaption to nutrition and activity deep in the life history of the individual. Primates are most likely to have this kind of adaptation to a new source of food.
The author mentions that humans did not adapt fast enough to cope with modern life, which to some extent is true because our bodies are often ill-suited for modern activities like sitting at a computer all day (Zuk, 125). Although humans have to constantly face new environments, they have to do so shackled by genes from their ancestors. I agree that we live in an unquestionably different environment as compared to ancient humans. Aspects of disease, population size, density, lifespan, and many others show significant differences in how the two groups lived their lives (Zuk, 125). However, it would be untrue to state that we are completely not adapted to living the modern life. After all, there was never a time when humans were completely adapted to their environment.
Zuk initially shows some skepticism of the mismatch perspective because all species, including humans, adapted to their past environments and not the currents ones (Deaner, Robert, and Benjamin, 263). This aspect would indicate that no current populations or species are more mismatched in terms of adaptation than others. I think this is a false claim because different species could be mismatched at different levels. Even similar species in different geographical locations have different levels of adaptation to similar conditions.
The third chapter of the book shows the authors devotion to describing rapid adaptations highlighting her empirical critique of the mismatch perspective. Other chapters of the book explain how humans rapidly adapted to processing lactose, responding to various pathogens and living in high altitudes (Deaner, Robert, and Benjamin, 265). The chapters provide the notion that species can evolve rapidly, meaning that in case of any mismatch, they get over it after a while. It is, however, important to note that highlighting instances of rapid evolution without taking into account different cases of persistent mismatch is misleading. A good example is the case of flightless birds whose adaptations to different challenges and threats is still remarkably ineffective (Deaner, Robert, and Benjamin, 264). Humans also have various mismatched traits despite years of adaptation. A good example is the high rates of stroke and hypertension in Japan despite years of enjoying traditionally salty foods. I think the book is a reaction to the high levels of technology we live through. Many people struggle with something as simple as what to eat or how to move regularly. These struggles make the idea of returning to nature and our animalistic nature appealing.
The book is overall delightful, with consistent witty and engaging writing. The author uses multiple metaphors and analogies to explain different concepts of evolution and correct different misconceptions regarding evolution. Most importantly, Zuk illustrates that we still do not know enough and that we have a long way to go in fuguring out the best way to move our bodies, eat, and even be with each other.
Deaner, Robert O., and Benjamin M. Winegard. “Book Review: Throwing Out the Mismatch Baby with the Paleo-Bathwater.” Evolutionary Psychology, Jan. 2013, doi:10.1177/147470491301100123.
Rose, Michael, and Rutledge, Grant. Marlene Zuk’s Paleofantasy. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology: University of California, 2013. http://sites.uci.edu/grantrutledge/files/2016/03/Review-of-paleofantasy.pdf
Zuk, Marlene. Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet and How We Live. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. Print.