Paleo

I’m sure there’s plenty about the Paleo diet to recommend it.  My problem with it is that the rationale seems to be so much psuedo-science.  Thus, I really enjoyed this excerpt from Paleofantasy claiming as much and explaining why:

The paleofantasy is a fantasy in part because it supposes that we humans, or at least our protohuman forebears, were at some point perfectly adapted to our environments. We apply this erroneous idea of evolution producing the ideal mesh between organism and surroundings to other life-forms too, not just to people. We seem to have a vague idea that long long ago, when organisms were emerging from the primordial slime, they were rough-hewn approximations of their eventual shape, like toys hastily carved from wood, or an artist’s first rendition of a portrait, with holes where the eyes and mouth eventually will be. Then, the thinking goes, the animals were subject to the forces of nature. Those in the desert got better at resisting the sun, while those in the cold evolved fur or blubber or the ability to use fire. Once those traits had appeared and spread in the population, we had not a kind of sketch, but a fully realized organism, a fait accompli, with all of the lovely details executed, the anatomical t’s crossed and i’s dotted.

To think of ourselves as misfits in our own time flatly contradicts what we now understand about the way evolution works.But of course that isn’t true. Although we can admire a stick insect that seems to flawlessly imitate a leafy twig in every detail, down to the marks of faux bird droppings on its wings, or a sled dog with legs that can withstand subzero temperatures because of the exquisite heat exchange between its blood vessels, both are full of compromises, jury-rigged like all other organisms. The insect has to resist disease, as well as blend into its background; the dog must run and find food, as well as stay warm. The pigment used to form those dark specks on the insect is also useful in the insect immune system, and using it in one place means it can’t be used in another. For the dog, having long legs for running can make it harder to keep the cold at bay, since more heat is lost from narrow limbs than from wider ones. These often conflicting needs mean automatic trade-offs in every system, so that each may be good enough but is rarely if ever perfect. Neither we nor any other species have ever been a seamless match with the environment. Instead, our adaptation is more like a broken zipper, with some teeth that align and others that gape apart. Except that it looks broken only to our unrealistically perfectionist eyes—eyes that themselves contain oddly looped vessels as a holdover from their past.  [emphasis mine]

Also enjoyed this segment on the matter on Quirks and Quarks. Among other things, they discuss the fact that our cavemen ancestors surely weren’t drinking milk from cattle, but that many human populations evolved this ability quite rapidly.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to Paleo

  1. Deborah Ferry says:

    Good article. Don’t think the creationists will like it though.

  2. itchy says:

    On the whole, it seems like a fairly healthy diet, so not really a problem there. But, yes, it’s a huge ball of pseudo-science, a textbook example of the appeal-to-nature fallacy.

    In addition to the broad arguments above, there’s no empirical reason to emulate the prehistoric diet. Fads like this always lean on the cartoon fantasy of a robust, noble savage, but I’m skeptical that pre-agricultural humans were healthier than we are today, by almost any measure. Proponents of the diet skip blithely from “this is what our ancestors ate” to “so this is what we should eat.”

    (Not to mention that, in most ways, the Paleo diet bears no resemblance to the way in which our ancestors ate.)

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