Book Club

Skepchick Book Club: Paleofantasy

Note: Information about next month’s book is at the bottom of this post.

Welcome back to the Skepchick Book Club! This month we read Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live by Marlene Zuk. The author talks about evolution and the perception of how early humans lived versus the reality, and she does a fantastic job of countering the “paleofantasies” of others with science.

People who support the idea of a paleolithic diet and lifestyle (when it’s convenient for them, that is) make the assumption that humans were, at one point, perfectly adapted to their environment as hunter/gatherers. But the reality is that humans are highly adaptable and, in general, evolution favors behaviors that allow us to survive and bear young. We don’t have to be perfect to have children, and evolution does not have an end goal. It’s not surprising that people will go to great lengths to rationalize what they are eating and how they are living, because in the end we mostly just want to be happy and healthy. But the assumptions that diet adherents make about the paleo lifestyle are just not accurate, as Zuk points out throughout the book.

Even without these compromises from natural selection acting on our current selves, we have trade-offs and “good enough” solutions that linger from our evolutionary history. Humans are built on a vertebrate plan that carries with it oddities that make sense if you are a fish, but not a terrestrial biped. The paleontologist Neil Shubin points out that our inner fish constrains the human body’s performance and health because adaptations that arose in one environment bedevil us in another. Hiccups, hernias, and hemorrhoids are all caused by an imperfect transfer of anatomical technology from our fish ancestors. These problems haven’t disappeared for a number of reasons: just by chance, no genetic variants have been born that lacked the detrimental traits, or, more likely, altering one’s esophagus to prevent hiccups would entail unacceptable changes in another part of the anatomy. If something works well enough for the moment, at least long enough for its bearer to reproduce, that’s enough for evolution.

(Emphasis mine.) On a related note, if you enjoyed this book, you would also enjoy Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin, referenced heavily in the above paragraph.

If you know a few people who are attempting the paleo diet (which is, by the way, the least recommended diet plan ever), you may have noticed that some of the rules seem arbitrary or contradictory. As an example, here is a recipe for “Paleo Avocado Fries” that uses almond flour and baked avocado. Technically, the fries adhere to the paleo diet rules, but did our ancestors really use ground almonds as a crunchy breading? Also, wild avocados look much different than the ones you can buy in the store–they have a bigger nut to flesh ratio (porn reference unintended).

Wild foods make me appreciate agricultural cultivations. (source)

There is a decent summary of the paleo diet rules here, but in short, you can’t drink milk or eat grains but you can eat a ton of meat. People who stay with the paleo diet claim that they are healthier, but we could all be healthier by cutting out processed foods. However, cutting out milk and grains? There is plenty of evidence that early humans who domesticated animals also drank their milk, and evolution favored those who had lactase persistence and were able to digest it (because it is an excellent source of nutrition and hydration). I’m going to make an assumption here that people who practice “being paleo” don’t actually make their own clothes from animal skins, hunt or gather the majority of their own food, or give away their cars.

The book also talks about subjects like:

  • Examples of evolution happening before our eyes, in humans and animals (I really enjoyed this section)
  • Paleo life and exercise (the “barefoot” shoes are mentioned)
  • How monogamy and polygyny fit into evolution
  • Differences in perceived sex roles (spoiler alert: women did not just stay at home and tend to the kinds)

The book doesn’t set out to refute the claims about the paleo lifestyle, but rather to provide some context on the reality of the situation. Not everything with the word “paleo” attached is bullshit. In fact, there is a section about parenting that discusses why we (in the Western world) feel like we need to separate babies and parents at night.

We can trace the history of the Western concern that infants sleep alone back to a complex mixture of Freudian thought, concern about medieval mothers deliberately smothering their children, and other kinds of parental advice. McKenna and his colleagues examined the widespread belief that cosleeping–having an infant either in the same bed as the parent or in a bassinet or other device attached to the parental bed–is linked to SIDS, and found no support for the notion.

The author stresses later that however you parent your children, they will likely turn out just as fine as everyone else.

None of the researchers imply that Western parents are bad parents, that non-Western children live in an idyllic manner we should all emulate (for one thing, there is no single “non-Western society”), or that all babies that cry for longer than a minute are irrevocably scarred for life or have something wrong with them. All of the researchers stress the plasticity of human behavior, and the inevitable variation among infants and their parents that makes general proscriptions for child care risky. But babies do seem to have evolved in an atmosphere of immediate and frequent tending by multiple individuals, which suggests that large deviations from that environment may be hard on modern infants.


By the way, if you haven’t heard of the work of Harry Harlow (“best known for his maternal-separation, dependency needs, and social isolation experiments on rhesus monkeys”), look him up. If you have heard the sad story of the wire-mother versus the towel-mother, you will know what I’m talking about.

My only complaint about this book is that the author uses internet comments as example of what paleo adherents believe. They may be representative of some people, but we all know it’s not too hard to find people who are wrong on the internet. Responding to internet comments gave the book a more vindictive better-than-them vibe which was completely unnecessary (even though I’m sure the author did not intend it to be like that).

Jesus is cool with your lifestyle choices. (source)
Jesus is cool with your lifestyle choices. (source)

I’m going to end this book summary by saying that ultimately, people may live their lives however they choose to and it doesn’t bother me one bit. You want to pretend you’re a modern-day caveperson? Fine! You want to wear those freaky shoes with the toes? OK! You enjoy your meat grass-fed, organic, locally-raised, cruelty-free? Me too! But don’t say something is “science” when you don’t have a good understanding of the facts.

Also, this month I did not come up with a themed recipe, but instead I brought a bunch of snacks from my NatureBox because they’re healthy and blah blah (actually I was trying to offload some excess almonds that I received because I don’t like eating whole almonds). Note: I did not receive a sample or anything for mentioning NatureBox, but it is a pretty neat service if you are trying to eat healthier snacks.

Next Month: The Great Agnostic

We are reading The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought by Susan Jacoby and I will be putting up a post on Sunday, August 25th. If you’re going to be in Boston on the 24th, consider coming to our in-person meeting! Add a comment here if you need more information about that. See you next time!


Mary Brock works as an Immunology scientist by day and takes care of a pink-loving princess child by night. She likes cloudy days, crafting, cooking, and Fall weather in New England.

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  1. Thank you for this very interesting post! I’ll have to place an order for the book immediately. Since I cannot yet comment the book otherwise, I’d only like to comment about the J. J. McKenna’s views on SIDS / co-sleeping, or to be more precise, point out a new(ish) study on babies sleeping with their parents, which states that: ” When the baby is breastfed and under 3?months, there is a fivefold increase in the risk of SIDS when bed sharing with non-smoking parents and the mother has not taken alcohol or drugs. / Smoking, alcohol and drugs greatly increase the risk associated with bed sharing. / A substantial reduction in SIDS rates could be achieved if parents avoided bed sharing.” (Professor R G Carpenter et al.: Bed sharing when parents do not smoke: is there a risk of SIDS? An individual level analysis of five major case–control studies

    1. I heard about that study too and I would like to know more about the individual cases where the babies died. Personally, I choose to cosleep, but I am paranoid about it. I always clear off a spot for the baby and I don’t move when I sleep next to her or turn my back to her. She is just at the 3-month mark.

      I don’t cosleep because of any sort of parenting philosophy, I do it because she likes to go to sleep like that. She spends the first half of the night in a bassinet and then she wakes up to feed and prefers to sleep with me.

      1. That study really surprised me. I would have guessed that the opposite was true, that is that cosleeping would reduce the risk of SIDS, assuming the parents were sober, non-smokers. It makes me sad to think of parents not cosleeping as I did, but unless and until this study is refuted, I don’t blame them. But it definitely would have made my life much harder if I didn’t have my baby in bed with me. We moved her into our bed when she was a month old and that was the first night I’d felt rested since she was born.

        1. To be fair, there is a difference between SIDS and asphyxiation–one has an unknown cause and the other doesn’t. So cosleeping (in the same room) can reduce the risk of SIDS but perhaps cosleeping (in the same bed) can increase the risk of asphyxiation in certain circumstances?

          I agree with you–my baby sleeps in the same bed as me (not for the whole night) so that I can get some sleep. Even though I don’t sleep as well because I am checking on her constantly. Haha.

  2. My only complaint about this book is that the author uses internet comments as example of what paleo adherents believe.

    Hmm. Its probably a given that, outside of magazines, and some books they might push, neither of which are likely to have like.. a comprehensive list of what is “paleo”, people are going to then jump on the internet, looking for where to go with it, and they are going to, in most cases, be lazy and jump on the “top sites” in the search for that. So.. Yeah, I am not entirely sure this isn’t a valid way to work out what a whole lot of them think they should be doing, and what they believe. lol

      1. Didn’t need to, I am pretty much guess, given other things I have read, what the contents are likely to be. lol Well, that, and I have read a lot of other stuff, including a few books, that pretty much call the whole paleo thing completely unfounded, just plain, dead wrong, or even just totally absurd, including blog posts from at least a dozen people on the subject.

        And, the whole, “People don’t actually believe this, do they?”, thing is right out of Poe space – Odds are, someone, some place does think it. And, I would add a corollary to that: The more likely they are to be promoting something found in popular magazines, and thus in top search results on the net, the more likely it is that what ever absurdities are being described about it, however crazy, will be *exactly* what they do think it true.

  3. No bed is big enough to for twins and two parents. They get to come to bed if (hopefully only one at a time) one wakes herself up enough for a tuck-in and a back rub to have no effect. Otherwise, one of us has to take a baby to the couch, which is not comfortable. I’ve been hearing a lot of hubub about refined sugar lately, maybe if sugar and processed foods were cut out of one’s diet, the same effect could be achieved as what the pale diet people are claiming.

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