Synopses & Reviews
An exposé of pseudoscientific myths about our evolutionary past and how we should live today.
We evolved to eat berries rather than bagels, to live in mud huts rather than condos, to sprint barefoot rather than play football — or did we? Are our bodies and brains truly at odds with modern life? Although it may seem as though we have barely had time to shed our hunter-gatherer legacy, biologist Marlene Zuk reveals that the story is not so simple. Popular theories about how our ancestors lived — and why we should emulate them — are often based on speculation, not scientific evidence.
Armed with a razor-sharp wit and brilliant, eye-opening research, Zuk takes us to the cutting edge of biology to show that evolution can work much faster than was previously realized, meaning that we are not biologically the same as our caveman ancestors.
Contrary to what the glossy magazines would have us believe, we do not enjoy potato chips because they crunch just like the insects our forebears snacked on. And women don't go into shoe-shopping frenzies because their prehistoric foremothers gathered resources for their clans.
As Zuk compellingly argues, such beliefs incorrectly assume that we're stuck — finished evolving — and have been for tens of thousands of years. She draws on fascinating evidence that examines everything from adults' ability to drink milk to the texture of our ear wax to show that we've actually never stopped evolving. Our nostalgic visions of an ideal evolutionary past in which we ate, lived, and reproduced as we were "meant to" fail to recognize that we were never perfectly suited to our environment. Evolution is about change, and every organism is full of trade-offs.
From debunking the caveman diet to unraveling gender stereotypes, Zuk delivers an engrossing analysis of widespread paleofantasies and the scientific evidence that undermines them, all the while broadening our understanding of our origins and what they can really tell us about our present and our future.
"In thoroughly engaging and witty prose, Zuk (Sex on Six Legs), a biologist from the University of Minnesota, dismantles the pseudoscience behind nostalgic yearnings for our caveman days. As she so well notes, 'Paleofantasies call to mind a time when everything about us body, mind, and behavior was in sync with the environment.' Zuk makes it clear that no such time ever existed that's simply not how evolution works. Whether she's shredding the underlying premises of the paleo diet, the paleo exercise regimen, or the structure of the paleo family, she does so via cogent discussions of the nature of evolution and accessible elucidations of cutting-edge science. Zuk explains that all organisms are engaged in a never-ending attempt to do the best they can in a changing environment, and evolution never yields either perfection or a final product: 'We are both always facing new environments, and always shackled by genes from the past. After all, those Paleolithic ancestors were still dragging around genes they shared with hamsters and bacteria.' She goes on to demonstrate the ways in which humans are still evolving, citing differences in earwax characteristics around the globe as evidence of our continuing journey. Though the jury's still out on what humans will be like further down the road, Zuk's is an informative and entertaining pit stop. 15 illus. Agents: Wendy Strothman and Lauren MacLeod, the Strothman Agency." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Marlene Zuk’s quest to understand prehistory is an elegant guide for the perplexed. Paleofantasy cuts through a confusing tangle of facts and claims to give us a trustworthy road map to the glorious problems of who we are and where we come from." Richard Wrangham, author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
"We tend to idealize our ancestors, as if they had the perfect life and perfect diet. In highly readable style, Marlene Zuk downplays our paleo-heritage. Not only did we change culturally, we are also genetically a different animal." Frans de Waal, author of The Bonobo and the Atheist
We evolved to eat berries rather than bagels, to live in caves rather than cities, to run barefoot rather than play rugby — or did we? As Marlene Zuk reveals, theories about how our ancestors lived — and why we should emulate them — are often based on pseudoscience and speculation rather than actual research. Taking us to the cutting edge of biology, Zuk explains that evolution can work much faster than was previously realized, meaning that we are not biologically the same as our caveman ancestors. She shows how our fetishized visions of an ideal evolutionary past in which we ate, lived, and reproduced as we were “meant to” can lead us astray and distract us from more interesting considerations of how we differ from our ancestors. Along the way, she debunks the caveman diet, discusses whether we’re really designed to run barefoot, and considers modern-day courtship and child-rearing practices in the context of how our ancestors lived.
About the Author
Marlene Zuk is a professor of ecology, evolution and behavior at the University of Minnesota. The author of Sex on Six Legs, she lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.