336 pages, no illustrations
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, in Paleofantasy 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.
"Much-needed [...] Zuk's nutritionally rich scientific fodder [...] will certainly bring intellectual benefits far greater than those provided by the pseudoscientific confections with which we are so often tempted."
– Cordelia Fine, Wall Street Journal
"Ably presents a skeptical and light-hearted view of a long list of paleofantasies and supposed solutions."
– John Hawks, Nature
"Briskly dismisses [...] misunderstandings about how evolution works and [...] offers a lively, lucid illustration of the intricacies of this all-important natural process."
– Laura Miller, Salon
"Starred review. Thoroughly engaging and witty [...] Whether [Zuk is] 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."
– Publishers Weekly
"Zuk's take on the many controversies and uncertainties surrounding evolution is both wise and measured."
"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
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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.