“Paleofantasy” — Marlene Zuk Pens a Book and Then Critiques it in the Title

[Note: I just discovered that Sean Abbott of Prague Stepchild got the jump on me in terms of the “cleverness” of the fantasy of Paleofantasy.]

Paul Jaminet put up a good post about the book: Paleofantasy and the State of Ancestral Science. I’m not afraid of the notion that what appears at first to be a slam of Paleo may turn out to be a help, overall.

I’d already dealt with some of Marlene Zuk’s proclamations a couple of times. There are other articles as well, and I’ve read a few reviews, both positive & negative.

Anyway, the main thrust of my post is to elaborate on how the book is a fantasy about what the so-called “Paleofantasy” is. Or, to put it another way: we’re on it. We have been on it, for years. I think John Durant put it pretty well in a tweet as he was live tweeting while reading the book.

Screen Shot 2013 03 18 at 4 35 24 PM
Or maybe even 2009

See, discussions and arguments over everything to do with paleo—what’s good or bad, better or best—are the subject of thousands upon thousands of blog comments and forum postings here and elsewhere. And it’s been that way for a long time now. While the initial popularity that began back in 2007 was pretty “bright eyed” on the part of myself & others, it didn’t take very long for people to begin saying “wait a minute” about a lot of assumptions. For instance, I was pointing out in at least 2008 that the Kitavans and others kinda falsify the notion that a paleo diet is necessarily low in carbohydrate.

In early 2010, three years ago, in a post called Paleo Fear of Potatoes,” I wrote this:

I really don’t get it. Now, if for some reason you must stay low-carb; say, for weight loss, diabetes or other health or well being reasons, then fine. But if not, what’s the deal? Potatoes are Real Food. Sure, the various white varieties are a neolithic introduction, but c’mon, so is virtually every fruit and vegetable we consume. Most in no way, shape, form, fiber content, nutrient makeup, or sugar content resemble pre-domesticated versions. So why pick on the white potato?

Got a lot of heat for that, but we moved on and far as I can tell there’s quite a few people who not only incorporate sweet potatoes, but white ones as well. Progress. And dairy? Hell, there’s always been dairy in some form (usually the fat factions). Milk has really been the only super questionable thing, yet there are a lot of “Paleos” like myself who use it more and more, where it was considered an indulgence before. There’s probably no dietary group on Earth that debates the merits or pitfalls of milk (and even other dairy) more than Paleos.

So what’s really the most paleo about the whole deal? That we’re figuring it out for ourselves as we go along, that’s what. And yea, some things end up being ridiculous in retrospect—like bloodletting…no, uh, wait, it was credentialed physicians who did that. I don’t know, perhaps Zuk, being an academic, is rubbed the wrong way by people taking more stock in their own experience than in what they are admonished to do by varied interests, authorities and conventional wisdom all around them—conventional wisdom that might someday be as ridiculous as bloodletting.

There seems to be this attitude that “you’re no scientist,” no matter how rigorous your self experiments. Not even worth posting results on your blog or in someone’s blog comments. If you aren’t fulfilling your dietary requirements based on Randomized Controlled Trials, you’re hopelessly lost. Watch, even Robb Wolf thinks RCTs are completely flawless 10,000% percent of the time, with absolutely zero room for error. Furthermore, every RCT ever done in the history of mankind began with a pristine hypotheses. Absolutely none of them ever were deemed ridiculous in the luxury of hindsight. And what’s more, none of them have ever been found to be compromised by various agendas, biases, moneyed interests, or anything of the sort.

Finally, when you think about things from an evolutionary perspective and then make a prediction about how things might go for you in terms of health outcomes, fat loss, or lean gains, should you engage some self-experiment, you have every incentive to completely lie and fool yourself, right? Trust the Real Science (TM) instead. Trust me. They’re looking out for you! Who do you think you are, anyway?

So, uh, yea. Marlene? That our fruits, vegetables and farmed meats aren’t precisely what was available to Paleoman is so 2010, y’know? But I also know this: what we do have in terms of meat, fish, fowl, vegetables, fruits and nuts is absolutely as close to paleo as we can get. They didn’t have Hot Pockets, Pop-Tarts, pizza, burgers or Coca-Cola. And they could not possibly have consumed much in the way of “hearthealthywholegrains.” And, even if…IF…we were well adapted to grains, it’s still very poor nutrition calorie for calorie when put against any animal food.

Oh yea, and that bit about rapid evolution? Well, when did that 10,000 Year Explosion thingy come out that everyone in Paleofantasyland was talking about? …It’s so whenever that was. And incidentally, rapid evolution in the Neolithic is actually the strongest evolutionary reason to embrace paleo as a framework from which to begin to make the likely healthiest food choices. Read that again. I get the sense your position is that since evolution has been rapid in the Neolithic, that’s it’s pure paleofantasy to assume we’ll be better off healthwise to revert to the Paleo as close as we can.

This makes no sense to me. Evolution isn’t a function of time, it’s a function of stress, i.e., survival pressures—rapidly changing environments, food sources, etc. Looked around lately at the pervasive general girth? Seen stats on the most common diseases and killers now, compared with 100 years ago? Is it meat, fish, fowl, vegetables and fruits people prepare at home causing that, or Neolithic engineered foods?

So, with a few exceptions such as dairy for those who tolerate it (Real Food!), doesn’t it make sense to slide back the scale to a time when evolution was NOT happening rapidly, signifying that our dietary milieu and our adaptation to it was stable? Or, are you suggesting that people who don’t tolerate grans, legumes, sugar and processed foods (or dairy, still) take one for Team E? Just because evolution is progressing for the species as a whole doesn’t say anything about any particular individual—just as there are plenty who remain lactose intolerant because the persistence has not spread to everyone.

In the end, paleo is as simple as meat, fish, fowl, vegetables (including starchy ones), frits and nuts. Dairy if you tolerate it. How can anyone go wrong? So what’s the big deal already? From there, you can figure out whether your ancestors out of Africa went left or right and then, north or south, where they settled. You might find yourself more comfortable on a tropical diet of fruits, casava and speared fish than an Inuit diet of seal from nose to flipper. But no matter which ratios will work best for any individual, some range certainly will and it’s a priori that it’ll work better than pizza and a six-pack.

So yea, Marlene, there is a fantasy going on here, but it R not us.

One final thing. As Paul Jaminet mentioned in his post, there’s this video critique out there, Debunking the Paleo Diet: Christina Warinner at TEDxOU. I started to watch it (actually, at Paul’s suggestion a few days back), got irritated, clicked it off, heard it gets better, so went ahead and listened to the whole thing. Turns out it is a good critique in total. I think it’s very important to understand—as I quoted myself from three years ago, above—that essentially nothing, save perhaps seafood, is as it was in the paleo.

Just one quibble with that video then. At some point she says that we have not evolved any adaptations to eat animal flesh (only milk, i.e., lactase persistence) but that we have evolved many to deal with various plant matter. Uh, that’s easy. Chimps eat meat. I don’t know how far back our lineage of mammals have been able to eat and digest some meat, but it’s a looooong way back. Moreover, one might also argue that a large brain is an adaptation to meat eating.

…One that the vegetarians squander.

Update: I just got wind of a review by Miki Ben-Dor, Ph.D candidate at the department of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University. He researches the connection between human evolution and nutrition throughout human prehistory. Do check it out.

Update 2: Miki Ben-Dor has now put up a second post, this one having to do with the TEDx critique of the Paleo Diet by Christina Warinner. He is not as generally positive about it as Paul Jaminet and I were. As a professional archeologist, that carries substantial weight.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More


  1. Bernardo on March 19, 2013 at 11:29

    There is a very good series from Dr. Eades about some evidence on meat eating habits of early humans. It’s really interesting and quite convincing, at least for me. People should check it out and make their own minds based on their own judgement:

    You’d have to look for the first 2 parts. It’s in the website somewhere.


  2. Richard Nikoley on March 19, 2013 at 12:22

    Now don’t be going all shy on my blog here (now that would be a “Paleofantasy), Kevin. Proudly and emphatically deliver that relevant link. Here:

    Everybody go read it right now.

  3. Amy on March 19, 2013 at 04:06

    I still don’t understand what is so difficult to grok about “overarching framework” versus historical reenactment. It’s an easy drum to beat, I suppose. I do wonder how favorably “Paleo” will be looked upon if Big Food ever finds a way to monetize it.

  4. Libby on March 19, 2013 at 07:31

    Well said! Sadly, the trolls won’t attempt to find common ground. For some reason they seem to want no one to see/hear/speak anything Paleo. They’re kind of freaky that way.

  5. Tuck on March 19, 2013 at 07:55

    “Moreover, one might also argue that a large brain is an adaptation to meat eating.”

    Better scientists than Warinner have been making that argument for quite a while. Pity she’s not familiar with the research…

    “…It’s likely that meat eating “made it possible for humans to evolve a larger brain size,” said Aiello. Early human ancestors probably consumed more animal foods — termites and small mammals – than the 2 percent of carnivorous caloric intake associated with chimpanzees.”

    Warinner got enough of the basic facts wrong that I wouldn’t recommend that video, even if she wasn’t 100% wrong, and had some redeeming qualities.

  6. Richard Nikoley on March 19, 2013 at 11:47

    Bernardo, Eade’s post on the ETH and Kleiber’s law (part 2, I think) is probably one of my most cited links on this blog and comments going back a few years ago. I learned a lot in that post and put it to good use. It tends to shut smart vegetarians and vegans up, though I realize that’s very close to being a contradiction in terms.

  7. Kevin Holbrook on March 19, 2013 at 12:18

    Well said, Richard. Let me add to this here with what I did last week in my own blog post on the subject of Paleofantasy, where I introduce two pieces of genetic evidence that unravel Zuk’s central thesis that the Neolithic was “plenty of time” for adaptation. First, geneticists have found that most bad genes have appeared in the last 400 generations. In a second study, 80% of bad genes were found to be less than 10,000 years old. This vies with her idea that bad genes are selected against. Of course, this further implies that good genes are not being selected for in the context of civilization; and more importantly, that the selection mechanism itself is different in the context of civilization as it is in the wild.

  8. Richard Nikoley on March 19, 2013 at 12:29

    “This vies with her idea that bad genes are selected against. ”

    Look around. Our entire social system, healthcare system etc is an exercise in circumventing natural selection and perpetuating bad genes ini perpetuity.

    One doesn’t neen to advocate eugenics to have some sense of allowing nature to take its course a bit more.

  9. Bob on March 19, 2013 at 14:31

    So, has anyone actually read the book yet?

  10. Tuck on March 19, 2013 at 14:38

    This guy did:

    “Paleofantasy or Paleofantastic?”

  11. Richard Nikoley on March 19, 2013 at 14:38

    “So, has anyone actually read the book yet?”

    Details, details. Miki Ben-Dor did (link at the bottom of this post).

    I’m attacking the thesis of the book. Inasmuch as it’s a “fantasy” to model ancestral diets as best we can, the book isn’t worth the money or time (for me, anyway). While I’m generally willing to listen to arguments in opposition to my own ideas, you can’t entertain everything in life.

    Instead, I’m reading the 2nd edition of Perfect Health Diet and I’m quite certain my time will be better spent.

    Of course, I’m in no way discouraging anyone else from buying and reading it.

    Oh, BYW, John Durant read it and live tweeted his doing so a week or so ago.

  12. Bill on March 19, 2013 at 16:07

    Christina Warinner gave a great TED talk, but what didn’t entirely jive with me was her theory that we are not carnivores because things like vitamin C are only found in plants – (bc some true carnivores synthesize it on their own) – that line of reasoning is bollix imo. Stefansson & Andersen ate nothing but meat for a year and showed no signs of vitamin C deficiency (eg, And scurvy happens rather quickly, just a few months (Hodges et al., 1969). qed? I’m not arguing that we ARE true carnivores – just arguing against the logic Christina used to support her point.

  13. Tuck on March 19, 2013 at 16:12

    It is pretty ironic. Matt Lalonde got up on his high-horse to tell us how careful we have to be or the “real scientists” won’t take us seriously.

    And look at what a sloppy bunch the real scientists turn out to be…

  14. Richard Nikoley on March 19, 2013 at 16:19


    Yea, absolutely, and that was right in the same part I complained about, that we have no adaptations. It’s silly to say that meat eaters by nature (I repeat: chimps engage in organized predation and love meat) have no adaptations to meat eating while at the same time extolling out adaptations to plant eating.

    I’m not even sure what the name of such logical fallacy is.

  15. Om Shanti Om on March 19, 2013 at 20:04

    ” I do wonder how favorably “Paleo” will be looked upon if Big Food ever finds a way to monetize it.”

    Big Food already has the monopoly on organic and non-gmo. Heck, just to be “certified organic” a farmer has to pay out of the bazooka and meet all sorts of government regulations. And Monsanto is now serving up organic too.

    The only way to completely avoid “Big Food” is to grow all your own veggies and fruits and raise all your own animals.

    Health Food Stores and Whole Foods are as much a part of “Big Food” as Wal-mart.

  16. Todd on March 20, 2013 at 06:06

    @Om Shanti Om

    “The only way to completely avoid “Big Food” is to grow all your own veggies and fruits and raise all your own animals.”

    Which the Gov’t (along with Big Food, I’m sure) is trying to prohibit by food bans and what not.

  17. David Csonka on March 20, 2013 at 07:03

    “There seems to be this attitude that “you’re no scientist,” no matter how rigorous your self experiments.”

    The ivory tower is to hard to climb for us mere mortals.

  18. Andrew on March 20, 2013 at 07:09

    Well said, David.

    Seth Roberts has been writing about these themes a lot lately.

  19. Gadfly on March 20, 2013 at 12:54

    They’re a priesthood like every previous priesthood.

  20. Kelly Williams on March 21, 2013 at 00:57

    Ironic indeed. And yes, do you have any idea why Seth Roberts keeps on writing about this topic lately?

  21. […] any further time on this lecture. I would have left it at that had I not read Paul Jaminet and Richard Nikoley‘s posts, urging their readers to stay for the second, better half. Traversing my way to the […]

  22. Dan on March 23, 2013 at 18:23

    Oh yes you did indeed. Sorry about that. I had read this post but must have missed the TED talk.

  23. GrzeTor on March 24, 2013 at 07:54

    Two points about evolution and change:

    1) It’s enough for modern food to change FASTER than humans evolve adaptations to make them not viable for humans. It looks like this is the case – with breeding, hybridization, genetic modifications, additions of chemicals both during growth (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers), and after (preserviatives, taste enhancers). Human evolution cannot catch up to the speed of change caused by civilization.

    There are also some surprising recent changes in food. For example increasing level of CO2 in the air can cause commercial crops to grow somehting like 24% in yialds, but the growth is mostly in carbs, thus driving crops into empty calories direction. Wild varieties react to higher CO2 level only by about 5% of yield growth…

    2) There’s nothing that suggests that we have LOST any adaptation to past foods. We can still eat what our distant ancestors ate. So the obvious choice of 1 and 2 is not to experiment on yourself with modern food, but find some point in the past of the diets that you are most compatible with. Paleo is a safe bet for everyone, but some may be well on WAPF-like traditional diets.

    3) The recent work in late evolution (eg. Gregory Clark – “The farewell to alms”) suggests we are descendants of the RICH. In each generation rich left more surviving offspring than the poor. And in each generation rich ate more meat and other good stuff than poor. So looking at averages from the past may not tell us about our ancestors – we would need to look at those people from the past who were well off in search of our ancestors.

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