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The Paleolithic Principle - the PaNu Version

Posted Nov 26 2009 10:04pm

Reader Bend comments in response to a thread about whether we should emulate paleo man by letting our vitamin D levels drop "naturally" in the winter:

"Whilst of course there must have been many groups of hominids throughout history suffering deficiencies (or just not 'prospering'), I find it quite implausible that overall they were not in perfect health! Go into nature and you see so many examples of animals living in accordance with their evolutionary history in perfect health. A wild bear after salmon season, a lion who has notched up 100's of kills over his lifetime. A whale, a fish, and so on. Could we study these animals extremely closely and find they are a bit short on something here or there? They would do better if they had a little bit more of this or that? Its hard to imagine it. This is a question I have been giving a lot of though to recently. Are humans' ability to so easily find themselves out of optimum health a consequence of our discordance with our evolutionary past, our absolutely unique H&G style of food acquisition, or just simply an artefact of huge amounts of extensive scientific study (ie if you had performed the 10's or 100's of thousands of tests and studies on a whale or bear you would have similar conclusions)? Through evolution hominids have become adapted to an extremely wide variety of food sources both plant and animal. We didn't get to becoming the most successful and adaptable species on the planet for no reason! Or is it possible evolution traded optimum health for diversity? As we see from SAD, even with doing just about everything wrong we are flourishing in terms of reproduction..." 

My response:

1) My central thesis is that certain aspects of current ill health are due to behaviors that are substantially outside our evolutionary experience - these I tautologically define as the "diseases of civilization" and they include the effects of eating the neolithic agents (DM, Cancer etc.) and behaviors such as lack of adequate sun exposure.

2) The truth of #1 does not imply that any condition experienced during the evolution of an organism is by definition perfect health. After all, most species that ever lived were extinct long before being threatened by homo sapiens, and those that survive do so as vehicles of their selfish genes. A modern or postmodern idea of "health" need not speak to whether their health would have been optimal by our standards. Example: would you trade not eating wheat for suffering a homicide rate of 25% as was documented in some paleolithic peoples? Or shall we practice infanticide as a healthier alternative to synthetic hormonal birth control?

3) A corollary of #2 is that we can conceive of any number of health measures that not only could be, but probably would have to be worse by our own standards in the paleolithic period. My version of the paleolithic principle is limited to what I define as  correcting diseases of civilization being cause by evolutionary discordances in behavior, mostly diet. Not every current measure of ill health is caused by evolutionary discordance, and the condition of paleolithic man in toto should not be our current definition of health. That is a giant non-sequiter I try to avoid - a version of the naturalist fallacy.

This is why I spend so little time speculating about what "grok" did (at least on the blog) and how idyllic and lovely his existence was, as it may be fun to speculate about, but the diseases of civilization need to be related to evolutionary theory by first having a modern understanding of the diseases, and not just filtered through a fantasized narrative.

Remember that from an evolutionary perspective we are actually doing everything right - evolution does not care if we get cancer or diabetes after we reproduce. From the perspective of the gene, trading the increased fecundity we got with first early neolithic and now petroleum-based agriculture for any ill health effects that resulted was a great idea.

I think looking at wild animals as "perfectly healthy" in their totality is neo-Rousseauism and would caution those who romanticize the health of other organisms by human standards. Such an attitude may actually be a bit anthropocentric and condescending to the true suffering of all animals, both human and non-human.

Nature is beautiful, and it is trying to kill you.

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