Skip to main content

Paleofantasy – Marlene Zuk ***

We all enjoy seeing smug people who tell us how to live being taken down a peg, and in Paleofantasy, subtitled ‘what evolution really tells us about sex, diet and how we live’, Marlene Zuk lays into those who promote a ‘paleo diet’ or ‘caveman lifestyle.’ As the book entertainingly makes clear, these concepts are based on a total misunderstanding.
The idea behind the paleofantasy, particularly popular, it seems, among the New York chatterati, is that we ought to try to live more like our Palaeolithic forebears, because this was the lifestyle and diet we evolved for, where now we live in a very ‘unnatural’ environment. Zuk tears this idea to shreds, showing how evolution doesn’t evolve ‘for’ anything, how we weren’t particularly well matched to our Palaeolithic environment anyway, how we’ve evolved since and how the ideas of what, for instance, people of that period ate are wrong both because, for instance, they did seem to eat grains, and also because they weren’t a single population in a single environment, but actually had many, widely differing lifestyles.
This much is brilliant, but the reason I can only give the book three stars is that it really does feel like this part of the content is more a long article than a book, so it then had to be stretched. This produces a couple of problems. One is that Zuk keeps going back to what the people on ‘Caveman’ forums and the likes say, to compare with the science, and after the initial fun, we don’t care. It’s a bit like writing a book on climate change and using the non-science that Nigel Lawson puts forward all the way through as a straw man, rather than briefly mentioning and dismissing it at the start. It gives the paleofantasists who are, after all, a tiny minority, particularly outside the US, more weight than they deserve.
The other problem is that to fill it out there is an awful lot about the specifics of human evolution (or not) and what we can learn from genetics about our behaviour and illnesses and so on that somehow doesn’t quite work. Unlike the early, fun part of the book, it becomes a less interesting read. Perhaps it’s just me, but I couldn’t get engaged with the material.
Don’t get me wrong, there is lots of interesting science in there, from the genetics of different forms of earwax (though this mostly seems to be in to make a good chapter title, as when it comes down to it, the story is rather uninspiring) to the origins and nature of the structure of the human family, but the way it is presented just didn’t get me excited. It’s a book that’s well worth reading, nonetheless.
Paperback:  
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Audio download:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

Lost Solace (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ****

There was a time when you would be hard pushed to find a science fiction novel with a female main character. As I noted when re-reading Asimov's Foundation, in 189 pages, women appear on just five pages - and they're very much supporting cast. But the majority of new SF novels I've read this year have had female main characters, including The Real Town Murders, Austral and Andy Weir's upcoming Artemis.

That's certainly the case in Karl Drinkwater's engaging Lost Solace. It's really a two hander between military renegade Opal and her ship's AI, Clarissa. There are a few male characters, but they are either non-speaking troops she battles or a major with whom she has a couple of short video conversations. That summary gives an unfair military flavour to the whole thing - in practice, the majority of the action, which is practically non-stop throughout the book, involves Opal trying to survive as she explores a mysterious, apparently abandoned liner in a de…