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Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live [Kindle Edition]

Marlene Zuk
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (65 customer reviews)

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Book Description

“With . . . evidence from recent genetic and anthropological research, [Zuk] offers a dose of paleoreality.”—Erin Wayman, Science News

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Working from the assumption that human physiology has remained virtually unchanged since our hunting and gathering days more than 10,000 years ago, advocates of the currently popular Paleolithic, or caveman, diet eschew dairy, grains, and other products of modern agriculture. Some Paleo buffs go even further, promoting barefoot running and sleeping with our infants, arguing that modern living has wreaked havoc on our collective health. For University of California biology professor Zuk, such notions are Paleofantasies, a misinformed nostalgia for a mythical era when humans supposedly lived in perfect harmony with nature. In this illuminating overview of state-of-the art evolutionary science, the author debunks this utopian ideal and demonstrates that not only have humans continued to evolve since our foraging days, but some of those adaptations have been remarkably swift. Zuk draws on emerging evidence from gene mapping and studies on lactose digestion proving that today’s humans are definitely different from our caveman ancestors. While Zuk doesn’t disagree that a couch-potato lifestyle is detrimental, she offers a reassuring message that humankind is still tweaking its genome. --Carl Hays


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. (Guardian)

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)

Product Details

  • File Size: 1372 KB
  • Print Length: 337 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (March 18, 2013)
  • Publication Date: March 11, 2013
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B007Q6XM1A
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #172,240 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
377 of 437 people found the following review helpful
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This book really deserves two ratings--one for the evolutionary science and one for its coverage of the paleo diet.


Paleofantasy has a lot to offer you if you are interested in evolution in general and human evolution in particular.

Zuk's central argument throughout the book is that evolution is a continuous process that didn't stop for humans in the paleolithic and that different traits evolve at different rates. She places particular emphasis on the fact that sometimes evolution can act very quickly, even in as little as a few generations. Of course the idea of rapid evolution is not new--it was termed "punctuated equilibria" in a 1972 paper by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould.

Even as an avid reader of evolutionary science books, I was treated to several new examples of rapid evolution at work such as:

-The alternating increase and decrease of beak size in the same population of finches due to changes in weather and food availability
-Changes in breeding age and size of guppies due to placing them in environments with different levels of predation (an example of "experimental evolution")
-Decreases in fish size and breeding age as a result of human fishers continually removing the larger fish.

Of course the question we all really want the answer to is not just could rapid evolution happen in humans, but has it happened?
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89 of 101 people found the following review helpful
By Peter B
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Writing a review of this book almost requires writing three separate reviews.

The bulk of the book is a research wrap-up of various evolutionary biology and paleontology topics, such as the development of lactose tolerance. This is the part of book that shines and while there might not be that much new for the folks that read a half dozen paleontology journals a month, most laypeople interested in these topics should really enjoy this part of the book. Personally I found the author's writing style in these parts of the book to be similar to Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers (an excellent book by Richard Sapolsky, an author I highly recommend): a lot of research presented in a condensed but very readable format, enjoyable with a gentle sense of humor, and presenting a balanced view of the evidence. I'll leave it up to others to quibble with the specific science, but for this portion alone I would recommend the book.

The author supplements the above discussion by giving her personal opinions on the above topics. Here I am somewhat less enthusiastic but I would still give the author the thumbs up in general. Her message here seems to be to "slow your roll" when it comes to interpreting paleontological evidence, and most of her takedowns of certain myths and poor reasoning are in my opinion appropriate (who actually holds these opinions is another matter). The paleo community at large is a pretty vast, heterogenous place so depending on where you look these fallacies will show up more or less often. The most common one I see is the notion that we have a solid understanding of how Paleolithic man lived; it would be nice if cavemen had left us their FitDay journals but we are more often stuck with a few piles of bones and rat middens.
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143 of 167 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I feel compelled to write a review because this book is an interesting, fun popular science exploration of recent human evolution, and is NOT deserving of the three-star aggregate review shown above. That sort of aggregate would typically be reserved for books with the sort of editorial issues that render a book unreadable. The sort of vitriol spewed in the many one-star reviews is often awarded to books with overt racism or other or blatantly offensive themes. Instead, the author dared to to use a common term in it's proper scientific context, a term many of these one-star reviewers apparently believe they, and they alone, have ownership of. This review will therefore cover first the book itself, and then, if you are interested, a little "review of reviews".

Zuk's writing style is similar to that of Mary Roach (another author known for bringing science to the public) - breezy, accessible, funny (sometimes corny), and full of illustrative case studies. The difference is that Zuk is a scientist herself, and so she is able to use examples from her own work and feels comfortable challenging other scientists head-on, which is kind of fun. As a professor, she writes carefully, avoiding making beginner mistakes such as interchanging correlation and causality or the trap of mistaking evolution for progress. She does sometimes reference common misconceptions about evolution as portrayed in mainstream media, but usually that's just a quick jumping off point for in-depth explorations of why the speed of evolution varies, or what exactly genetics can't tell us about evolution. It was a fun book, and I learned some new stuff.

Now, as to the early reviews...
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars It was a great book. The part that I focused on was ...
It was a great book. The part that I focused on was the food, because my mom is a total health nut. If you're curious on how evolution deals with all of this, check it out.
Published 1 month ago by Brian Goubeaux
1.0 out of 5 stars I find Zuk's book really a pathetic example of popular science
I find Zuk's book really a pathetic example of popular science. Relying, for the most part, on articles from magazines (i.e. Read more
Published 1 month ago by W. Prince
3.0 out of 5 stars Has Some Merit, but Weak in Some Areas
Most of the strongly negative reviews are unconvinced regarding Zuk's principal argument against Paleo diets: primarily that human evolution occurs all the time, and has already... Read more
Published 2 months ago by T. R. Smith
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't miss this archaelogist's review in Nature
Be sure to catch John Hawks' review of Paleofantasy in Nature magazine, titled "Twisting the Tale of Human Evolution. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Just Me
5.0 out of 5 stars Refreshing and inspiring to all who love food and being healthy
Paleofantasy is a treasure for all those who are interested, and would like to understand, the evolution of human nutrition. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Judith Kunzle
4.0 out of 5 stars Evolution never ends
This book is decidedly and expectedly written for the lay reader. The pretext is the debunking of the fallacy that our bodies are adapted for the lifestyle of our hunter-gather... Read more
Published 7 months ago by W. Cheung
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, but could have been better
More like three and a half stars. I guess I'm rounding down because Zuk could have made her case so much better. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Catherine Douglas
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply the perfect antidote to paleo-dieters
Simply the perfect antidote to paleo-dieters, evopsychos, and everyone else with a high-school biology class understanding of human evolution who wants a just-so story to justify... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Daniel Dvorkin
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent dose of reality
There are so many fad diets, so many fad programs for improving your health, none based on actual research or evidence. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Joyce Denn
5.0 out of 5 stars What Evolution Can and Cannot Tell Us about Humans
I did not find anything surprising in this book, but then I teach and write about evolution. Apparently there are lots of people out there who seriously think that we have to... Read more
Published 15 months ago by StanEvolve
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