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Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live 1st Edition

3.7 out of 5 stars 68 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393081374
ISBN-10: 0393081370
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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

Review

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)

In thoroughly engaging and witty prose, Zuk (Sex on Six Legs), a biologist from the University of Minnesota, dismantles the pseudoscience behind nostalgic yearnings for our caveman days. (Publishers Weekly)

Nothing beats good hard data to debunk myths, and Zuk offers plenty. (Kirkus Reviews)

In this illuminating overview of state-of-the art evolutionary science, [Zuk] 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. (Carl Hays - Booklist)

Ms. 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)

Zuk doesn’t deny that an understanding of evolution can provide important insights into human behavior and health. But as this informative book demonstrates, the work of using evolutionary logic to explain human traits is more like multi-variable calculus than simple arithmetic. (The Daily Beast)

In her witty and well-researched prose, Zuk debunks these pseudoscience-based conceptions and proves that humanity did not have “a time” like the kind depicted by these fantasies; evolution has always been and will continue to be a key player in our species’ future. (Liz Belliovskaya - Brain World Magazine)

Paleofantasy is not another self-help book offering answers on how to eat, exercise, or love better in our evolving world. Instead, Zuk emphasizes that we can approach these aspects of our lives differently based on our genetic makeup. (Catherine Woods - Science Magazine)

Zuk ably presents a skeptical and light-hearted view of a long list of palaeofantasies and supposed solutions. (John Hawks - Nature)

With its healthy analysis of lifestyles and changing, evolving habits, Paleofantasy is a top recommendation not just for science holdings, but collections strong in culinary history and evolution. (Midwest Book Review)

Like the best science writers, [Zuk] finds a broader context for everyday experience and makes difficult concepts easier to understand. (Margaret Quamme - Columbia Dispatch)

Paleofantasy is a fascinating and accessible read that I had trouble putting down. (Stratton Magazine)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (March 18, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393081370
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393081374
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #813,533 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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.

THE SCIENCE:

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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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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2 Comments 92 of 104 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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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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6 Comments 153 of 177 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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