Most books on the paleo diet follow a set pattern: An inspirational story about how the author wrecked his health with junk food or vegetarianism before the caveman came riding on a white horse to the rescue; an explanation of why, contrary to the popular expression, almost anything is better than sliced white bread; a long and exhaustive guide to the do’s and don’ts of paleo with plenty of scientific explanations; and finally, a list of recipes and suggestions for further reading.
Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still get a solid idea of how to eat, move, and live by paleo principles from John Durant’s THE PALEO MANIFESTO. But at its core, this is no diet book.
It is a bold attempt to situate the paleo lifestyle within the “Big History” of human biosocial evolution, which is divided into four distinct “ages”: Paleolithic, agricultural, industrial, and information. Each of these ages was characterized by diets that created new problems, problems that were in turn partially mitigated by solutions specific to the very age that spawned them. This is a narrative that evokes a whiff of historical materialism, though John Durant is far more of a neo-reactionary than a Marxist.
Well aware of its pervasive violence and cultural backwardness, Durant does not unduly glamorize paleolithic life. (Nor does virtually anyone in the movement, strawmen set up by paleo’s detractors regardless). But one can’t escape the physical evidence that hunter-gatherers were far taller, stronger, and healthier than the early agriculturalists hunched over their hoes. An anthropologist shows off a male specimen who was 5″10 (175 cm) tall and weighed 150 pounds (68 kg), despite having a musculature that would put the vast majority of modern humans to shame. Average heights decreased by 5 inches after the transition to agriculture, and tooth and bone health deteriorated drastically.
The Bible tells the story: Man took up farming and began eating bread, and then cities appeared, famine and disease stalked the land, and childbirth became painful and dangerous. But childbirth also became more frequent, and the vast (if low-quality) caloric surpluses from grains enabled farmer populations – armed with metal weapons and commanded by literate elites – to gradually displace the world of Enkidu. That world might never have been paradise on Earth, but it “probably seemed like the Garden of Eden” compared to the lives of early farmers.
Agricultural civilization, over time, evolved sociobiological antidotes to the new ills it had spawned – first and foremost, disease. Wine and hot tea appeared as substitutes for (filthy) water. Spices, which have antimicrobial properties, became a universal staple of southern cuisines. Fermented foods and beverages negated some of the poisons inherent to the new diet. Early fertility cults and promiscuous attitudes gave way to patriarchal structures that enforced heterosexual monogamy – a natural adaptation to the appearance of STD’s.
In a stunning insight, and highlight of the book for me, Durant argues that Mosaic Law can be interpreted as one of the most comprehensive – if unintentional – disease prevention guides in history. Cleanliness was associated with godliness; taboos appeared against cannibalism, and eating (potentially spoiled) meat after the third day; leprosy sufferers were to be shunned. Only virgin women could be captured, while all the others had to be killed (the past is a foreign country). The entire “kashrut” system of “clean” and “unclean” animals rested on a valid scientific basis. Vermin, shellfish, and most insects were disease vectors; pigs, lizards, snakes, amphibians, bird of prey and carrion, and cats – which were worshipped in Egypt! – gobbled the former up. In contrast, no plants are forbidden – even though many of them are poisonous – and nor do primarily plant-eating insects such as locusts, whose consumption would provide a double benefit in terms of both protein and fewer crops destroyed. All these strictures were backed up by severe punishment for transgressors, on both the early and godly plane; disease control was a matter of “life and death for the entire community,” and could only be effectively carried out with the cooperation of the entire community.
Industrialization brought a whole new set of nutrition problems. Sailors died like fleas from scurvy on long voyages; obesity started appearing in Britain in the 19th century as sugar became a staple; rickets increased in frequency as people stayed indoors for longer on what was an infamously sunless island in the first place. Instead of religious commandments, this time it was science and technology that constituted the solution. Limes and lemons were packed on ships in addition to the traditional salt pork and gin; in 1863, a formerly obese Englishman called William Banting published the world’s first diet book, based on restricting sweet and starchy foods (see a pattern?); in 1933, the US government started fortifying milk with Vitamin D to combat rickets, and a few decades later celebrities and sunbeds made sun-tans cool again. “Again, we learned how not do die.”
We are now entering the age of biohackers: The Pareto Principle followers, the fox thinkers, Qualified Selfers, the n=1 experimenters who are seeking novel and individualistic ways of improving their health without waiting for formal science – which advanced “one funeral at a time,” as Max Planck so eloquently put it – to catch up. They try to take a big view of the progress and pitfalls across the ages, and adjust their diets and lifestyle to get the best of all worlds: The paleo diet intrinsic to humans for 99% of their existence as a species; the cultural traditions against disease and recent-adaptations like lactose tolerance of the Agricultural Age; the soaring successes and arrogant foibles of the Industrial Age; and the wealth of individually-tailored data and analytical tools now available on the information highways. For the first time ever, optimal health is within our grasp.
The second and third sections deal with the details of the paleo lifestyle, and as such is much closer to the content of most books on the subject. It’s all pretty much standard: Avoid grains and legumes, eat meat (from tail to tail), vegetables, fruit, nuts, and insects (both the familiar oceanic and unfamiliar land versions). Don’t fear saturated fat; the French Paradox is no paradox. Mimic a hunter-gatherer or herder diet. Follow ancient culinary traditions (experiment with broths, fermented and raw foods, organ meats, etc.) and practices (e.g. fasting). Move naturally – humans are evolved to stand, walk, squat, lie down, and occasionally sprint; they are not evolved to sit or do moderate jogging (check out CrossFit and MovNat). Running was traditionally done barefoot, which enables a more natural and less stressful action; consider that or getting a Vibrams. Do cold plunges and saunas. Don’t fear the Sun – the risks of getting skin cancer from it are negligible compared to the warding effects it gives from depression, other cancers, and a multitude of other ailments.
Nonetheless, we still find some clever insights – as well as controversies. For instance, I liked how he destroys the Whole Foods-shoppers’ worship of organic and whole foods over processed. He points out that “organic sugar is still sugar,” and that the absurdity has even spread to “organic tobacco,” while processed foods can be both very healthy (e.g. cooking, fermentation) or very unhealthy (e.g. Coca-Cola, Mars bars).
He does a good job of defending the ecological role played by responsible hunters – though I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say lion burgers are a good or valid way of advancing an animal preservation cause – and of rebutting vegetarian arguments. These range from the rational-seeming but factually wrong (e.g. the assertion that hunter-gatherers got most of their calories from plants, or references to T. Colin Campbell’s deeply flawed interpretation of the China Study), to politicized absurdities such as Carol Adam’s assertion in THE SEXUAL POLITICS OF MEAT that meat-eating is a mechanism to enforce “patriarchy” (in reality, hunter-gatherer tribes were far less hierarchic and male-dominant than complex, grain-based civilizations). Still, while it might be true that vegetarians are crazier than average, there was no need – no need whatsoever – to go off on that bizarre tangent about Hitler’s vegetarianism. What the hell, dude? If you’re trying to present yourself as a voice of reason against the filthy grain-eating peasants, calling on the curse of Godwin probably isn’t the smartest way to go about it.
But a few quibbles cannot detract from what is, all things said, a monumental contribution to the nutritional canon. THE PALEO MANIFESTO is eminently readable, greased along by Durant’s endearingly morbid sense of humor (he advises against cannibalism on account of modern people having a “much higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids due to their grain-based diets”). There is a consistently fluid command of the relevant medical, nutritional, and anthropological literature, as might be expected of the organizer of the world’s largest paleo Meetup group. Above all, he succeeds at contextualizing the paleo lifestyle within the big story of humanity’s biosocial evolution, and his conclusions – earlier jeremiads against the Standard American Diet and vegetarianism regardless – end up acknowledging the critical importance of integrating lessons from all four of the major nutritional epochs.
Though paleo is the most “natural” way to eat, it eminently cannot feed a global population of seven billion. The agricultural system – that is, local and organic – plays a vital role in maintaining plant genetic diversity, but it probably cannot feed the world either, short of most of us returning to a hardscrabble existence in the fields. The industrial system is the caloric workhorse that feeds the world, but it suffers from “serious health, ethical, and environmental drawbacks.” According to Durant, the most realistic, sustainable, and humane way forward is to keep the industrial system, but mitigate its worst effects by drawing on the best of what the paleolithic and agricultural systems have to offer. Meanwhile, the information system that industrialism enables can continue to push forwards our understanding of optimal health and nutrition through the vision and self-experimentation of the 21st century’s biohackers.
And really, who can argue with that?