Memo to Marlene Zuk: “Paleo Nostalgia” is a Big Fat Strawman

I hadn’t even realized that I was reading an article by the subject author, also used as a source in this hit & run piece on Atossa Araxia Abrahamian I did a while back, Myopia: Viewing Paleo-Libertarianism Through a Statist-Collectivist Lens.

This article—Misguided Nostalgia for Our Paleo Past—does make some good points, but for how long have many in the paleosphere been saying it’s not about reenactment? I feel as though I’m reading arguments that might have made some sense in 2010. Sure, there’s still lots of bright eyes out there, but they’re not the same bright eyes. Bright eyedness is a revolving door. It’s how people get involved in the first place, before they learn a few things and mature in a mode of thought whereby paleo is an evolutionary framework for making decisions about food and other elements of a life way.

In the article, Ms. Zuk uses lactase persistence as an example of current evolution happening.

But in some groups of humans, particularly those from Northern Europe and parts of Africa, lactase—the enzyme that breaks down lactose—lingers throughout life, allowing them to take advantage of a previously unusable food source. Sverrisdóttir and her Ph.D. supervisor, Anders Götherström, study how and when this development occurred, and how it is related to the domestication of cows for their meat and milk.

And I made the same point (mentioning lactase persistence) in my post yesterday that “there’s no Paleo diet, but millions of them.” We migrated to all corners of the globe with a massive variety of food sources, fucking Hot Pockets not being one of them for anyone ever.

Then she sets up a strawman to knock down.

Given this whiplash-inducing rate of recent change, it’s reasonable to conclude that we aren’t suited to our modern lives, and that our health, our family lives, and perhaps our sanity would all be improved if we could live the way early humans did. Our bodies and minds evolved under a particular set of circumstances, the reasoning goes, and in changing those circumstances without allowing our bodies time to evolve in response, we have wreaked the havoc that is modern life.

In short, we have what the anthropologist Leslie Aiello, president of the renowned Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, called “paleofantasies.”

How many people really want to “live the way early humans did?” None that I know of, and I know one hell of a lot more paleofans than Ms. Zuk does.

Here’s the deal. While no, nobody wants reenactment, there are lots of things where a knowledge of evolutionary biology might give us pause, at least enough to slow down and think: For. Ourselves. In general: eat Real Food you usually prepare yourself; get outside and get some nature and sunshine; move around; engage yourself and others in play; develop and nurture deeper social bonds with smaller circles of friends/family; and other perfectly human things that, even until quite recently, many people have always been admonishing to some degree or another—even religious institutions. The difference is, with human evolutionary biology, anthropology and social anthropology, we now have better reasons to persuade and admonish people.

This is a very fucking good thing, Ms. Zuk! What, you’d rather have people going around saying eat real food because it’s what God created for us? And take care of your body because it’s God’s temple? And develop deep and lasting social bonds because God commanded us to fellowship and minister to others? And do right by your children because God said to train them up in the way they should go? …Or, “hey man, study biology, evolution and hunter gather societies and it all makes really good sense?”

…Huh, Ms. “evolutionary biologist at the University of Minnesota?”

And then there’s the other thing that gets my boxers in a bunch: implicit collectivism. That is, the notion that because we’re still evolving (lactase persistence, varied tolerance for legumes & grains, etc.), that the whole paleo Diet thing is just nostalgic hoopla because we need to be evolving, or whatever.

In the Paleolithic, people didn’t have the scientific or medical knowledge to understand why some new adaptation was an advantage for some, a death sentence for others (eventually). They probably didn’t even notice it, because it’s the advantage that tends to reproduce itself over time and those without it just fade away. It becomes the new norm over far longer timescales than a human life—or even many generations, and so nobody really notices.

But because we’re all collectivists, now, agitating to design a specific diet, social structure and human life for one and all that scales to 7 billion individuals (from HG tribes of 30-60 in various regions all over the globe), we yell “STOP! don’t go there!” when someone suggests that maybe those of us with an inkling of scientific knowledge into human evolution and biology might just not want to throw ourselves on the sword of human evolution for the good of societal and biological evolution.

Here’s the deal: you’re either lactose tolerant or you’re not. If you’re not it will give you anything from an upset tummy to raging, life threatening diarrhea. You’re either coeliac or you’re not and if you’re not, you may tolerate gluten and other grains just fine so far as you know, you may have a slight sensitivity where if you eliminate them you feel better, or grains may cause undetected systemic inflammation and hyperphagy that only becomes apparent when you eliminate them and lose the red puffy itchy face and begin dropping weight spontaneously…as many of Dr. William Davis’ patients and readers of his book have found: Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health.

I can’t help but read an article like that and come away with the impression: ‘STOP! I’m just getting into this field and it was all predicated upon me being your authority! You’re really fucking ruining it for me!’

And in the end, isn’t it really always about authority and who has the upper hand in that scheme? Being an authority is an effective way to earn a living because even in the vaunted paleosphere, there are still plenty of people looking only to be told what to do, all of what to do and nothing but what to do. That’s why I always have my work cut out for me. To the extent I’m any authority at all for anyone, it’s the valid, necessary authority of telling you that you’re OK, that you can figure this stuff out. …That it’s simple as it should be, that you can do it just like any animal in the wild, and you will do it with just a bit of attention to the generalities and details. All the information is at your fingertips. So, onward.

Since Covid killed my Cabo San Lucas vacation-rental business in 2021, this is my day job. I can't do it without you. Memberships are $10 monthly, $20 quarterly, or $65 annually. Two premium coffees per month. Every membership helps finance this work I do, and if you like what I do, please chip in. No grandiose pitches.


  1. Tuck on February 19, 2013 at 11:44

    “Here’s the deal: you’re either lactose tolerant or you’re not. If you’re not it will give you anything from an upset tummy to raging, life threatening diarrhea.”

    Not that simple. You don’t have to have the lactase persistence gene to digest milk without ill effects.

    “This considerable quantity of milk was not associated with any milk-related diarrhea or gastrointestinal problem in any of the children or in their families.”

    “Lactose malabsorption among Masai children of East Africa”

    • Richard Nikoley on February 19, 2013 at 11:50

      Oh, you again. Still collectivizing civilization I see.

      FYI: Even lactase persisten people can get a tummy ache if they haven’t had milk for a while and go in head first.

      You really don’t have a point here, or in the last post.

      • Tuck on February 19, 2013 at 13:15

        The point is that the notion that the lactase-persistence gene is required for dairy consumption is mistaken.

        There are other studies out there for other traditional milk-consuming groups that show the same thing.

        “Lactose” intolerance seems more likely to be the result of damage to the gut from wheat consumption, as celiac and lactose intolerance are highly correlated, and lactose intolerance often resolves after wheat’s removed from the diet.

        “Lactose Intolerance: Often A Result of ‘Silent’ Wheat-Derived Bowel Disease”

        Never saw your response to my other comment, as your response-notification subscription system doesn’t seem to be working.

        “…Still collectivizing civilization…”


      • ChocoTaco369 on February 20, 2013 at 09:49

        I agree with this. My research has pointed me in the direction that it isn’t lactase production that matters. It is the bacteria cultures in your intestines that count, which is evident in Danny Roddy’s post “Milk Isn’t the Problem, You’re the Problem.”

        Basically, if you have issues with milk digestion, it’s because you have gut damage and mineral deficiencies. He suggests supplementing milk with simple syrup to help build up your gut bacteria and supplement with vitamins to balance out your nutrient deficiencies. It’s common in America not because of genetics, but because of the diets full of empty calories that deliver little micronutrients and a grain-heavy diet that severely erodes your gut. Genetics don’t have a thing to do with it.

      • ChocoTaco369 on February 20, 2013 at 09:50

        Oh yea, Chris Kresser posted up a nice article on this as well entitled “How to Cure Lactose Intolerance.

        Same approach. It ain’t the genes, it’s your shit diet.

      • Richard Nikoley on February 20, 2013 at 10:08

        Not buying it. Now, I might buy the idea that building a bacteria colony in your gut that mimics the lactase enzyme to digest lactose could work for some individuals or at least ameliorate the discomfort—many lactose intolerant people report better results with raw milk, which contains bacteria.

        But to say that the lactase switch, determined by genetics, has NOTHING to do with it is plain wrong, ignoring obvious science and worst off all, plays into the worst elements of pseudo-science alternative numb-jumbo.

        Infants are born with a sterile gut and only begin to get some bacterial seeding while traveling down the birth canal and over time, buy sticking their fingers in their mouth, etc.

        How then are they digesting lactose on day one, minutes or hours after birth? The answer is lactase and lactase is genetic.

  2. Kyle Bennett on February 19, 2013 at 11:35

    “throw ourselves on the sword of human evolution”

    I hadn’t even considered that angle, but now that you mention it, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if some of the most collectivist among them thought it was the right thing to do. Just another manifestation of the values behind eugenics.

    • Richard Nikoley on February 19, 2013 at 11:48

      “I hadn’t even considered that angle”

      Unpossible. :)

    • Gordon Shannon on February 19, 2013 at 12:19

      I’ve been afraid of that angle for awhile. Look at the wording:

      “Our bodies and minds evolved under a particular set of circumstances, the reasoning goes, and in changing those circumstances *without allowing our bodies time to evolve in response,* we have wreaked the havoc that is modern life.”

      There is a species-wide process occurring, and we are irrational/immoral/selfish if we get in the way of that process . We *ought* to eat grains, eat processed foods, eat GMOs, absorb mindless entertainment, listen to the masters of our “evolved” social system, etc. We must *allow* evolution, for the good of the *species*.

      This rhetoric is reminiscent of the Nazis. In fact, it’s not even reminiscent, it’s practically what they said.

      The present limits on the individuals of the species, imposed by evolution, are totally disregarded. “Human nature” – an evolutionary concept, not the classical eternalist concept – is disregarded…because it is in the service of progressive evolution.

      Though utterly non-objective and collectivist in itself, the evil of this progressivist nonsense is compounded by the end they make evolution serve: egalitarianism. At least the Nazis had something going for them, insofar as they made their nonsense serve the concept of a higher ideal (don’t read “transcendent” into “higher” here). This nonsense serves only the justify the muck and the lowest common denominator, and, of course, the social hierarchy that guarantees the prophets of equality their positions of authority.

  3. Andrew on February 19, 2013 at 12:00

    The only part of Zuk’s argument that appears to have a potential for success is the “paleofantasy” slur itself. Of course, it’s debunking by epithet, and completely bereft of substance, but it’s catchy enough for self-appointed defenders of the status quo (and veg*n types) to glom onto.

    • Elenor on February 22, 2013 at 05:55

      Oh, I dunno, I kinda DO want to live in a paleofantasy. Will there be unicorns?

      • Galina L. on February 22, 2013 at 06:09

        I am afraid that paleo- environment could be way less enjoyable for females than for males. It would be unthinkable to be a good looking woman upon entering a middle-age or even past 30. Unicorns kept company only with very young virgins.

      • Joshua on February 22, 2013 at 10:33

        No, but there will be narwhals. The unicorns of the sea!

  4. Bill on February 19, 2013 at 12:37

    Dr. Art Ayers argues that lactose intolerance can be overcome by improving gut bacteria flora. He says that everybody can become lactose tolerant. I believe him. It worked for me. Just search lactose on his blog. A mine of information. Here’s one example:

    • Richard Nikoley on February 19, 2013 at 12:45

      Makes sense. At times, I’ve gone significant time with no milk. Then, if I dive in, can get a stomach ache first time (even raw, but pasteurized worse). And them I’m fine.

      Anecdotally, there are many people who claim to be lactose intolerant who handle raw milk fine. But, owing to my own experience, I never take much stock in a single event, but more in “persistence.” :)

      • Bill on February 19, 2013 at 13:02

        I only take milk in my coffee. However grass fed butter (Kerrygold) and probiotic greek yoghurt are important staples in my daily diet. I eliminated all dairy for a week, then gradually introduced butter, yoghurt and aged cheeses back into my diet. A vital source of K2. On a limited budget, dairy is a cheap option. K2, vitamin A and D3 are the holy trinity….

    • Gabriella Kadar on February 19, 2013 at 18:13

      Bill, there are families in eastern Finland who have no ability to digest lactose from birth. They are probably originated from eastern Siberia and they have adapted by providing even newborns with buttermilk. I have a cousin who was born like this although we are not Finnish but Hungarian but there may be a genetic link to these people in the very distant past. The doctor put her on real, homemade buttermilk from week one. Dinner time at her place always included buttermilk and regular milk as well. Most of the kids drank the buttermilk. (real buttermilk not the skim crap sold in supermarkets.)

      Despite going gluten free for several years I am still not able to drink more than a small amount of milk in my tea for a couple of days without ending up with cramps and unpleasant night time trips to the toilet. But my celiac daughter never lost her ability to drink regular milk without problem before going gluten free. Her body’s reaction to gluten is extremely not ignorable especially now that she only occasionally ignores the limits.

      So possibly the hypothesis is not universally applicable?

      • Bill on February 19, 2013 at 19:26

        There will always be outliers. However for the vast majority, Dr. Ayers hypothesis makes sense. Have you looked into gut flora issues, Gabriella? Probably worth spending some time on Art’s blog. Best wishes, I hope you can resolve your issues.

      • Gabriella Kadar on February 20, 2013 at 03:03

        Bill, I don’t consider not being able tolerate lactose to be an issue. There are entire peoples in this world who don’t drink fresh milk and it’s unlikely that they’ve all got gut flora issues or they are all gluten intolerant/celiac.

    • Kata on March 4, 2013 at 20:04

      That’s interesting. I’m Hungarian too and haven’t been able to digest dairy since I was very small. I wonder if it’s a Uralic thing? Maybe we’re less likely to have that particular gene.

  5. Galina L. on February 19, 2013 at 15:29

    Each time when I read about Paleo diet in real mass-media (not paleo blogs) it is always some particular tone like the adult author of the article talks about a set of naive even child-like but well-intentioned people who decided to give ancient life-style a try. I am not exactly a paleo-person, and don’t try to be the one, but the nose-in-the-air tone of thous who report on paleo-movement somehow annoys me.

  6. BillP on February 19, 2013 at 17:52

    Sometimes I think the paleo-bashers are concentrated in three professional areas: medical, for obvious reasons (bucking the status quo is bad for business); urban literary/political commentary (displaying a possible fear that someone is going to snatch them out of their comfortable New York City existence and make them go live in a tepee, without art and culture, and horrors, having to gather and prepare their own food); and academia, who like you say, Richard, like to score the easy shot by tearing down straw men, thus disposing of some poor fad-boy idiots, while simultaneously achieving academic authority.

    The problem with all three of these types (well, one of the problems) is that they don’t seem to plumb very deeply into either the issues involved in paleo, or the possible solutions to modern problems suggested by hunter-gatherer lifeways. Instead, they conjure up some raw-meat eater who lives under a bush in Central Park and present him as the face of paleo. I wonder at their motivations (i.e., besides a paycheck); but they seem like the type of people that probably aren’t too comfortable away from their word processors, wherefrom they can feel the joys of cranking out shallow commentaries on the latest social or political happenings.

  7. Steve W on February 19, 2013 at 19:57
    • Valhalla on February 19, 2013 at 23:00

      thy blog is retarded

      • Steve W on February 21, 2013 at 08:24

        Well then, you’ll certainly love this one.

        Environment, reproduction and society…

  8. Joseph on February 20, 2013 at 10:49

    I don’t know that Zuk is entirely wrong, though. It seems to me that no smart idea escapes into the public realm without giving some people occasion to make it impossibly stupid. No matter how careful the smart people are, somebody is always willing to take their limited insight into some contextual, empirical reality transpose it into an unlimited understanding of imaginary absolute reality.

    I hate to quote the Bible approvingly on this site, but here goes: “For the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move. Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good” (Jeremiah 10:3-16). My only issue with this quote is to note that sometime those dumb idols are less harmless (in the particular) than the author here wants them to be (though I think he is right, generally speaking: the nice thing about real life is that it has a way of busting up naive attempts to reduce chaos to predictable regularity).

  9. Joseph on February 20, 2013 at 10:50

    “… and transpose it …” Sorry for the typo!

  10. April 2013 Discover Magazine Article on Paleo - Page 2 | Mark's Daily Apple Health and Fitness Forum page 2 on March 4, 2013 at 19:50

    […] to Marlene Zuk: “Paleo Nostalgia” is a Big Fat Strawman Memo to Marlene Zuk: "Paleo Nostalgia" is a Big Fat Strawman | Free The Animal Here's the problem I have with her….she is NOT a biochemist nor is she a medical professor doing […]

  11. Mike on March 11, 2013 at 19:18
  12. Mike on March 11, 2013 at 19:08

    Figured there’d be some serious butthurt from the paleo crowd on this one ; )

    Any opposition is clearly a conspiracy to silence Grok.

  13. […] Rapid evolution has been documented to have taken place over the last 10,000 years—including Devil's Sperm like lactose tolerance (The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution). This is often put forth as a criticism of Paleo when in fact, it's the very best argument for Paleo. Unfortunately, a moron like Marlene Zuk would fail to get the memo, or think too much before the imminent publication of her book in a few days….that which will doubtlessly prove to be a stupid screed on many levels of conventional dogma spouting ignorance: Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live. (Not even knowing about the book, I did already take on some of the stupid articles by her and a friend, prefiguring it: here and here.) […]

  14. […] Memo to Marlene Zuk: “Paleo Nostalgia” is a Big Fat Strawman […]

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