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Answering the Paleo Debunkers, Part 1: Evolution and Hunter-Gatherers

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Every diet always has its critics, but lately there’s been a wave of people trying to “debunk” Paleo, most notably Marlene Zuk’s recent book Paleofantasy and Christina Warriner’s TEDx talk. Some of these anti-Paleo arguments are serious and thought-provoking; others are completely ridiculous, or show that the person just doesn’t understand what Paleo actually is. But in any case, they’re getting a lot of press, and they’re only going to get more common as the ancestral health movement gains momentum.

It’s easy to brush off the “debunking” as silly if you’re already feeling the benefits of Paleo for yourself. A book theoretically arguing that we should be adapted to eat wheat just isn’t convincing if you’ve seen your own health turn around after getting rid of it. But just arguing from personal experience isn’t very good science, and it’s also not likely to convince other people when they bring it up in conversation. It’s much better to understand the actual reasons why these objections to Paleo don’t hold water.

With that in mind, this three-part guide presents Paleo rebuttals to some of the most common criticisms. Part 1 tackles the premise of the diet: evolutionary biology and evidence based on modern hunter-gatherers. Part 2 will handle purely nutritional objections, and Part 3 covers everything else.

Humans have kept evolving since the Agricultural Revolution; 10,000 years is plenty of time to adapt to eating grains.

This is a big part of the argument in Paleofantasy. But it’s based on nothing but a strawman: nobody is seriously arguing that evolution ended in the Paleolithic. Of course it’s true that humans have continued to evolve since the advent of agriculture, but that doesn’t mean we’re well-adapted to eating agricultural foods yet.

Paleo Rebuttals:

What about lactase persistence? The gene for that has spread rapidly since the advent of agriculture; doesn’t that disprove the Paleo theory that we haven’t adapted to Neolithic foods?

This argument is closely related to the one above. Again, there’s a kernel of truth in the premise. With dairy, a lactase persistence adaptation that arose in one person around 7,500 years ago has since spread to 80 percent of Europeans and 35% of people worldwide.

Paleo Rebuttals:

Humans evolved from gorillas, so we must be adapted to a vegetarian diet.

This is an argument you’ll get all the time from vegetarians and vegans, especially raw vegans. The theory is that even the Paleolithic is too recent; we need to go even further back into humans’ evolutionary past to find out what we’re really adapted to eat. It’s an interesting idea, but doesn’t hold much water, mostly because it relies on a false dichotomy between herbivores and carnivores, without accounting for the fact that humans are neither: we’re omnivores. We share some similarities with primates because we’re built to digest plants, but we also share some similarities with carnivores because we’re built to digest animals, too.

Paleo Rebuttals:

Paleo is just evolutionary make-believe – there’s too much we don’t know. Trying to re-enact some mythical “caveman lifestyle” is ridiculous.

This objection is usually raised by people who picture the “Paleo diet” as a cult of unhygienic modern cavemen running around in loincloths and eating raw meat. It’s a good way to make the diet sound unreasonable and weird, but it’s a lazy and dishonest argument, and it’s attacking a strawman. Nobody is trying to re-enact life in the Paleolithic.

Paleo Rebuttals:

Modern meat (or any other modern food) wasn’t available in the Paleolithic, so trying to eat a “Paleo diet” is useless.

Paleo Rebuttals:

Paleo is based on the naturalistic fallacy/fallacy of antiquity

The naturalistic fallacy is the idea that “anything natural is good because it’s natural,” and the fallacy of antiquity is the idea that “anything old is good because it’s old.” Obviously, both of these ideas are silly: hemlock is natural and infanticide is an attested ancient practice.  People who think that Paleo is just about imitating cavemen often accuse it of falling into one or both of these traps.

Paleo Rebuttals:

Cavemen all died when they were 25 – why would you want to eat like that?

This is one of the simplest arguments to refute, because it’s usually based on nothing but misunderstanding or hearsay evidence. In fact, there’s a long article on the site about this, completely deconstructing the idea that “all cavemen died young.”

Paleo Rebuttals:

Didn’t they find grains in Ötzi’s stomach?

Ötzi is a skeleton found frozen in the Alps in 1991; he’s often described as a “caveman” or an “iceman,” so people assume he’s somehow “Paleo.”  Researchers who analyzed the contents of his stomach found that his last meals had included both Einkorn wheat and meat.

Paleo Rebuttals:

Real Paleolithic and/or modern hunter-gatherer diets had/have a lot of variety. It’s silly to eat steak and bacon every day and call it the same thing.

This is an easy objection to answer, because you’re really agreeing with the person – it’s more about broadening their idea of Paleo than refuting some kind of flawed logic or incorrect information.

Paleo Rebuttals:

Didn’t they find evidence of atherosclerosis in Paleo people/hunter-gatherers/Ötzi?

This is usually a question about the Horus study, which showed evidence of atherosclerosis in mummies from around the world, including one hunter-gatherer group. It might also refer to the Maasai, traditional pastoralists in Africa who live on cow’s milk, meat, and blood. A recent autopsy of several Maasai men revealed that many of them had atherosclerosis. Alternately, people might cite the iceman Ötzi (a skeleton discovered in the Alps, and dated to approximately 5,000 years ago). Ötzi had serious arteriosclerosis.

Paleo Rebuttals

Diet is not the only difference between hunter-gatherers/people in the Paleolithic and us.

This is also true – again, the “rebuttal” here is more about changing people’s misconceptions about Paleo than about refuting their actual point.

Paleo Rebuttals:

Conclusion

Hopefully, this guide can help put to rest some of the common myths about Paleo and evolution, and how we use evidence from modern hunter-gatherer societies. There are some good points on the anti-Paleo side, but they’re mostly based on a misunderstanding of what Paleo actually is – if you look at the truth and not the stereotypes, these arguments often end up supporting Paleo!

Still to come in this series are Part 2 (nutritional arguments) and Part 3 (all the other miscellaneous ways that people try to “debunk” Paleo) – if you have any particular objections that you’d like to see addressed, let us know on Google+!