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Let’s talk about paleo

It’s Friday, so let us talk about “paleo”. No, I am not talking about right-wing conservatives like Pat Buchanan, I mean stuff to do with a current trend in diet and lifestyle. The diet known as “modern paleo” seems to be taking off in the US and elsewhere. It is a diet that shuns grains, legumes, refined sugars and processed foods, and goes for things such as grass-fed beef, fish, vegetables – as a prime source of carbs – fruits and so on. The idea is that until a few thousands years ago, we “noble savages” were happily hunting animals, running about and getting fit, eating berries, sleeping when we needed to or wanted, and that things all went tits-up when we started harvesting crops. I guess the ultimate symbol of evil is a combine harvester.

Here is a typical take from one of the movement’s Big Cheeses (or should I say, Paleoistas?), Mark Sissons:

Right around 10,000 years ago, when former hunter-gatherers began growing grain seeds in neat, organized rows, something happened. Population exploded, because we now had a steady source of calories. Villages and cities sprang up, because we no longer had to follow our food. We could simply grow it where we lived. Those sound like pretty good things, at first. More food and shelter sounds good, right? Well, something else happened, too. Those early farmers were shorter than the hunter-gatherers they replaced.  They didn’t live as long, and they had smaller brains. They got a lot more infectious diseass and more cavities. In short, they were not as healthy as the hunter-gatherers. Same genes, same homo sapiens, different environment, worse health.

Right. So let’s follow this through: Man lived a longer, healthier, happier and probably better-looking life up until relatively recently, and for some dumb reason, decided to get fat, ill and stupid. This transition, otherwise known as agriculture, is not really explained in this account. It is one of the oddities of some Darwinians, or those who like to use Darwin’s doctrines of evolutionary development in support of their ideas, as paleoistas do, that they don’t stop to ask that if a course of action – like farming – is so bad for us, how come those who practiced it did not die off and the supposedly fitter, older forms of behaviour take over again? And yet as Sissons has to concede, although agriculture may have its downsides, it enabled the human population to explode in numbers, and when, what is called the Agricultural Revolution happened (new ways of growing crops, use of fertilisers, etc), it also created the economic surplus to enable the Industrial Revolution, with all its marvels. Is Sissons claiming that we’d be better off in some sort of primeval state? I doubt it, of course.

Look, I can see that there is a lot of common sense behind some of these modern dietary ideas and yes, I have personally adjusted my lifestyle a bit, such as cutting down on grains and bread and so on. But there is something about the almost religious fervor behind this “paleo” stuff that bothers me. The fact is that without what we call modern agriculture, the vast majority of the today’s population would not be alive. And that is a rather big plus for agriculture. Sure, there is obesity and associated issues to deal with, many of which have complex causes. But I am damn glad we did have agriculture. It is precisely the wealth that such developments made possible that enable people today to worry about this stuff, and even make whole careers and businesses out of it.

(Full disclosure, I am a Suffolk farmer’s son, and probably the only person on this blog who has driven a combine harvester for its intended purpose.)

45 comments to Let’s talk about paleo

  • You’re setting up a strawman here. I’ve been following the Paleo diet myself for 3.5 years, and have attended conferences where I had the privilege of meeting and chatting with Mr. Sisson.

    “But I am damn glad we did have agriculture.”

    Mark would be the first to second that sentiment, and to observe that he has no desire to go back to a paleolithic mode of life. For the record, he’s quite successful and has a beach house in Malibu. He’s not in a cave.

    The main driver of the Paleo diet trend is not religious fervor, or a desire to go back to dragging our wives by their hair, it’s what have been known in the scientific and medical literature for quite a while as the “Diseases of Civilization”, which include heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity.

    I follow the Paleo diet myself after discovering it through dumb luck because following a few of its tenets ended an inflammatory intestinal condition that had plagued me for 16 years, and resulted in multiple hospitalizations and ultimately a colon-resection surgery. I ate according to the food pyramid, and it nearly killed me. I’ll not be going back, I like feeling good all the time.

    “…and for some dumb reason, decided to get fat, ill and stupid.”

    No dumb reason, we simply ran out of proper food. Malthus had it a bit off, unfortunately: running low in ideal food means we substitute with inferior alternatives, like grains. Food riots are optional. These lead to malnutrition, which seems to be the root cause of the diseases of civilization. None of this is the least bit controversial, btw. The anthropological literature has been covering this topic since the 1930s. (See Dr. Weston Price’s book, “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration”.)

    Mark publishes a “Success Story” on his blog (Mark’s Daily Apple) each Friday. I suggest you peruse them, and consider that there is no intervention offered by the medical or scientific establishment that can achieve the results offered by eating a properly-nourishing human diet.

    My doctors offered me nothing but “we’ll cut the troublesome bits out”, sadly that didn’t cure it.

  • Johnnydub

    It’s not the agricultural changes – it’s the modern processed food industries. Did we use High Fructose Corn Syrup in anything 100 years ago?

    I’m trying to get healthier – diet, exercise etc. and the thing abut the paleo diet that appeals is it offers a good rule of thumb – the more processed, the less / nothing of it you should eat…

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Truck, if it is a staw man, I had quite a lot of reason to construct it, when Mr Sisson stated:

    Those early farmers were shorter than the hunter-gatherers they replaced. They didn’t live as long, and they had smaller brains. They got a lot more infectious diseass and more cavities. In short, they were not as healthy as the hunter-gatherers. Same genes, same homo sapiens, different environment, worse health.

    He does not sound very keen on agriculture to me. In fact, his praise for increased production is immediately, and damningly, qualified by what he says next. It is a bit like a person saying that he admires the Industrial Revolution before going on about black satanic mills, child labour, etc. You kind of miss the supposed benefits.

    No dumb reason, we simply ran out of proper food

    Which rather suggests that for Man at a certain stage, Paleo diets only really work for those who are few in number and lots of wild land to hunt and go berry hunting in. In fact, one of the things one observes is that, if there is a bad year for weather or suchlike, or the population rivals a small level above the average, a brutal famine would set in. It happens in the wild where numbers of animals can be “regulated” by the delights of Mother Nature.

    No: I think I was right to call out some of the paleos for attacking farming without being more careful. If it was just about processed food, why not just say that?

  • Philip Scott Thomas

    I am . . . probably the only person on this board who has driven a combine harvester for its intended purpose.

    Make that “I am probably one of only two persons on this board who has driven a combine harvester for its intended purpose.” :-)

  • Let me summarize in very few words:

    Agriculture allows poor people to have food.

    For almost all of human history, and a tiny little bit of pre-history, human beings have been crushingly poor. Eat, work, eat, work, sleep, sex, eat. This means that without agriculture not only most people now, but most people in the last 10,000 years would have starved to death.

    At the same time…let’s not pretend that it’s good food for rich people.
    Hunter gatherers had lots of free time, and didn’t worry about finding food most of the time. They could get food when they needed some. They were rich.
    Moderns, perhaps since 1950 in the States, and a little later in post-War Europe, have been rich as well. Whether you get food or not isn’t an issue.

    It isn’t shocking that optimal consumption habits for the rich and poor are different.

    Poor ideal consumption: Eat enough to survive.
    Rich ideal consumption: Eat the right things to optimize/thrive.

    Paleo more or less ignores the problem of the poor…and addresses optimization.
    That’s not at all to say that addressing the needs of the poor isn’t an important problem…but it’s not the problem Paleo diet is solving.

    (Aside: I started promoting Paleo food approaches in ’98)

  • Johathan, it’s “Tuck” not “Truck”, btw. LOL.

    “He does not sound very keen on agriculture to me.”

    What he states about our early-farmer ancestors is a simple matter of historical fact, not his opinion. Jared Diamond wrote about this way back in 1987… Although I disagree with Diamond about why we adopted agriculture: we adopted it because the animals we evolved to hunt for food were becoming extinct through our efforts. We were running out of food, and had to find alternatives.

    “It is a bit like a person saying that he admires the Industrial Revolution before going on about black satanic mills, child labour, etc. You kind of miss the supposed benefits.”

    Yes, there were pros and cons to both the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions. And some of the early cons of each were ameliorated with time (malnutrition and pollution come to mind, respectively). Sisson is focused on ameliorating some of the long-lived cons of industrial agriculture, particularly.

    “It happens in the wild where numbers of animals can be “regulated” by the delights of Mother Nature.”

    Famine also happens regularly to farmers. See the Irish potato farmers, for starters… Agriculture is hardly a cure-all. I’ll also point out that while famine in India has been ended by the Green Revolution, it’s been replaced in one generation by the plague of obesity and diabetes that follows eating a grain-rich diet. Time will tell what the long-term impact of that change will be… What Sisson (and I) hope the paleo movement will produce is for our agricultural system to produce a better mix of foods, in line with our hunter-gatherer dietary requirements. Whether or not we can feed all the people extant a proper diet is an open question, unfortunately. Hopefully we can.

    “No: I think I was right to call out some of the paleos for attacking farming without being more careful. If it was just about processed food, why not just say that?”

    Because it’s not just about processed food. Eating a diet high in grains and their by-products is not suitable for optimally-healthy humans. It’s a biological plan B, and produces less-than ideal results. Whether you grow them yourself or buy them at the store.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Well if the animals were becoming extinct, that means that domestic breeding of said is a survival necessity. So again, when paleos say “it all went wrong with farming” they should instead say “it went wrong with the wrong kind of food produced by farming”.

    “Famine also happens regularly to farmers”. Does it? The Irish potato famine was caused by many things, such as protectionist policy that encouraged a dangerous over-reliance on a single food source (the potato); the key is to have food produced from different parts of the world so that, if there is a problem in one part of the world, one can important food to make up the difference. You need a modern, trade-based economy for that.

    Actually, most recent famines have been the consequence of political tyranny (such as the Ukraine in the 1930s), war (too many examples to mention).

    The Green Revolution was indeed a tremendous benefit for countries such as India. I haven’t heard of obesity as a big problem in that part of the world, although no doubt it might well be one. A problem caused by plenty is an easier one to solve than the other.

    The key in your last sentence is is “optimally”. That is the point: for much of known human history, just surviving was on the table, and you yourself admit, before farming came along, people did starve to death because supply of certain things ran out. It is because we have the wealth we do – thanks to farming – that this debate can even be had at all.

  • “…they should instead say “it went wrong with the wrong kind of food produced by farming”.”

    They do. That’s why your argument is a bit of a straw-man argument. :)

    ““Famine also happens regularly to farmers”. Does it?”

    History’s so full of example of famine hitting farmers I’m a bit surprised you’re taking the other side of that argument. Yes, political malfeasance is a regular cause, but droughts and plagues of locusts aren’t the result of political malfeasance. We don’t disagree here.

    “A problem caused by plenty is an easier one to solve than the other.”

    India does not have a problem caused by plenty. They have a surplus of empty calories from grains, and a deficit of essential nutrients which humans can only get from animal products. This is not an easy fix, as it’s not easy to produce the same quantity of animal products as grains. Farmer’s like Joel Salatin think it can be done, and I hope they’re right, but they’re in a tiny minority in the agricultural community. This problem will not be fixed with a combine harvester: that technology is what’s driving the obesity/diabetes epidemic.

    One interesting point about the Paleo movement which I think you’ll appreciate: most of the ones I’ve encountered are libertarians and convervatives. Some of them extremely so.

    Mark has a post that addresses a lot of your critiques at the link below. You’ll note that he starts with “…grain subsidies that have been firmly entrenched since the 1920s and 1930s would need to be abolished. Authorities the world over would need to revise their health recommendations, thus admitting that they were wrong on a whole lot of important stuff.”

    “Can We Feed the World on the Primal Blueprint Diet?”

    I don’t know what his politics are, but I think it’s pretty safe to speculate that he’s not a socialist. ;)

  • Antoine Clarke

    Full disclosure, I am a Suffolk farmer’s son, and probably the only person on this board who has driven a combine harvester for its intended purpose.)

    Squashing hedgehogs? LOL

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    If famine hits farmers, then surely it is going to hit hunter-gatherers as well. Adjusted for population size, which option would you pick?

    Famines also tend to happen a lot due to lack of things like surpluses, decent irrigation, sophisticated farming methods, etc. The solution is better, smarter farming.

    With India, if you think the “Green Revolution” is a dead end, and paleo is what people need, the issue is doing so at a price that is affordable, given the level of population. (Again, one reason why modern agriculture works as it does is that you cannot really have as large a number of people with paleo. It is not going to work.) Also, I keep hearing from the Greenies that livestock consume a lot of resources and produce methane (greenhouse gas) and that we should move toward grains and vegetables. (And in cultures such as India, where vegetarianism holds sway, there are other issues.)

    Yes I know quite a few libertarians and so forth are paleo fans; in fact, this is what struck me as odd, because in general, such folk laud the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions and the idea of human progress, with all its twists and turns, in general. Read Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist for what he says about such matters.

    Maybe the word “paleo” is the problem.

  • Mr Ed

    As a former biologist, may I suggest that you look at a human alimentary tract from mouth to anal sphincter and consider what it says about what our bodies are designed to eat?

    We don’t chew the cud (well, most of us) or eat what passes out again to get the most out of it (I speak for myself). We only have one stomach, and need certain vitamins from our diet.

    However, the benefits of farming are self-evident, the human race would dwindle without farming, and advanced economies to make it profitable to farm.

    Farming does not lead to people eating too many crisps, it may enable that, but a diet is a choice of what is available, and farmers, in the main, grow crops to make money, to enjoy the benefits of an industrial economy.

  • Most of the modern ‘innovations’ in farming are actually industry responses to government subsidies.
    One of the coolest things I found out this past year was that we could, in fact, have a lot more grass fed beef than we thought we could, and we could rehabilitate a lot of land thought to be unusable: Allan Savory’s Ted Talk

    Meanwhile, the poor have suffered from modern farming. Just ask any small farmer who has got on the wrong side of Monsanto. They use the courts, the patent system, etc… to their advantage, and since dealing with the government is a large cost and, ideally, marginal revenue should equal marginal cost, the result of big government is big corporations. Read that again because if you didn’t catch it, I just laid out the reason why every economist/libertarian should assume that the reason why corporations are so big is not economies of scale per se, but government, because government skews the entire equation upward. Now, this is really fun trying to explain to the anti-Walmart crowd why the government action they want taken will result in an even larger Walmart rather than the mom and pop stores they say they want. The corporations spread the cost of government across many transactions. The mom and pops can’t do that.

    You aren’t seeing a religious fervor with the paleo diet either. Faith, as the bible says, is the evidence of things unseen. The effects of the paleo diet have been seen, and very much enjoyed. Is there such a thing a scientific fervor? A really successful experiment inspires zeal.

    As to the rest of it, you are basically arguing with the anthropological record. Agriculture allowed a population explosion, but those people were shorter and generally less healthy than those who came before. We can and have developed some real innovations that can improve nutrition, but it would be nice if the subsidies would stop. Do you realize that high fructose corn syrup was researched and developed specifically to take advantage of a ridiculous oversupply created by subsidies? Not only government money, but research and development money wasted on this crap? Not that it is much worse than sugar, but we had sugar already.

    Maybe we should make up a new diet- the No Subsidy Diet. Don’t eat anything that has been subsidized. The real upswing in obesity came after the promotion of soy as a major crop in America, so I suspect soy is like the straw that broke the camel’s back, but I suppose some of these hybrid wheat strains could have done it too.

  • “…if you think the “Green Revolution” is a dead end…”

    It’s not a dead end, it’s just problematic. It converted famine into malnutrition, which is an improvement, as it at least buys more time to fix things properly. It also contributes to population control, as one of the side effects of obesity and diabetes is a decline in fertility. So there’s that…

    “…the issue is doing so at a price that is affordable, given the level of population.”

    Yeah, that’s pretty obvious. Sisson covers that well in the link that you didn’t read. ;)

    “…(Again, one reason why modern agriculture works as it does is that you cannot really have as large a number of people with paleo. It is not going to work.)”

    Really? How do you know that? What ever happened to the old, optimistic “you don’t know until you’ve tried it.”? If we can’t fix this problem, we’re not going to be able to fix any of them: this one is fundamental.

    Agriculture is leading us down the road to smaller brains. Look at our extinct, grain-eating primate relatives if you want to see the future of agriculture.

    “…Also, I keep hearing from the Greenies that livestock consume a lot of resources and produce methane (greenhouse gas) and that we should move toward grains and vegetables.”

    Greenies? You mean the Watermelons? You ought to know that you can’t take anything that lot says seriously. Now THEY are religious fanatics. :)

    “…(And in cultures such as India, where vegetarianism holds sway, there are other issues.)”

    India invented the Diseases of Civilization. There’s actually an interesting argument that the reason cattle are sacred in India is that the Indians found out the hard way what happens when you eat the last cow and try to live on a vegan diet.

    “…the idea of human progress, with all its twists and turns, in general.”

    The notion of Progress is basically a religious one, IMHO, not a rational one. Take a look at the aftereffects of the Justinian Plague for a little corrective. Being a rational optimist is fine, so long as you’re accurately taking all the facts into account. What I learned from encountering the paleo diet was that there were a lot of facts about human nutritional requirement that I, and we, are not taking into account.

    And yes, the term “paleo diet” is problematic. Sisson calls it Primal, for just that reason. But then names are rarely logical, or ideal (says the man living in a country run by “liberals”).

    At any rate, I hope this discussion was helpful.

  • @August: Very well put. I especially like the No Subsidy Diet idea.

  • bloke in spain

    Worth pointing out the largest cause of death amongst hunter gatherers is being murdered by other hunter gatherers.
    Paleodiatists?
    Safest avoided.

  • BTW, this is not a board, it is a blog… suitably edited.

  • Sigivald

    Tuck said: it’s what have been known in the scientific and medical literature for quite a while as the “Diseases of Civilization”, which include heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity.

    I’ll give you all of those except cancer.

    Cancer is a disease not of “civilization”, but of “living things”.

    Honestly, “fire” probably causes more cancers than “agriculture” had any hope of – all that soot and smoke in your shelters, or in the air while you huddle around the fire? Far worse than grains.

    Indeed, I suspect having a ready supply of non-grain vegetables is a serious benefit vs. “truly paleolithic” pre-agricultural diets.

    (I notice “natural”-obsessed people – digressing and not referring to you, I hasten to add – seem to get the idea that The Perfect Natural Diet will save them from all diseases.

    The idea is, of course, medically ludicrous.

    But that doesn’t stop them, nor from quoting Ancient Authorities that say Diet=Medicine. Sure, they ignore all their other contemporary horrible advice…)

  • bloke in spain

    Tuck said: it’s what have been known in the scientific and medical literature for quite a while as the “Diseases of Civilization”, which include heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity.

    “I’ll give you all of those except cancer.”
    Why except? Civilsation’s the only place you live long enough to suffer from it.

  • Midwesterner

    I was a caregiver for my elderly mother. She reacted to any form of (new world) corn with er, let’s not go there. The consequences to her before we worked out that corn was the cause included having a hunk of her bowels removed.

    On realizing it was corn products that was the cause, I steadily removed from her diet any products I suspected contained corn. The first to go was sausage and bacon. It turns out they are cured in corn sweeteners. Eventually even frozen pizza had to go. In the US, due to the power of the grain lobby, corn is not held to the labeling requirements of things like shellfish, peanuts, chicken, etc. This may come as a surprise to anybody who doesn’t have a food allergy, but even where required, food labels are amazingly inaccurate. We had to test each food and learn if it contained corn by the consequences.

    One day, she got violent diarrhea from fresh grapes. She had always enjoyed the grapes and done fine with them. Still in doubt, I isolated a several hour period in which she only had the grapes, determining them to be the cause by the consequences. I left the remaining grapes in the fridge and they remained fresh for months. It turns out that coating them in corn starch greatly increases their storage life. I found web sites discussing things that contain corn and realized that to avoid corn, I needed to put her on basically a paleo diet. I found that she could tolerate things sourced from corn if they were refined to crystaline purity (ie granulated fructose) but not if they still contain any corn plant material (ie corn syrups). She could eat only fruit and vegetables that were both fresh and pealable. Only chicken and beef that was fresh and uncured or preserved in any way. Her problems went completely away although the results of occasional mistakes kept me attentive. I had a brief respite after the mainstream adoption of corn adulterants by shopping at a health food store but it wasn’t but a couple of years and apparently there were ‘organic’ corn adulterants being added to ‘health’ food.

    Since I’ve reacted to corn in a lesser way since childhood, I imagine when I hit my 70s and 80s I will have the same extreme reactions. I am 100% on board with the “no subsidy” diet. Until then, I have a very paleo diet just for self defense.

  • Laird

    August said it well: “you are basically arguing with the anthropological record. Agriculture allowed a population explosion, but those people were shorter and generally less healthy than those who came before.” The anthropological record is fairly conclusive: after switching to a farming lifestyle homo sapiens tended to be shorter, have shorter lifespans be generally less healthy. That can be accepted as a decent trade-off for the ability to support a much larger population and the economic benefits that confers. But it doesn’t mean that we should ignore (or denigrate) the evidence that it’s a suboptimal diet, or the fact that the government (and government “scientists”) are alarmingly wrong to push the grain-based “food pyramid” as a healthy diet. Farming (broadly defined, to include animal husbandry as well as crop raising) is greatly beneficial. But the reliance on grains (notably wheat) as the core of our diet is problematic. Those of us who can afford to should eat more wisely, which is what the paleo diet counsels.

  • LCB

    Full disclosure, I am a Suffolk farmer’s son, and probably the only person on this board who has driven a combine harvester for its intended purpose.)

    Combine Demolition Derby’s!

  • guy

    …the only person on this blog who has driven a combine harvester for its intended purpose…

    I had planned on commenting, “Who the hell drives them for fun?”

    Thankfully I checked YouTube first. Good Lord.

  • Richard Thomas

    I suspect that when we finally do get to the reveal that soylent green is people, we’ll just be glad for the protein.

  • George

    The Vegetarian Myth

  • George

    the hardest thing about paleo is that modern industrial food may not be good for you but it sure is delicious

  • Johnathan:- I suspect your wariness of the paleo diet is due to your suspicion that it is a of a new form of vegetarian/vegan evangelism with its concomitant nanny state authoritarian posture. You are right to be wary, but I really don’t think you will find this with paleo.

    I have been coming across ever more frequent references to paleo in the various libertarian blogs that I follow, so a few months ago I decided to investigate and found and read a number of specialist blogs on the subject. I liked what I read. Tuck is very correct in saying that there is an overwhelming libertarian/conservative ethos in this movement. I’m really not sure why that is, but one thing I can be sure of is that there will be no calls for government intervention or compulsion from this crowd. That’s not how we libertarians roll.

    Nowhere in my investigation did I see anyone wishing for a return to a Rousseauian ‘noble savage’ lifestyle, nor condemning the agricultural or industrial revolutions. Both had enormous benefits for mankind and I support them implicitly. The agricultural revolution led to food surplus, led to civilisation, led to skill specialisation, led to bronze metallurgy, led to lathe operators, led to railway lines, led to internet entrepreneurs (jazz hands). I’m all for that.

    We all know that everything new imposes a trade-off, we chose the advantages of static agriculture along with the disadvantages of a sub-optimal diet. It was a good deal. Now that we are, as a civilisation, so enriched that obesity is a greater problem than hunger, maybe now we have the resources to improve our diet to one that more naturally accords with that which we followed for the first 95% of our time as Homo Sapiens.
    But, given who are at the forefront of this movement, nobody will be forcing you to follow their way of thinking.

    Tuck:- Why is it do you think that this movement is so libertarian?

  • Daveon

    You need agriculture for decent booze.

    My case rests.

  • Veryretired

    SWMBO and I have been following the paleo diet for the past year and more, although not as carefully as we should, and have had good results with weight and blood sugar both down, so I’m not opposed to it.

    But, in this very interesting discussion, I think a few things have been taken as negatives about farming, when they are not that at all.

    Hunting rewards certain physical types, and the hunting tribe values that skill as a breeding value above others. It is not surprising, then, that taller, probably faster, and stronger in certain ways valuable in hunting would be rewarded genetically in a smaller population, rigorously thinned by natural selection.

    The rise of agriculture would, of necessity, reward other characteristics, perhaps including the stockier, heavier muscles needed for the labor that early farming required. Also, the expanding population would tend to offer breeding possibilities to those smaller, less agile men who were selected against in hunting societies, but were adequate for the drudgery of farm labor.

    The mental abilities of planning hunts and tracking migrations etc., would transfer fairly well to farming, but perhaps a little less emotional attraction to the chase and kill would also be evident. At any rate, the larger population would also include a certain number of those who would not have survived the rigors of a nomadic hunting camp, but could stay alive in a farming village in which other trades and crafts were valued along with warrior/hunter prowess.

    Finally, of course, the more people, especially in a village setting, the more sickness passed around and other health problems allowed to pass down from one generation to another simply because more people were able to mature and breed.

    Farming and animal husbandry were some of the foundational developments which allowed further civilization to happen. We may have any number of modern health problems that are related to diet and lifestyle, but those problems are almost all directly linked to an abundance of food and a scarcity of hard physical work. I would imagine an ancient farmer would be utterly mystified by the idea that people had to seek out exercise, after spending months working like a mule from sunrise to sunset.

    We have little or no idea how hard life on this earth truly is when everything you have and everything you eat has to be made or produced from your own labor and knowledge.

    We live in the land of milk and honey that our ancestors dreamed about as a heaven they could not reach until they died and left this earth.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Why the paleo movement is so libertarian?

    I suppose I can ask: why are libertarians rarely poor people?

    The paleo diet is expensive, no doubt about it. Carbo is always cheaper than animal/fish protein, one reason why the diets of those low on the socio-economic ladder are so heavily comprised of carbo – they can’t afford anything else.

    And I believe there is some correlation between libertarianism and wealth, but the arrow of causation is not so obvious.

  • […] an article on Samizdata , Jonathan Pearce does that frustrating thing that people do where he accuses someone of not […]

  • bloke in spain

    Yes Mr Wobbly Guy. It does have a smidgen of the “I only drink champagne & eat asparagus” diet about it. And also sounds like a complete load of. The digestive system really doesn’t give a toss what’s thrown down it because it contains a lot of pretty powerful chemicals that strip most anything down to its constituent parts. It doesn’t care whether it gets its starch from grains, or roots or pot noodles. What does make a difference is the output side. Slumped on a couch all day, watching TV, wasn’t included in the homo sap design spec.
    As for hunter gatherers’ remains being bigger, living longer, what do you expect? You have an active sorting process going on. The small & the weak get killed or eaten. You don’t invest energy doing classy interments for the half of the runt the bear didn’t scoff. The graves contain the winners.

  • Kevin B

    I’d add one more vsrisble to the mix: bacteria. Our biome is being increasingly recognised as a vital part of our metabolism and research is showing that gut bacteria play a part in everything from obesity to depression.

    Added to this the fact that our bacteria evolve much faster than we do then basing our diet and lifestyle on ‘what we evolved to eat and do’ may be missing the point.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I’ve said this in other places, but its worth repeating here.

    There is absolutely, without a doubt, almost nothing “paleo” about the paleo diet. The “Paleo Diet” is a lifestyle product espoused in several books written by authors over the last 10 years. It has little or nothing to do with the diet eaten by Palaeolithic man, for the very simply reason that we do not know what he ate!

    We have quite a lot of evidence for the kinds of meat palaeolithic man ate, because bones leave evidence. However plant matter rots, so we know almost nothing about the kind of vegetable matter they consumed. Right out of the box it should be apparent that the much lauded meat/veg ratio of the “Paleo Diet” is a fabrication. It is also worth noting that man didn’t wake up one morning and say “Hey, let’s invent large scale agriculture today!”. It was a gradual process the beginnings of which are located well within the Palaeolithic era, and the ends of which have not yet been seen.

    Now the historical veracity of the “Paleo Diet” and its efficacy as a healthy lifestyle are two separate issues. It might be archaeologically fraudulent and still good for you. But that doesn’t change the fact that the whole movement is founded on a lie.

    But then, a book entitled “Yet another diet book” by John Smith Jnr. the 87th wouldn’t sell nearly so well as something so “scientific”, would it?

  • Antoine Clarke

    The paleo diet seems appropriate for beef-eating surrender monkeys.

  • Can someone explain to me what is meant by “processed food” in terms of the molecules in it?

  • The Wobbly guy:- “why are libertarians rarely poor people?” Well, I’m not so sure about that. I’ve encountered plenty of libertarians that are not rich. I suppose that the vast majority of people cast their vote based on how they have fared over the previous 4-5 years. If I’ve done well, go the current team, if I’ve done badly, ya boo sucks, ditch the current mob. There is no adherence to ideology, it is all a reaction to the current situation.

    For someone to call themselves libertarion, or indeed socialist or conservative, means to hold a consistant ideology and to judge the politicos on offer to that standard. It may be a conciet, but I really think that those that hold a libertarian ethos are more given to a rational, rather than a tribal, view of the politicos on offer. Mainly because we are a minority and have no tribe to follow.

    Maybe we libertarians are more independant thinkers and try to find some anti-statist sentiment in the meagre choice of those we have the choice to vote for. Maybe this (often futile) search for anyone that shares any of our values means that we are less tribal (since we have no tribe to follow) and more discerning, means that we think rather than follow. Maybe this trait of thinking, makes us, on average, more likely to be entrepreneurs than tha average means we are slightly more likely to be financially succesful.

    Bottom line is that anyone that I have ever met of a libertarian bent holds the same view:- “leave me the hell alone”

  • There are a couple of interesting things in the video posted by George, such as insulin causing certain diseases. Might be worth looking into.

    But she quickly starts speaking against agriculture, the green revolution and global capitalism, and seems happy to reduce population, which she sees as inevitable. To her credit she would achieve this by teaching girls to read. She’s also identified government subsidies for corn as a problem.

    Her idea of agriculture as a war on nature and insane leaves me cold. I see nature as death, not life, and want to declare war on it. I think we can feed far more than 7 billion with technology, and sustain it, too.

  • Valerie Smyth

    I suppose I can ask: why are libertarians rarely poor people?

    Hahaha. I how I wish that was true.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I’m very poor. I’m the sole breadwinner for a family of 6. I’ve just come to the end of the funded phase of a PhD, and I haven’t found a job yet. Our income is almost entirely derived from state benefits, along with whatever part time teaching or research work I can scrape together. Without our all-powerful state I would have basically no income and no housing. I have every reason in the world to be a state-loving socialist.

    Yet, I would still rather the government be dismantled, because I believe wholeheartedly that many of my current problems are either directly or indirectly caused by it. Two of note at the moment are a distinct shortage of jobs and difficulty accessing quality healthcare.

    I put my money where my mouth is, politically speaking. Of course a socialist would simply claim I’m an ungrateful sod for all the loving mother-state has done for me. Take your pick ;-)

  • Rich Rostrom

    I have an iron gut, and can eat pretty much anything with no apparent consequences. Also a metabolism that maintains me at a reasonable weight despite probably eating too much. (Which may have changed recently, after about 40 years; I’m 59.)

    I eat lots of cheap processed food, drink lots of beer. I can still bench press nearly my own weight and run a 9 minute mile.

    But… I have many very intelligent acquaintances who have found that diet has great effects on them (positive and negative). For instance, this man who has posted a six-part “Picobook” on diet. He’s an advocate of “paleo”-style diet, but cautions that no diet is right for everyone, or even for more than one. He is also an engineer, and emphasizes testing, recordkeeping, and documentation – which he does himself, so his results are supported.

    Our metabolisms are very complicated, and respond in very complex ways to what we eat – often in ways that are obscure and counterintuitive. Some of the recent ‘discoveries’ about this are mere urban folklore, but a lot are very real.

    And much of the conventional wisdom about diet has been shown to be flat-out wrong.

    And finally, much of the problems with contemporary diet come from politically-driven state interventions that should be killed off immediately.

  • CaptDMO

    If grain (grass?) is unnaturally “bad” for humans then why the hell am I still lugging around this extra 5# appendix thing?
    “Easy” agriculture on the floodplains near the rivers/ports(back when one could drink the water). Subsequently, easier to “support” a city by bulk transportation of distributed foods.

    Never driven a harvester, but I sure as hell know how a tractor works. What was once an “excess” producing farm is now a sustenance farm. (SEE: US-Commerce Clause, and Eminent Domain)
    WHY my antecedents picked such a northern cold-in-winter place, I’ll never know, but I’m stuck with it. Less Saber Toothed Tigers I suppose, but I STILL have to compete with bears for the grapes and apples.
    “Exercise” is NEVER a gym/treadmill/spa/desk aerobics concern. It does slow down in winter, but so do the bears. Winter is when folks-around-here concentrate on raising…THEIR CHILDREN. Teaching them stuff that one just can’t learn in gub’mint school.

    SOMEBODY had the sense to put the house/barn up ABOVE the river’s floodplain, unlike those really smart market-food-eatin’ city folk who put dachas vacation condos along the really pretty river banks, on what was previously um….farm land. SHOCKINGLY, all that “extra” tax base has had um…(all together now) unintended consequences, especially after the otherwise “underemployed”, and allegedly “edumacated” spawn of those nice city folk moved into mummy and daddy’s “vacation” homes permanently, year ’round.

    Palio- to them is McDonalds and Starbucks. “Spear” is what they use to get the last pearl onion/olive out of the jar from the store. “Dressing” is what goes with rabbit food (on the side please) Sure hope nothing interrupts THEIR food chain, because they sure as HELL have been indoctrinated against(collective gasp please)dirty fingernails, cruelty to animals, and hunting with (another gasp please) guns.

  • CaptDMO

    Could “somebody” please un-strike after “dachas” snark?
    Or tell me how I can go back and “fix” my own #@&^*(ahem) apparently un-previewed, mess?

  • CaptDMO

    Could “somebody” please un-strike after “dachas” snark?
    Or tell me how I can go back and “fix” my own #@&^*(ahem) apparently un-previewed, mess?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Tuck writes:

    “It converted famine into malnutrition, which is an improvement, as it at least buys more time to fix things properly. It also contributes to population control, as one of the side effects of obesity and diabetes is a decline in fertility. So there’s that…”

    That is a pretty grubby paragraph, if you don’t mind me saying so. If “paleo” diets are as viable as you claim, why aren’t these benighted souls in India moving to them? (Maybe some are, for all we know).

    In any case, it all depends on if you think the Green Revolution in India did indeed promote or encourage malnutrition, and that includes buying the paleo argument about the damaging effect of grains on diet.

    A recent article in Scientific American is scathing about aspects of the paleo diet. Having read it, my initial skepticism has, if anything, increased. I’m not giving up on bread any time soon.

    Yes, subsidised agriculture is bad, for various reasons. In a proper free market, some of the production would cease, or change. But it is naive to assume that large-scale production of grains would decline significantly.

    To reiterate what I have said before, the fact that pre-agricultural Man ran out of things to hunt and eat because of population clearly proves that farming is necessary; the issue is the type of farming. Agriculture has created the surpluses that paved the way to other things, not least, a modern economy with an extensive division of labour. The “progress” that Tuck mocks has given us the technologies to study and check issues such as diets, nutrition, health, etc.

    Also, if our diet is so terrible, why are human lifespans in most modern economies increasing, to the point where state pension systems are running out of money?

    Oh, I should round this off by recommending Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, which argues that, adjusted for numbers, life in pre-modern times was far more brutal, and violent.

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