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.)