What I got instead was a shibboleth-rattling worthy of the finest witch doctors. Now, I expect this kind of hand-waving from the post-modernism-clouded minds of the cultural anthro crowd, but I thought King was a biological anthropologist. I was hoping for at least a few points about biochemistry and fossils, comparative anatomy and hominoid baggage. Heck, even a few leading questions, however misleading, about endogenous cholesterol production or amylase or eneterohepatic B12 recirculation would have been nice.
But come on, this? A missive that barely rises above the quality of evidence or logic in a typical blog comment from the president of the local high school vegan club?
I'm still reaching for the Excedrin.
It's not that King isn't making some valid points about hominid evolution. On a superficially factual level, much of what she says about that subject accords with what I've been taught, and what you'll read about in the paleo-anthropological literature.
It's just that she hasn't written a critique of the paleo diet movement. King is attacking a straw man.
Don't get me wrong; I have my own problems with the paleo diet's fundamental claims. But, the way I see it, the first duty of a skeptic is to understand the opponent's case honestly, on its own terms. And King fails at this duty; whatever else she thinks she is critiquing here, it's not the paleo diet movement I've come to know since I started this blog.
I spend some of my spare time lurking on paleo blogs, commenting on articles or videos here and there, but generally just trying to get a feel for what the movement is really all about. And it's obvious to me that King hasn't done this, or at least that she wasn't paying sufficient attention when she tried to do so.
For one thing, she seems to confuse the paleo movement with the low-carb movement. True, there is some overlap between the two groups, but paleo-eating isn't necessarily, or even primarily, carb-phobic. Some paleo bloggers defend high-carb diets similar to that of the Kitavans.Others are quite fond indeed of high-fruit eating plans. On the whole, low-carb isn't essential to the paleo philosophy.
What unites the paleo movement, food-wise, is an aversion to grains (especially refined) and refined sugars. Basic paleo doctrine is that the Demon Grain is out to get you, and if you're not careful, you'll end up with wheat belly or celiac, or both. It's true that grain products are high in carbs, but not all carbs are grains, and King -- a biological anthropologist, remember -- should not need an anonymous undergrad blogger like me to remind her of this.
For another thing, her remarks about the unsustainability of paleo-eating in a world of 7 billion people miss the point, too. Few paleo-eaters adopted the diet out of ethical or environmental concerns, as far as I can tell; most seem motivated primarily by personal health and a nebulous notion of "optimality." And further, though most paleo-eaters are enthusiastic about their diet choices, few of them make universalist claims or say that it is a blueprint for global civilization. Quite the contrary, politically-conscious paleos have a distinctly locavore bent, while most paleo blogs I've ever read are distinctly apolitical, avoiding global-ethics questions like wheat with the plague, unless some snotty vegan tries to corner them on the subject.
This is not to say that the paleo-diet's claims don't carry global ethical implications, even ones they may not see; but, an ethical critique of the movement would at the very least need to spell these implications out, rather than pretending that it's explicitly based on ethics or politics. And in any case, by taking this approach, King is lending her scientific credentials to a set of ethical claims that don't necessarily follow from her expertise. It's pure appeal-to-authority.
For a third thing (are we done yet?), King's scientific point misses the mark by almost an entire epoch:
Our ancestors began to eat meat in large quantities around 2 million years ago, when the first Homo forms began regular use of stone tool technology. Before that, the diet of australopithecines and their relatives was overwhelmingly plant-based, judging from clues in teeth and bones. I could argue that the more genuine "paleo" diet was vegetarian.She seems to be unaware that the "paleo" in paleo-diet is short-hand for "Paleolithic," not a general attempt to co-opt all of paleo-anthropology in the service of a fad diet. The paleo diet's focus is, for the most part, precisely on the period of time she attempts to hand-wave away by diverting the reader's attention to the Pliocene. Again, the paleo movement's claims about and extrapolations from the Paleolithic may be pseudo-science, but leading us back before the Paleolithic in this way does nothing to demonstrate why.
King's tactic here glosses over the significant morphological changes of the last 2.6 million years, that paleo adherents consider supremely important. It is certainly true that H. sapiens retain within themselves the 22 Ma-old basic hominoid body plan for arboreal omni-frugivory; but at the same time, we are none of us Proconsul any longer, or even Australopithecus. Much of what morphologically distinguishes the Homo clade from its forebears reflects greater exploitation of, and selection for, a more omnivorous trophic strategy. Bottom line: humans really are better at handling meat than other primates seem to be, at least among extant species.
Implying otherwise is an amateur mistake. While it's excusable coming from the president of the local high school vegan club, King really ought to know better than this. The veg*n cause isn't served by obfuscation, and doesn't depend on paleo-fantasies. That humans can handle meat better than other primates does not mean we can't or shouldn't be vegans; after all, there's still all that hominoid physiology and biochemistry knocking around inside us (a point I think many paleo critics of veg*nism often forget), and we do share a capacity for suffering with other vertebrates that ought to inform our ethics.
On the whole, it just seems to me like King didn't do her homework, and relied instead on pop media reports (and perhaps even the blasphemous Wikipedia) to inform her about the paleo diet movement. The result, though I doubt she intended it, is a dishonest misrepresentation of that movement. If I were on her graduate committee, I'd send this one back for revision.
King had a great opportunity here to skeptically examine the philosophical underpinnings of the paleo diet through the lens of evolutionary biology, and she blew it. Which is too bad, because her easily-refutable argument, coming as it does from an expert source, will leave many readers with the impression that there is no such critique to be made, and that scientists who object to its claims are merely agenda-driven.
The problem with the paleo-diet philosophy, from the perspective of evolutionary theory, is really a no-brainer: like some strains of veganism -- and indeed, like nearly all other "diets" -- it fetishizes food as both the problem and the solution. Almost without exception, paleo-eaters claim that the problem with "Neolithic" foods like refined grains and sugars is that these foods are at odds with our biology. We are not "designed" to eat them, and thus suffer the diseases of civilization as a result. Therefore, the claim goes, we should eat the way our Paleolithic ancestors ate.
And to be sure, some foods are worse -- a lot worse -- for us than others, at the level of individual health. But that's not because those foods are at odds with our biology so much as that they are in accord with our instincts.
See, contrary to what paleo-eaters claim, modern humans do eat the way our ancestors did. In fact, we eat exactly the same way they did; that's precisely the problem. Humans are instinctively driven to eat as much as we can when food is plentiful, so that we can build up and store fat as an insurance policy for lean times. And we are biased towards calorie-dense foods whenever they're available, because they give us the biggest payoff for the least work.
This makes perfect sense for us, given the context of our evolution. It's a great strategy when your chief concerns are avoiding starvation/predation, but absolutely shitty when safety is assured and food is overabundant. And even more so when the food that takes the least effort to procure is also the worst for you.
This strategy is older than humans, older than primates, older even than mammals. It's been the way of all animal life since at least the Cambrian explosion. And it's this deep-time perspective the paleo-diet lacks.
The diet works for the same reason that all well-designed diets work: because it gets us to reign in our instincts, to eat against the grain (pun intended) of our natural ways. To exercise some discipline in food choices, rather than simply following where our instinct leads us. "Paleo" diets are a completely modern response to a completely modern phenomenon: the intersection of our natural gluttonous instincts with the rapid increase of physical safety and high-calorie food overabundance. It shares this modern status with veganism and all other diet plans, well-designed or not. In short, it really has no place calling itself "paleo" anything.
The "paleo" diet is as "Neolithic" as they come.