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Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live

3.68  ·  Rating details ·  1,410 ratings  ·  229 reviews
Armed with a razor-sharp wit and brilliant, eye-opening research, Zuk takes us to the cutting edge of biology to show that evolution can work much faster than was previously realized, meaning that we are not biologically the same as our caveman ancestors. Contrary to what the glossy magazines would have us believe, we do not enjoy potato chips because they crunch just like ...more
Hardcover, 328 pages
Published March 18th 2013 by W. W. Norton Company (first published March 11th 2013)
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This is one of those books in which one imagines the respected author sitting high up in her burrow scratching away with her pen, when suddenly she sits up, all senses alert and straining: somewhere on the internet crazy people are gathering and proposing crazy things(view spoiler), someone must deal with writing a book! But of course, the voice of sweet reason will convert the crazies to take a new nuanced
Apr 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: evolution
Hundreds of thousands of people try to practice a "paleo" lifestyle, where "paleo" is short for "paleolithic", and is a euphemism for "caveman". They eat mostly meat, thinking that this is what our ancestors thrived on for tens, or even hundreds of thousands of years. They believe that humans ate this way and evolved to take advantage of this type of diet. They believe that humans have not had enough time, since the agricultural revolution, to evolve toward a more modern type of diet. Some prac ...more
Sep 04, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: feminism, food, stem
I have to admit that I'm a tempeh eating herbal tea guzzling sugar shirking healthy ethical vegan foodie prepared to spend a shocking proportion of my income on pricey & organic raw and free from* goodies. In the last couple of years, the kind of places I shop have been regularly advertising a lot of products under the banner of 'paleo'. There are even some candy bars, cookies and granola explicitly branded as such, and often they appeal to me as they're full of my favourite ingredients: cashews ...more
Jun 15, 2013 rated it it was ok
Marlene Zuk's Paleofantasy fails to deliver the serious critique that is expected of someone of her caliber as a scientist. The book is quite frustrating to read. It's largely a barrage of straw man and reductio ad absurdum arguments against the Paleo movement. When I first saw the book and looked at her credentials as a biologist, I was expecting serious intellectual work in critiquing the Paleo movement. But as I was reading the book, I became quite disappointed when I realized that in order f ...more
Bryan Alkire
May 12, 2020 rated it it was ok
Mediocre book.It’s always interesting to read books about human evolutionary history in all its aspects. This book discusses the topic in light of what the author considers fringe science. I don’t have a science background in education or training so I can’t really judge the science either the fringe research or the more mainstream research. The book is well organized into the various topics. The writing is readable though it’s a polemic against the fringe science previously mentioned. This made ...more
May 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This was fabulous and fascinating. The basic bent of the book is probably best summed up in this quote from the conclusion:

"A simpler life with more exercise, fewer processed foods, and closer contact with our children may well be good for us. But we shouldn't seek to live that way because we think it emulates our ancestors. We can mimic the life of a preindustrial, or preagricultural, society only in its broadest sense. Rather than trying to use our past to proscribe our present, or our future,
Dec 17, 2012 rated it really liked it
Science! Let's talk about scienceing it for a moment. Zuk does a really good job of debunking all sorts of recent paleomyths - incorporating data and evidence that wouldn't be out of place in a college level anthropology course - with (unintentionally humorous and frequently 'sic'ed) postings from paleo-lifestyle adherents on message boards such as If there's fault with this book, it's that it isn't tailored to a mainstream audience - its arguments can be academic in a way that ...more
Aug 14, 2013 rated it liked it
Notwithstanding the subtitle - 'what evolution tells us about sex, diet, and how we live' - this book is mostly a rebuttal of people who argue that we should do X because early human beings evolved over millions of years to thrive doing X. Even more narrowly, it does not rebut claims that people should eat more meat/ eat fewer carbs/ be faithful to their spouses/ practice free love/ run barefoot. Instead, Paleofantasy merely argues that no one can legitimately argue for or against any of these p ...more
May 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm working my way through most of the popular books on the market about human evolution, and I would without hesitation recommend this as the first book to someone interested. I rejected reading it for some time because of the `paleofantasy' marketing angle: so I thought it would be mostly full of the all-too-easy cheap shots at the paleo diet crowd, but this book goes far deeper than that. Zuk lays out an evolutionary biologist understanding of human evolution, what we're pretty sure of (how p ...more
Bridget Mckinney
Mar 17, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013
There were parts of this book that I really enjoyed, but I find myself mildly disappointed after finishing reading it.

I knew before I began that this was not going to be a particularly political book and that it wasn't going to spend much time addressing the ways that science is used to support sexism, racism, eugenics, or other various nasty things that people try to explain away through science. However, I think I did expect to see some of these ideas discussed somewhat more than they were.

Jun 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
Ms. Zuk penned a well-written book, really a survey of the current science on the direction of human evolution. I have two primary criticisms:

(1) I felt Ms. Zuk takes some delight in puncturing the paleo movement's foundation, a delight first reflected in the choice of title. She does so, however, without suggesting a clear, actionable path for living. Here she, perhaps unwittingly, serves as a lieutenant in General Mills' army, to buttress the status quo, in the way climate science deniers thro
Jul 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: skepticism
The first time I heard the idea that human beings are in trouble because we're living out of sync with the environment we evolved in, it seemed to make a certain amount of sense. Evolution takes a long time, after all, and modern society has and is continuing to change the way we live with breakneck speed. In Paleofantasy, biologist Marlene Zuk takes a close look at the assumptions implicit in the idea that we evolved to survive in a very different environment than we live in now, that we haven' ...more
Kaethe Douglas
I am the sort of person who wonders:what kind of person argues about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? It isn't as if any factual evidence can be agreed upon. I don't think there's even widespread agreement that angels are minescule, is there?

Anyway, now I know. "People on the internets" is the answer. Zuk uses the statements of random people on various paleolithic-ish lifestyle blogs and demonstrates just how wrong they are. Of course, it's shooting fish in a barrel. The statement
This is a fantastic book--funny at times, but serious about science in a very accessible way. Zuk is taking on the growing wave of "getting back to our cave-man selves", "paleo-living" gurus and enthusiasts, explaining just how things have changed. Basically, we aren't in a cave anymore, and there is no way to go back to that, not even close. The process of evolution is examined often in "Paleofantasy", with plenty of fascinating details about the hard facts or strong theories of why things have ...more
Nov 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: popular-science
Like lots of popular bio-science books, this is really a one-trick pony, but Zuk does such a nice job with illustrative examples that it's no problem to read the whole thing. The basic premise is that there is no stable "paleo" or "ancestral" period in human history or prehistory that we can use to explain our needs, urges or current problems. The environment of human life has always been dynamic and so has human biological and cultural response. We are always evolving, sometimes slowly and ofte ...more
Apr 23, 2013 rated it it was ok
The author dispels some obvious myths, mostly propagated online, about diet and other cultural practices. These myths are all misinterpretations of lessons from evolution with regard to our species.

The most prominent such myth is that humans aren't evolved to eat a modern diet. As the argument goes, things like milk products, refined sugars, and even cooked foods are bad for us, because we are cave men, evolved to eat a different diet. Of course, since the neolithic, lots has gone on in the huma
Mar 10, 2013 rated it really liked it
Ok, i admit i picked up this book because i thought the paleo diet was a load of wild bison dung, and i always enjoy seeing good science dismantling wacky popular science-y ideas. But i got to learn some new things, too: details about the development of lactase persistence in various human populations; that Tibetans and natives of the Andes tolerate high altitudes by really different mechanisms; that there are two really different types of earwax in humans and there's a strong geographic signal ...more
High Plains Library District
Zuk scientifically and humorously pokes holes in the idea that life as a Neandertal was idyllic and that agriculture ruined us. For one: cooked starch grains have been discovered on the teeth of our paleolithic ancestors, which puts to rest the theory touted by paleo diets that they didn’t eat cooked grains.

Much of the book is a treatise on how quickly evolution can happen – from overnight, as sparrows with less resistance to cold were killed by a snap deep freeze, thus culling those with weaker
Lis Carey
Among the current dietary and lifestyle fads is the paleo diet--the idea that we evolved to eat like our paleolithic ancestors, and have had too little time to evolve to suit our current lifestyle and diet. Marlene Zuk looks at the actual science, including what our paleolithic ancestors really ate, and how long it really takes for natural selection to spread changes in what foods we can digest and how.

I should say up front that Zuk isn't against eating a paleo diet, if that's what works for you
Sep 04, 2013 rated it really liked it
Extraordinarily well-written analysis of the 'paleofantasy', i.e. the false notion that we humans simply have "Stone Age genes ill suited to our Space Age lives and environment, and that we suffer the consequences." I have long been sceptical of the particular subset of natural fallacies that attribute contemporary human characteristics and behaviour to stone age survival techniques (along the lines of "Women are better than men at grocery shopping because it resembles prehistoric berry picking" ...more
Oct 11, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
This book was absolutely fascinating. Yes, the author spends some time early on debunking many of the claims of those who advocate a "paleo" or "caveman" diet and exercise routine but that is only a portion of the book. The chapters on sex (mating) and family structure were extremely interesting. I learned a lot from this book about every aspect of evolution and natural selection -- and the fact that natural selection is only one factor that leads to evolution. I learned more about genetics than ...more
Nov 07, 2013 rated it really liked it
When people say mankind didn't evolve to eat or behave in a specific way, they are often attempting to use fantasies of the past to justify their desires. The idea of the noble savage isn't anything new, and it isn't anything scientific either.

In this book Marlene Zuk asks a few key questions and proves in a clear, concise, factual way that the ways people attempt to emulate our paleolithic ancestors is often a waste of time. What makes you think there was ever a point when human beings were per
Really pretty interesting. I bought this book a few years ago out of spite really. I was really annoyed at the proselytizing by some co-workers and friends about their paleo diets (you lose weight, you don’t get cancer blah blah blah). Of course when you buy something out of spite it ends up at the bottom of the pile and you never end up reading it. But I dug it out and managed to finally read it. I found it to be very interesting, the author has a style of writing which is at times humorous and ...more
Marjorie Elwood
Feb 22, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
Zuk scientifically and humorously pokes holes in the idea that life as a Neandertal was idyllic and that agriculture ruined us. For one: cooked starch grains have been discovered on the teeth of our paleolithic ancestors, which puts to rest the theory touted by paleo diets that they didn’t eat cooked grains.

Much of the book is a treatise on how quickly evolution can happen – from overnight, as sparrows with less resistance to cold were killed by a snap deep freeze, thus culling those with weaker
Despite its name, Paleofantasy is not a deliberate debunking of arguments for a 'paleo diet' and a paleo lifestyle. Although Zuk does take aim at paleo proponents time and again, her argument approaches the same ideas from a different tack. Rather than assume that people ought to live the lifestyle our bodies evolved to expect, and then look for the science that informs that lifestyle, Zuk first asks: what does biology tell us about the way our ancestors once lived, and can that information be u ...more
Brian Clegg
We all enjoy seeing smug people who tell us how to live being taken down a peg, and in Paleofantasy, subtitled ‘what evolution really tells us about sex, diet and how we live’, Marlene Zuk lays into those who promote a ‘paleo diet’ or ‘caveman lifestyle.’ As the book entertainingly makes clear, these concepts are based on a total misunderstanding.

The idea behind the paleofantasy, particularly popular, it seems, among the New York chatterati, is that we ought to try to live more like our Palaeoli
May 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
What I thought was going to be a take down of historical inaccuracies of the Paleo diet proved to be a much more well researched and much more involved book about the state of knowledge of neolithic man. This is a topic that necessarily changes as research advances but the pace of discovery is such that if you've not checked in for a decade, your knowledge is probably out of date.

What I liked:
-Book was thorough. There are few areas of neolithic life that aren't covered. Even then, if there is ev
Jul 11, 2014 rated it did not like it
In this book the author tries to disprove the theory that eating like our ancestors: Mostly protein, some fruit and vegetables (including tubers) and only few -if any- grains, is the way to go. Some of her points are good, as obviously we can avoid scurvy and other vitamin deficiency diseases a lot easier nowadays with access to fruit and vegetable year round than our ancestors who had to be lucky enough to stumble upon them during the months of their growth. And obviously modern science has giv ...more
Mar 12, 2019 rated it it was ok
Huh. As an anthropologist by education and one who likes to battle the paleofantasy, I was really disappointed by this book. Zuk dispels some really obvious paleo myths using extremely weak and cherry picked comments from online forums or blogs as her strawmen of choice but oftentimes her arguments and rhetorical skills are super weak and unconvincing even though she's right. More intriguing paleo-related issues are barely scratched and are flippantly addressed using pop culture references or we ...more
Jason Keisling
This is not a criticism of the health merits of the paleo diet. Marlene Zuk rarely analyzes the diet's nutritional value outside of a brief mention of the paleo diet being ranked dead last in a magazine's rankings that were based on 7 criteria. Zuk focuses instead on the nature claims made by the diet's adherents. Our ancestors lived a certain way for thousands of years so clearly modern humans are going against nature with the way we diet and exercise, right? Well not so fast.

Marlene Zuk does
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Marlene Zuk is an American evolutionary biologist and behavioral ecologist. She worked as professor of biology at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) until she transferred to the University of Minnesota in 2012. Her studies involve sexual selection and parasites.

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