…is another paleo blogger.
Actually- I don’t think that’s the case, but here I am. What the world might need, however, is a few more ‘paleo’-minded doctors, and I am one of those in the making.
Many of my friends (and people that might actually read this) are familiar with the term ‘paleo’, though as it means different things to different people it’s only fair that I explain my interpretation of the word. To be clear, I don’t use the term ‘paleo’ as a clear-cut definition of a specific diet, lifestyle, or perspective, but I think it is a useful term for describing a general set of principles that are loosely based on the evolutionary history of humans.
Like all species, humans evolved to thrive. Like it or not, you are the result of millions of years of evolution. While some species live in very precise niches in very particular circumstances (think, for example, of the thermophilic bacteria of the deep sea hyperthermal vents, or the limited diet of the eucalypt eating koala), the human species has evolved to thrive in a variety of environments and on diverse diets. What has become clear, however, especially to those that pay attention to epidemiological trends or to those that marvel at the expanding waist lines, increased health costs, and mountains of prescription and over-the-counter drugs so many have come to rely on, is that humans are not ‘thriving’ as one might hope and expect in our modern world.
On a whole, the world in which humans evolved has not changed dramatically in the last couple of hundred years, but the environments in which many humans live-namely the civilizations which we have developed for ourselves- are incredibly different (there are certainly people living in traditional cultures, but they’re unlikely to be reading this on the internet. If you’re reading this, this applies to you). For hundreds of thousands of years, humans were hunters and gatherers. Ten thousand years ago humans adopted agriculture. The industrial revolution occurred a few hundred years ago, and the scale and rate of change of civilization has accelerated from there.
Darwin came to the theory of evolution after reading Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell while voyaging on The Beagle. Lyell was a geologist who advocated the idea of uniformitarianism- the concept that the earth was slowly shaped by continuous forces over a long period of time that are still occurring today. This was in contrast to catasrophism, which dictated the environment was shaped by a number of large, catastrophic events (in consonance with biblical stories). The theory of abrupt, catastrophic changes to the environment is not conducive to the gradual change of evolution, but when one realized that the world was slowly changed by gradual processes, one might also realize that species might also slowly change to best fit their environment. This realization is oft implicated as the seed that sprouted the principle of natural selection in Darwin’s mind. The idea of uniformitarianism does not exclude catasrophism, and indeed aspects of our world were shaped by catastrophic events such as earthquakes and volcanos. While species gradually evolve to fit their slowly changing environment, acute and catastrophic events introduce a strong selection pressure to survive (and then thrive) in such altered environments. Catastrophic events can reverse the fortunes of species, creating environments where the former top-species can no longer survive or providing an environment where a previously marginalized group can now thrive. As the poet Tennyson put it ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’.
And where does this fit in the concept of ‘paleo’… For 200,000 years, humans evolved to thrive as hunter-gatherers. This is the niche they evolved to fill. One might suggest (and indeed I do), that the recent changes in the human environment (and yes, at 10,000 years, I consider agriculture to be a recent change, but I consider the developments of the last century even more pressing) should be considered a ‘catastrophic’ change in an otherwise fairly ‘uniform’ history. Surely there are some among us that have won the genetic lottery to thrive in this modern world, but most of us did not. This is evidenced by the growing amount of chronic disease in our communities. Most of us are not capable of thriving as sedentary, indoor-dwelling, calorically over-nourished and nutritionally malnourished insomniacs.
Humans did not evolve to thrive in a limited niche, eating a specific diet, living and moving in one particular way (if you haven’t watched the BBC series “Human Planet”, I highly recommend it). We are a species capable of surviving, and indeed thriving, in a multitude of environments and situations. It seems, however, that the modern world has pushed our capabilities to a breaking point. Not everything about our modern world is problematic- indeed, humans are better off because of many medical, scientific, technological, and cultural developments Let us not, however, doom ourselves to lives of chronic disease and malcontent because we are all too eager to step outside the limits of our biology.