Why Everything Is Paleo

Heated debates about what definitively *IS* and what definitively *IS NOT* “paleo” abound. While that’s often an interesting question, it also often misses the point. You see, everything is paleo. From computers to the agricultural revolution to individual cereal grains themselves… everything is paleo. “Well, we know that’s not historically true, so what are you talking about?” It’s simple really.

Tools. [The End]

The folks whose eating habits are informed by evolutionary biology have all but subsumed the meaning of “paleo” in pop-culture. Since our minds begin to make associations at the mention of a word, this shift in meaning directly impacts how we think. Thus, for many people, the paleolithic era is mentally associated with hunters, gatherers, and grain hating. As one of them, that’s not a judgment, just an assumption that influences the rest of this piece.

For those steeped in the nuances of Pleistocene and Paleolithic research, please excuse me for a moment so we might indoctrinate any newbies: Pleistocene is a geological term which refers to the the planet and its physical properties across a particular period of time.  Paleolithic is an archaeological term that refers to humans (hominin, to be more accurate) across a particular period of time. Pleistocene and Paleolithic refer to roughly the same period of time, but they look at different things. Basically, the former looks at the world, the latter looks at the humans in it. That’s why Paleolithic is the term humans are most fond of. And… why we’ll drop Pleistocene for the rest of today. Paleolithic derives from the Greek: palaios, “old”; and lithos, “stone”. Thus, its etymological translation amounts to  “old age of the stone” or “Old Stone Age.” The reason stone is in there is because the material used to make the most advanced tools of the time was stone.

If the Paleolithic Era is archaeologically defined by hominid development of stone tools, how can we jettison the stone part and claim all tools are paleo? I prefer a different, but I think equally (if not more) accurate perspective. The psychologically important development in the Paleolithic wasn’t stone, but the tools. Surprise! …stone existed before the Paleolithic, but hominids didn’t make tools out of it, or anything else, really (and don’t try to derail the discussion by saying gravity was a tool, thank you very much). Stone didn’t change, our brains evolved to use it. That reveals the crux of my argument: the concept of tools is paleo. Now, that could rightly be passed off as linguistic trickery if we restricted “Paleolithic” to its archaeological roots. But as I mentioned above, we’ve expanded its use to encompass a period of human evolutionary biology and thus, by default, evolutionary psychology. It’s in the overlap of archaeology, evolutionary biology, and evolutionary psychology that the concept of tools gets significant in a major way.

A study by a team of archaeologists and anthropologists pinned down human brain size as a key factor that kept the hominid line in the stone tool making mindset for millions of years (Faisal 2010). That makes sense, and we know that brain size expanded significantly between the beginning of the paleolithic to its end. However, archaeology says nothing about the adaptive pressures required for evolutionary selection to effect such a change. To explain why our brains got bigger, we need to think about it from a different perspective.

From the standpoint of evolution, the development most important to humans in the Paleolithic was not the stone tools themselves, but the concept of tools. Across this period, humans developed what Marshal McLuhan would later refer to as “extensions of man”. Humans’ manipulation of their surroundings became the dominant strategy upon which evolution exerted its adaptive pressure. Human brains grew as man’s external manipulation abilities proved more efficient than biological “weapons”. We didn’t need to grow bigger, stronger, and faster than surrounding predators once this evolutionary cascade kicked into high gear. Further, once tool use becomes a strategy, it precludes (to varying degrees) biological evolution. McLuhan’s extensions become de facto solutions for the majority of adaptive problems. Every time something is used as a tool it serves as a proxy for evolution. Think surgical solutions to appendicitis, chemical solutions to infertility and impotence, condoms, guns, microwaves, refrigeration, tractors, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum.

Not only the tools themselves arise in the Paleolithic, but the psychological impulse to solve problems of survival and reproduction through the use of tools, arose during that time as well. Our brains were wired up for tools. So… what does this mean? If we look at this from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, our natural inclination to formulate tool strategies to solve problems is just as “paleo” as eating meats, fruits, and vegetables. This yields some paradoxical outcomes between the historicity of the paleo diet versus the pervasiveness of paleo psychology.

  • Paleo diet enemy: Wheat (agriculture more generally) is, quite literally, a tool. The domestication of wheat was a human extension to solve problems of caloric inconsistency. Paradox!
  • Industrial food processing is a tool.
  • Chemical preservatives are tools.
  • Corn-feeding animals is a tool.
  • Alcohol is a tool! That’s right, people… Tools don’t have to serve an obviously adaptive purpose (though maybe we can pontificate on the reproductive “benefits” of alcohol related reproduction).

Not all tools are such anathemas to the health of humans. I make the illustration to open a space for questioning what is paleo in the historical sense versus what’s paleo in the sense of the shift of hominid conceptualization of tools. And obviously, some tools are amazingly beneficial.

  • Is protein powder historically paleo? Not a chance. Is protein powder a tool that can be utilized for specific purposes?
  • Is coconut oil historically paleo? Again, definitely not. And again… we use it as a tool.
  • Are vitamin D supplements historically paleo? Until we find archaeological evidence of white lab coats in the paleolithic, it’s safe to say no. However, they serve a valid purpose as an absolutely beneficial tool for many modern humans.

So when we talk about paleo being a logical framework, and not a historical reenactment, these are the kind of questions we’re discussing. What historically “incorrect” or #notpaleo or #faileo tools that we have at our disposal should we be using? What are the costs and benefits associated with their use? In reference to paleolithic based diets, it makes sense to talk about the things we ingest, have injected into our veins, or absorb through our skin. That said, this logical framework can be extended to our physical activities, the way we design our lives, the spaces we choose to inhabit, how we interact with one another, and how we spend every moment. Since the question of the best way to optimize our lives is a ridiculously difficult undertaking spanning centuries of thought may be beyond the scope of this article, I’ll save it for the following three zillion posts [subscribe via RSS].

Our Paleolithic ancestors didn’t eat what they ate because they were nutrition experts. They didn’t do what they did because they possessed a superior level of philosophical knowledge or wisdom. [Perspective: speech as we know it didn’t exist for more than 2 million years (~85%) of the Paleolithic] Our ancestors simply did what they had to do with what they had available. They died when they did it wrong, and we are the benefactors of those who made the right decisions. We’re lying to ourselves if we think they wouldn’t have utilized many of the tools we have today… both nutritionally and otherwise. And that is a prime reason why romanticizing our Paleolithic progenitors and emulating a historical reenactment completely misses the important point of the Paleolithic. Look at everything that’s available and use the best tool at hand… That’s paleo logic in the modern world. And that’s still only half of the logic… next time…

References

Aldo Faisal, Dietrich Stout, Jan Apel, Bruce Bradley. The Manipulative Complexity of Lower Paleolithic Stone Toolmaking. PLoS ONE, 2010; 5 (11)

19 Comments
  1. David Csonka 5 years ago

    Do you think we are at the point where dependence on our tools is decreasing the overall health of the species? Being robust physically doesn't seem to be as necessary if one can use tools. Maybe having a robust mind – clever enough to synthesize new tools from one's environment or circumstances is the primary mode of selection for humans now. Though curiously, the physical component still plays a role in mate selection.

    • Author
      Andrew 5 years ago

      I skipped this on my first pass-through because I remember a recent article on the question of current/recent human evolution. The general tone was that it’s still occurring, but it’s not obvious. Alas, I must not have saved it so you just get my conjecture…

      Long-term, I think the proliferation of novel tools will have a profound impact on human evolution. I’m not sure whether that means nuclear annihilation, the same sort of infertility we’ve bred into the plants in our food supply, or immune system deficiencies. The negative examples are the easiest to think of, but there are probably positives as well.

      Your point about sexual selection, or “mate selection”, is a great one. It highlights that the psychological component (sexual attraction in this case) of our evolutionary history can sometimes override otherwise deleterious tendencies or trends in the population as a whole.

      All of this needs to be tempered by a couple things. One, the potential mating pool respective to each individual is enormous. While the theoretical maximum group size of ancestral hunter-gatherer bands is 150, we have access to Russian (insert country of your choice) Mail-Order Brides, and the other zillion dating sites on the internet.

      Also, grocery store culture (and social democracy) limits both the downside of selection by starvation and the upside (from a natural selection point of view) of selecting those more adept at resourcefulness. Resourcefulness doesn’t have a direct survival benefit, but it does act as a resource signaling cue (See ‘The Mating Mind’ linked above). Thus, we see a shift from a strong natural selection pressure to a stronger sexual selection pressure. Again, tempered by the population size.

      The game theoretic sorting of individuals by relative attractiveness also comes into play. I’m sure there’s a scene that demonstrates this – (the way folk psychology often does) in Swingers, The Tao of Steve, and a zillion other films – that talk about “punching your own weight” in relation to attractiveness.

  2. JasonS 5 years ago

    Hi Andrew. This is off topic a bit, but I couldn't get your contact form to send my question.

    I'd love to hear your opinions on running. Here are a couple of thought provoking post from Kurt Harris I'm sure you've read.
    http://www.paleonu.com/panu-weblog/2009/11/1/card
    http://www.paleonu.com/panu-weblog/2010/3/21/stil

    I'm curious about your stance on this subject because I tend to agree with Kurt. I think persistance hunting could be viewed as adaptation, but so is agriculture.

    • JasonS 5 years ago

      Runners also tend to site certain biological human traits (posture, leg musculature, sweat glands) that appear to prove we are designed to run, but "distance" is certainly a relative concept. In my professional environment, clients always seem to make dramatic gains in their health and fitness when they STOP distance running, especially with aches and pains, systemic inflammation, and oxidative stress. Anecdotal, I know, but hard to argue when it's in my face. And it's also hard to argue with Kurt's data. Mark Sisson is, as I'm sure you know, also in this camp despite his endurance athlete background. Your thoughts? Maybe there is a whole post here? You seem to have a runner or two reading this site. Thanks a ton. Keep them coming.

      • Jeromie 5 years ago

        I agree, Jason. My resting heart rate is in the 50’s and even lower before bed. I’d rather workout intensly for 15-20 minutes using mulit-joint movements such as squats and push-ups to keep my conditioning. I can hike, run, swim, and bike with anyone who trains more aerobically. And I can probably lift more weight and move myself more efficiently through space than they can. But I see the point that some people have made (like at Free The Animal: Born to Run), I just don’t think more than a few miles is necessary (e.g. a 5k). I also like how the book Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival discuss how that “euphoric” feeling people get from running is a lack of oxygen to their brain which implies that we couldn’t out-run our predator, putting us “at ease” with the fact we were about to be eaten. Otherwise, we would only run to hunt for food and I find it hard to assume that we would cover marathon distances to take down our prey. I also think walking is underrated and we would’ve probably walked many miles throughout our lives.

      • Author
        Andrew 5 years ago

        Since I framed the post as "everything is paleo", it's gonna be hard to go off-topic. Well okay… let's maybe keep the Cretaceous out of this.

        I hate to equivocate, but this may be a case where both sides are right. In fact, I suspect that it is. The capacity for endurance running lends obvious survival benefits in hunting and avoiding predation. Due to variance in population, it's certainly a trait that can be selected for. At the same time, we have to keep in mind that adaptive pressures are only relevant if they influence survival or reproductive fitness during the reproductive timeframe of individuals' lives.

        The curve for potential reproduction in women shoots up in the teens and drops off after menopause. The bell curve looks more like a box with a slightly rounded top. In men, the curve is more gradual, but still drops off dramatically with age.

        Translation: Natural selection may strongly favor distance-running traits and dropping dead at 50.

        A related phenomenon that I find interesting is the evolution (or lack thereof) of longer life spans. This is something that's certainly a trait that could be selected for because there's a clear variability in the population. However, the variability, by definition, happens after reproductive potential is zero in women, and super-low in men. There's no evolutionary reason for any species to evolve to live longer than they need to reproduce.

        From a longevity standpoint, I think Mark, Kurt, and Robb are on the right track with this.

        • JasonS 5 years ago

          I agree. Thanks for the wisdom.

        • David Csonka 5 years ago

          "There's no evolutionary reason for any species to evolve to live longer than they need to reproduce." Unless there are survival benefits for having older individuals around to help out?

          • Author
            Andrew 5 years ago

            Forbidden Topic Alert! {insert the sound of a thousand sirens}

            I’m (mostly) joking of course. Are you familiar with the “sociobiology” debacle of 1975?

            “Sociobiology investigates social behaviors, such as mating patterns, territorial fights, pack hunting, and the hive society of social insects. It argues that just as selection pressure led to animals evolving useful ways of interacting with the natural environment, it led to the genetic evolution of advantageous social behavior.

            Sociobiology has become one of the greatest scientific controversies of the late 20th and early 21st centuries” -Wikipedia

            Applying Darwinian evolution to groups inevitably brings social scientists out of the woodworks chanting the pejorative code-word “group selection”. Sociobiology was focused on group selection, while evolutionary psychology (EP) is focused on individuals. The social science gestapo hates EP so much that they almost invariably refer to it as “sociobiology’s direct descendant, evolutionary psychology” as a guilt by association ad hominem.

            Aside from my disdain for the Nurture Nazis, we do have some empirical evidence from evolutionary hypotheses that is kind of related. In the 80s, one of the theories for adaptive homosexuality was that gay siblings committed more resources to their nieces and nephews. The hypothesis was studied, and convincingly refuted.

            As evolutionary psychology would predict, we see a significant difference between grandma and grandpa in “investment” in grandchildren. Prior to paternity tests, maternal certainty was an absolute (excepting polyandry) while paternity was often a guess at best. Thus a grandfather couldn’t have been certain whether his mate’s offspring was his. This is uncertainty is multiplied if the grandchild comes from what he “believes” to be his son because either his mate or his son’s mate could have cuckolded either one of them. A grandmother has similar (to a lesser degree) uncertainty if her son has a grandchild.

            Long-story longer… It’s hard to say because of confounding factors (and the politics of the implications of honest research).

        • Ron Rizzo 4 years ago

          Andrew, I believe the paleo grandparents nurtured the children while the parents were out for dinner and a movie, thus a reason to live far past their reproductive years.

      • Erik Cisler 5 years ago

        There’s also a huge difference between beasting out on the marathon, half killing yourself, and persistence hunting (which is what most proponents of evolutionary arguments in favor of distance running cite).

        There’s that great Attenborough video of the San tribesmen hunting the kudu…
        [youtube fUpo_mA5RP8 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fUpo_mA5RP8 youtube]

        …These dudes went for hours, but they were not trying to make 26.2 miles in under 3. They lope along, stop to examine the tracks, rest, and divide the share of labor, sending the fast one off on the final stretch to run the animal down. Seems like a sensible way to do it.

        • Author
          Andrew 5 years ago

          Cool. Nice video for sure.

          This was my short answer to the distance running issue a week or so ago…
          <img src="http://evolvify.com/files/2010/11/marathon-tweet.jpg&quot; />

        • Ron Rizzo 4 years ago

          Thanks for finding this, really incredible, and a bit of refutation of De Vany. This may also suggest whey Ethiopians are the world's best distance runners. They are close to the ancestral genes.

    • Author
      Andrew 5 years ago

      Oh yeah… I forgot to mention…

      Not sure what the problem might have been, but I've added an email address to the contact page as an alternative for anyone having problems with the submission form.

  3. theorytopractice 5 years ago

    "…paleo being a logical framework, and not a historical reenactment…"
    Key point, and one the "Paleo purists" should keep in mind. Great post.

    • Ron Rizzo 4 years ago

      Well, of course, nevertheless, the video depicts a long run.

  4. pieter d 5 years ago

    Great post! Some thoughts that your essay brings to mind:

    I liked the ‘extensions of men’ phrase. It made me think of the ‘extended phenotype’ coined by Richard Dawkins in the seventies.

    Our mindset to see and use tools could explain why health professionals typically want to solve everything with tools (drugs, operation, …) and why, very often, patients also like these solutions.

    There is a really great video by the late Douglas Adams (and Dawkins and Pinker and Diamond and Dennett) you can see here:
    [youtube msAF_MDYWNE http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=msAF_MDYWNE youtube]

    Douglas Adams makes this tool using so very clear.

    Thanks for this blog. I really like it so far!!

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