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What Evo really tells us about sex, diet and how we live

Marlene Zuk

Paleofantasy is basically the idea that we are good at things we had to do in the Stone Age and bad at new things. But there was never a single 'paleo' environment of lifestyle, any more than there is a single modern lifestyle. Our ancestors trapped, fished, collected, scavenged at different times and places depending on where and when they lived. So no basis for insisting that we are 'adapted' to raw meat or berries or whatever.

In last few thousand years we have added lactose tolerance; in last few hundred years we have begun to add ability to function at high altitudes and resistance to malaria.

Humans are built off a vertebrate plan that made sense if you were a fish, but which puts constraints on our performance and health.

We know hunter gatherers had an 'average' life expectancy of 40, but that doesn't mean there were no old people. If you have a population of 100, and 50 of them die before they are 5, but the other 50 live to 75, that gives you a 40 year average, even though no 40 yo's die. So old age is not a recent innovation, but its commonness is.

Anthropologist Donald Brown catalogued what he called universal human qualities - incl incest avoidance, the rough structure of language, male-dominated political life, use of mind- or mood-altering substances, and a fear of snakes.

Large sedentary groups have obvious vulnerabilities. You only get cholera when keep going back to infected water supply. Measles dies out unless a big enough group that a continual supply of new targets. Smallpox, influenza and diptheria are all thought to have originated in our livestock.

But the much larger population supported by intensive agriculture also provided a much larger gene pool, and thus a much larger o[pool of mutations, both good and bad. Favourable mutations that had previously appeared every 100,000 years were now showing up every 400 years. And the bigger the population, the faster useful mutations can spread. Also, bigger groups can conserve knowledge - less chance of the one person who knows a skill or where to find a resource, dying.

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