Prehistoric man is not a good example of human health
You hear the argument all the time, from the paleo nuts, from the lactivists, from the anti-GMO crowd: Our ancient ancestors lived this way, therefore we should too. It’s a perfect example of the appeal to nature, the idea that our early ancestors, who lived in nature rather than cities with artificial lights and “frankenfood” were healthier. Or sometimes they don’t go that far, but simply imply that, since this is our natural station that’s how we should live.
But they’re wrong, and aside from the logical fallacy they mistake a simple facet of human evolution.
Briefly: the Appeal to Nature Fallacy can best be explained like this: X is natural, therefore X is good. It’s a pernicious fallacy because, when it isn’t looked at with a critical eye, it appears to be logical. We’re the only species on the planet (with the slight exception of beavers) who drastically alter our ecosystem. We wear artificial fur, we cultivate and herd other organisms to eat and use for our benefit. We live far removed from nature, in concrete cities in stolid wooden structures; in isolation from, rather than communion from nature.
That’s not natural. I don’t deny that: living in cities is not natural. No other life form does that.
But that doesn’t mean it’s bad.
The problem with calling back to our paleolithic roots is that the evidence points to this not being the optimal way to live.
Our ancestors learned fairly early on that altering nature, from making simple stone tools to building complex agrarian societies that cultivated flora and fauna to the benefit of the entire society, was more beneficial. It’s a more optimal method of survival.
Its why hardly any societies on the planet are still hunter-gatherers. Even aboriginal societies cultivate land if they are able to.
The argument that we’ve evolved to live as hunter gatherers, so living like them (by eating a “paleo” diet, or using “natural remedies” or only breastfeeding) is more in tune with how we’ve evolved to live.
But evolution doesn’t work like that. We, as a species, evolved to fit a niche, that’s true. But we are also capable of fitting into other niches, such as the technically advanced society in which we find ourselves today. Furthermore, evolution doesn’t work by making a creature the best fit for a niche, only good enough.
Think of the crocodile. Mostly untouched for millions of years because it has found a niche into which it fits brilliantly. Most organisms aren’t like that, and to suppose that we humans evolved to fit into the niche of the hunter-gatherer exclusively is just plain wrong, and all the evidence supports that.
City dwellers live longer than aboriginal humans today. Infant mortality is far lower. We have better health generally, even though on certain indices, such as obesity and physical strength we underperform our potential. But we’re not dying of disease or predation as often as we were when we were hunter gatherers, or during childbirth. Instead of having to chase after our food we can buy it in the store. It’s not natural, but it’s far more beneficial for the species than the old method.
This is what baffles me about the appeal to our pre-historic roots as being best. It’s not. The evidence shows that we’re better off than we ever have been. And artificial foods, artificial clothing, artificial medicine, all of our own creation, are the main reasons why we are doing so well as a species.
We can learn a lot about ourselves by looking at our prehistoric ancestors, and even our cousins who live like that today. But that’s not a living situation I want to be in, and it’s not optimal for our health. So stop, please stop, appealing to nature. The data, the science shows that we’ve never been as unhealthy as we were before we built society.