Evolutionary Search for Our Perfect Past

Very good essay today in the New York Times about the questionable belief that today’s health problems are the result of “our Stone Age genes [being] thrust into Space Age life.” The author calls this a paleofantasy: the idea that at some point in the past things were perfect, and they could be perfect again if we followed the ways our wise forebears.

This same fantasy is operative in many fields. In Constitutional Law for example, scholars spend a lot of time trying to divine the Framers’ Original Intent. Much social policy seems directed toward recreating an ideal family, of the kind that is thought to have existed sometime in the 1950s. But where paleofantasy really flourishes is in the religious arena — especially fundamentalism, which seeks to recreate the faith experience of the earliest adherents in some idealized past.

In most cases, our fantasies about the past do not correspond with actual events.


2 Responses

  1. Great post, John. Couldn’t agree more.

    I get grumpy anytime I hear someone talk about the environmental degradation of the earth. True, we are doing some things that are harmful to the environment and ultimately our health; however, things are way better than when there was horse shit all over the roads. We can actually drink water now without worrying about coming down with the plague.

    I think there might be an element of truth to the paleolithic diet story, however. I believe we evolved to be able to eat certain foods, ones that were not processed or had chemically altered (trans) fats. But to confuse this with wanting to return to a primitive age when we are hunters and gatherers would be a dire mistake.


  2. Justin: I often hear people disparage processed food, but what’s wrong with it? Common methods of food processing include cooking, canning, freezing, refrigeration, dehydration and pasteurization. No harmful effects have been found from any of these. In fact, by killing bacteria and preserving food for longer periods of time, these processes have contributed immeasurably to human health.

    Trans-fats do seem to be associated with increased risk for heart disease. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Chemical alteration of food is not an inherently harmful thing. Wine is just chemically-altered grape juice. Cheese and yogurt are chemically-altered milk. You could say that all three are the product of bio-engineering as well.

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