The Magazine

Keep It Simple

Some ‘much-needed pushback’ to the myth of the noble savage.

Sep 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 01 • By DANIEL LEE
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Of course, modern life gets blamed for cancer as well. Zuk discusses the Egyptologists Rosalie David and Michael Zimmerman, who claim to find almost no cancer in ancient peoples, concluding that “cancer was rare in antiquity.” Zimmerman, in fact, links cancer directly to modern lifestyles, since “there is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer.” This must come as a surprise to anyone shelling out four bucks for a tube of SPF 50 sunblock, or $30-$60 for a radon test kit. 

In fact, says Zuk, many cancers leave no skeletal evidence, and many ancient skeletons are incomplete anyway. She cites biologist Caleb Finch, who finds a source for cancer in our longevity: “Our long life spans have come at a price,” explains Zuk. “Our immune systems can keep us going for many decades by fending off viruses, bacteria, and other onslaughts, but they also make us prone to inflammation, heart and neurological disease, and cancer.”

A good deal of Zuk’s argument depends on what she sees as a key misunderstanding of evolution: namely, that there was some point when we reached a perfect adaptation to the environment, a state of grace from which we have since lapsed. 

We all wish we could be healthier, and it is easy to fantasize that before Big Macs, or roads, or houses, we were. But evolution doesn’t work that way, with the accomplishment of perfect health or perfect adaptation after some arbitrary period of time. Instead, diseases perfectly demonstrate that life is an endless series of checks and balances, with no guarantees of a happy ending.

Or, as she says elsewhere, “We all have to die of something.” She makes a good case that hiding in an imaginary past won’t save us.

Daniel Lee is a writer in Indiana.