Fantasies of the “noble savage” are nothing new, of course. There were Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s state-of-nature imaginings in the 18th century, and something similar appears even in the ancient epic Gilgamesh. In 1580, Montaigne compared holy-warring Europeans (unfavorably) with Brazilian cannibals, and the phrase itself first turns up in English in John Dryden’s 1672 play The Conquest of Granada.
Typically, the idea is that the natural man is the virtuous man, living in small, happy, family groups, treading lightly upon Mother Earth, taking only what he needs, and returning himself gratefully to her enfolding bosom after, one supposes, a decently short interval. It’s become one of the left’s foundation myths, as well as a congenial foil to the modern free-market industrial culture it blames for many of the world’s woes.
Marlene Zuk now lends weight to some much-needed pushback. Although she doesn’t tackle the doubtful politics behind this striving for a primitive past, she does provide a welcome corrective to the “newspaper articles, morning TV, dozens of books, and self-help advocates promoting slow-food or no-cook diets, barefoot running, sleeping with our infants, and other measures large and small claim[ing] that it would be more natural, and healthier, to live more like our ancestors.”
Some, for example, insist that since man evolved eating a particular diet—imagined as fruits, roughage, meat, bone marrow, and whatever else nature deigned to provide—many of our modern maladies can be traced to our more wide-ranging menu. But beyond our sheer overconsumption, Zuk doubts this claim. There has been ample time to move beyond the elemental hunting and gathering diet endorsed by fans of a paleo-lifestyle. And modern DNA studies demonstrate that evolution doesn’t require eons to play out.
Change is always underway, she says: “In just the last few years we have added the ability to function at high altitudes and resistance to malaria to the list of rapidly evolved human characteristics, and the stage is set for many more.” For instance, the ability of some groups, so far mostly Northern European, to digest cow’s milk into adulthood is relatively new, but likely continuing: “[A]s little as a 3 percent increase in the reproductive fitness of those with lactase persistence (which allows digestion of the milk sugar lactose) would result in the widespread distribution of such a gene after only 300 to 350 generations. That’s about 7,000 years—a blink of the evolutionary eye,” she writes.
Agriculture itself—considered the source of early prosperity, settled communities, and civilization—takes heat for its supposed successes from people like Jared Diamond. “With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence,” he writes. Yet anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon has vividly chronicled remarkably similar behavior in primitive peoples like South America’s Yanomami, who know nothing of settled agriculture. Chagnon is controversial, of course. Meanwhile, “environmental writer and activist” John Feeney observes that “as hunter-gatherers, we were a species that lived in much the same way as any other, relying on the whims of nature to provide us with our food and water.” He considers this a good thing.
Zuk concedes that there was a downside to early agricultural settlement—at first: The new European Global History of Health project “suggest[s] that people living in early urban settlements were indeed of poorer health than their hunter-gatherer ancestors.” She blames living at close quarters with larger numbers of people and domesticated animals, disease vectors all. But the same data indicate that “health improved later, after trade networks allowed the exchange of goods and food became more diverse.” Higher death rates likely stemmed from infant mortality associated with increased birth rates, a sign of prosperity.
Tuberculosis is also high on the exhibit list for the anti-agriculturists among us. Early cattle wranglers supposedly suffered from a bovine form of the disease, Mycobacterium bovis, which mutated into the human disease, Mycobacterium tuberculosis. But advanced DNA studies have now dated Mycobacterium tuberculosis to about three million years ago, when little hominins like Australopithecus afarensis and sediba were likely just trying to avoid being trampled by Bessie’s ancestors, not swapping germs with them as domesticated livestock.
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.