Marlene ZukThe Alan Wilson Centre hosted visiting professor and author Marlene Zuk for a lecture tour in New Zealand.  Tonight was Dunedin’s turn.  She spoke on the topic of her recent book: Paleofantasy: What evolution tells us about modern life.  As always, I took notes.

What would a cave woman do?  Especially when it comes to dieting.  And why does the artist always focus on her cleavage?  Popular evolutionary theory tells us we learn from negative choices, mainly: Avoid the bad stuff today or you are toast!

evolution: some where something went terribly wrong

Cave Mister Man strides across the white page at the end of the book, the pinnacle of evolution. His greatest moment is getting to carry the spear. Presumably pants came in about the same time as the invention of Woman.

Adaptation works through a series of tradeoffs and compromises to be good enough.  Speech was a tradeoff that creating the space in the mouth for articulation comes with the higher risk of choking to death on food.  Evolution is not an engineer, evolution is a tinkerer working with existing parts found lying around garage of our physical bodies.  It works with tradeoffs.

We have never been in perfect harmony with the environment.  It is a continuous process of adaptation.  Several times in human history developing a gene for metabolising dairy produce through natural selection has been a survival factor in human populations.

Adaptation can happen rapidly, like the crash of a sparrow population after spring storms.  We harvest the biggest fish in our fishing industry, leaving the breeding stock open to smaller and medium sized fish only.

Have you gone looking for clipart on the internet?  Does it ever show people older than 40 years plus doing stuff?  The average age of humanity in its evolutionary history has been 37 years.  High childhood mortality, children dying in their first five years of life, up to 50%, skewers where we put the average.  It may turn out that the diseases of old age were as equally common in previous generations as a cause of death.

There is no such thing as hunter-gatherer genes.  The chimpanzee diet may not prevent Attention Deficit Disorder — how do you tell if chimps do not have ADD.  I suspect the bottled water branded as ‘paleo water’ may come from a similar tap as I have at home.  We share one third of our genes with daffodils.  I do not think any one is recommending a diet of sunlight, water and changing the fertilizer every spring.

Humanity is not the pinnacle of the evolutionary process.  We are part of a branching pattern of life where all living things are as evolved as any other part of the pattern.  We are not meant to do anything.  There is no new 2014 model of humanity being launched on the production line.

Are humans still evolving?  We are not the end-goal of evolution.  Re-phrase the question: Do all people have the same number of children?  We take partners to create new human families.  Those choices affect the genetic composition of each generation, of each community and society.  Natural selection acts to cause slow gradual evolutionary change.

Organisms are never in harmony with the environment.  Mismatches happen.  Be wary of paleofantasies.

Paleofantasy by Marlene ZukAnd support funding for the Alan Wilson Centre in 2015!