The Caveman Speaks
An interview with John Durant
SEPTEMBER 17, 2013 by THE FREEMAN
John Durant is the author of the new book The Paleo Manifesto, in which he advocates using evolutionary principles to combat the epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions. Durant studied evolutionary psychology at Harvard before moving to New York City and becoming a “professional caveman”: mimicking a hunter-gatherer diet, running barefoot through Central Park, experimenting with intermittent fasting, and doing polar bear swims in the Atlantic.
We got to sit down with John and talk about everything from being a caveman in New York, to being a libertarian at Harvard, to being a third generation FEE alumnus.
The Freeman: Here’s the obligatory question: Can you tell us, in a nutshell, what it means to live a paleo lifestyle?
Durant: “Paleo” is short for “Paleolithic”, the 2.6 million year span when humans and our hominid ancestors lived as foragers and hunter-gatherers on the African savannah. Many modern health problems stem from a mismatch between our primal biology and our modern lifestyles. The idea behind leading a modern-day paleo lifestyle is to mimic conditions to which humans are better adapted—everything from diet and exercise to sun exposure and temperature variation. This same general approach—mimicking the natural habitat of a species—is used by all the top zoos in the world to prevent chronic health problems in captive animals. When combined with modern medical technology, you get the best of the old with the best of the new.
The Freeman: So how does this evolutionary perspective differ from the conventional wisdom of avoiding junk food and exercising more?
Durant: Everyone agrees on avoiding junk food. The biggest divergence with the conventional wisdom is skepticism toward grains and legumes (e.g., wheat, corn, and soy) and to a lesser extent, dairy. An evolutionary view also calls into question two common approaches to healthy eating—fat phobia and vegetarianism—since humans have been eating animals for millions of years.
But diet is just one piece of the puzzle.
Our habits and habitats have become too monotonous: constant snacking (without any periods of hunger); running at a constant pace on a treadmill (but never sprinting); living in temperature-controlled homes, offices, and cars; using indoor lighting that tricks our bodies into thinking it’s always daytime.
Humans thrive on variation, and we’ve lost that.
The Freeman: Do you recommend that all people should live this way?
Durant: Not necessarily. Look, if you’re happy with your health, then there may be no reason change anything. Just because a food is new doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unhealthy. But many people suffer from conditions they don’t talk about at cocktail parties—depression, irritable bowel syndrome, autoimmune disorders. For those people, why not try it out and see if it works?
The alternative is usually prescription medications, which are only partially effective and come with strong side effects. Putting faith in pills is akin to a centrally planned intervention in an economy: It produces unintended consequences that are often worse than the original problem. I prefer to take personal responsibility for my health and stick to fundamentally sound principles: real food, real movement, real sun, real sleep, and real relationships. (Kind of like real money.)
The Freeman: Marlene Zuk, an evolutionary biologist, has taken some shots at paleo in her book, Paleofantasy. Is there anything you would care to say in response?
Durant: A tweet of mine summed it up best: “Paleofantasy shouldn’t have been a book in 2013, it should have been a blog post in 2010.” Dr. Zuk’s primary points—that evolution never stopped, and that it’s an imperfect process—are fundamentally correct. But they’re also obvious and long acknowledged.
The prime example of recent human evolution is the emergence of lactose tolerance, which facilitated dairy consumption in herding populations. If Dr. Zuk had done the slightest bit of research—beyond citing a few idiotic anonymous blog commenters—she would have known that many people who eat paleo actually do incorporate some dairy into their diet: grass-fed butter, heavy cream, or even raw milk. Others don’t—including many of the two-thirds of the world that is lactose intolerant.
(Incidentally, if anyone speaks about recent human evolution in domains other than diet—such as IQ, behavioral tendencies, or personality traits—then professional academics and progressives try to label you as evil, destroy your career, and banish you from polite society.)
Dr. Zuk’s example of imperfect evolution is the location of the optic nerve in the eye, which emerges from the front of the retina, not the back—thus causing a blind spot. But isn’t it vastly more amazing that most people never even realize that the eye contains a blind spot? Isn’t it far more impressive that our cognitive software is so sophisticated that it fills in the gaps in our visual field?
It’s disappointing to hear a professional evolutionary biologist talk about evolution by natural selection—the most brilliant design process in the world—as if it were a design committee at General Motors.
The Freeman: I expected your book to focus exclusively on the Paleolithic, but you also explore ancient cultural traditions that emerged after the Agricultural Revolution. You have a fascinating chapter on how religious purity codes helped people avoid infectious disease—for example, you point out that Biblical injunctions to wash your hands (Exodus 30:17-21) appear thousands of years before the scientific “discovery” of hand washing. Why is contemporary science only now catching up with both evolutionary thinking and ancient practices?
Durant: Spontaneous orders—such as evolution by natural selection or cultural evolution—often produce intelligent solutions faster than formal science. The early Israelites who washed their hands didn’t have to understand the germ theory of disease. Hand washing just worked, and those who adopted this Nobel-worthy custom—for any reason—would have been less likely to die of disease. But when there’s no single person who formalizes that knowledge using the scientific method, then who gets the Nobel Prize? Moses?
The Freeman: Many conservatives think that libertarians neglect the wisdom in tradition, while many libertarians think that conservatives are too bound by tradition. We at FEE think there is no contradiction between the two, and Hayek’s ideas about spontaneous order and cultural evolution may strike a balance between these two positions. What do you think?
Durant: I struggle with this issue all the time. When I’m surrounded by liberal progressives, I feel like an arch-traditionalist; when I’m around conservatives, I feel like a radical. I do believe Hayek offers a way forward—and personally, I often understand and defend ancient cultural traditions for completely different reasons than most traditional people do. Nassim Taleb has described himself as both secular and religious, and that’s a good way to describe me too. Maybe that’s a contradiction, but who cares? Walt Whitman said it best: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
The Freeman: Why do you think so many libertarians seem to be attracted to a paleo lifestyle?
Durant: First of all, the established food movement—organic, plant-based—has been heavily influenced by liberal progressives, with that ideology being most pronounced among vegans and vegetarians. But there are many people who want to be healthy yet find progressive ideology off-putting. So there’s demand for an alternative approach and identity.
It takes a contrarian disposition to go against the grain, as it were, and libertarians are certainly willing to think different. We also require little persuasion that the federal government’s nutritional guidelines—embodied by the USDA food pyramid—might be deeply misguided.
Many libertarians are high-IQ optimizers, so are willing to go to great lengths to understand and achieve optimal health. We also understand spontaneous order—whether an economy or the human body—and are open to the influence of evolution on human nature.
Sex seems to play a role, too. Men do like to eat meat—hunting has always been a masculine domain—whereas vegetarianism skews feminine. Surveys have shown that paleo is evenly split between men and women—eating real food isn’t a male or female thing—but an even sex ratio is still heavily male relative to most other dietary approaches, which tend to skew female.
Along similar lines, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has conducted research showing that libertarians tend to be low in empathy (even if libertarian policies arguably result in better outcomes), and that may make it easier to eat animals without losing any sleep over it.
Those factors probably explain the bulk of it.
As if it needed to be said, eating paleo does not require adherence to a political ideology and being a libertarian does not mean you have to wear funny toe shoes and do CrossFit.
The Freeman: You come down hard on vegans and vegetarians who claim plant-based diets are optimally healthy. But what would you say to someone like John Mackey who is firm believer in a vegan diet for ethical or environmental reasons as well?
Durant: I love John Mackey and Whole Foods, and I’m not going to let a disagreement over legumes get in the way of that. Despite the public image of paleo and veganism at odds, both paths lead to more conscious eaters—a very good thing. Where I would disagree with many vegans is whether a boycott on meat and animals products—i.e., veganism—is actually the most effective way to change and improve our industrial food system. The vegan boycott on meat hardly makes a dent in the bottom line of the big agribusiness; yet that same revenue would make a huge difference to food entrepreneurs who are innovating in permaculture farming, humane treatment of animals, and ethical slaughter.
At the end of the day, everyone is free to eat as they see fit—and that’s fine.
The Freeman: What was it like to be the president of the Harvard Libertarian Society? (One doesn’t normally get to write Harvard and libertarian in the same sentence, after all.)
Durant: You might say that I ran a laissez faire administration—which is just my sorry excuse for my not accomplishing very much. That’s not entirely true—we brought some great speakers to campus, such as Cato’s Tom Palmer and law professor Randy Barnett. These days, college campuses are ripe for the libertarian message.
The Freeman: You’re a third generation FEE alumnus. Your grandfather, John Sparks, wrote a number of articles for The Freeman—and your parents, Clark and Susan Durant, first met at FEE. And now you’ve attended and spoken at FEE seminars. Not bad.
Durant: FEE is a wonderful institution, I’m grateful for what I’ve learned here, and hope that I can give back to FEE students, as well.
The Freeman: John Durant, thank you for spending time with us.
If you’re interested in learning more about the paleo lifestyle, John’s book The Paleo Manifesto comes out this week and is available wherever books are sold.