Anyone who talks to me, reads this blog, or has been in a room with me for more than ten minutes knows that I am possibly the world's youngest curmudgeon. So, bear that in mind as you read...well, any of my blog entries.
Okay. So, I have been noticing a trend common in both certain types of marketing and in defending particular lifestyle choices that people make. It is really a form of the Appeal to Nature fallacy, but it's a specific form that, as an anthropologist (and especially as an archaeologist) tends to get under my skin. I tend to refer to it as the Caveman Fallacy - and it is the notion that whatever humans do in our "natural" state is what is best for us physically, intellectually, and emotionally.
Before I get into one of the big problems with this, I should note that dealing with this fallacy is complicated by the fact that there is a kernel of good sense buried deep, deep within the recesses of it's ungainly edifice. Examining our evolutionary past can reveal good, useful, and important information about the problems that cause us grief now. For example, understanding the world of our ancient ancestors can help us to grasp why we process information the way that we do in our modern world. Looking at the food gathering habits of modern hunter-gatherers can help us to look for possible ways to address diseases such as diabetes (though, to be fair, it can also reveal why our ancestors tended to die at a young age and have high rates of infant mortality). So, the notion that looking into the human past can yield valuable information for modern peoples is not an unreasonable one. What makes the Caveman Fallacy a fallacy is both the over-simplification of the human past that goes into it, and the way in which it tends to be applied unthinkingly.
Okay, first off, there is the problem of defining humanity's natural state. Some folks refer to this as the "cave man", but of course the cave man, with his tiger-skin cloak and a club with which to whack his intended prey and mate (often one in the same), is really just a creation of popular culture and doesn't actually describe the true human past. This version of the human past has been used to promote everything from high protein diets to aggressive foreign policy. It's bullshit, and is one side of the 18th/19th century tendency to see all non-Europeans as primitive.
The other version, ascendant in the here and now, is that the natural state of humans is that of innocent farmers (occasionally hunter/gatherers), in balance with nature, living a peaceful and idyllic life, with nothing in the way of disease or hunger. This variation is used to sell everything from herbal supplements to manufactured (but allegedly "native") religions aimed at white folk. This version is also bullshit, and is the flip-side of the 18th/19th century tendency to see all non-Europeans as primitive (or in this case, "noble savages").
With a bit of variation, the Caveman Fallacy routinely groups all past (and some present) humans into one of these two categories.
But the truth of the human past is much, much messier. First off, what the hell is humanity's natural state? Ever since we became our present species, a few hundred thousand years ago, we have been using tools. Technology pre-dates us as a species, and therefore if we are to define a natural state as one in which there is no technology to alter the environment, then humans, by definition, do not have a natural state. Some folks will try to skirt this by pointing to some point in our collective past - mobile bands of hunter-gatherers, sedentary bands of hunter-gatherers, early farmers, early town-dwellers, etc. - as humanity's natural state. However, the claim that any of these are more our natural state than any other point in human history is completely arbitrary. Each stage of human culture has held the seeds of everything that was to come later, and each stage bears the marks of what came before. If we have a different society now than that of our early ancestors, it is because of incremental change beginning with the first hominids (or even earlier), and everything we are now is derived from what we were before. We have always used technology to alter our environment, whether it was made of wood and stone or made of silicon and copper - technology is just as much a part of our evolutionary path as upright walking and depth perception. The truth is that we are just as much in our natural state now as our ancestors in the African Savannah were and this belief that human-manufactured things are unnatural comes purely from the rather arrogant belief that we are separate from the rest of the species on the planet*.
In short, either we have no natural state, OR we are still in our natural state. Any claim otherwise is nothing but the creation of an arbitrary and meaningless label.
The second problem comes when the people using the Caveman Fallacy make their claims about the specifics of the human past. They are typically factually distorted, if not outright false (where I come from, people call such claims "fuckin' lies").
For an extreme example, let's take a claim that I have heard made by many raw food proponents. I have heard many of these folks claim that the introduction of cooked foods into the human diet is responsible for many of our current maladies, and that the use of raw foods led to a shortening of the human lifespan. This is not true in precisely the same way that the surface of the sun is not cold. In fact, cooking predates anatomically modern humans, and while there are some foods that are better for us raw, cooking actually "pre-digests" many foods for us allowing us to get more nutrition from most, and making some that would otherwise be inedible both palatable and nutritious. The paleoanthropology and archaeology both back this conclusion up very firmly, and any claim to the contrary betrays an individual completely out of touch with reality.
Then you have variations on a theme used by both the ravenous meat eaters and the pro-vegetarian folks. These folks both claim that our ancestor's diets were very different from our own, and that we should eat as they did for improved health. It is true that their diets were very different, but to claim that eating as they did would lead to better health is debatable at best - bear in mind that it is very recently in human history (really, with the advent of the modern diet, modern sanitation, and modern medical technology) that human lifespans have nearly doubled and our infant mortality rates have dropped. That being said, looking to our evolutionary past may provide useful information about how we process foods as well as why we crave what we crave, and this may be useful in looking to our current health, provided that we remember that what our ancestors ate was not necessarily the optimal diet either (what with limited food choices and seasonal starvation and all).
The difference between the meaties and the veggies lies not in their basic claim, though, but rather in what they believe the past to be like. The meaties see humans of the past as mighty hunters, killing beasts and eating their meat, keeping lean and healthy through the exercise necessary to catch the animals, and through the intake of animal proteins itself. The veggies, on the other hand, look to the past of human the gatherer (interesting to note that the veggies tend to be more gender inclusive in their view of the human past), and see us as natural herbivores eating off of the landscape without need for animal proteins.
Both of these views contain elements of truth, unfortunately filtered through a thick membrane of ideologically-driven psuedoscience. For the meaties: the human lineage has engaged in meat-eating probably since the time of the Australopithecines, if not before. However, this has probably been a mix of hunting and scavenging, "man the noble hunter" is a myth and nothing more. Meat has been important to human evolution (if you look into how we digest it, it is one of the more nutritious foods a human can eat), but most humans gained the vast majority of dietary calories from vegetable foods.
As for the veggies, everything from the tools that accompany early archaeological sites (pre-dating anatomically modern humans by millions of years) to the evidence from biology and physiology (humans have numerous traits of both carnivores and herbivores, an unusual combination) and from primatology (contrary to what many people believe, other primates - most notably chimpanzees - will eat meat when they can get it) indicate that meat has been a part of the human diet from the beginning. It has been a small part of our diet, but if the archaeology, paleoanthropology, ethnography, and biology are any indication (and, umm, they are), then it has been an important part of our diet even if small.
All of this brings us to the third problem with the caveman fallacy - most of the claims about the past ultimately, even if they were true (and they rarely are), have little to do with today. So what if meat has been important to human diets in the past? With the variety of foods available to most of us, the average person living in the U.S. or Europe can gain all of the nutrition they need from vegetable resources today, and there may even be beneficial side-effects to doing so***. By the same token, even if past humans gained most of their nutrition from vegetable foods, a fair (and non-ideological) assessment of the biological and medical literature shows that including meat as part of our diet makes it easier to maintain a healthy diet (although most of us in the U.S. do tend to overdo it and could stand to consume less meat).
Likewise, claims about how human relations worked in the past, about how our ancient religions worked, etc., even if they are true, must be filtered through modern culture, meaning that the past is not as relevant as the present.
But, it must be remembered that the Caveman Fallacy is different from the examination of our past to look for clues to how we evolved or for keys into underlying elements common to humans. For example, consideration of early human environments, such as the African savanna, may help us to understand why human cognition evolved as it did, or why our senses are calibrated as they are. But this is fundamentally different from saying "X is good, because X is what 'natural' humans did!" That is just plain stupid.
*That being said, an argument can be made that we have used technology in a way that has, or soon will, extend our environment's carrying capacity to its limits, and we may be looking forward to a major population crash. If this happens it will not, however, be proof that our current level of technology is unnatural. On the contrary, it will be proof that we are still very much part of the natural world, and that we are just as subject to resource stress and environmental degredation as everything else.
**There are, however, many exceptions, and unless you are going to claim that hunter-gatherers in vegetable poor environments are somehow less natural than you, you can't claim that humans naturally eat little to no meat.
***As someone who enjoys meat, I take little pleasure in informing my fellow meat-eaters that the reality is that cutting down or eliminating our meat eating will likely have good effects on our environment, as well as our wastelines. However, it won't be the panacaea that many folks seem to think it will be, so while it may be a worthy goal, reducing or eliminating meat consumption will only solve a few problems.