The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Caveman Fallacy

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.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if people these days may be more concerned about food choice as a status thing or a way to assert personal control. I think the "choice" is taken for granted. Most of us have a choice of what to eat, for the most part. Our ancestors had a lot less options. They also didn't have as much advertising content to deal with. Maybe the foodie fundamentalism we see, whether it be vegan or carnie, reflects the frustration people feel at having so many choices available and so little effective context for making those choices. Why not default to a simple just-so folk belief on food? Caveman Hunter or Peace-Child Gatherer...take your pick. Never mind the relevant facts or history, it's all about your own form of personal branding. Oh, don't worry, if you can't figure it out for yourself, you can buy someone else's ideas and accessorize as you wish. There's always a pre-packaged belief brand ready for your consumption...for a price. Pay the price, join the's your choice.

Evan Davis said...

I like that last comment.

I think there is a larger problem of too much information and the populace's inability to deal with it. I think this would be a major reason why you keep coming across people oversimplifying. Most subjects have a degree of complexity that most people don't care about. Simplifying the issue makes it much easier to deal with as well as easier for those concerned to rally people to their cause.

Colin Purrington said...

Back in the day, meaties probably ate the veggies, since the latter were too weak to run away.

Anthroslug said...

@Colin: The problem with your hypothesis is that the meaties likely suffered from constipation problems that the veggies didn't, thus making it difficult for them to work up the necessary gumption to capture and eat the veggies. And thus, a stalemate was reached.

Trust me, I have a degree in SCIENCE!

Anthroslug said...

@Motturtle: I have often wondered about this myself, and I think that you make a good point. Alot of choice with little real knowledge to make the choices (but alot of ideologically motivated people providing false or misleading information) is no doubt a large part of the issue.

anthrosciguy said...

You'll notice few people in the "our past is good for us" camp advocate binging and going hungry for days, only to gorge again, which is a pretty natural way to live according to our past.

Anthroslug said...

@anthrosciguy: This fact has not escaped me, either. When in conversation, I often point this out.

andyTest said...

What about the people that promote a very high vegetable intake with zero grains, legumes and dairy, along with a healthy portion of meat and fat with a near 1 to 1 omega 6 to omega 3 ratio.

Then on top of that they suggest intermittent fasting of around 24 hours in addition.

I've been pretty skeptical, but have given it a try, and it is working well for me. Of course the whole "caveman" part of the argument is complete bunk, but the diet does improve a number of health factors like cholesterol levels, body fat, weight and the like from the little that I understand.

Anthroslug said...

Andy: I can't give you particularly good feedback, although it sounds like you'd be cutting your carbohydrate intake sufficently that in the long term it would probably start causing problems.

If I may ask, what does your doctor have to say about it?

andyTest said...

It is slightly lower carb intake, though I'm not really keeping track of my macro-nutrient intake. I make sure I get plenty of fresh fruit and veggies.

For example I've replaced my usual breakfast of oatmeal and pecans sweetened with some sugar and cooked in milk and water with zucchini, mushrooms and onion sauted with some ground lamb, and half a plate of melon. It works out to be lower carb, but much higher nutrient per calorie ratio.

Good question about my doctor. I'm only a month into this, and I'm due for a physical in a month. If there is any indication that it is impacting my health in a negative way, I'm dropping it in a heart beat.

I kinda posted this in the spur of the moment, so after thinking things through a little more clearly, there are some claims that the proponents of this diet claim that you might have some insight on.

They focus on the transition from hunter gatherer to agricultural lifestyle and diet. There are some specific claims made about average height and quality of diet during this transition. Essentially their argument is that adapting grains enabled huge advances for our species but had a negative impact on the individual. We sacrificed quality of diet for a reliable steady source of calories. I could point you at some of those claims if you wanted to take a look, and put them in a wider perspective.

I don't really take them at face value, but I've no way to determine how much they are cherry picking their data to support their arguments.

Anthroslug said...

@Andy Brommer: There is some truth to it - the transition from hunter/gatherer to agriculturalist did involve changes to the diet that appear to have been negative on individual health in many locations (there are some places where the dietary change may have improved individual health, so it's good to be careful about making blanket statements). This generally included an increase in the use of grains, but grains were already a significant part of the diet where these became crops (likewise, potatoes were already part of the diet where these became crops, beans already part of the diet where these became crops, etc.).

After a time, the trade-off worked. Evidence indicates that later farmers were probably healthier than their hunter-gatherer forbears (although, again, there tends to be regional variation). So, the claim only holds for the transitional stage, if you compare the later farmers, it may be a different story.

There is probably wisdom in reducing the consumption of certain common foods (cut down on the bread, reduce meat consumption, etc.), but you are correct that the proponents of the diet that you are on are cherrypicking their data, and the diet that you are on probably also bears only a vague resemblance to the hunter-gatherers.

Still, talk to your doctor. Just because the proponents make questionable claims doesn't necessarilly mean that it's a bad idea.

Jake said...

This isn't my personal belief - but you could make a reasonable argument that human's natural state is the one that modern humans spent the most time 'in'. I don't know what the time range would be, but presumably human experience was pretty stable for tens of thousands of years. During that time, humanity either adapted well to those conditions, or stayed in that condition because it was very well suited to the species.

Anthroslug said...

@Jake: That seems a reasonable stance, but there is a basic problem with it. Most of the time that anatomically modern humans have been around, it was the Pleistocene, a time when the natural world was quite different.

What happened is that, with the end of the last Ice Age and the dawn of the Holocene (around ~10,000-12,000 years ago), the world around humanity changed in such a way that it became more hospitable to humans. When that happend, humanity took off and change became the norm, with our populations and technology growing by leaps and bounds.

If you want to argue for the conditions of the Pleistocene being humanity's natural state (and provided that you make it clear that you are simply using "natural state" as a label based on a particular set of parameters), then around 10,000 years ago the world changed, and the conditions that created that natural state vanished forever - all without humans doing anything to bring that particular change about. You still end up with the same situation, discussions of humanity's "natural state" are of limited relevance to the world around us.

Unknown said...

I'd be interested in what you think about the argument that as human technology has advanced, it has distanced us from certain population controls, like predators and disease. That this has resulted in a population boom, coupled with practices that are destructive to the environment because we don't have a direct feedback. For example: In the past we're hunting, as well as farming. Our population grows due to greater access to food, and to support that population we hunt more and farm more ultimately leading to environmental degradation in our area. As this degradation occurs we can't support the population and so people begin starving and a population cap is effectively set. Now, with the advent of fertilizers created using fossil fuels, (along with more advanced farming practices), food is more abundant and larger populations can be supported. As time goes on, areas do become over farmed, and we move to different areas with the use of modern technology. So we don't feel the effects of over farming because we have access to more land.

This is an oversimplification, obviously land lasts longer now, and stays better nourished. over-saturation of certain chemicals in the soil is avoided by using different plants (organic), or chemicals (industrial). The chemicals aren't sustainable, because they're based on fossil fuels. But assuming that the example reflects some reality, what do you say to then argument that because more advanced technology removes population barriers, and direct feedback it distances us from the environment that sustains us?

Anthroslug said...

@Samuel: I would say that you are probably correct. One of the things that I often ponder is that, while technology distances us from natural barriers, there are some that it can not do away with, and which will catch up with us eventually. There will come a time when either A) we can no longer support our population, and it will crash, or B) our population growth slows to the point that we are able to sustain ourselves. I hope it's the latter (and some demographers say that it is), but I often fear it will be the former.

But this has been the pattern throughout human history. We develop technologies that allow us to support larger populations, and we grow until a limiting factor become dominant and slams us back into our place.

Chris M said...

We have definitely overshot the carrying capacity of the planet. By drawing down ecological capital, instead living off the returns of that capital, short term growth can be accomplished at the cost of reducing future carrying capacity, with generally disastrous results.

Anthroslug said...

@Canada Guy: I often think that you are right, though I wonder of the "natural correction" when it occurs, will be a cataclysm, or if it will be an unpleasant, but much less dramatic, series of events that gradually notches down our population. There is evidence of both in the human past, and I have seen no convincing argument that either one is the definite rout eof our future, though one or the other probably is.

By the way, I liked your entry on organic farming. It is rare to see a proponent of it that actually addresses criticism rather than ignoring it. Good entry.

Chris M said...

Thanks Anthroslug. I would like to hope that we can have a gradual decline too, that would be for the best. The rate of environmental damage, though, makes me worry we may not have enough time to allow for this to happen. I suppose a lot of this will depend on what we do in the next few years.

andyTest said...

Things along the line of vertical farming seem to be an intriguing option to deal with the environmental impact of farming, without introducing mass famine.

Also, grassfed animals using land not suitable for growing food help as well.

Unknown said...

My concern with whether it will be a drop or a leveling off is that much of our food production is based on chemicals that are either produced or derived from fossil fuels. Since these a obviously a limited resource, I have to wonder what happens when we run out or run low on fossil fuels.
Since currently our food production is based on these methods, will we be able to cut down on our diets to make up for the decreased amount of food? Or will that be impractical and lead to famine? Or will we be able to substitute alternative fuels?

Good article by the way.