In 2013, the most searched-for weight loss method on Google was the ‘Paleo Diet’. Its basic premise is that we ought to eat like hunter-gatherers 10000 years ago, before the rise of agriculture: the meat of wild animals, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Since, the argument goes, human physiology has not evolved much in the mean time, this high protein, high fat, low carbohydrate diet is what we are adapted to process – unlike the foods humans have been eating since the advent of agriculture, and worse, industrialization: dairy, pulses, grains, sugar. All these food groups are suspected of causing a number of ‘affluence diseases’ including various heart problems, type 2 Diabetes, impotence, etc.
Bracketing question as to whether it is based on convincing evidence or whether, indeed, it does or does not ‘work’, what stands out about this popular diet is its compelling narrative. It provides an attractive change to the ‘low-fat’ imperatives so dominant in the 1990s and a gleeful rebuttal of what has seemed a somewhat pious vegetarianism de rigueur in a globalised, urban West since at least the turn of the 21st century. One of Woody Allen’s parodies of neurotic urban alienation, Alvy Singer in the 1977 movie Annie Hall, proclaims that ‘everything our parents said was good is bad. Sun, milk, red meat, college …’. In the Paleo dieter’s case, add 10000 years of food culture.
Perhaps ‘culture’ is the important word here: as Raymond Williams points out in Keywords, the word denoted ‘the tending of something, basically crops and animals’ for a long time before it was associated with intellectual endeavor. The two meanings continue to co-exist and mark, so Williams, the link between ‘material and symbolic production’ in human culture. The historical link is there, too: complex formalized systems of writing only develop alongside refined agricultural technology. In this sense, the Cave Man diet’s refusal of all foods based on techne, on human tools and knowledge, can be read as one more attempt at a return to the human origin: to a point in human history before all culture, including technology and writing, before bread and books, to eat animals like the animals.
In Technics and Time, French philosopher Bernard Stiegler draws on contemporary anthropology to develop a theory about the origins of the human species that stresses the importance of tools: his interest is in an ancestor of homo sapiens who has the erect posture of later humans but a very small brain. This upright spine frees up the hands during locomotion for other tasks, and so also frees up the face from its grasping function: ‘The hand will necessarily call for tools, movable organs; the tools of the hand will necessarily call for the language of the face.’ Only now a larger brain evolves, in response to these demands on the organism: ‘the brain is no longer directive: it is but a partial element of a total apparatus’. Thus, according to Stiegler, there is no human origin separable from tool-use: humans are not superior to other animals because they can use tools; humans are what they are because they are grown around tools. These tools keep changing, too; Stiegler writes of a ‘co-evolution’ of technology and the human body.
There is a way then in which the Paleo Diet’s smugly scientific narrative is wrong: We haven’t stopped evolving 10000 years ago. We’ve carried on evolving, at rapid speed, outside our own bodies. Stiegler calls it epiphylogenesis, the way in which humans, more than some animals, are opened up to their technical environment in their very being, in their ‘pursuit of life by means other than life’. Stiegler himself, like other critics of modernity, draws many a bleak conclusion about our close relationship to ever more complex technology. But the acknowledgement of our inevitable, interdependent relationship to artifice – dietary to linguistic – can be read in the first instance as a call to think ourselves alongside our technologies. One consequence might be an ethical one: if, say the technologies that are part of who we are as human animals make it possible to eat well without killing other animals, then not using them for fantasies of cave man menus might come to seem absurd.
And for those who find it a bit much to forsake all sugar, beer and bread to reach the ‘pure state of living’ of our stone age ancestors, it might be worth rethinking our substance abuse in terms of Stiegler’s perspective on human technology. The attraction of the diet’s narrative lies in the vision of purity it offers, but if we don’t exist outside our technics, then we are stuck with them, giving shape to as well as being shaped by our environments and desires, both in their fostering and their destructive potential. Not to say we can’t change things, in fact how we could and should do so is the question this raises. Neither does this mean we shouldn’t eat less of the sugary absurdities on offer. No doubt a good idea. But living as if we were untouched by the machines we live by is a false and a dangerous premise. Either way, there is evidence humanity has fallen from grace before agriculture: in a truly Edenic national park on the coast of Sicilly, in the Grotto del’Uzzo cave stystems, skulls of stone age humans have been found with distinct signs of moral weakness: rotten teeth – the wild fig trees that still grow in the area bear sweet fruit that fail the strict glycemic index of today’s ‘Paleo diet’.