Pop goes the Paleo

Note: a version of this essay originally appeared in Paleo magazine   Scan the horizon, tribe mates. There’s some disturbing trends out there on the grassland and they demand our attention. People are starting to mess with our world view.

I was recently contacted by a “journalist” who wanted some “secrets” about Paleo health and fitness. It was obvious that she had no interest in Paleo itself. Rather, she wanted a sentence fragment or two that might fit into an article with other weight-loss, lifestyle and fashion “tips.” And of course, her editor was in a hurry.

Her inquiry reminded me of a conversation I once had with a New York literary agent. Foolishly, I told her that I was writing a book about “health and fitness from an evolutionary point of view.” She frowned ominously; it was clear that she really wanted something more saleable, maybe a romance novel or “chick lit.” “There’s no market for that,” she told me with a scowl, “and if you do choose to write it, you’ve got to dumb it down and sex it up. Your average reader will have a high school education at best. And editors don’t like the word “evolution;” it intimidates the readership. And whatever you do, you’ve got to have a supermodel on the cover. Otherwise, you can forget it.”

Silly me. After reading my way through a library of books about human evolution and health and making several trips to Africa, I was under the impression that Paleo was something substantive, powerful, and intensely meaningful. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the average American health consumer knows (and cares) more about “The Flintstones” than he does about the history of the human body.

So, my question: Was she right? Is the American public that dumbed down? Are health and fitness consumers incapable of understanding human evolutionary history? And, even more to the point, are they incapable of understanding the health implications of that history? And how are we supposed to present our understanding of Paleo to the world? Should we offer up a “caveman cartoon” to the lowest common denominators? Or should we maintain integrity and tell the whole compelling story of this vast and incredibly rich era of human history?

I am well aware of the challenge posed by modern media. Light-speed technology and intense competition for attention mean that print and air time are in short supply. Everyone wants a shorter story, an instantly-digestible, highly-refined, sugar-coated message-product that can be cut and pasted into the desired format. In contrast, understanding Paleo requires a sustained period of attention; in other words, hard work. The learning curve is steep. Not only do we need to understand the broad scope of human evolution, we also need to develop a sense of habitat and human diversity across immense spans of time. Just how big is 6 million years anyway? What was human life like before agriculture? Even academic professionals who study the Paleo for a living are reluctant to lay claim to a complete understanding. How can we expect to get it across in a sentence fragment or “tip?”

The other problem lies in context. In modern media, anything that even smells like health and fitness immediately gets stuffed into the pigeon hole of lifestyle, fashion, cosmetics, weight-loss and celebrity gossip. In this world, the body is considered to be a visual object first and foremost, a status symbol and a fashion statement. This puts us deep inside a series of Russian dolls: health gets nested inside “health and fitness” which gets nested inside “lifestyle, fashion, cosmetics and weight loss.” But when Paleo gets categorized this way, it becomes just another diet fad, one more way to slim our butts and thighs.

It would seem that we are down to a stark set of alternatives. On the one hand, we could tell the true story of Paleo, as revealed by evolutionary science. This version is accurate, factual, rich and substantive, but accessible only to those who are willing to put in some authentic, hard-core study. On the other, we could tell a version of Paleo-lite. This one is cheap, superficial, inaccurate, watered-down and misleading. It may even reach millions, but by the time it gets there, it’ll be meaningless.

Perhaps one day we’ll find a way to change the media landscape with rich benefactor and our own prime-time network, but in the meantime, there are measures that we can and should take:

Whatever your platform, tell the whole story of human history and primal experience. Emphasize a whole-body, whole-life approach. Don’t pander to the lifestyle glossies with cartoon versions of human history and health. Keep it comprehensive, meaningful and special. Keep studying; learn the depth and richness of human history.

Whatever you do, aim higher and deeper.

Paleo is too important to trivialize.