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Incredibly Interesting Authors 003: Paleo Manifesto author John Durant

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John Durant is a leader of the growing ancestral health movement. Durant studied evolutionary psychology at Harvard prior to founding Paleo NYC and Barefoot Runners NYC, the largest Paleo and barefoot running groups in the world. In his new book The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health, Durant argues for an evolutionary – and revolutionary – approach to health. Blending science and culture, anthropology and philosophy, Durant distills the lessons from his adventures and shows how apply them to day-to-day life. He blogs at HunterGatherer.com.

Here's my interview with John in the third episode of my new podcast, Incredibly Interesting Authors.

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Evolution, pregnancy, and food

The populations at lowest risk for developing gestational diabetes — namely, ladies of European decent — come from cultures that eat (and have eaten, for thousands of years) dairy and wheat-heavy diets that would, normally, increase your risk. Meanwhile, writes Carl Zimmer at The Loom, Bangladeshi women, who have one of the highest risks for gestational diabetes, come from a culture that traditionally ate a low-carb, low-sugar diet. What's going on here? The answer might lie in evolution. It's a particularly interesting read given the ongoing pop-culture debate about whether 10,000 years is enough time for humans to adapt to eating certain foods. This data on pregnant ladies would suggest the answer is, at least in some respects, yes. Maggie

Gweek 090: Melissa McEwen, food blogger

I spoke with food blogger and Meatshare founder Melissa McEwen. Her blog, Hunt Gather Love is about "the intersection between evolutionary biology and food."

Melissa is profiled in today's Chicago Reader article about a supper club run by amateur chefs.

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Thanks to Soundcloud for hosting Gweek!

Paleo author reviews anti-paleo book

The new book, Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live, is billed as an "exposé of pseudoscientific myths about our evolutionary past and how we should live today." It was written by Marlene Zuk, a professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior at the University of Minnesota.

Many people who follow the paleo regimen have reviewed the book on their blogs, but my favorite review so far is by Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint (my favorite paleo book). He says the problem with the book is that no one who follows paleo believes any of the straw man premises she sets up. In other words, Zuk's idea of Paleo is the real paleofantasy and her arguments against her own straw man version of paleo were explored and accepted years ago by the Paleo community.

After reading the book, John Durant tweeted “Paleofantasy shouldn’t have been a book in 2013, it should have been a blog post in 2010,” and that’s as good a description as I can think of.

It’s all very uncontroversial:

There is no one paleo diet.

Who’s saying that? Humans have spanned the globe for millennia, surviving and even thriving in environments ranging from tropical to temperate, from arctic to near-aquatic, all the while subsisting on the wild foods available to those regions. Same basic diet of animals and plants, different configurations.

Evolution doesn’t just stop and humans didn’t just reach a state of perfect adaptation back before agriculture from which we’ve never progressed.

Sure. I talked about how we’re still “evolving” last year, even mentioning Zuk’s favorite topics – lactase persistence (35% worldwide, which is far from 100%) and amylase production. She discusses a few more recent changes, like malaria resistance, adaptation to high altitude, and earwax differentiation, but that’s it. If she wanted to, I’m sure she “could keep adding to the list” and mount an overwhelming case for widespread genetic adaptations to grain consumption, chronic stress tolerance, and sedentary living, but she’s saving up material for the next book. Or something. Either way, I’m not very convinced by her “list” of rapid evolutionary changes, especially considering most of them have little to do with the mismatches we discuss in this community and none of them are even present in a majority of humans.

Zuk is also quick to misrepresent “our” arguments so she can swoop in and take the sensible position – positions the ancestral health community has long occupied!

Is It All Just a “Paleofantasy”

Dinosaurs had cancer, too

I'm at the National Association of Science Writers conference this weekend and, in a panel on creating narrative in journalism, author George Johnson mentioned something absolutely fascinating. Johnson is currently writing a book about cancer and he told the audience a story about traveling out to see specimens that showed a metastasized cancer in the fossilized bones of a dinosaur.

I think Johnson just sold me a copy of his book, but I also wanted to look up this phenomenon right now. I'd honestly never heard of dinosaur cancer, but it turns out that there are several examples of this, including a fossilized brain tumor discovered in 2003. That said, there does seem to be some debate on the subject. While that brain tumor was found in the skull of a relative of the T. Rex, another study published the same year found that only duck-billed dinosaurs seemed to have had much of a risk of cancer. In that study, scientists x-rayed 10,000 specimens. They only found cancer in the duck-billed hadrosaurs.

Now, on the one hand, this might not be totally representative of all cancer risk. After all, what you're seeing in fossils are cancers of the bone, or cancers that have metastasized to the bone. On the other hand, if this is an accurate reflection of the nature of cancer in dinosaurs, it's a pretty interesting finding, which suggests that genetics played a huge role in determining which dinosaurs got cancer and which didn't. Either that, or duck-billed dinosaurs were exposed to some kind of environmental risk factor that didn't affect other species. (Which isn't a totally crazy idea. For instance, we know that hadrosaurs grazed heavily on conifers. And, according to the 2003 paper, they may have been the only dinosaurs who preferred that diet.)

There's lots of good stuff to read on this:
Read the full 2003 study on the epidemiology of cancer in dinosaurs
• In 1999, the same researchers published a short report on bone cancer in dinosaurs. You can read that online, too
• A 2007 paper compared rates of bone cancer in dinosaurs with those in modern vertebrates. According to this research, the rate of bone cancer hasn't changed.
• A 2010 paper looked at modern cancer treatments in the context of what we know about cancer in ancient times — both in dinosaurs and in human mummies

Edit: Yesterday, I said David Quammen was the author writing a book about cancer. That was incorrect. It is fixed now.

Amazing citizen science opportunity!

This is seriously awesome. Researchers with the Mastadon Matrix Project need help sifting through "matrix" — the dirt that a fossil is embedded in. Join the Project, and you'll be sent a kilogram of matrix from a mastadon dig in New York State. You can do the analysis with inexpensive, easy-to-find equipment, and then send your discoveries back to the scientists. It's a great chance to do real, valuable scientific research in your school or home. Check it out! (Via Karen Traphagen) Maggie

Did the average Neanderthal know she had a brother-in-law?

In an interview with The Houston Chronicle, paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin hits on an interesting point that I don't think we (the media and laypeople) consider enough when we talk about our closest ancient relatives. Although we have an increasingly deep picture of Neanderthal anatomy and genetics, that doesn't necessarily tell us a great deal about their biology.

Truth is, for how little we understand the wiring and functioning of our own brains, we understand even less about the Neanderthal mind. It's quite possible that they could mate with us, but couldn't think the same way we do. And it's those unseen, unstudied differences that could really account for the vast disparities that we see between how humans lived and how their Neanderthal neighbors lived.

The picture we have so far is that the Neanderthals are sort of opportunistic, good at hunting middle- to large-sized mammals. They have a territory in which they probably go through a cycle of habitation in different places, basically when one place is exhausted they move to another one. What we don't see with Neanderthals is long-distance exchanges with other groups. What we see with modern humans in the same areas is different. For example, we find shells in Germany coming from the Mediterranean or from the French Atlantic Coast. It means there was a network of people. So, the question is, what kind of relationship did a Neanderthal have with his brother-in-law? Humans did not just live with their families and their neighbors, but they knew they had a brother-in-law in another village, and that beyond the mountain there is the family of their mother, or uncle, or something like that. There is a large network of groups that, if necessary, could help each other. I think this is where we would like to go to find differences between Neanderthals and modern humans.

Read the full interview at The Houston Chronicle

Via Marc Kissel

Image: Neanderthal Silhouette, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from erix's photostream

Illustration from a peer-reviewed research paper provides poignant commentary on the futility of life

I'm not sure even Chris Ware could have done it any better.

In context, this illustration comes from a recently published paleobiology paper examining a cache of animal bones and pottery found in a sinkhole near China's Jiangdong Mountain.

One of the key things the researchers are taking away from this site: The range of the Giant Panda must have once been a lot larger than it is today.

Here's a link to the paper (which is behind a pay wall)

Via Ed Yong