Book Review: John Durant – The Paleo Manifesto

The Paleo Manifesto” by John Durant, published in 2013. Rating: 5/5.

Most books on the paleo diet follow a set pattern: An inspirational story about how the author wrecked his health with junk food or vegetarianism before the caveman came riding on a white horse to the rescue; an explanation of why, contrary to the popular expression, almost anything is better than sliced white bread; a long and exhaustive guide to the do’s and don’ts of paleo with plenty of scientific explanations; and finally, a list of recipes and suggestions for further reading.

Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still get a solid idea of how to eat, move, and live by paleo principles from John Durant’s THE PALEO MANIFESTO. But at its core, this is no diet book.

It is a bold attempt to situate the paleo lifestyle within the “Big History” of human biosocial evolution, which is divided into four distinct “ages”: Paleolithic, agricultural, industrial, and information. Each of these ages was characterized by diets that created new problems, problems that were in turn partially mitigated by solutions specific to the very age that spawned them. This is a narrative that evokes a whiff of historical materialism, though John Durant is far more of a neo-reactionary than a Marxist.

Well aware of its pervasive violence and cultural backwardness, Durant does not unduly glamorize paleolithic life. (Nor does virtually anyone in the movement, strawmen set up by paleo’s detractors regardless). But one can’t escape the physical evidence that hunter-gatherers were far taller, stronger, and healthier than the early agriculturalists hunched over their hoes. An anthropologist shows off a male specimen who was 5″10 (175 cm) tall and weighed 150 pounds (68 kg), despite having a musculature that would put the vast majority of modern humans to shame. Average heights decreased by 5 inches after the transition to agriculture, and tooth and bone health deteriorated drastically.

The Bible tells the story: Man took up farming and began eating bread, and then cities appeared, famine and disease stalked the land, and childbirth became painful and dangerous. But childbirth also became more frequent, and the vast (if low-quality) caloric surpluses from grains enabled farmer populations – armed with metal weapons and commanded by literate elites – to gradually displace the world of Enkidu. That world might never have been paradise on Earth, but it “probably seemed like the Garden of Eden” compared to the lives of early farmers.

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Book Review: Howard Bloom – The Lucifer Principle

Depressingly fatalist, morbidly truthful, irresistibly Nietzschean. That’s Howard Bloom’s “The Lucifer Principle” in a nutshell: a meandering trawl through disciplines such as genetics, psychology and culture that culminates in a theory of evil, purporting to explain its historical necessity, its creative potential and the possibility of it ever being vanquished. The odds do not appear to be good. For in the world painted by Bloom, peace is submission, social hierarchies are natural, ideas are polarizing, and liberal individualism is invidious to the collective “superorganism” that both oppresses, nourishes and saves us. Fascism really is the “natural state” in every sense of the term.

Bloom, Howard – The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History (1995)
Category: human society, psychology, history; Rating: 5/5
Summary: Amazon reviews, James Schultz

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Book Review: Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs, and Steel

While trawling through my computer archives, I stumbled across this book review of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” from five years ago. Overall, it’s a great book, better than his follow-up “Collapse”, which is also interesting – especially in the psychological aspects of “collapse”, like creeping normalcy and “landscape amnesia” – but far from the best in the genre (that would be Tainter).

Diamond, Jared – Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997)
Category: world systems, history, anthropology; Rating: 5/5
Summary: Guns, Germs, and Steel (wiki)

Having finished reading this book in November 2004, I came away impressed by its success in compressing 13,000 years of human history into a lucid and compelling explanation of why the rate of socio-economic development varied so significantly on different continents, without resorting to culturalist or racialist arguments. Jared Diamond succeeds spectacularly at proving why Eurasia had become by 1500 AD (the dawn of “Europe’s assault on the world”) the world’s most technologically advanced continent, far ahead of sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas and Australasia. In the final chapter, he extends the analysis to question why, within Eurasia, it was Europe that decisively overtook apparently better-endowed competitors (primarily China) within the next four hundred years and proceeded to “remake the world in its own image”.

The underlying thesis in this work is that the environment is the primary shaper of human societies – hence the title of Chapter 2, “A Natural Experiment of History”. Connected with Diamond’s general aim of transforming human history into a scientific discipline, it explains how the Austronesians who populated the Polynesian islands, despite sharing common ancestors in Fujian, China, went on to produce remarkably different societies – agricultural and hunter-gatherer, technologically adept and primitive, oligarchic and egalitarian.

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Violence is Reality

Realism has been falling out of favor since the end of the Cold War, condemned by the Kumbaya crowd, avoided by the liberal, PC-gone-wild intelligentsia, and denigrated by “end of history” ideologues (many of whom all too cynically remain realists while cloaking it under the mantle of “liberal interventionism”). What they all have in common is a denial of reality – denial of basic human psychology, and the inevitability of its transmutation onto the level of inter-state relations. Let’s look at this through the prism of human violence throughout history.

Imagine living in a society in a near-constant state of war, both within and without. A society where you lose 0.5% of your population to violence every year, a rate which would translate to 2bn war deaths during the 21st century. As a man, you are constantly mobilized for fighting and your chances of meeting a violent end are roughly equivalent to that of a French man during World War One or a Russian during the Great Patriotic War – throughout your entire life. Overall there is a 15-60% chance you will die by the club, spear or arrow. Doesn’t sound like a great deal, right? But such was human reality for the vast majority of its history, “noble savage” myths to the contrary. Quoting Lawrence Keeley in War Before Civilization:

The high war death rates among most nonstate societies are obviously the result of several features of primitive warfare: the prevalence of wars, the high proportion of tribesmen who face combat, the cumulative effects of frequent but low-casualty battles, the unmitigated deadliness and very high frequency of raids, the catastrophic mortalities inflicted in general massacres, the customary killing of all adult males, and the often atrocious treatment of women and children. For these reasons, a member of a typical tribal society, especially a male, had a far higher probability of dying “by the sword” than a citizen of an average modern state.

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