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KPCW invites members of the Friends of the Park City and Summit County libraries to review novels and non-fiction every month.

May 2022 Book Review -- "A Hunter – Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century"

Ever wonder if our modern culture of indoor living, processed foods, and cell phones is at odds with our natural, ancestral selves? Two evolutionary biologists discuss this phenomenon in a recent book, A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century. Amy Mills has this month’s book review.

Evolutionary biologists Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein take on one of modern anthropology’s biggest questions: Are we thwarting our basic instincts living 21st century lifestyles in bodies that evolved for life 40,000 years ago? The authors argue “yes” in their recent book, A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century. Citing many examples spanning everything from the food humans evolved to eat to the dark skies we used to sleep under to our relationships with one another, Heying and Weinstein assert that we humans are out of sync with the genes and behaviors of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and this mismatch has led to profound complications in our health and culture. Because culture evolves much more rapidly than the human genome, they argue, our modern selves are playing with a different deck of cards than our bodies have been dealt.

The first few chapters give the reader a scientific primer on evolutionary biology, including the role of genetics in human development and our evolutionary lineage. So far so good. From this point in the book, however, the authors launch into some thinly-referenced, sweeping statements about topics ranging from water fluoridation to genetically-modified foods to medicine, child-rearing, and education. There is intriguing thinking outside the box, but at times speculation exceeds evidence. We are told, for instance, that truth and social justice are incompatible. Explain please? Then, that women are naturally “compliant” and “detail oriented”, while men get the “gist” of things. Isn’t this regressive thinking that ignores how women quickly advanced in the professions and leadership positions once barriers were lifted? In another chapter, we hear, without elaboration, that trans kids are just searching for boundaries. But before you have a chance to say, “Hey, wait a minute”, they are on to their next assertion. Further, some statements seem to drift beyond the framework of the book’s title to the authors’ opinions of what ails modern society and what seemed to me to be heavy-handed advice on how we should change our behaviors. For a subject so weighty, the authors might have been more convincing with a well-documented deep dive into a few elements of what we know of genetics and early human culture, and a discussion of what we can (and might want to) incorporate from our ancestral past.

I can recommend this book as a starting point for deeper examination and discussion of a fascinating topic. Are we in the 21st century living in ways that are mismatched with our ancient bodies? Probably. Is this a problem? Maybe. Let’s consider the matter with the depth it deserves.

A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century is available from the Park City and Summit County Libraries.