Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live
W. W. Norton & Company, 2013
336 pp., $27.95
Science in Focus: John Wilson
Paleosteaks, Insects, and Us
It has been a pleasure to read the responses to Marlene Zuk's Paleofantasy over the last three weeks by Kathryn Clancy (Dead Crickets Cannot Sing at All), Melissa McLean Jory (What's in Your Gut?), and Rob Moll (Caveman in Condos). As the range of these responses suggests, you could devote a whole semester to unpacking Zuk's book without exhausting it. Ideally—and why not, since we're dreaming?—Zuk herself could visit for one session, in person or via video-conferencing. I'd love to sit in on the class.
Such a course would need to take some time to consider how we conceive of our (human) relation to "nature," and the extent to which "science" can and can't define that. We'd want to make a side trip to take in Zuk's 2011 book, the memorably if somewhat misleadingly titled Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love, and Language from the Insect World.
Right near the beginning of this engaging book, Zuk hits us with a very large claim: "Insects make us question virtually every assumption we have about what makes humans human. They lay bare the workings of evolution." Wow? Is that true? "Virtually every assumption we have about what makes humans human"? Does the book that follows bear out this claim? You'll have to make up your own mind, but for my money the answer is no.
I agree with Zuk, though, that insects are fascinating, and that we should think about them. I'm deeply grateful for the work of scientists like her, who make the world of insects more accessible to readers like me. A few years ago, I wrote a piece for First Things, "The Lilliputian Imagination," taking off from David Attenborough's Life in the Undergrowth, in which I wished for seminary courses where the theology of Creation and the study of insects were intertwined. Here's one bit from that piece:
Attenborough emphasizes the great continuum of life, capacious enough to include insects and humans both, but fails to acknowledge that we value insects not because we are like them—we seek food and sex as they do, we have offspring, we work together and fight, we die—but because we are different, different from them and from all other creatures even as we are akin. He knows this, no doubt, but there's no place for it in his cobbled-together system where evolutionary success and reverence for life uneasily coexist.
Now back to dreaming about that imaginary course built around Paleofantasy. It should end with a feast, of course: plenty of meat, but with paleo vegan alternatives too.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
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