Evolutionary biologists Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein tackle one of modern anthropology’s biggest questions: do we thwart our basic instincts by living 21st century lifestyles in bodies that evolved for life 40,000 years ago? The authors argue “yes” in their recent book, Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to 21st Century. Citing numerous examples covering everything from the food humans evolved to eat to the dark skies we slept under to our relationships with each other, Heying and Weinstein argue that we humans are out of step with the genes and behaviors of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. and this mismatch has led to profound complications in our health and our culture. Because culture evolves much faster than the human genome, they argue, our modern selves are playing with a different deck of cards than our bodies were given.
The first chapters give the reader a scientific introduction to 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 thinly referenced general statements on topics ranging from water fluoridation and genetically modified foods to medicine, child rearing, and education. education. There’s an intriguing thought outside the box, but sometimes the speculation outweighs the evidence. We are told, for example, that truth and social justice are incompatible. Explain please? Second, that women are naturally ‘compliant’ and ‘detail oriented’, while men understand ‘the gist’ of things. Isn’t this regressive thinking that ignores how quickly women advanced in professions and leadership positions once the barriers were lifted? In another chapter, we hear, without elaboration, that trans kids are just looking for boundaries. But before you get a chance to say, “Hey, wait a minute,” they’re on to their next affirmation. Additionally, some of the statements seem to drift beyond the scope of the book’s title to the authors’ views on the ills of modern society and what seemed to me to be authoritative advice on how we should change our behaviors. For such an important topic, the authors might have been more persuasive with a well-researched deep dive into a few bits of what we know about 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 further examination and discussion of a fascinating subject. Are we in the 21st century living in a way that doesn’t match our old bodies? Most likely. Is it a problem? Perhaps. Let’s examine the question with the depth it deserves.
Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to 21st Century is available at Park City and Summit County libraries.