Paleo and The Naturalistic Fallacy

It's "natural" all right, but is it "Paleo"?

Whether you call it Paleo, Primal, Archevore, Ancestral, Paleo Template or "Om, nom nom nom!", the idea of eating like our paleolithic (or, if you're down with WAP, early Neolithic) ancestors is surging in popularity.

Hoards of Five Finger wearing, CrossFitting (or MovNatting), and no pooing (not that kind of poo!), uber healthy/uber geeky folks from all over the world have jumped on the bandwagon.  (Full disclosure: I just described myself.  It takes one to know one.) The movement can even claim it's own, "Woodstock", the 2011 Ancestral Health Symposium.  However, the "Caveman" lifestyle still has some kinks to work out.

To better illustrate this point, imagine the following scenario:

A professed "Paleo" is tucking into a big plate of bacon and eggs for breakfast (washing it down with coffee of course) while hanging out with a "non-paleo" friend.  Let's just say they are at an IHOP restaurant.

Non-Paleo: How come you're eating bacon?  A caveman wouldn't have eaten bacon.

Paleo: Well, it's the closest thing to an animal that I could order at IHOP.

Non-Paleo:  Yea sure.  Explain the coffee then.

Paleo: I like coffee, and it is not considered a NAD...

Non-Paleo: You just said NAD.

Paleo: GROK SMASH!!!

End scene.

Besides testifying to the superior physical condition of your average "Paleo" vs "Non Paleo" (I keed I keed), the preceding scenario describes an example of how the naturalistic fallacy has muddied the Evolutionary waters, regardless of what shore you stand on.

According to Steven Pinker, author of "The Blank Slate", "The naturalistic fallacy is the idea that what is found in nature is good."  

Applied to Paleo, this turns into, "Our ancestors ate the foods found in nature, therefore the foods found in nature are good and everything else is bad.  You should only eat the foods found in nature."

While "only eat the foods found in nature" might sound like solid dietary advice, the fact is, there are many poisonous, dangerous, and outright inedible things "out there".  The fact that they are "natural" is not enough to qualify them as "good", ergo, the "naturalistic fallacy".

Chris Masterjohn made a similar point in a post titled "Understanding Weston Price on Primitive Wisdom — Ancient Doesn’t Cut It". In it, he wrote:

"Indeed, Price stated that 'Some of the primitive races have avoided certain of the life problems faced by modernized groups,' not that all of them had (p. 5). To Price, it wasn’t primitiveness itself, but the wisdom that the successful groups had accumulated over time. Presumably they had learned through trial and error processes that involved mistakes, or else they could never have had any consciousness about the types of injuries that would occur without proper nourishment."

Chris goes on to say:

"Modern science is excellent at accumulating knowledge. But insisting on knowing every detail of an approach before acting is not wise. Indeed, it is quite stupid, because we have been practicing science for centuries and even with modern techniques we still only understand a tiny smidgen of what can potentially be understood about the universe.

Many traditions may be unwise, and it would be wise to test them all rigorously and discard them if they prove to be useless or counter-productive. Discarding them all at once and starting from scratch with the scientific method, however, adding nutrients one at a time to refined flour as they are slowly proven beneficial, is a great example of human stupidity."

In other words, human beings, living in diverse and challenging environments, with greater and lesser degrees of success, learned, adapted, and cultivated traditions that allowed for survival.  Traditions, like the consumption of whole fish among the Inuit, therefore, provide modern science a convenient starting point for analysis, exploration, and investigation.  Other practices like genital mutilation and cannibalism, however, can be discarded despite their "traditional" history.

There are many things that are not found in nature that have nonetheless been found to be good (like coffee). For example, Vibram Fivefingers which protect the wearer's feet while affording the same bio-mechanical advantages of walking barefoot, Cross-fit gyms full of weights that simulate the energetic landscape of a hunter gatherer, and a global internet community that creates a virtual tribe where ideas, recipes, and support can be shared by members.

The bottom line is that the goal isn't reenactment (well, most of the time), but rather, the discovery of appropriate analogs that stimulate the most benefit with the least amount of damage.  

So, instead of rooting around for starchy tubers in the semi-arid grasslands of our ancestors, we go to the grocery store, farmer's market, co-op, or our backyard garden for carrots, turnips, and potatoes.  Rather than tracking a wild boar and spearing it with a sharpened stick, we score some bacon from a farmer and lay it on the frying pan.  And, in a rare PETA friendly move, we leave the animal-skin loincloth behind and deck ourselves out in vegan attire.

What are your thoughts on the "naturalistic fallacy"?  In your mind, does "natural" equal "good", "bad", or "it depends"?  Have you had a hard time explaining your "caveman" lifestyle to friends and family?  Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


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About Unknown

Tony is the host of the Paleo Magazine Radio podcast, author of "Paleo Grilling: A Modern Caveman's Guide to Cooking with Fire", and Cofounder of Powerful PT, an innovative information resource for Fitness Professionals. He has appeared on numerous local and national television and radio broadcasts and regularly hosts healthy cooking workshops and informational lectures. He is also a full-time Personal Trainer and Wellness Consultant who lives in Jacksonville Florida with his wife Jamie.
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  1. I already commented on facebook, but I wanted to add...not everything natural is 'good', but it usually works out that the more unnatural a direction you head the less healthy the results are...

  2. "While "only eat the foods found in nature" might sound like solid dietary advice, the fact is, there are many poisonous, dangerous, and outright inedible things "out there". The fact that they are "natural" is not enough to qualify them as "good", ergo, the "naturalistic fallacy"."

    I am going to go so far to say that "inedible things" arn't food. Furthmore i am going to suggest that things you can eat, that kill you, are not food either. The quote from your article is very simplistic. I don't suggest that just because it's natural, that it's good to eat, i suggest that the things we have eaten for thousands of years are more understood as safe, then whatever "synthetic food like stuff" thats been around for the last 60 years. Why is it so hard to understand?

  3. Anonymous, while I wholeheartedly agree with you regarding the ills of "synthetic food like stuff" the reason I wrote this post is that it IS hard for many people new to paleo and for many non-paleo people to understand that it isn't simply a matter of asking "Is X,Y,or Z Paleo?" There is also rampant romanticism of "paleo man" which prevents us from having a more nuanced conversation about what makes sense given our modern circumstances. We SHOULD look at what has been eaten for thousands of years and then ASK "Is it safe/healthy/good?" Like Chris Masterjohn said, this makes more sense than starting from scratch (the conventional scientific approach) and is also wiser than assuming that because a food or practice is "traditional" that it is inherently good.

  4. "The bottom line is that the goal isn't reenactment (well, most of the time), but rather, the discovery of appropriate analogs that stimulate the most benefit with the least amount of damage." That is pretty much exactly how I describe paleo to non-paleo people who challenge my way of eating.

    Most of the produce and animals that we eat now weren't around back then. Humans have developed them from their primitive versions to the many different varieties of everything we have now, for both taste and economical reasons. Does that mean they're not natural? What does natural even mean anymore? I find modern versions of fruit, veggies, and meat that are as "natural" as possible - mostly local, organic, free range, grass-fed, wild-caught, etc. It's about emulating the diet of our hunter/gatherer ancestors while taking advantage of our modern world. What are humans if not the ultimate adapters? With modern agriculture and globalization, those of us who live in the more fortunate parts of the world have more choices than ever regarding what we eat. Unlike our ancestors, we have the luxury of making informed choices about exactly what we want to put into our bodies as fuel. That means we don't need to subsist on a grain-based diet. I think what we eat should be a matter of personal choice, but I think that the general public lacks sufficient knowledge about proper nutrition, much less their own physiology.