This year (2020) marks the 35th anniversary of the publication of Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner’s exceptional paper on evolutionary nutrition entitled “Paleolithic Nutrition: A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications” in The New England Journal of Medicine (full text). As a way of eating, Paleolithic nutrition represents an extremely old, time-tested practise, extending many millions of years back; however, following the Agricultural Revolution, which marks the transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic era, hunting and gathering gradually went out of fashion, and with it, the dietary practices inherent to that way of life.
It wasn’t until 1985, when Eaton and Konner started unearthing, demarcating, and drawing attention to the eating habits of our Pleistocene ancestors, as well as the few remaining forager groups left on Earth, that hunter-gatherer nutrition once again became a thing. It may be said to represent a rebirth of sorts. Others before them had taken a stab at the evolutionary nutrition thing; however, it can be argued that they were the first to present a clear Paleolithic nutrition proposition.
The rise of evolutionary health and nutrition
In the three and a half decades that have passed since Eaton and Konner first shared their Darwinian nutritional ideas, a wealth of information supporting their original propositions have come to light, including information derived from experimental studies, such as these, as well as countless anecdotal reports from people who’ve given hunter-gatherer based eating a go. Over time, evolutionary mismatch has gone from being a niche concept only known to a select few to something that is increasingly recognized by perceptive researchers and health enthusiasts as the fundamental cause of illness and suffering all over the globe.
Going against the grain, the idea that we’d be wise to restructure our modern diets so they more closely resemble those of our hunter-gatherer forebears has also been subject to attacks, and even ridicule, however, much of this deprecation misses the key points on which the supposition is based. Constructive criticism, inquiries, and debate should be welcomed; however, it’s obviously important to read up on a subject, assessing what it’s all about, before either speaking up in favor or against it.
It’s not uncommon for concepts and ideas that gain public traction to be misused and exploited, often with the intention of making financial gains. Eaton and Konner’s insightful idea is no exception in this regard, having frequently been misrepresented and abused. What I think is important to keep in mind is that the concept is still very new, in the grand scheme of things, and that the way it’s presented and employed has no bearing on the actual functionality and evolutionary basis of it. It obviously doesn’t change anything about our ancestors’ diets or the way evolution works. Personally, I’ve tried to present it as well and sincerely as possible, based on my overall understanding of evolutionary nutrition and health. To what degree I’ve succeeded will be up to others to judge.
Why I feel a commemoration is in order
Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner’s insightful publication in The New England Journal of Medicine 35 years ago deserves recognition because it raised awareness regarding the importance of evolution to nutrition, inspiring further inquires into the matter, and eventually also a grand health movement concerned not only with bridging the gap between our ancestral and modern diet, but addressing a multitude of other discordances. Basically, it’s been an inducer of inquisitiveness, knowledge, and health. With obesity and chronic disease rates ever-increasing, the concept is as relevant as ever.