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Book Review: “The Paleo Manifesto,” by John Durant

Fame is often accidental.

Some people grind away for years or decades, gaining fans a few at a time through a combination of talent and relentless self-promotion in the face of continual bafflement and rejection, until the media are forced to take notice. And some people get a lucky break.

John Durant got that break. Paleo had been around for a while, including at least one best-selling book…but media people don’t like to leave New York City, so when he started a Paleo meetup group there, he instantly became its unofficial media representative. Coverage in the New York Times, the Colbert Report, and the New Yorker ensued.

Fortunately for the Paleo movement and its variants (e.g. the Primal Blueprint, the Perfect Health Diet), John is an educated and articulate spokesman who has resisted repeated attempts to pigeonhole Paleo as “the caveman diet”, while playing just enough footsie with the stereotypes to keep the media entertained—and who also manages the difficult task of rocking long hair and a beard (giving him the necessary caveman cred) without looking like a stoner, hobo, or record store clerk.

What Is The Paleo Manifesto About?

There are dozens of “how-to” Paleo books in the wild. I haven’t read all of them—but I don’t need to be told yet again that gluten and seed oils are bad, and my own explorations of human evolutionary history and the biochemistry of hunger have already gone far deeper into the science than most books intended for a general audience.

Fortunately, instead of yet another diet guide, Durant offers an overview of the entire spectrum of evolutionary discordance—including chapters on fasting, movement, and circadian rhythms. It’s not a reference book (though he provides quite a few references in the Notes and Bibliography): he provides most of the information through a combination of history, interviews, and personal anecdotes.

John himself previews the book and the intention behind it here, so I won’t rehash it. Note this important point: “The paleosphere will read the book first, but is not the primary audience.” It’s a popular book, written for the mainstream, and I’m evaluating it as such.

What Is The Paleo Manifesto?

The book opens with its strength. Part 1 (“Origins”) touches on topics from the diets of zoo gorillas, to Mosaic law, to the first balloonists to reach the upper atmosphere, in an informal, conversational style. We’re left with explicit takeaways: yes, our modern environment differs dramatically from the Paleolithic environment to which we’ve adapted over millions of years (“evolutionary discordance”), and yes, addressing that discordance is likely to improve our mental and physical health. It’s fun to read without feeling dumbed down, and contains some interesting original research.

Part 2 (“Here and Now”) covers topics as diverse as the pathogen-fighting functions of fasting, the importance of sleep and circadian rhythms, and the social function of Crossfit, as well as the standard Paleo dietary prescription. It’s solid and reasonably well-referenced, and John can turn a memorable phrase, e.g.:

  • “By rejecting nutrient-dense herder diets in favor of a few stable cereal grains, the conventional advice to “eat low fat” actually means “Eat like a poor, malnourished farmer”…It’s a meal fit for a serf, sold for a princely sum to slavish Whole Foods shoppers.
  • Encouraging modern women to eat more fat is about as easy as selling them a makeup called Ugly. Better terms for dietary fat would have been “lipids,” “triglycerides,” or “sexy”—as in, “Each spoonful of lard contains 13 grams of sexy.”

On the other hand, I believe Part 2 suffers a bit from repeated changes in tone and technique. The writing ranges from breezy and anecdotal to factual and frankly prescriptive—sometimes within the same chapter—and the contrast can be a bit jarring, especially compared to the smooth flow of Part 1.

It’s worth noting that Durant’s long discussion of the possible adaptive value of Mosaic law, and his account of a multi-day fast undertaken in a Trappist monastery, makes The Paleo Manifesto both relevant to and respectful of religious faith…a difficult balancing act for a book about human evolutionary context.

Part 3 brings the Paleolithic prescription into present time. Again, while the content is strong and John’s writing is compelling, I find the contrast between accounts of personal experience (“Hunting”) and straight-up facts and advocacy (“Gathering”) a bit jarring.

Result: The Paleo Manifesto is a well-executed pop-science book that covers many topics overlooked by typical diet references, but which has incompletely digested a Paleo reference manual like the Primal Blueprint. It’s strongest as popular science, when telling its story through interviews, anecdotes, and historical accounts. Fortunately this comprises the majority of the book, and the remainder is well-executed: I just wish it went down more easily.

Who Should Read The Paleo Manifesto?

While all current sources seem to agree on the basics, their tone, presentation, and intended audience vary dramatically. Most Paleo and Primal books appeal most strongly to those who have already decided to make a substantive change in their lives, and are looking for a clearly-marked path forward: the Perfect Health Diet primarily targets the scientifically oriented, the Primal Blueprint targets the general public (as long as they accept evolution), It Starts With Food primarily targets those with food obsessions.

In contrast, The Paleo Manifesto gives us a view from the mountaintop. We can see all the elements of Paleo life, how they fit together, and how they affect the thoughts and lives of those who commit to it. As such, I can recommend it to those who are interested in learning more about Paleo but aren’t yet ready to commit to any radical change in their own lives, who are familiar with the dietary prescription but haven’t considered other important evolutionary discordances, or whose religious faith is likely to leave them unconvinced (or offended) by long discussions of human evolution. (In other words, most of the world outside the existing Paleo community.)

And if the reader does decide to commit, The Paleo Manifesto contains enough hard information to “go Paleo” without requiring another book.

US residents can help support gnolls.org (at no cost to yourself) by buying The Paleo Manifesto, or anything else, through this link.

(Legally mandated disclaimer: I received a copy of this book for free.)

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Permalink: Book Review: “The Paleo Manifesto,” by John Durant
  • I caught John’s interview on the Robb Wolf podcast and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.  It is hard to get away from the fact that “we inhabit a culture filled with traditions that have more to do with the industrial revolution and factory operation than human biology“, but the example of gorillas in the zoo deftly side-steps the anthropogenic bias that clouds the paleo-framework debate and resolves some of the caricatures, stereotypes and strawmen employed by Alan Aragon and Christina Warriner.


    To argue that feeding gorillas vegetables rather than (highly processed) Gorilla Chow is not original in the paleosphere, but is an approach with obvious resonance to the wider public – and deserved of a larger audience.  To then argue that vegetables from the local store are an appropriate compromise to ‘flying leaves, bark and termites in from Uganda’ is a powerful message that cuts deep in to the paleofantasy strawman.


    I’ve long since given up reading most paleo blogs and books (I mean how easy can it be?), but I think I will make an exception for Durant’s book.

  • mark rogers

    great review…thanks. I have the book on my kindle and can’t wait to get to it. Need to read the Gnolls Credo first! Bought your book after hearing you on Jason Seib’s podcast.

  • Valerie


    I don’t have anything to say on the book (I haven’t read it), but your review was a great one. Balanced. Effective. Interesting. I kept reading even though I have no intention of buying or reading Durant’s book. At the very least, your review was much better than what I would expect to see on a personal blog (that comment applies to pretty much all your posts, by the way).



  • […] "The Paleo Manifesto" is far more than a diet guide: learn more about it in my review.  […]

  • Dave

    I listened to Durant’s interview on one of Jimmy Moore’s podcasts. I lost all interest at the point when the ‘Mosaic Law’ got discussed. That may sound strange to a lot of people, but I carry a bit of psychological baggage from being raised in a Fundamentalist religion. After a serious look into real Biblical scholarship, I lost all interest in religion and have a particular distaste for Bronze Age mythology.

  • Asclepius:

    I doubt any of the content will be news to you — but there are some good examples and analogies to steal, such as the one you pointed out.

    And yes, it's annoying to see people like Aragon deliberately misrepresenting both Paleo and many of the studies he pretends to summarize…but it's understandable.  When your career depends on telling people that health is REALLY DIFFICULT to achieve (involving endless weighing, measuring, calorie-counting, precise meal timing, and other needless rigamarole) and you're selling yourself as the solution, it's bad for business when people start obtaining excellent results just by eliminating a few Neolithic foods.

    As for Warinner, her video is a transparent attempt to position herself ahead of the curve, instead of the reality that she's about ten years behind it: “Paleo is stupid…but you should do exactly what they recommend anyway.”  Seriously: it took a professor of EXERCISE PHYSIOLOGY (Cordain) to discover that evolutionary discordance is a health problem?  The entire anthropology community ought to be embarrassed as hell and racing to catch up: instead, Warinner smugly discounts Paleo with trivially false arguments just because she didn't think of it herself.

    Fortunately, “professionals” like Aragon and Warinner aren't gatekeepers of anything…and as AHS 2013 proved, the real professionals continue to advance our knowledge.



    Thank you!  The Credo is short but intense: read it whenever you're moved to.



    That's because I'm not a “blogger” and don't write “blog posts”: gnolls.org isn't about my personal life.  I'm a writer, and I write articles. 

    I'm glad you find them useful: please forward them and spread the word!



    I personally found the discussion quite interesting (after all, there had to have been some survival value to that particular cultural package, or it wouldn't be so prevalent today) — but I fortunately made it to adulthood without that particularly psychological and ideological baggage.



  • ResistantStarchRules

    John Durant’s twitter feed is almost as disturbing as the thought of Carbsane wearing a g string.

  • Dave

    Hi J,

    I will have to take your word for it. While I appreciate the fact that the “Mosaic Law” has significant historical, cultural, and literary importance to modern humans, I find it difficult to accept anecdotal, unproveable reports of events that transpired 3000 years ago as proof of anything (except Durant’s desire to target certain audiences in the United States). Careful examination of the text itself shows multiple unknown authors, redactions, and contradictions (and even outright lies). If anything, the authors of the OT were perfect examples of Empire Culture. (I am reminded of Daniel Quinn’s take on the Genesis myths.)

    If Durant wanted to give examples of successful and sustainable cultures, I’m sure he could have borrowed and idea or two from Jared Diamond. As Richard Adrian Reese points out, these Bronze Age agriculturalists denuded the fertile crescent with ‘organic’ farming and pastoralism. They were successful at the expense of their land base.

    Does Durant mention Joel Salatin or Allan Savory? Their work in the here and now is far more inspirational than unscientific anecdotes of an ancient civilization.

  • Dave

    “By rejecting nutrient-dense herder diets in favor of a few stable cereal grains, the conventional advice to “eat low fat” actually means “Eat like a poor, malnourished farmer”…It’s a meal fit for a serf, sold for a princely sum to slavish Whole Foods shoppers.”

    I must admit, though, I love this statement by Durant.

  • Beowulf

    Timely review since I just finished my copy from the library. And I think it will remain a library read and not earn a spot on my shelf anytime soon. Overall I like the whole “average guy goes paleo” style, but it didn’t really have much to offer someone who’s reasonably well-read in the paleosphere.

    Part 1:

    Know Thy Species: Good writing and easy to understand message. I wonder how many people are feeding their cats/dogs a well-balanced, raw meat diet without giving any consideration to OUR species needs?

    Rise and Fall: Humorous and easy to understand message with memorable quotes. My favorite: “Archaeologist are sadistic people who derive pleasure from forcing their grad students to dig a giant hole with a tiny paintbrush.”

    Moses the Microbiologist: On the one hand I was completely fascinated with this section since it was a memorable interpretation of a very boring set of Biblical books, but realistically it really didn’t fit the style of the previous chapters. Furthermore, trying to encapsulate everything about the changes agriculture brought to the people that practiced it simply by going over Jewish Law seems too narrowly focused.

    Homo Invictus: I think he did a good job of illustrating just how much humans have pushed the bounds of their environment in just the past hundred years or so and the potential consequences/learning experiences of this exploration.

    Biohackers: Nice, concise COCI debunk near the end of the chapter.

    Part 2:

    This whole section was pretty straight-forward. I think his explanations and reasons for doing these various dietary and lifestyle habits will resonate with most readers.

    Part 3:

    Things just kinda went off the rails here. The Hunter chapter was useful enough, but the Gathering chapter just fell off a cliff. In the Hunter chapter, he discussed hunting and actually hunted. In the Gathering chapter he went off on vegetarianism and, well, let’s just say I kept waiting for him to actually GATHER something. Really a missed opportunity to dispel the paleo = loads of meat and no veggies myth.

    The last chapter, Habitats Old and New, had me fuming a bit. This guy really needs to do some serious reading of Jared Diamond and get past the cornucopian mindset that everything can be made better just by little steps in the right direction. Collectively we are trashing our environment well beyond a sustainable point. Large cities are not sustainable because by their very nature they rely on inexpensive fossil fuels to move all of those resources in (in other words, no oil/coal/natural gas = starving people). The ONLY sustainable lifestyle this planet has ever known is the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. He makes the mistake that Daniel Quinn so elegantly points out in Ishmal and his other works: “We are not humanity.” When a group of people in the middle east decided to start toiling in the soil all day, most of the remainder of humanity went right ahead with their spearing and picking lifestyle.

    That being said, I think the book is good enough to be a basic primer and hopefully an inspiration for the average person to give paleo a shot. It’s just not going to pass muster on some things with a more well-read crowd.

  • Beowulf

    Edit: Cities nowadays rely heavily on fossil fuels for transport. Large cities in the past obviously didn’t have coal-powered steam engines or gasoline-powered trucks. They did, however, still usually do an amazingly efficient job of deforesting their surrounding lands and committing cultural suicide as a result.

    It’s hard to envision moving resources into a large, modern city without heavy reliance on fossil fuels without having the majority of the population decline into what would be considered by our standards a poor and toilsome existence.

  • neal matheson

    “Paleo is stupid…but you should do exactly what they recommend anyway.” Seriously: it took a professor of EXERCISE PHYSIOLOGY (Cordain) to discover that evolutionary discordance is a health problem? The entire anthropology community ought to be embarrassed as hell and racing to catch up: instead, Warinner smugly discounts Paleo with trivially false arguments just because she didn’t think of it herself.”

    superb! I notice that Mr Marathon liberman made an equally weak cticism of “paleo diets” recently.

  • neal matheson

    Obviously I meant criticism.
    I also await wrangham’s take on modern Paleo with baited breath, I suspect it will be along the familiar lines of they ate grains, we can’t sustain 55 million billion people on cow all that meat can’t be good for you, blah blah blah lactose balh blah blah neanderthal calculus blah….

  • Gabby

    Great review, have put it on my list of must reads. I have recently made a lifestyle change – getting into exercise, eating well and looking after my body. Many friends have talked to me about the Paleo diet – think this book will be a good read about it.


  • I have to say I like Alan Aragon – his research review contains some excellent analysis, but his audience arguably has more specialist goals than Joe Average who just wants to be fit and healthy, and hence Aragon advocates a more complex approach. 


    Overall it is fantastic the effort that Christina Warriner put in to simply agree with the paleo (v2.0/post 2010) philosophy.  Wink

  • John Durant


    Hahaha…thanks, I’m sure! (Also, my chapter on gorilla diets mentions their use of resistant starch with positive results.)


    The chapter on the Mosaic Law is really about the importance of two forms of culture: ideas and microbes (bacterial culture). Infectious disease (not diet) was the single greatest health threat of the Agricultural Age so it was necessary to address it. Close readers will notice that my discussion of these two forms of culture parallel Michael Pollan’s discussion of culture in his section on Fermentation in Cooked. Almost every time that Agriculture Age traditions are mentioned later in the book, they pertain to infectious disease.

    BEOWULF: Anyone can go gather a few plants in the wild — we thought about it, but it’s not that interesting. What’s more interesting is the psychology of a pure “gatherer” strategy (i.e., vegetarianism). The food movement to date has been heavily influenced by this mindset and it’s essential to understanding both the strengths and weaknesses of the existing food movement…and how paleo can compliment it.

  • George Henderson


    Anyone can go gather a few plants in the wild: but there are many habitats where doing this will leave you plenty of fibre and so on, but without much carbohydrate. Consider my Hibernian ancestors; before the advent of turnip, oat, and potato what where their starchy staples? Consider the Moa Hunter culture of New Zealand (early Maori) before the importation of kumara. The only starch available in much quantity (common to both groups) was the rather unsafe and not particularly energy-dense one of bracken root, so far as I know.

  • RSR, Dave, Beowulf:

    Since John has shown up and it's his book, I'll defer to him.



    I wasn't impressed with Lieberman's criticism either.  The current system of industrial agriculture is in no way sustainable: we're rapidly using up fossil fuels, fossil water (underground aquifers), fossil soil (topsoil depletion at ~1-2% annually), ocean fish, etc., etc.  In contrast, ruminants grazing on grass is strongly carbon-negative and restores the soil when managed correctly.

    And Wrangham's work appears to be just an elaborate ruse to justify his own vegetarianism: I'm not impressed by his scholarship, as it depends on a very selective presentation of both the evidence and the existing literature (with which he cannot fail to be familiar).



    It's a solid overview.  Best of luck…stop by anytime.



    In a world with Suppversity, ergo-log, and Healthy Diets and Science (to name a few), I personally don't have the patience to wade through that sort of posturing to find whatever nuggets of wisdom might be present. 



    Thanks for dropping in and answering questions!  I hope TPM does so well that they make you write more books :D


    George Henderson:

    The type and amount of starch in ancestral diets is still a subject of great debate, as well as great variation depending on one's ancestry — and is an entire topic in itself!



  • Hi J, I'm with you on Suppversity – it is a great resource.  I've not heard of ergo-log or Healthy Diets and Science before….looks like I have a busy few days of reading ahead!



  • Dave

    @ John,

    Thanks for addressing my comments.

    Wrt gathering, I don’t consider this a ‘vegetarian’ activity at all. Anyone who has practiced Euell Gibbons-style gathering could potentially find a wealth of plant and animal foods in the wild, no hunting required. I must admit, though, to only have read his book Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop. My actual attempts at gathering coastal sea animals in a somewhat polluted area were actually disappointing. All the grass-fed beef in the world won’t mean squat if the oceans die.

    Gathering insects and larvae is still commonly practiced in parts of the world. Of course, I don’t think insects or shellfish are allowed by Mosaic Law. I could be wrong. ;)

  • L Olsen

    I’ve been considering looking into Paleo, but haven’t yet. This book seems like a great place to start. Can you be a vegetarian and eat the Paleo diet?

  • L Olsen:

    TPM is indeed a good overview of all the aspects of Paleo.  The diet gets the most press, but the other aspects are also very important for good health.

    If you're looking for more detail on the science behind the Paleo dietary recommendations, and on the variants thereof, you'll want to read something like Perfect Health Diet.

    It's not really possible to eat Paleo and still be a strict vegetarian, though it is quite possible to eat a grain-free vegetarian diet.  However, if by “vegetarian” you actually mean “pescetarian”, which many people do, a fish and shellfish-based Paleo diet is quite doable and very healthy!  (Though it can get expensive…)


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