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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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