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Book Review: Uncivilised Genes – Human Evolution and the urban paradox – Gustav Milne

Updated: Sep 30, 2022

"We must pay heed to our robust and ancient genes. They may be uncivilised, but they have already proved their worth by underpinning the survival of mankind for millennia."

Book Summary:

What a book! Incredibly detailed account of how our genes have developed over a course of perhaps 20 million years, from a family of apes called Proconsul. For 99.9% of the time that has passed since, our genes have evolved to expect certain wild and ‘uncivilised’ conditions.

This book provides a compelling account of why the ‘agricultural revolution’, which paved the way to civilisation as we know it, marked a major shift in these conditions and the start of a decline in our overall health and wellbeing. The author draws upon many anthropological studies of modern hunter gatherers and those of ancient bone remains from around the world.

As a result, our “ancestral norms” are explored – Diet, movement, lifestyle etc. and it is explained how these have shifted and impacted us over time. All this leads to an interesting conclusion of how we can be “evolutionary concordant” (aligned with ancestral norms), in our modern lives.

The lasting impression of the book though, is a ‘call to action’ for our leaders and policy makers to stand up and make some simple and uncontroversial changes that could make a huge difference to wellness and happiness.

Key topics of discussions

Urban Dilemma – Modern urban life, in its present form, is not the environment we are genetically best adapted for. We are built for the wilds and the lifestyle that comes with that. Interestingly, the causes of death amongst modern-day hunter gatherers, have been studied and compared to the deaths of people in modern society. The damning findings conclude that modern hunter gatherers are not dying from any of the top 10 killers in modern society!

Agricultural revolution – (5000 - 10,000 years ago) – Evidence in the bones of those early farmers and town dwellers show a detrimental effect on human nutrition and health. More settled, also means more sedentary and living closer with domesticated animals (spread of disease). Additionally, this revolution, led to wealth (those with it became the ‘Elites’), poverty and widespread warfare.

Ancestral Diet – The diet of modern hunter-gatherers is analysed and dietary variety is most notable. There is no single strict ancestral diet shared by all groups (often living in contrasting environments), perhaps except that none are solely vegetarian. All are nutrient rich and contain high protein and fat intake and medium to low levels of carbohydrate. It is outlined that, “A standard ancestral diet, if there was one, might have comprised one third plants, one third animals, one third fish”.

Moving, little and often – This point is drilled home, as we are genetically adapted for a life of routine activity rather than long sedentary periods. Walking – lifting, bending, climbing and carrying. It is advocated to seriously reconsider the term and concept of “exercise” and instead build in a baseline of activity to our day.

Dirt is good – Biophilia, contact with nature, animals, plants etc. is a deep need in humans. This is multi layers but perhaps most striking is the relationship we have with micro-organisms. We have co-evolved with these “old friends” and need them to be healthy and develop strong immune systems. However, our over clean and clinical modern lives, reject this at our peril and lead to many issues/ diseases.

Eden protocol – Concluding the book, the author offers a list of simple lifestyle changes for individuals to integrate into their own life, in order to “return to normality” and to remain “in keeping with our biology”. There are also protocols suggested for schools, employers, urban designers and universities.

Final thought

I get the impression that the author is slightly frustrated with half measure that are repeatedly introduced to curb certain conditions or ailments. They lack a broad macro perspective of who we really are. This book instead, dives in deep, to help us understand the bigger picture and offers us real solutions. Solutions that are easy, simple and cost effective, but only if, as a culture, we finally decide to put humans first!

Top tip

Combine multiple benefits and activities; Go to nature (any green space), to walk, run or just be. Go barefoot, get your hands dirty, meet someone. Do it regularly - come rain or shine. Challenging weather is good!

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