“A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century” by Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein


From the 1870s until World War II, Social Darwinism drove policies that shaped people’s lives. Thousands of people have turned to evolution to explain the human condition. In 1921, eugenics, including members of Darwin’s family, hailed their work as “the self-direction of human evolution.”

Such a phrase would be comfortable in 21st Century Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide: The Evolution and Challenges of Modern Life (Portfolio, 320 pages, $ 28). In it, Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein, former Evergreen State College professors and current podcasters, argue that relevant human history began 3.5 billion years ago.

(Full disclosure: One of the authors of this review, Nancy Koppelman, was a colleague of theirs at Evergreen, where Koppelman still teaches.)

Weinstein was also the subject of a recent WW cover (“Drug & Pony Show,” September 15, 2021) because he and his wife, Heying, are touting the use of ivermectin, a horse dewormer, as a treatment for COVID, which goes against all the advice from the FDA on the matter.

The plot of Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide is adaptation, from fish to primates to post-industrialists. Weinstein and Heying explain that they want the reader to “see through the noise of our modern world and become a better problem solver” to overcome the contemporary “hyper-novelty” that humanity has created but has not. evolved to handle. The unique human ability to adapt anywhere has created our problems and can save us.

Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide has virtues. The authors skillfully describe the fundamentals of biology, natural history and evolution, illustrated by fascinating examples from the animal kingdom. Their prose sometimes sparkles with wit and humor; there are sentences we wanted to read twice. The book’s concept of an “evolving toolkit” is intriguing; he postulates, for example, that important cultural connections occur in modern versions of the ancient campfire. Their analysis of the “sustainable development crisis” is convincing, their enthusiasm palpable. Heying and Weinstein are good at teaching what they know.

However, they also try to teach what they don’t know.

They claim that “Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic” societies (acronym WEIRD) produce cunning and helpless children, adults who cannot grow up, and poor health, food, sex, sleep and schools.

Weinstein and Heying claim an apolitical approach, conceived “through the blind prism of our evolution”. Yet they often reveal their policies, as in the chapter on Childhood: “Becoming an adult is, in part, learning what the system is, where its weaknesses are and how to take advantage of those weaknesses. The central lesson of the “hunter-gatherer guide” is survivalism.

Many sections of the book relate to children and are disturbing. Children should run free, largely unsupervised (they admire a 4-year-old crossing a busy street alone in Ecuador, where 52% of the population lives in poverty) and solve the fights themselves because “bullies and morons are more likely to lose power than gain it. Overprotection will produce “adults who bristle at the unexpected and the new.”

The authors are big on risk (the word appears 98 times in the book), but they don’t recognize that they personally have much control over the risks their own children face. They probably don’t cultivate their children’s survival skills by exposing them to a lack of food and water, leaded water pipes, deadly diseases (although both say they are not vaccinated. against COVID) or to people who harm them. .

Sometimes the authors are simply wrong, claiming that “in times of famine hardly anyone reproduces” ignoring the well-known fact that birth rates tend to be higher among the poor. Hundreds of millions of people are locked in lives they cannot change. Poverty, geographic limitations, limited employment opportunities, and generational trauma influence the way people can raise their children. The magnitude and ethical significance of human despair escapes their curiosity and concern.

They assume that 21st century hunter-gatherers have resources and choices; they can ignore politics and take their own power for granted. Heying and Weinstein are positioning themselves as cutting edge radical thinkers, but this is neoconservatism outfitted for farmer’s market visits and do-it-yourself wilderness camp stays.

Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide says surviving near-misses makes people stronger, but the most vexing risks people face stem from unfair circumstances that limit their free will and sometimes kill them. We need policies, even limiting and conflicting ones, to solve this problem.

A lot of people like what Heying and Weinstein have to say. Maybe that’s because they give their readers some sort of absolution: winners can ignore the history books.

In Heying and Weinstein’s account, the protagonist of the story is the genome, always “in command” aimed at improving the “genetic form” and subordinating culture as its “tool”.

Heying and Weinstein adapted to their new surroundings in the public eye. Their challenge now is to stay there. This book is their last attempt in this direction.

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