The naturalistic fallacy strikes again!


Cool story, bro. NPR tells us about an unfortunate gentleman who decided to live naked and on a natural food — a single natural food — on an idyllic tropical island in the remote Pacific. The last part sounds nice, but the rest is a bit loony, especially his diet, which consisted exclusively of coconuts, and it led to slow death by malnutrition and disease of the man and his followers (he had followers!).

What particularly struck me, though, is the logic of his choices. Guess who is blamed?

Born in Nuremberg in 1875, August Engelhardt was among the disaffected youngsters drawn to the back-to-nature Lebensreform (Life Reform) movement sweeping through Germany and Switzerland at the time. Its proponents yearned after an unspoiled Eden where people ate vegetables and raw food.

Engelhardt was especially taken by Gustav Schlickeysen’s 1877 dietary treatise, Fruit and Bread: A Scientific Diet. Influenced by Darwinism, the book claimed that since the natural food of apes was uncooked food and grain, that was also “the proper food for man.”

Poor old Chuck. Racism, capitalism, libertarianism, and now coconut diets are all his fault.

There is a faint hint of validity to Engelhardt’s ideas, though. We certainly are adapted to our environments as a consequence of our past history, and it would have some explanatory power and would possibly be helpful to consider what our ancestors lived on. There are at least two problems here, though.

  • Too often, people make unsupported assumptions about that history, and base their decision not on the actual evolution and biology of the species, but on some bizarre fantasy. I rather doubt that ancient humans were subsisting on a coconut diet which conferred resistance to malaria on them…that part was entirely made up by Engelhardt.

  • We have to recognize that many of us are living in radically novel conditions now. We did not evolve to live to the age of 50 and older — I am an unnatural creature. My ancestors didn’t die of atherosclerosis, because they could wolf down all the BBQ mammoth they wanted, without increasing their natural rates of mortality, which were largely caused by infectious disease and injury.

I feel the same way every time I hear nonsense about the Paleo Diet, or whatever other pseudo-scientific fad sweeping the country. These tend to be diets contrived by people who know nothing about paleolithic peoples or environments, and even if they were genuinely based on real information, might be excellent for people who are expected to die before they hit 30.


  1. AMM says

    It’s also worth noting that our primitive ancestors weren’t all that healthy by modern standards. Parasites, endemic diseases, accidents, not to mention the occasional famine and plague and natural disaster made surviving a not all that pleasant alternative to dying. Their evolutionary accomplishment was to survive (not necessarily thrive) long enough, on average, to not go extinct. BTW, non-human animals have the same issues. Civilization, esp. public health and various versions of the social safety net, are why we’re doing as well as we are.

    Also note: to say the life expectancy was low in primitive times isn’t to say that there weren’t a goodly number of people who survived to the age of, say, 70. Infant mortality was the main contributor to the low life expectancy.

  2. kosk11348 says

    Our denture, gut flora, metabolism and tastes are all adapted for eating cooked foods. Humans are able to extract more nutrition from heat-softened foods than raw ones. Apes may be adapted to eat exclusively raw foods, but humans are not. Not any longer.

  3. joel says

    An authentic paleolithic diet is as follows:
    1) Eat human flesh once in a while;
    2) Eat meat *thoroughly*. Eat it all the way down to the bone. Eat the fat, the gristle, the tendons, everything. Then crack the bone open and eat the marrow.
    3) Meat is required. All preagricultural societies in the world today eat meat. How much varies, though, from a diet of 98% animal products (in the Arctic) to only 25% (sub-Saharan Africa).
    4) It’s OK to include some grain. It’s not like grain was invented with agriculture.
    5) Once a year your whole extended family should roll dice to find out whether you should all starve to death.

  4. HolyPinkUnicorn says

    The article says he died at 44 and “was reduced to a mentally ill, rheumatic, severely malnourished sack of bones with ulcers on his legs.” Naturally.

    At least if paleofanatics go too far today they aren’t stuck buck naked out in a coconut-based fever dream. Though if they really wanted to be true to our ancient ancestors they would also totally give up vaccines, antibiotics, and potable water, but then maybe this is part of why the Stone Age lifestyle is overrated. Hell, I wouldn’t even want to go back to before we had high speed Internet, no matter how fresh the Mastodon was.

  5. Sastra says

    Not only do Naturalistic Fallacy fans see primitive diets as the gold standard for a wholesome, happy, and long life, but they’ll often stick the paleolithic attitudes into the mix of natural goodness. In our ancient past, people weren’t stressed. They lived relaxed, simple lives grounded in family, spirituality, and living in tune with beneficent Nature. There was peace, harmony, and little to no violence. Modern civilization got rid of all that.

    Facts to the contrary, by the way, are dismissed as “not what I believe.” Intuition tells us this must be true.

  6. davidnangle says

    I’m a bit envious of cows. I probably couldn’t maintain health by growing/gathering/hunting, even in a Garden of Eden. I’d probably miss something important by eating from an ENC store, with a nutritionist advising me. But a cow? Grass.

  7. blf says

    In our ancient past, people weren’t stressed.

    Makes sense. When yer being chewed on by a saber toothed kitty, yer not stressed, yer a colander. And dead, which is not stressful, except to the next saber kitty meals.

  8. says

    Its proponents yearned after an unspoiled Eden where people ate vegetables and raw food.

    So…how does ‘coconuts only!’ translate to a variety of vegetables and raw food? I’d really expect that it wouldn’t take that much thought to figure out that coconuts alone aren’t terribly nourishing.

  9. jimb says

    qwints @ 3:

    I really enjoyed Paleofantasy

    Sounds like an interesting book, and my local library has a copy. Thanks!

  10. gmacs says

    The thing I don’t get is why the “Paleo” people don’t eat legumes. I may be wrong, but I though I read somewhere that various legumes were consumed by pre-agricultural peoples.

  11. says

    When yer being chewed on by a saber toothed kitty, yer not stressed,…

    And when those endorphins are released by being chewed on, it is actually a pleasant experience to be eaten to death.*

    *tru fact, donchaknow. I read it on the Internet.

  12. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    The thing I don’t get is why the “Paleo” people don’t eat legumes.

    Legumes contain alpha-galactosides as part of their complex carbohydrate structure. These complex carbohydrates pass undigested through the small intestines, and then encounter bacteria in the large intestines that will digest them, producing methane and other gasses. Huge cases of flatulence may result. Prolonged cooking and alpha-galactosidase enzymes helps to break down the complex carbohydrates. Dilution with other food sources also helps.

  13. Pierce R. Butler says

    The linked story mentions a 1905 New York Times article about Engelhardt & Co headlined “Failure of a Womanless Eden in the Pacific”, but does not explain whether this was intentional (a gay or celibate lifestyle experiment), or whether German women were just too nutritionally savvy to sign up for exclusive cocovoria.

    A friend of mine, stranded decades ago upon a remote Mexican beach, perforce tried getting by on coconut meat. The result: prolonged diarrhea well beyond the customary “Montezuma’s revenge”, which he barely survived.

  14. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    If you want to live like the original humans, an island in the Pacific is not the place to be. I’ll give Engelhart. A pass for not knowing we evolved in Africa, but given the contemporary theoriessurely Bali would have been a better choice.

  15. Al Dente says

    busterggi @10

    Live only on coconuts? What did he think he was? A pre-flood T rex?

    Pre-flood T-rexes also ate pumpkins and other squashes.

  16. says

    What a Maroon @17:

    And apologies for the stray period.

    Ah, the Periplanoic Period, always getting into geological layers it has no business in.

  17. chrislawson says

    OMG. I found a translation of the book in question and it is terrible. Two brief atrocities of logic and morality:

    1. The author argues that humans should never eat meat because if humans were even partly carnivorous, we would have evolved claws. (p. 83)

    2. Prepare to lose your most recent meal… “Agricultural races have ever been least inclined to strife, but the bravest and most steadfast in defence of right. The wild Indian, thirsting for blood, vanishes before the peaceful settler who, in defence of home and community, engages in war only that the peace and quiet which he loves may become permanently secured.” (p. 84) Herrrk!

  18. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says


    The Devil made me do it. After all, I’m using one of his evil forbidden fruit devices.

  19. dianne says

    But humans aren’t even really the same critters as those that roamed the savannah in the stone age. We’ve evolved a crapload of minor mutations in the gut, immune system, and probably the brain to deal with new environments and what we could find to eat there. For example, persistent expression of lactase so that we can eat milk as adults: not something that paleo people would have had. Face it, folks, we’re evolved to eat Big Macs. Culture’s already done our “natural” options in.

  20. Anri says

    We are adapted to an environment we alter – we can tell, because we are adapted to alter our environment. All decently intelligent animals adapt their environment (and many very unintelligent animals do as well), we just happen to be better at it than pretty much anything else.

    By “better”, I mean “more effective”, not “resulting in a superior outcome”. The former is pretty obvious, the second a heavily mixed bag.

  21. Snoof says

    howardhershey @ 28

    Which included trying just about anything to see if it was edible, too. Someone must have been the first person to try to eat cassava, hákarl and fugu.

  22. Anton Mates says

    the book claimed that since the natural food of apes was uncooked food and grain

    Uh, grain doesn’t make up a big part of any nonhuman ape’s diet in the wild, AFAIK. Nor do coconuts, for that matter.

  23. atgc says

    This isn’t an example of the naturalistic fallacy. (It’s actually “an appeal to nature,” very different.)

  24. says

    AMM @ 1:

    It’s also worth noting that our primitive ancestors weren’t all that healthy by modern standards. Parasites, endemic diseases, accidents, not to mention the occasional famine and plague and natural disaster made surviving a not all that pleasant alternative to dying.

    Yes, this was brought home to me in my readings about Ancient Egypt. At the time, Egypt was probably the most technologically advanced civilization on the planet with the kind of food security (thanks to the Nile’s annual flooding and sediment deposits) that other cultures could only dream about… and their lifespans topped out around 35-40, even for the upper levels of their society. Analysis of the abdomens of Egyptian mummies shows scarring caused by chronic water-borne parasite infestation. The few who survived into old age faced years of pain with dental abscesses caused by the grit and sand in the bread that formed the staple of the Ancient Egyptian diet… some Pharaohs probably spent their final years doped to the gills on opium (which was probably the only item of Ancient Egyptian medicine that actually worked. Going by what the surviving papyri tell us, the rest was a mix of sympathetic magic, wishful thinking and the downright nasty: contraceptive pessaries made of camel dung, anyone?) And that was your lot at the pinnacle of their society. For the average labourer, it was even worse.

    Another +1 for “Paleofantasy”, by the way.