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The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease
Synopses & Reviews
We think of medical science and doctors as focused on treating conditions—whether it’s a cough or an aching back. But the sicknesses and complaints that cause us to seek medical attention actually have deeper origins than the superficial germs and behaviors we regularly fault. In fact, as Jeremy Taylor shows in Body by Darwin, we can trace the roots of many medical conditions through our evolutionary history, revealing what has made us susceptible to certain illnesses and ailments over time and how we can use that knowledge to help us treat or prevent problems in the future.
In Body by Darwin, Taylor examines the evolutionary origins of some of our most common and serious health issues. To begin, he looks at the hygiene hypothesis, which argues that our obsession with anti-bacterial cleanliness, particularly at a young age, may be making us more vulnerable to autoimmune and allergic diseases. He also discusses diseases of the eye, the medical consequences of bipedalism as they relate to all those aches and pains in our backs and knees, the rise of Alzheimer’s disease, and how cancers become so malignant that they kill us despite the toxic chemotherapy we throw at them. Taylor explains why it helps to think about heart disease in relation to the demands of an ever-growing, dense, muscular pump that requires increasing amounts of nutrients, and he discusses how walking upright and giving birth to ever larger babies led to a problematic compromise in the design of the female spine and pelvis. Throughout, he not only explores the impact of evolution on human form and function, but he integrates science with stories from actual patients and doctors, closely examining the implications for our health.
As Taylor shows, evolutionary medicine allows us think about the human body and its adaptations in a completely new and productive way. By exploring how our body’s performance is shaped by its past, Body by Darwin draws powerful connections between our ancient human history and the future of potential medical advances that can harness this knowledge.
"In thoroughly enjoyable and edifying prose, Lieberman, professor of human evolution at Harvard, leads a fascinating journey through human evolution. He comprehensively explains how evolutionary forces have shaped the human species as we know it, from the move to bipedalism, and the changes in body parts — from hands to feet and spine — that such a change entailed, to the creation of agrarian societies, and much more. He balances a historical perspective with a contemporary one — examining traits of our ancestors as carefully as he looks to the future — while asking how we might control the destiny of our species. He argues persuasively that 'cultural evolution is now the dominant force of evolutionary change acting on the human body,' and focuses on what he calls 'mismatch diseases' that are caused by lack of congruence between genes and environment. Since the pace of cultural evolution has outstripped that of biological evolution, mismatch diseases have increased to the point where most of us are likely to die of such causes. Lieberman's discussion of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and breast cancer are as clear as any yet published, and he offers a well-articulated case for why an evolutionary perspective can greatly enrich the practice of medicine. Agent: Max Brockman, Brockman Inc." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
The natural world is rich with elegant evolutionary designs, but ask any patient who wakes daily with sciatica, or the many septuagenarians in need of cataract surgery, not to mention any woman who has given birth, and evolution might seem more dismal than divine. The human body is a wonderful example of evolutionary compromise and adaptations. Our eyes were not designed for the arc of our current lifespan, with upright walking the spine had to shift and years of gravitational pull then take their toll. And the sheer size of our heads coupled with the shape of a woman’s pelvis make birth the biological equivalent of a Rube Goldberg machine, with many extra moving parts just to make sure the basics can be done.
While the human body may not be as elegant in form and function as those of other species, when explored from an evolutionary perspective, human medicine can be wonderfully illuminated. And this Darwinian view of body function and failure can in turn lead to innovative treatment and health care. This book takes some of the most fascinating and acute medical issues today--from high rate of autoimmune diseases to the high number of heart transplants needed—and explores them through an evolutionary prism. Evolutionary medicine prescribes new tools for understanding the origins of diseases and new kinds of research on possible treatments, of exactly the sort that this book so vividly describes.
In this landmark book of popular science, Daniel E. Lieberman—chair of the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and a leader in the field—gives us a lucid and engaging account of how the human body evolved over millions of years, even as it shows how the increasing disparity between the jumble of adaptations in our Stone Age bodies and advancements in the modern world is occasioning this paradox: greater longevity but increased chronic disease.
The Story of the Human Body brilliantly illuminates as never before the major transformations that contributed key adaptations to the body: the rise of bipedalism; the shift to a non-fruit-based diet; the advent of hunting and gathering, leading to our superlative endurance athleticism; the development of a very large brain; and the incipience of cultural proficiencies. Lieberman also elucidates how cultural evolution differs from biological evolution, and how our bodies were further transformed during the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions.
While these ongoing changes have brought about many benefits, they have also created conditions to which our bodies are not entirely adapted, Lieberman argues, resulting in the growing incidence of obesity and new but avoidable diseases, such as type 2 diabetes. Lieberman proposes that many of these chronic illnesses persist and in some cases are intensifying because of “dysevolution,” a pernicious dynamic whereby only the symptoms rather than the causes of these maladies are treated. And finally—provocatively—he advocates the use of evolutionary information to help nudge, push, and sometimes even compel us to create a more salubrious environment.
(With charts and line drawings throughout.)
About the Author
Daniel Lieberman is the Chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard and a leader in the field. He has written nearly 100 articles, many appearing in the journals Nature and Science, and his cover story on barefoot running in Nature was picked up by major media the world over. His research and discoveries have been highlighted in newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Discover, and National Geographic. He has appeared on Nova time and again (the series Becoming Human included a major focus on his research), the BBC, and Charlie Rose, among other programs.
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