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Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History [Kindle Edition]

Florence Williams
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (72 customer reviews)

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Book Description

A 2012 New York Times Notable Book

A 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Award Winner in the Science & Technology category

An engaging narrative about an incredible, life-giving organ and its imperiled modern fate.

Did you know that breast milk contains substances similar to cannabis? Or that it’s sold on the Internet for 262 times the price of oil? Feted and fetishized, the breast is an evolutionary masterpiece. But in the modern world, the breast is changing. Breasts are getting bigger, arriving earlier, and attracting newfangled chemicals. Increasingly, the odds are stacked against us in the struggle with breast cancer, even among men. What makes breasts so mercurial—and so vulnerable?

In this informative and highly entertaining account, intrepid science reporter Florence Williams sets out to uncover the latest scientific findings from the fields of anthropology, biology, and medicine. Her investigation follows the life cycle of the breast from puberty to pregnancy to menopause, taking her from a plastic surgeon’s office where she learns about the importance of cup size in Texas to the laboratory where she discovers the presence of environmental toxins in her own breast milk. The result is a fascinating exploration of where breasts came from, where they have ended up, and what we can do to save them.

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* In her exceptional history, science journalist Williams does more to enlighten us on the virtues of, workings of, and perils to women’s breasts than anyone ever has before, notwithstanding the efforts of the three H’s: Hooters, Hefner, and Hughes (Howard, inventor of the cantilever bra). And she does it with smarts, sass, and intent. Her book can be characterized as an exposé because it unveils the scandalously scanty amount of research devoted to those that define the very essence of the human race. To be sure, Williams covers all the cultural and anthropological information that the mostly male scientific—and not-so-scientific—community has gathered about what is euphemistically referred to as second base. And she goes much further, elucidating the primary purpose of the female breast and how breasts alter at each stage of a woman’s life, then venturing into breast enlargements, the chemistry of breast milk, how breasts are evolving, and how little we know about the effects of environmental toxins and the rise in breast cancer. Meant to nurture the next generation for life on planet earth, breasts are also humanity’s first responders to environmental changes. And what have modern-day chemical exposures wrought? The answers to this question and many more are found in Williams’ remarkably informative and compelling work of discovery. --Donna Chavez


“A smart, wry synthesis of evolution, physiology, microbiology, environmental science, and even biomechanics.” (Carl Zimmer - Discover)

“Akin to Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic Silent Spring.” (M. G. Lord - New York Times Book Review)

“Exceptional.” (Wall Street Journal)

“Starred Review. Meant to nurture the next generation for life on planet Earth, breasts are also humanity's first responders to environmental changes. And what have modern-day chemical exposures wrought? The answers to this question and many more are found in Williams's remarkably informative and compelling work of discovery.” (Booklist)

“Williams has done us all—men and women—an enormous favor.” (San Francisco Chronicle)

“With a scientist’s mind, a journalist’s eye, and a mother’s heart, Williams has produced a wide-ranging environmental history of the breast…Williams delineates one of the most consequential dramas at the intersection of human evolution and environmental change.” (Los Angeles Review of Books)

“Highly informative and remarkably entertaining. . . . [Williams’s] inquisitive tone deftly melds careful reportage and a witty streak of lay skepticism.” (Elle)

“Much like [Mary Roach’s] Stiff, Breasts benefits from its author's field trips…Seen this way—the breast as a canary in a toxic coal mine—[Williams's] call to protect them feels both timely and urgent.” (Boston Globe)

“A wonderful and entertaining tour through the evolution, biology and cultural aspects of the organ that defines us as mammals!” (Susan Love, M.D., M.B.A., President of Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation)

Product Details

  • File Size: 5236 KB
  • Print Length: 351 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0393063186
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (April 30, 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B007F7XXS2
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #140,180 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Human Mammary Gland In All Its Glory May 24, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The family of animals known as mammals are so named because they are the only creatures on earth that have mammary glands with which to feed their young. Of the mammals, humans are unique as we have the only mammary glands that extend from the body from the time of puberty onward. All other species in the mammal family have mammary glands that extend and become engorged for the purpose of lactation following pregnancy, but they also retract when lactation ceases and the infant is weaned. Why humans have this feature is a serious area of research and there is much debate over how this development evolved. Some scientists believe it had a sexual purpose, while other scientists believe it had a distinctly functional purpose. The author examines both schools of thought and provides information from both.

Following the examination of the development of breasts, the author reviews the biology and functioning of breasts. Descended from sweat glands, it would appear from the outside that breasts are fairly simple apparatus that become functional following pregnancy and then returned to dormancy. However, the breasts are extremely complicated organs and one of the least studied organs in the human body. While we know a fair amount, there is a great deal that has yet to be discovered about the workings of the breast. Biologists are working on a continual basis to try to unlock the secrets of the breast, and with luck will be able to do so at some time in the future. Even breast milk itself is little understood, there are literally tens of thousands of components of breast milk, yet only a relatively few have actually been identified.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The author discusses a very serious subject, in that most of book is devoted to breast cancer and its primary cause according to her which is carcinogens in the environment. Yet she approaches her subject in a humorous manner from the first page, beginning with, "We love breasts, yet we can't take them seriously. We name them affectionately, but with a bit of insult. They can turn both babies and grown men into lunkheads."

She begins with a history of how and why breasts developed in lower order primates, which was originally to confer immunity to offspring from pathogens. She even has a theory that the transmission of culture occurs from the bonding between mother and child during breast feeding. Yet she easily slips back and forth between information and humor as in discussing the fat percentage of milk in various species as with the seal which has the highest fat content [50%] of any mammal, to which she adds. " a stiff wind could turn that into butter."

The book is filled with hundreds of informative and often amusing facts relating to breasts and breast feeding, as:
1. the average female breast weighs about 454 grams or one pound
2. the largest breasts created through augmentation were a size 38KKK and weighed approximately 21 pounds each with a volume equal to approximately 2.6 gallons.
3. the left breast is about 9% larger in most women, but one is always about that much bigger
4. the average nipple has 12 orifices
5. Timmie Jean Lindsay was the first recipient of a breast transplant in 1962. She was still alive at the time the book was written at age 79 and still had her original transplants. The story of how she got them is cute so I won't spoil that part.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book everyone should read May 8, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Breasts begins with a list of humorous words for breasts ("Funbags. Boobsters. Chumbawumbas. Dingle bobbers...") and the book contains funny anecdotes throughout. Still, at it's core, it is a serious book, chock full of important information. Williams asks: Why are girls developing breasts at a younger age than ever before? What are the toxins in our environment doing to our breasts? How do the hormones in birth control pills affect our breasts? She also addresses some less serious but truly interesting topics, such as why we have breasts to begin with (and why so many male scientists get the answer wrong). If you have breasts or have a daughter, mother or sister with them, you should read this book. Actually, if somehow you miraculously don't, you still should. She addresses male breast cancer as well. An overall great read.
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17 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book is a must read! May 9, 2012
This book is funny, irreverent, well-researched, and thoroughly engaging. Florence Williams does her research. She takes us on a tour de boob from its evolutionary history to the EPA, from a plastic surgeon's office to breasts' susceptibility to environmental exposures, using her own body as guinea pig. She dives into 18th century anatomical texts, and follows the latest research on early puberty and its link to breast cancer. Williams' prose is clear and eloquent, and at times hilarious. She strikes the perfect balance between informing, educating and entertaining the reader. This book is a page-turner, and the information in it could not be more timely. Put this book on your Must Read list and share it with everyone you know.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome book. Really interesting funny and informative
Awesome book. Really interesting funny and informative. So many things we don't realize about this amazingly adaptive body organ. Very well written.
Published 1 month ago by Beth M Pfotenhauer
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
gives a very simple yet effective story of breasts for women.
Published 1 month ago by Alberta Lawton
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Very interesting.
Published 2 months ago by KLWixxie
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting book providing information about the biological...
An interesting book providing information about the biological function of breasts as well as evolution and social back ground about them. Read more
Published 5 months ago by John Esser
4.0 out of 5 stars I did not like the first few chapters
Very informative book. I did not like the first few chapters, other chapters were great!
Published 5 months ago by impermanent
5.0 out of 5 stars must read
This is the new Silent Spring, but the species suffering from all the chemicals is us. The poisoning of breast milk is criminal. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Daniel Gamber
1.0 out of 5 stars Unscientific
This book was not well-researched. The author apparently cannot decide if scientists have all the answers and are undecided about whether to share them, or if all scientists are... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Brieanna Brownawell
1.0 out of 5 stars Don't waste your time
And neither will I.

What I feel like doing, however, is to stress the importance of qualifications. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Thomas
2.0 out of 5 stars Boring and politically slanted
This book seems to spend too much time scaring people about various chemicals, I had to stop reading it. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Michelle Smythe
5.0 out of 5 stars Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History
First heard this book when the author was interviewed on NPR. Didn't realize how many products we use that can cause breast cancer or other problems. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Virginia Schawacker
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