- Hardcover: 480 pages
- Publisher: Pantheon; 1 edition (October 1, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0307379418
- ISBN-13: 978-0307379412
- Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.5 x 9.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 320 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #454,219 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease 1st Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. 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. (Oct.)
Like it or not, we are slightly fat, furless, bipedal primates who crave sugar, salt, fat, and starch. Harvard professor Lieberman holds nothing back in his plea that people listen to the story of human evolution consisting of five biological transformations (walking upright, eating a variety of different foods, accumulating physical traits aligned to hunting and gathering, gaining bigger brains with larger bodies, and developing unique capacities for cooperation and language) and two cultural ones (farming and reliance on machines). Unfortunately, human beings now create environments and presently practice lifestyles that are clearly out of sync with the bodies they’ve inherited. This mismatch results in myriad problems, including Type 2 diabetes, myopia, flat feet, and cavities. Lieberman cleverly and comprehensively points out the perils of possessing Paleolithic anatomy and physiology in a modern world and bemoans just how out of touch we have become with our bodies. Natural selection nudges all life-forms toward optimality rather than a state of perfection. If we want to continue our phenomenal run as a species, it is essential to understand (and embrace) our evolutionary legacy. --Tony Miksanek
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Where he is less effective is in his prescriptions at the end -- common sense recommendations that, like Bloomberg's ban on large cups of soda, Leiberman would like to make into "paternal" laws, which are of course, never going to be made into laws because they require cultural coercion (like Bloomberg's ban). The ideas behind the proposed bans are good, even wise; it is the cultural coercion that Americans will not like ("how dare you legislate how I am to live, etc.).
Lieberman calls diseases such as diabetes 2 and obesity "mismatch" diseases -- "trade-offs" of cultural evolution (technologies of various sorts) that result in easier and better and longer lasting lives for humans but with costs (the abundance of sugar and fat in our diets leads to or can lead to -- type 2 diabetes and obesity and other diseases he describes). Personally, I think they are "by-products" rather than "trade-offs." "Trade-off" implies a conscious awareness of what one is giving up to get something else, and I don't think that's the case here -- humans are just happy to have somewhat easier lives, and most haven't thought consciously "yes, more abundant and cheaper food sources are worth the excess sugar and fat."
Lieberman wants to make the case for "evolutionary medicine," the study and awareness of mismatch diseases which are caused by the difference between what our bodies are made for, and how they are currently being used. The unfortunate thing is that one does not need evolutionary science to explain what is clear and understandable right before our eyes and known to all without it. Lieberman is also perhaps idealizes the lives of hunter-gathers; theirs is the standard he marks our current lives against. I am all for a four-hour workday four days a week and time to rest in a hammock every afternoon for a few hours. Amen to that and we are fools to live differently. But as he himself notes throughout his book: natural selection optimizes for a higher rate of reproduction, not optional health -- more children to continue the species, but the cost of that to women's lives and bodies is extremely high. Natural selection is not entirely rational any more than our own selves are.
And also, as Lieberman notes throughout -- we die, that's the law of all living things -- eventually all living things shrink and sicken to one degree or another on the way toward death. We can by applying wisdom, common sense, and discipline, live longer, healthier lives -- choose to forgo some of the abundant fat and sugar -- but the diseases of aging are going to take all of us eventually. And that's not a bad thing.
Anyway, in sum, I recommend this book -- it is very good food for thought and well-written and well-told. Some of Lieberman's arguments are a little weak in the end, but the book is thoughtful and engaging and well worth the time and money to read.
The first part describes human evolution from fruit-eating tree-swingers to Homosapiens by sequencing and explaining the adaptations that enabled us alone to build civilizations. It debunks a number of myths. It makes much more understandable the many lines of other proto-humans (hominins) who evolved and lived at the same time the forbears of homosapiens evolved, but then died out. He IDs what few gaps there are left in the fossil record. We see how DNA is filling in gaps.
Evolution no longer seems like a group or even a series of adaptations that miraculously occurred in just the right order to yield us. Lots of adaptations did not continue to be advantageous and those species died out. Adaptations that continued to allow hominins to outcompete other hominins persisted and subsequent adapations had a chance to accumulate. It makes human evolution seem much less like the chance construction of an impossible complex machine that evolution doubters perceive.
The other part of the book explains many diseases of modern life that are a result of hunter-gatherer bodies subjected to current cultural habits and resources. Leiberman calls these "mismatch diseases." We have hunter-gatherer bodies because evolution requires glacial time periods to fundamentally change species with 20-30 years per generation.
Humans did not switch from HG to agriculture until about 10K years ago, a short period from an evolutionary POV. Evolution has not adapted us to the high starch diet that agriculture created because there has not been enough time. Instead, a body optimized from millions of years of adaption to HG living is what we are walking around with now. Our HG bodies condition us to crave salt, fat and sweets and to not expend more calories than necessary to obtain food, shelter and a modicum of peace. In other words, we are biologically pre-disposed to overeat crap and be sedentary.
Lieberman indicates that mismatch diseases have not slowed down the human race because they act mostly on those who have already stopped reproducing. For the same reason, mismatch diseases will not be eliminated through evolution.
He presents 3 approaches to conquering mismatch diseases. The one he favors rests on humans changing their behavior. There is, as Lieberman states, no Pasteur for mismatch diseases.