Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Story of the Human Body

Daniel Lieberman

As the famous Theodesius Dobzhansky quote goes, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” However, many health-related fields nowadays have taken this philosophy to the extreme, promoting and justifying methods and theories by calling on the idea that “we were healthier before we started doing X, and therefore we should go back to how we did it before!” despite the absence of actual evidence in favour of the specific remedies being suggested. Even evolutionary psychology often leans dangerously close to truism instead of science. In The Story of the Human Body, Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman aims to better elucidate the relationship between the past and present. He calls upon information from biology, anthropology, pathology, and sociology to chronicle how the changing lifestyles of the human race have generated a new type of pathology he calls “mismatch diseases.” These are the health concerns that evolutionary health gurus refer to, having arisen from the crafting of an environment that we are not evolutionarily well-adapted for. According to Lieberman, we then perpetuate a vicious circle by treating their symptoms, instead of addressing their root causes by changing those environments.

I've already mentioned the multidisciplinary approach Lieberman takes to justify this narrative, but it bears repeating. He is remarkably thorough in breaking down the transitions that have carried us from the humble beginnings of the genus Australopithecus, to our first, striding steps as Homo Erectus, all the way through to Homo Neanderthalensis' mysterious disappearance, the birth of culture, and both the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Lieberman's most impressive feat, however, is his detailing of how each of these different mechanisms have influenced the health of the human race. Longer legs with forward facing hip-socket joints cost us less energy travelling a certain distance, but it also made us significantly less capable at climbing trees. The butterfly effect of this was that humans became adapted for running long distances for the purposes of “persistence hunting”--a form of hunting where hunters will chase an animal until it literally drops dead of exhaustion. In hunting larger prey, humans then being able to communicate hunting strategy to a younger generation through the means of socialization and culture meant that we were able to outlast the less conceptually adept Neanderthals.

The Story of the Human Body constructs a long, complex chain of events, and Lieberman's intense scrutiny and research ensures that there is not a weak link in the bunch. As a result, when he reaches the point in the book where he begins prescribing solutions to our modern day morbidity problems, his recommendations, backed up by a good 300 pages of well-sourced evidence,are all the more sound. It is an amazing, fascinating read, and one of the few books to successfully amalgamate findings from so many different fields into a solid thesis on how we might improve our health going forward. I won't be surprised if The Story of the Human Body ends up sharing the same bookshelves with such legendary works as Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, and as such, I couldn't recommend it more. 

Vincent Smith is a taoist, aspiring writer, and dyed-in-the-wool psychology geek at the University of Gueh. You can find his writing on video games, comics, movies, and all things geek over at The Rogue's Gallery.      

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