The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease

by Daniel Lieberman

Hardcover, 2013




New York : Pantheon Books, [2013]


A Harvard evolutionary biologist presents an engaging discussion of how the human body has evolved over millions of years, examining how an increasing disparity between the needs of Stone Age bodies and the realities of the modern world are fueling a paradox of greater longevity and chronic disease.

User reviews

LibraryThing member detailmuse
[W]hat makes Homo sapiens special and why we are the only human species alive is that we evolved a few slight changes in our hardware that helped ignite a software revolution that is still ongoing at an escalating pace.

Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, develops this apt metaphor by examining the key physical transitions that separated us from apes and then the intellectual transitions that separated us from all other hominins. Life only gets better and better for us over millions of years as we become bipeds whose increased mobility allows foraging further distances for food, those better diets then leading to bigger brains and the strategic thinking necessary for hunting, tool-making, and eventually language and social cooperation.

Only better and better ... until a couple of cultural transitions have mixed results: the agricultural revolution’s huge increase of food supply and caloric density (but: sometimes famine) and population growth (but: sometimes infectious outbreaks from living densely with animals/people); the industrial revolution’s relief of brutal physical labor (but: creation of obesity and "under-use" diseases). He asks, “Has civilization led the human body astray?” and answers, in a definite affirmative, via an exploration of the mis-matches between the body we've evolved and the environment we've cultured that are responsible for the bulk of today’s healthcare spending, disabilities, and deaths.

This book is a detailed scientific exploration of how we evolved to live and how we actually do live now, connecting the dots to show why we're in epidemics of infectious disease; heart disease; autoimmune disease; obesity; type 2 diabetes; cancer; osteoporosis; and dozens more. I’m very familiar with the current situation but the evolutionary backstory here was fascinating -- logically developed, conversationally presented, extensively (and entertainingly) endnoted, and completely accessible to the non-scientist reader. Highly recommended ... and even motivating toward a healthier lifestyle.

(Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.)
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LibraryThing member mitchellray
In "The Story of the Human Body", Harvard human evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman traces the history of human evolution. His purpose is to explain how our bodies are meant to work and what is needed to keep them healthy. His premise is that as human biological evolution has been overshadowed by cultural evolution, humanity has fostered the development of mismatch diseases. Societal developments, especially the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, have created environments to which our bodies are not entirely adapted. The lifestyles we modern humans have created for ourselves do not match many of our physiological needs as dictated by human evolution. Lieberman explains how an evolutionary perspective in medicine might help us address the causes rather than merely the symptoms of many modern chronic diseases.

This is a fascinating and thought-provoking book. Lieberman explains complex subjects in a way that makes it easy for the layperson to understand. His writing style also makes the book an enjoyable read. He provides an understanding of what the human body needs to be healthy. Anyone reading this book will be less likely to succumb to the hype of fad diets and fitness crazes. Parents concerned about raising healthy children will want to read this book. In fact, anyone wanting to live a healthier lifestyle will benefit from knowing the story of how our human bodies evolved.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
This excellent book far exceeded my expectations, and indeed, wasn't at all about what I thought it would be about from the title. The author, a professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, seeks to acquaint us with the evolutionary imperatives that make our current health habits non-adaptive. In particular, he argues that many of the chronic illnesses besetting 21st Century humans can and should be avoided.

He explains: "The fundamental answer to why so many humans are getting sick from previously rare illnesses is that many of the body’s features that were adaptive in environments for which we evolved have become maladaptive in the modern environment we have now created.”

One example is how our bodies were developed to store fat before the age of easy food, grocery stores, refrigerators, freezers, and hot fudge sundaes. We still have that adaptation in our bodies, but now we access and store way too much fat, leading to problems like heart disease, obesity, and Type II Diabetes. This mismatch between the way our bodies evolved and our current sedentary and overindulgent lifestyles forms the basis of the emerging field of evolutionary medicine, which applies the insights gleaned from studying evolution to biology and health. The author explains the origin and nature of the problem in detail in this book.

He tells you so many interesting facts about the human body: who knew that the semicircular canals of the inner ear function like data-emitting gyroscopes: not only sensing how fast the head pitches, rolls, and yaws when one runs, but then triggering reflexes that cause the eye and neck muscles to counter these movements. Or who knew that the Achilles tendon, only four inches long, stores and releases almost 35% of the mechanical energy generated by the body during running!

Discussion: This book can fill you with anxiety or even cause you to hyperventilate (speaking for myself, at any rate) as the author details the many ways in which we modern humans hurt our bodies. In fact, I listened to it in the car, which totally ruined my grocery store shopping trips. How could I buy cookies and ice cream when I could hear the author in my mind excoriating me? I can tell you definitively that he would not be in favor of the technique employed by the rich people in The Hunger Games, who ate all they wanted and then threw up so they could eat more. Rather, he would suggest we consider adhering to a regimen of a healthy diet and moderate exercise. (Gasp!) And I could picture him nodding his head sadly at the brilliant section in Julianna Baggott's book Fuse, in which the hero, Bradwell, bemoans the fact that the world was dying of "...the corn-fed grief, the unbearable weight of pie fillings…"

Evaluation: I found this book terrifically interesting. Every chapter provided me with new facts and insights, and new internal pressure to take better care of myself. I listened to this book on audio, and the narrator, Sean Runnette, was excellent. I recommend buying this for people you love, and insisting they read it.
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LibraryThing member MarkBeronte
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.
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LibraryThing member msbaba
“The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease” is the type of popular science book that is so fascinating and well written that it can truly be described as intellectual entertainment…candy for the inquiring brain. In so many ways, this book was a delight. I knew I would be attracted to the topic; that is why I got the book, but I did not intend to read everything cover-to-cover. I already had a great deal of academic background on the subject of human evolution and mismatched diseases, so my intent was just to read those parts that were new to me. However, the truth is that once I began reading, I couldn’t stop; I found the book so stimulating and fascinating that I read it straight through, every word, in a little less then three days.

Personally, I’m going to tuck the name of author Daniel E. Lieberman into a special corner of my memory where I keep a growing list of select scholars who possess the uncommon ability of being able to communicate their academic disciplines to the general public through unusually clear and engaging prose. Lieberman may not (yet) be as famous, but his name will join others on that list like Vilayanur Ramachandran (neurology), Stephen Jay Gould (evolution), Edward O. Wilson (biology), Richard Feynman (physics), Frans De Waal (zoology), Jane Goodall (zoology), Dian Fossey (zoology), Oliver Sachs (neurology), Stephen Picker (cognitive science), Jared Diamond (interdisciplinary), Kay Redfield Jamison (psychiatry), and a few more.

Lieberman gave his book a perfect title; it is “The Story of the Human Body.” That is what makes it compelling and engaging. It is a story…and that story is about us. It explains how we came to be in the situation we are in today.

In particular, this story focuses on dysevolution, a form of cultural evolution where humans pass on behaviors and environments that promote mismatched diseases. Mismatch diseases are those diseases that exist because the biology of our human body has not had time to adapt to how most of us live in the modern world. According to the author, hypothesized noninfectious mismatch diseases include: acid reflux, acne, Alzheimer’s, anxiety, apnea, asthma, athlete’s foot, ADHD, bunions, certain cancers, carpal tunnel syndrome, cavities, chronic fatigue syndrome, cirrhosis, chronic constipation, coronary heart disease, Crohn’s disease, depression, diabetes (type 2), eating disorders, emphysema, endometriosis, fatty liver syndrome, fibromyalgia, flat feet, glaucoma, gout, hammer toes, hemorrhoids, hypertension, impacted wisdom teeth, chronic insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, lactose intolerance, lower back pain, malocclusion, metabolic syndrome, multiple sclerosis, myopia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, osteoporosis, preeclampsia, rickets, scurvy, and stomach ulcers.

The author only touches briefly on most of these diseases, but a few of them are discussed in detail. Those that are discussed in detail provide clear examples of the rationale behind the science of mismatched diseases. For those that he did not cover, there are often valuable leads for further study in the bibliography.

I could write more summarizing the content of this book, but I think it is perhaps more fitting if I end this review with a quote from the author. The quote occurs toward the very end of the book. It’s a quick summary, plus it aptly shows how well and engagingly the author writes.

“Like it or not, we are slightly fat, furless, bipedal primates who crave sugar, salt, fat, and starch, but we are still adapted to eating a diverse diet of fibrous fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds tubers, and lean meat. We enjoy rest and relaxation, but our bodies are still those of endurance athletes evolved to walk many miles a day, often run, as well as dig, climb, and carry. We love many comforts, but we are not well adapted to spend our days indoors in chairs, wearing supportive shoes, staring at books or screens for hours on end. As a result, billions of people suffer from diseases of affluence, novelty and disuse that used to be rare or unknown. We then treat the symptoms of these diseases because it is easier, more profitable, and more urgent than treating their causes, many of which we don’t understand anyway. In doing so, we perpetuate a pernicious feedback loop—dysevolution—between culture and biology.”

If this review piqued your interest, I’m sure you will be one of those who will enjoy reading this remarkable and captivating book.
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LibraryThing member dickmanikowski
"Like it or not, we are slightly fat, furless, bipedal primates who crave sugar, fat, salt, and starch, but we are still adapted to eating a diverse diet of fibrous fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, tubers, and lean meat. We enjoy rest and relaxation, but our bodies are still those of endurance athletes evolved to walk many miles a day and often run, as well as dig, climb, and carry. We love many comforts, but we are not well adapted to spend our lives indoors wearing supportive shoes, staring at books and screens for hours on end."
That's the author's central thesis. After a detailed but lucid and absolutely fascinating examination of man's ancestry, he traces how we've managed to manipulate our environment to a point that's terribly counterproductive.
Biologically, evolution occurs when a tiny heritable random change in an individual organism's anatomy or/or physiology gives that organism an edge over its colleagues in terms of survival and procreation. As these advantageous changes occur, the species evolves. But the process is glacially slow.
In contrast, technology and culture change rapidly. The conundrum is that our bodies are no longer suited to the environment we've crafted for ourselves, leading to a host of mismatch diseases and conditions (obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, dental cavities, and flat feet among them). In his concluding chapter, Lieberman presents strategies for resolving this dilemma. He's not terribly optimistic.
It's a very, very, very interesting read.
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LibraryThing member madcurrin
You could chop this book in half and you'd have two quite different volumes, each totally interesting in its own right. The first part is a comprehensive journey through human evolution. It explores and celebrates how we developed the bodies that we currently slob around in.

The second part investigates different ways that our modern slobby lifestyle affects these bodies that we inherited from our ancestors. A thread running through both parts is the concept of evolutionary mismatch diseases. Mismatch diseases are non infectious conditions like heart disease, obesity and diabetes that were once rare but now flourish in the world of fast food and comfy sofas.

The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease is a reminder that we are, in fact, pretty damn amazing creatures, and it's also a cautionary tale. This is the most interesting book I've read in the past year.
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