Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Book Review: The Story of the Human Body

The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease
Daniel E. Lieberman
Anthropology, health

A very interesting and generally readable argument for the idea that many modern diseases--including some surprising ones--are the result of mismatches between our physical evolution and our cultural evolution.

Lieberman spends the first part of the book giving a nice, concise summary of current anthropological thinking about our evolutionary heritage. The twist is that he's not simply recounting facts, but putting them in context. His aim is to show how the anthropological progression works as an evolutionary narrative. I.e.: what forces were at work? How did human bodies respond? What can our existing adaptations show about our ancestors? What can the bones of our ancestors tell us about our biology today?

The second part of the book is a discussion of mismatches. Lieberman's fundamental argument is that the recent explosive speed of cultural evolution has led to a whole host of places where our physical anatomy doesn't match how we behave. The meta-mismatch--which Lieberman doesn't make explicitly, quite--is that we are not evolved (mentally, physically, or psychologically) to favor the long term view of what's good for us. Lazing around eating Marshmallow Swudge Frooty Blergs is great in the short term; it saves energy that you might need later, and provides a nice caloric cushion for your next mammoth hunt, thus giving you a shot at having more lazy, Frooty Blerg-eating children. So we feel, and so we act ... and then we spend a lot of time and money fixing our flat feet, diabetes, heart disease, coronary artery disease, osteoporosis, autoimmune disorders, etc. etc. etc.

Some of his points are kind of obvious, but they're well made. In a few cases (such as his discussion of cancer) I think he goes overboard, and starts sounding like an evangelist, in the everything-looks-like-a-nail mode. In general, though, nicely done and thought-provoking.

This book will appeal strongly to people who liked Richard Wrangham's Catching Fire, and vice-versa.


  1. Replies
    1. I'm grateful that anyone is still reading!

      Work craziness is currently in abeyance and hopefully will stay that way for a while.

  2. Finally caught up with Catching Fire. Trying to decide what I think of the main thesis.

    1. The only weakness I'd cite in Catching Fire is absence of hard evidence. The enormous gap between Wrangham's date and what's known is intellectually troubling. At the same time, the thesis seems so compelling that I have a hard time disregarding it entirely.