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The Story of the Human Body
Cover of The Story of the Human Body
The Story of the Human Body
Evolution, Health, and Disease
Borrow Borrow
In this landmark book of popular science, Daniel E. Lieberman—chair of the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and a leader in the field—gives us a lucid and engaging account of how the human body evolved over millions of years, even as it shows how the increasing disparity between the jumble of adaptations in our Stone Age bodies and advancements in the modern world is occasioning this paradox: greater longevity but increased chronic disease.
 
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.
(With charts and line drawings throughout.)
In this landmark book of popular science, Daniel E. Lieberman—chair of the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and a leader in the field—gives us a lucid and engaging account of how the human body evolved over millions of years, even as it shows how the increasing disparity between the jumble of adaptations in our Stone Age bodies and advancements in the modern world is occasioning this paradox: greater longevity but increased chronic disease.
 
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.
(With charts and line drawings throughout.)
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Excerpts-
  • Preface

    Preface
     
    Like most people, I am fascinated by the human body, but unlike most folks, who sensibly relegate their interest in people’s bodies to evenings and weekends, I have made the human body the focus of my career. In fact, I am extremely lucky to be a professor at Harvard University, where I teach and study how and why the human body is the way it is. My job and my interests allow me to be a jack-of-all trades. In addition to working with students, I study fossils, I travel to interesting corners of the earth to see how people use their bodies, and I do experiments in the lab on how human and animal bodies work.
     
    Like most professors, I also love to talk, and I enjoy people’s questions. But of all the questions I am commonly asked, the one I used to dread the most was “What will human beings look like in the future?” I hated this question! I am a professor of human evolutionary biology, which means I study the past, not what lies ahead. I am not a soothsayer, and the question made me think of tawdry science fiction movies that depict humans of the distant future as having enormous brains, pale and tiny bodies, and shiny clothing. My reflexive answer was always something along the lines of: “Human beings aren’t evolving very much because of culture.” This response is a variant of the standard answer that many of my colleagues give when asked the same question.
     
    I have since changed my mind about this question and now consider the human body’s future to be one of the most important issues we can think about. We live in paradoxical times for our bodies. On the one hand, this era is probably the healthiest in human history. If you live in a developed country, you can reasonably expect all your offspring to survive childhood, to live to their dotage, and to become parents and grandparents. We have conquered or quelled many diseases that used to kill people in droves: smallpox, measles, polio, and the plague. People are taller, and formerly life-threatening conditions like appendicitis, dysentery, a broken leg, or anemia are easily remedied. To be sure, there is still too much malnutrition and disease in some countries, but these evils are often the result of bad government and social inequality, not a lack of food or medical know-how.
     
    On the other hand, we could be doing better, much better. A wave of obesity and chronic, preventable illnesses and disabilities is sweeping across the globe. These preventable diseases include certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, strokes, kidney disease, some allergies, dementia, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and other illnesses. Billions of people are also suffering from ailments like lower back pain, fallen arches, plantar fasciitis, myopia, arthritis, constipation, acid reflux, and irritable bowel syndrome. Some of these troubles are ancient, but many are novel or have recently exploded in prevalence and intensity. To some extent, these diseases are on the rise because people are living longer, but most of them are showing up in middle-aged people. This epidemiological transition is causing not just misery but also economic woe. As baby boomers retire, their chronic illnesses are straining health-care systems and stifling economies. Moreover, the image in the crystal ball looks bad because these diseases are also growing in prevalence as development spreads across the planet.
     
    The health challenges we face are causing an intense worldwide conversation among parents, doctors, patients, politicians, journalists, researchers, and others. Much of the focus has been on obesity. Why are people getting...

About the Author-
  • Daniel E. Lieberman is professor of human evolutionary biology and the Edwin M. Lerner II Professor of Biological Sciences at Harvard. He has written more than one hundred articles, many appearing in the journals Nature and Science. Lieberman is especially well known for his research on the evolution of the human head and the evolution of running, including barefoot running (earning him the nickname the Barefoot Professor). His research and discoveries have been highlighted widely in newspapers, magazines, books, news programs, and documentaries.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from July 29, 2013
    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.

  • Kirkus

    August 15, 2013
    Six million years of biological evolution have produced a human body ill-adapted to the diets and lifestyles that cultural evolution has wrought since modern humans emerged. That is the core message of this massive review of where we came from and what ails us now. Lieberman (Human Evolutionary Biology/Harvard Univ.; The Evolution of the Human Head, 2011, etc.) writes authoritatively about the fossil record, crediting bipedalism as the driver that freed hands to learn new skills, enabled foraging for diverse diets and chasing prey, and ultimately built bigger brains. In time, humans spread across the globe in hunter-gatherer groups. Thus we remained until the agricultural and industrial revolutions spurred population growth, changed diets, and introduced new infectious and chronic diseases--while little altering our hunter-gatherer anatomy and physiology. Lieberman examines energy balance--calories taken in vs. calories expended--and good shape. Analyzing today's creature comforts, processed food (with addictive amounts of sugar, salt and fat) and lack of exercise, it is no wonder we are seeing rises in obesity and risks for heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and the like. Lieberman calls these diseases of "mismatch" (of biological evolution and culture) and medicine's emphasis on treating symptoms, "dysevolution," which means perpetuating the diseases instead of preventing them. The repeated emphasis on all the bad things humans do is wearying. By no means does Lieberman discount all the good that modern society has achieved, but that message is nearly drowned by the constant admonition to do right by your body. Alas, he is the first to admit that changing human behavior is notoriously hard. At best, he offers a "soft paternalism"--e.g., government controls of children's environments (more physical education and better lunches) and taxing the unhealthy choices of adults. Readers have likely heard this song before but perhaps not so exhaustively and well-referenced as in Lieberman's opus. Would that industry and governments take heed.

    COPYRIGHT(2013) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    September 15, 2013
    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.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2013, American Library Association.)

  • Library Journal

    May 1, 2013

    Chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, Lieberman gracefully combines paleontology, anatomy, physiology, and experimental biomechanics to clarify how the human body has evolved, from the emergence of bipedalism to the growth of modern cultural abilities. Now, he shows, we are troubled by dysevolution as our long-evolved bodies fail to fit the contemporary world and respond by developing diseases like diabetes.

    Copyright 2013 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run

    "No one understands the human body like Daniel Lieberman or tells its story more eloquently. He's found a tale inside our skin that's riveting, enlightening, and more than a little frightening."

  • Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish "Monumental: The Story of the Human Body, by one of our leading experts, takes us on an epic voyage that reveals how the past six million years shaped every part of us--our heads, limbs, and even our metabolism. Through Lieberman's eyes, evolutionary history not only comes alive, it becomes the means to understand, and ultimately influence, our body's future."
  • Wall Street Journal "[Lieberman] is a true expert in a system where architecture and history intersect: the human foot. He ably describes how behavior and anatomy can lead to foot injuries in long-distance runners."
  • Everyday eBook "In thoughtful, lucid prose backed up by a hard-to-fathom amount of research, Lieberman gives us the language to understand the history of our ancestors--the history that lives on in our minds and in our bodies . . . The Story of the Human Body, expertly researched and told in an original voice, will make you look at your own body more critically--and perhaps treat it with a little more respect. After all, we sit at the edge of millions of years of small refinements that stretched this part and shortened that piece. Lieberman shows how it all fits together and that it was no accident."
  • Grist "Eloquent and precise . . . Lieberman is the first to point out that modern living and technology have made our lives better in many ways. Still, a look back at where we came from can tell us a lot about where we're headed, he says--and how we might alter that course for the better."
  • Publishers Weekly (starred review) "In thoroughly enjoyable and edifying prose, Lieberman . . . leads a fascinating journey through human evolution. He comprehensively explains how evolutionary forces have shaped the human species as we know it . . . . He balances a historical perspective with a contemporary one . . . 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.'"
  • Booklist "Lieberman holds nothing back . . . He 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'. . . If we want to continue our phenomenal run as a species, it is essential to understand (and embrace) our evolutionary legacy."
  • Kirkus Reviews "A massive review of where we came from and what ails us now . . . Would that industry and governments take heed."
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Evolution, Health, and Disease
Daniel Lieberman
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