The Story of the Human Body by Daniel E. Lieberman

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


The Story of the Human Body
We habitually value costs and benefits more highly in the near term than in the future

Every once in a while, I like to read books about health, food, and the environment, mainly to remind myself that there are plenty of problems out there and plenty of things we do wrong, but also to make myself extra mindful of the food I eat and the unhealthy habits I still nourish. When Jill recommended this book early this year, I wanted to read it for pretty much those same reasons, plus the fact that Jill loved it a lot.

The Story of the Human Body wasn't entirely what I expected it to be, but that's not to say I didn't enjoy it. I guess I was expecting more a contemporary history of how we harm our bodies currently and how we pay for that. But I liked Lieberman's approach much much better - he pretty much took the entire history of the human body, from before our true ancestors' arrival on Earth, to the present. And while he was at it, he gave a good understanding of how we went from hunting cavemen eating what's available in the ground to the more laid-back people of the present who eat food from a can.

When Lieberman started off talking about the Neanderthals and the Australopithecus, I admit not liking it too much. For some reason, I couldn't quite see how that could have any connection to what I was hoping to get out of the book. But he doesn't take a textbook approach of just stating facts - he makes some strong surmises, talks about the conclusions of certain studies, and most importantly, focuses on the food habits of these ancient men and how evolution and lifestyle changes usually happened hand in hand at an immeasurably slow process. Today, our lifestyles advance way too rapidly for evolution to be able to catch-up, leading to an outcrop of diseases like cancer, heart ailments, diabetes, etc, which the ancient men didn't experience but which is the status quo today.

He also explores a great deal about evolution. One interesting analysis he mentioned is how our ancestors chewed on mostly hard food but how we now have our foods softened so much that our teeth don't get much exercise. That is part of the reason why we increasingly need braces to help align our teeth better. This book is littered with tons of such interesting tidbits that often fascinated me, but occasionally also left me feeling disappointed about our rapid advancement and industrialization. Make no mistake - I am in no way saying that I will give up today's technologies so that we can have a healthier environment. Remember how smoking was considered okay to do? And now we have in-your-face ads (rightfully so) to help stop it from being a fad. When it first entered the market, who knew that smoking could be a bad thing (something that we just seem to know now). That's the danger - we seem to know what's bad only after it has become bad for us.

I loved this book for its many interesting facts. Lieberman doesn't try to convert you one way or the other. He portrays the picture as it is and explains what can help revert it (eating real food), but admits that it is not something that is going to be easy to do. It doesn't help that some very powerful corporations control a huge chunk of the food industry and no matter how much you look for good food, it is still hard to come by because of how much this industry has been tainted. I will admit that for a good while after listening to this book, I have been feeling very lost in the kitchen when I try to decide what to cook. There is only so much of the same foods you can eat, but while we indulge once in a while, the husband and I have been mostly trying to cook healthy at home.

I will echo what Jill said - "I recommend buying this for people you love, and insisting they read it." There are some valuable lessons in here and I think it is crucial for people to know more about their bodies, how they were meant to evolve, and how their lifestyles evolved instead. It may not make you say no to the next donut you see (though I have now been able to more easily walk away from such foods than I have been before). Rather than just get an oft-stated premise that certain lifestyles are bad for you, this book goes one step ahead - it gives you the history of the human body and lets you figure the lessons out yourself.


I borrowed this audiobook from the good old library.

5 comments:

Ti Reed said...

I think the Paleo diet is an attempt to revisit how humans used to eat. This topic has always piqued my interest but now that I am gluten free due to allergy, I am forced to consider daily what goes in my mouth. I wish, big wish, that that equated to some weight loss but alas, no. Our bodies are just not designed to digest the numerous preservatives that are pumped into our food these days. The whole shop local thing has to do with that too. If we buy local, we don't need preservatives because it's eaten when fresh. If I had my way, I'd be living in Ojai, in some mountain retreat cabin, growing my own food and living off the land.

Helen Murdoch said...

Doesn't really sound like my kind of book, but I do find it interesting that we in the US eat so much "ready to eat" food when we have access to so much fresh. Having a daily farmer's market in my town certainly helps!

Athira / Aths said...

You raise a good point. I agree there are more people living longer, which to me is a good thing, but yeah, more people are also suffering from all sorts of diseases than they did before.

Athira / Aths said...

I'm with you. If I had a lot more money in the world, I would feel better about leaving my job and living a sustainable life in some huge farm. Sigh, until then, I better make sure I don't ingest too many preservatives.

Athira / Aths said...

Definitely helps! I think shopping local will take care of a lot of the health problems we face today.