Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The price of progress?

(I haven't posted much over the last several months because I've been so busy! If you're a personal friend, you know why. But I'm going to try posting regularly again, and this is one I've had written for a couple of years and rewritten numerous times. It's not perfect, but it's already been waiting too long, so...)

Evolution isn't something I've spent a lot of time studying.  I thoroughly enjoyed Guns, Germs, and Steel – which touches on it to some degree – but honestly, it's a topic that makes me a little uneasy.  As a religious person who enjoys science, I can't deny that the two often seem to be at odds.  But while there are things I can't fully reconcile, the condescending attitude most science writers use toward religion bothers me, and it does nothing to further constructive discussion.

That's where Daniel Lieberman's The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease is a little different.  Not only does he not bash religion, but he frequently quotes scriptures when explaining ideas.  This is not to say that he has written a religious book or that he ignores science in favor of a "creationism" viewpoint, however – it's still a science book, it just doesn't bash the religious viewpoint.  The first half is essentially an overview of the prevailing theories of evolution since our paths diverged from primates, but with a focus on the evolution of the human body.  Lieberman discusses how things like walking upright and head shape and speech likely evolved and why, and what advantages each conferred.  He explains what the earliest humans may have been like and why they may have made the leap to agriculture – and the agricultural revolution seems to be when many of the present day maladies that afflict us first began.  On the grander scale, famines and epidemic diseases all seem to have their roots in the changes that began once agriculture allowed for larger communities and a different lifestyle than our bodies were evolved for.  But the second half of the book looks at some of the more specific health challenges that have been caused by these "evolutionary mismatches," such as Type 2 diabetes, cavities, and flat feet, and how they affect us today.

Basically, the premise is that even though people today are living longer lives than in the past, we aren't necessarily healthier than hunter/gatherers were.  Lieberman believes it is important to look at our bodies from an evolutionary viewpoint in order to understand why we suffer from diseases that didn't plague our ancient ancestors – and the reason isn't always simply because of age.

Honestly, I found the book to be clear and well-explained.  Lieberman makes sense of an oftentimes murky and contentious topic and explains the background behind the current beliefs about evolution.  And it makes a lot of sense, both as he explains evolution and how it affects our bodies given the world we live in today.  It's not a perfect book: Lieberman has a tendency to be repetitive and pessimistic, and occasionally seems to make overstatements.  But on the whole I thought it was a worthwhile (if sometimes long) read. 

As for reconciling religion and science, I have faith that someday it will all make sense and that much hasn't yet been 'revealed.'  We may find that our understanding of the Creation story in The Bible is incomplete or not entirely accurate, and I am certain that our scientific knowledge will continue to evolve, bringing us closer to the truth.  In the meantime, I'll hold on to my faith in both religion and science.  (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

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