This book was published in October. It has taken me several weeks to complete. This could be for two reasons.
Firstly, as author Daniel Lieberman argues, reading is not natural. Myopia (from which I suffer) is an inevitable result of close work, a product of the modern age and the hunter-gatherer bodies we inhabit have yet to catch up with our habits.
Secondly, this work is so profoundly fascinating, so important and its pages so full of mind-blowing and revealing truths that I had to ration myself to a few pages a day.
The alternative was to run around in circles shouting incoherently and ramming this work into strangers’ hands.
If we could send one book to our alien cousins, this book should be it. For it is the blueprint of what it is to inhabit this shabby old bag of skin.
“Like it or not,” writes the avuncular professor, “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.”
Lieberman, a constantly wise companion, splits the book into two. I came for the evolution and stayed for the “dysevolution”.
This is more than an instruction manual, it is the ultimate Just So story, explaining in detail how and why the human body evolved through natural selection to make the best use of its environment.
And then, having become self-aware and intelligent, how we manipulated that environment to undo billions of years of good work in a few hundred.
Why, for example, do we have noses when the apes do not? Why do we have impacted wisdom teeth and our ancestors did not? Why do we crave the wrong kind of sugar? Why is there a prevalence of back pain, flat feet, cancer, why, why, why?
The professor of human evolutionary biology explains all this through detailed examination and under the guiding star of Theodosius Dobzhansky’s famous quote: “Nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution.”
I have been on diets but none has ever explained the purpose of nutrition as well as Lieberman. I have read books on fitness and exercise and none has ever told me exactly what I was doing and why I should be doing it. I have skimmed computer manuals but none has been a better guide to how something works than this.
Why shoes are wrong-ish. Why the health industry works contrary to our best health. Why children should start chewing gum.
Why cultural evolution is now the strongest influence in our development. Why “no strain, no gain” is not an exhortation of Mr Motivator but a biological imperative. Why our 21st century lifestyles are out of sync with our stone age bodies.
Why athlete’s foot, lactose intolerance, ADHD, depression, glaucoma, hammer toes, acne, multiple sclerosis and countless other condition are not inevitable deteriorations but are willed, mismatched conditions of the modern age.
“Billions of people suffer from diseases of affluence, novelty and disuse that used to be rare or unknown,” says Lieberman.
Hunter-gathers had it all apparently. Except antibiotics. And this book. Which makes me sad.
The Story Of The Human Body