The Arc of Life: Evolution and Health Across the Life Course: Book Review

The Arc of Life: Evolution and Health Across the Life Course: Book Review

The Arc of Life: Evolution and Health Across the Life Course
Eds. Grazyna Jazienska, Diana S. Sherry, & Donna J. Holmes
Springer, 2017.

Review by Daniel Hruschka, MPH, PhD
School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University

For half a century, biological anthropologists have studied how human health and disease can arise from evolutionary adaptations interacting with diverse, present-day environments. Casting a broad comparative net, anthropologists have asked how our bodies respond to nutritional deprivation and excess, to the stress of high-altitude living, to the costs of reproduction, and to diverse infectious disease ecologies. They have used comparative data to challenge cultural norms about the healthiest ways to raise kids and questioned biomedical assumptions about the most appropriate tools for assessing healthy development. They have examined how past adaptations can put us at risk for nutrient deficiencies and life-threatening genetic disorders.

“The Arc of Life” introduces readers to a range of recent research in biological anthropology tackling these same kinds of issues and questions. A life history framework unites many of the chapters in this volume, bringing into focus the compromises that must be made when allocating valuable resources to survival, growth, and reproduction. Within this framework, the volume brings together a diverse set of perspectives—including developmental biology, reproductive ecology, physiology, demography, immunology, and the biology of aging—focusing on all parts of the lifespan from the fetus to old age. The chapters ask many interesting questions. How do fetuses learn about the risks and affordances of the outside world in preparation for a life away from the womb? What is “normal” sociosexual development and what are its functions? Is teen motherhood always a risky endeavor? What are the health costs of maintaining high levels of androgens through the life span? How can mechanisms that protect the mother and fetus during pregnancy lead to later life health problems? How does living in an environment of steady abundance modify the costs and health risks of reproduction? And what parallels are there between physiological responses to high-altitude hypoxia and metabolic responses to the extreme high-glucose environments of modern day? A key strength of many of the chapters is careful attention to the hormonal and physiological mechanisms that play a role in allocating scarce resources to all the bodily processes and behaviors needed for survival, growth and reproduction.

The scientific theories and findings presented in the chapters are stimulating in their own right, but the book also aims at relevance to public health and medicine. There are moments when the book achieves this second aspiration, for example, by raising concerns about the public health consequences of unfettered and untested testosterone supplementation in later life. More detailed descriptions of how evolutionary insights and predictions could be translated to improve practice in medicine and public health would help more fully achieve the book’s second aspiration.

In summary, the book is a good introduction to a diverse set of active research threads in biological anthropology on evolution, health and disease. I expect it will be of interest to a graduate students and researchers in the fields of evolutionary medicine as well as health professionals with an interest in health and disease as an interaction between our evolutionary past and our present environments.

 

Principles of Evolutionary Medicine. 2nd Edition

Principles of Evolutionary Medicine. 2nd Edition

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The second edition of “Principles of Evolutionary Medicine” by Peter Gluckman et al is now out. It is too early for it to have garnered any reviews but here is the description of its contents from the Amazon website:

“Evolutionary science is critical to an understanding of integrated human biology and is increasingly recognised as a core discipline by medical and public health professionals. Advances in the field of genomics, epigenetics, developmental biology, and epidemiology have led to the growing realisation that incorporating evolutionary thinking is essential for medicine to achieve its full potential. This revised and updated second edition of the first comprehensive textbook of evolutionary medicine explains the principles of evolutionary biology from a medical perspective and focuses on how medicine and public health might utilise evolutionary thinking. It is written to be accessible to a broad range of readers, whether or not they have had formal exposure to evolutionary science.

The general structure of the second edition remains unchanged, with the initial six chapters providing a summary of the evolutionary theory relevant to understanding human health and disease, using examples specifically relevant to medicine. The second part of the book describes the application of evolutionary principles to understanding particular aspects of human medicine: in addition to updated chapters on reproduction, metabolism, and behaviour, there is an expanded chapter on our coexistence with micro-organisms and an entirely new chapter on cancer. The two parts are bridged by a chapter that details pathways by which evolutionary processes affect disease risk and symptoms, and how hypotheses in evolutionary medicine can be tested. The final two chapters of the volume are considerably expanded; they illustrate the application of evolutionary biology to medicine and public health, and consider the ethical and societal issues of an evolutionary perspective. A number of new clinical examples and historical illustrations are included.

This second edition of a novel and popular textbook provides an updated resource for doctors and other health professionals, medical students and biomedical scientists, as well as anthropologists interested in human health, to gain a better understanding of the evolutionary processes underlying human health and disease.”

The Case for Applying Negative Selection to Thoughts on Clonal Selection by Prospect Magazine’s Number One 2013 “World Thinker”

Currently, I am on vacation near the beach in South Carolina.  Consequently, I have opted for a topic that is bit different than the majority of my monthly commentaries in that it focuses not on a recent original report but instead on a conceptual point made in a book over thirty years ago.  Nevertheless, after a somewhat less strictly scientific diversion I will come to the central idea at issue, which is arguably the premier exemplar of the relevance of evolutionary principles to the operation of the immune system on short time scales, by which I refer to the concept of clonal selection.  But first, we make a foray into the world of magazine publishing and the niche within that domain focusing on the arguably more intellectual readers. (more…)

Intelligent Design, the Resurfacing of a Pseudo-Theory

In the past six months, I have encountered a review, by Thomas Nagel in The New York Review of Books (2012), of Alvin Plantinga’s latest book (Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, 2011 ) and a review, by Alvin Plantinga in The New Republic (2012), of Thomas Nagel’s latest book (Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, 2012).  Both authors are regarded as distinguished philosophers.  In their respective books, they both criticize what may be called the materialist neo-Darwinian approach to explaining life.  Plantinga and Nagel both discuss as a putative alternative to evolutionary explanations, the framework known as intelligent design (ID).  Whereas Plantinga appears to support ID, Nagel does not endorse ID but criticizes proponents of evolution for being overly disparaging of ID theorists. (more…)

Accessible Account of the Complexity of Complexity

Whatever definition is used, there is no shortage of complexity in biology, medicine, or of greatest relevance for this forum, evolutionary medicine.  As is made abundantly clear in the first-ever textbook of evolutionary medicine by Gluckman et al. (2010), in seeking to understand the evolutionary origins of human disease susceptibility there are profound challenges in charting genetic, developmental, and environmental influences on phenotype, and the interactions among these sources of variation can be exceptionally difficult to disentangle.  Therein resides one reasonable justification for reading Melanie Mitchell’s book, Complexity: A Guided Tour (2009). (more…)

Original, Concise, and Incisive Analysis of Key Evolutionary Concepts

I recently completed reading one of the most stimulating books (1) on the conceptual aspects of evolution that I have read in many years.  The author, Peter Godfrey-Smith is a philosopher of biology at Harvard.  He has written widely on topics in the philosophy of science and is the author previously of an exceptionally thoughtful introduction (2) to that field.

The new book is intended both to clarify philosophical thinking about concepts central to evolutionary theory and to advance biological understanding of the processes of evolution.  Godfrey-Smith also proposes as an objective of the book, if I can do his precise wording justice in abbreviated form, the implications of evolutionary science for broader questions of interest to philosophers, scientists, and perhaps others. (more…)