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Book Review: Daniel Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body

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In The Story of the Human Body Daniel Lieberman builds a strong case that making fully informed decisions about diet and lifestyle is only possible through the lens of evolutionary history. If you want to know where your body comes from, you need to understand its evolutionary history. Why do humans stand and walk on two legs? Why are we weak compared to other primates of comparable size? Why are our legs and feet shaped the way they are, with springy tendons and arched feet? Why does our spine have a special S-curve? The answer to these questions lies in the the evolutionary history of our species.

Now ask, why do people in modern societies suffer from “diseases of affluence” like obesity, type-2 diabetes, tooth decay, metabolic syndrome, flat feet, nearsightedness, lower back pain, and sleep disorders? Daniel Lieberman argues that these questions can only be fully answered by understanding the evolutionary history of our species. Lieberman argues these diseases are examples of “mismatch diseases” i.e. a disease that is primarily caused by our bodies not being sufficiently adapted to novel gene-environment contexts. We know they’re mismatch diseases primarily because they used to be rare, are largely preventable, and are almost unheard of in hunter-gatherer populations.

Lieberman argues that all of these diseases are in some sense a result of cultural evolution speeding ahead of natural evolution with the result that have humans manufactured a psychologically comfy and satisfying environment that is paradoxically unhealthy without fundamentally affecting our reproductive fitness. Lieberman calls this this paradoxical unhealthiness “dysevolution”. It turns out that surrounding ourselves with unlimited sources of cheap junk food is a bad idea because humans are genetically wired to crave food with dense amounts of fat, sugar, starch, and salt.

Lieberman is no luddite, and certainly doesn’t advocate a return to the caves and giving up on modern science and technology. His position is more nuanced than many of the extreme black and white positions out there, as befitting the complexity of gene-environment interaction. In many senses, the agricultural and industrial revolutions have propelled humans to new heights of health and longevity, with modern science curing diseases and fixing people better than ever before. At the same time, we are living longer but spending many of those years suffering from chronic, preventable diseases. The paradox of the modern world is reduced mortality but greater morbidity i.e. living longer, but spending more of those extra years with an illness of some sort. Lieberman argues that too often the incentives of modern medicine aim at fixing symptoms but not the underlying structural causes: the toxically comfortable environments we built for ourselves.

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Book Report 2013 – What I’ve Read This Year

The following is a list of all the books I’ve read from front to cover in 2013, starting from the most recently finished. The books in bold are ones that were most influential to my thinking, or particularly fascinating.

  1. The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals – Thomas Suddendorf
  2. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
  3. A Manual for Creating Atheists –  Boghossian, Peter 
  4. Simulation and Similarity: Using Models to Understand the World – Weisberg, Michael
  5. The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History – Gould, Stephen Jay
  6. Brain Imaging: What It Can (and Cannot) Tell Us about Consciousness – Shulman, R G
  7. Consciousness and the Social Brain – Graziano, Michael S A
  8. Wired for God?: The Biology of Spiritual Experience – Foster, Charles
  9. Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman – Gleick, James
  10. The Unpredictable Species – Lieberman, Philip
  11. The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism – Grayling, A.C.
  12. Stumbling on Happiness – Gilbert, Daniel
  13. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why – Nisbett, Richard E.
  14. Civilization and Its Discontents – Freud, Sigmund
  15. The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature – Miller, Geoffrey
  16. Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds Without Content – Hutto, Daniel D.
  17. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength – Baumeister, Roy F.
  18. Beyond Good and Evil – Nietzsche, Friedrich
  19. Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules – Haag, Pamela
  20. Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking – Hofstadter, Douglas R.
  21. The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home – Ariely, Dan
  22. The Future of an Illusion – Freud, Sigmund
  23. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets – Taleb, Nassim Nicholas 
  24. How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed – Kurzweil, Ray
  25. On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic – Nietzsche, Friedrich
  26. The Mind-Body Problem – Goldstein, Rebecca Newberger
  27. The Marvelous Learning Animal: What Makes Human Behavior Unique – Staats, Arthur W.
  28. Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order – Strogatz, Steven H.
  29. The Cultural Animal: Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life – Baumeister, Roy F.
  30. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False – Nagel, Thomas
  31. The Social Construction of What? – Hacking, Ian
  32. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction – Goldstein, Rebecca Newberger
  33. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers – Roach, Mary
  34. Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety – Smith, Daniel B.
  35. The Minds of the Bible: Speculations on the Cultural Evolution of Human Consciousness – Cohn, James
  36. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness – Cahalan, Susannah
  37. What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses – Chamovitz, Daniel
  38. Reconstruction in Philosophy – Dewey, John
  39. Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness – Grayling, A.C.
  40. The Logic Of Modern Physics – Bridgman, Percy W.
  41. The End of Christianity – Loftus, John W.
  42. Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress – Chang, Hasok
  43. The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World – Goldberg, Elkhonon
  44. Thomas Jefferson: Author of America – Hitchens, Christopher
  45. Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief – Barrett, Justin L.
  46. Brains: How They Seem to Work – Purves, Dale
  47. A Man Without Words – Schaller, Susan
  48. Beyond Morality – Garner, Richard
  49. Hallucinations – Sacks, Oliver
  50. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t – Silver, Nate
  51. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder – Taleb, Nassim Nicholas 
  52. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood – Gleick, James
  53. Ubik – Dick, Philip K.
  54. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution – Dutton, Denis

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Quote for the Day – Einstein’s Louse and the Limits of Scientific Understanding

Nature is showing us only the tail of the lion, but I have no doubt that the lion belongs to it even though, because of its large size, it cannot totally reveal itself all at once. We can see it only the way a louse that is sitting on it would.

 ~Albert Einstein to Heinrich Zangger, quoted in Clifford Pickover, Archimedes to Hawking

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Quote for the Day – Newton the Magician

“Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than ten thousand years ago…[Newton saw] the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher’s treasure hunt…He regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty…”

~ John Maynard Keynes, ‘Newton, the Man”, quoted in Clifford Pickover, Archimedes to Hawking

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Book notice: Stephen J. Gould’s The Panda’s Thumb

A used copy of Stephen J. Gould’s book The Panda’s Thumb (1980) has been sitting on my shelf for a while, and I’m kicking myself for not reading it sooner. What a delightful little book of science essays! Each essay is an edited version of one of his monthly columns at Natural History magazine. Subsequently, the essays are intelligible to the general intelligent reader, but Gould does not thereby sacrifice an appreciation for hard facts and subtle reasoning. Gould makes science come alive with his anecdotes, wry humor, and gentle argumentation about topics ranging from the panda’s thumb to hopeful monsters and everything in between. Nothing is too big or small for Gould to think worthy of writing about. All in all, I highly recommend this book for any student of biology or lover of science.

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Quote for the Day – The Attention Schema Theory of Consciousness

One way to approach the theory is through social perception. If you notice Harry paying attention to the coffee stain on this shirt, when you see the direction of Harry’s gaze, the expression on his face, and his gestures as he touches the stain, and when you put all those clues into context your brain does something quite specific: it attributes awareness to Harry. Harry is aware of the stain on his shirt. Machinery in your brain, in the circuitry that participates in social perception, is expert at this task of attributing awareness to other people. It sees another brain-controlled creature focusing its computing resources on an item and generates the construct that person Y is aware of thing X. In the theory proposed in this book, the same machinery is engaged in attributing awareness to yourself-computing that you are aware of thing X.

~Michael Graziano, Consciousness and the Social Brain

I’m planning on doing a write up on this book soon. I could not put the book down and read it in a few days. Compared to most books on consciousness, Graziano’s central thesis is clearly stated, suitably modest in ambition, neurologically plausible, and theoretically compelling.  I was impressed that Graziano applied his theory to explain “weird” aspects of human experience like out-of-body experiences, Mesmerism, religion, etc. I predict Graziano is going to be a big player in the consciousness debates from here on out. That I am really drawn to the theory is not surprising given its affinities with some things Julian Jaynes said e.g. “It is thus a possibility that before an individual man had an interior self, he unconsciously first posited it in others, particularly contradictory strangers, as the thing that caused their different and bewildering behavior…We may first unconsciously (sic) suppose other consciousnesses, and then infer our own by generalization” (Origin, p. 217) Jaynes also explicitly proposed that some features of consciousness are analogs (models) of sensory attention, which is at the heart of Graziano’s theory, albeit not as worked out rigorously.

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Quote for the Day – The Fractal Nature of Scientific Knowledge

I believe that scientific knowledge has fractal properties; that no matter how much we learn; whatever is left, however small it may seem, is just as infinitely complex as the whole was to start with. That, I think, is the secret of the Universe.

~Isaac Asimov, I, Asimov: A Memoir

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