Click Here To Purchase From Amazon SURVIVAL OF THE SICKEST
Authors: Sharon Moalem & Jonathan Prince
Sharon Moalem’s Survival of the Sickest does for medicine what Jared Diamond did for history a few years ago, re-envisioning the field on a broad scale, and putting this vision into language everyday people can understand (I imagine much of the credit for that last part goes to co-author Jonathan Prince.) The book focuses on the question of why, after millions of years of evolution, human beings still have things like diabetes, sickle cell anemia, and the deadly blood disease hemochromatosis, stuff that in a perfect Darwinian world should have died out long ago.
Moalem’s answer is simple: these afflictions provided our ancestors with a temporary advantage over even greater threats, letting them pass their genes on to the next generation while seemingly healthier neighbors could not. In the authors’ words: “Why would you take a drug that is guaranteed to kill you in forty years? One reason… it’s the only thing that will stop you from dying tomorrow.”
Take for example, diabetes. Diabetes causes a dangerous build up of glucose in the bloodstream. This should have been a distinct disadvantage to our ancestors. However, glucose is a sugar, and sugar is an effective anti-freeze. If you lived in Europe 13,000 years ago, when an ice age descended rapidly on the area, having anti-freeze in your blood would have helped you survive. Moalem’s argument is a little more complicated, but it's not as crazy as it sounds. Similarly, hemochromatosis might have protected our ancestors from the Black Death by eliminating iron in certain types of white blood cells, basically starving the plague microbes before they could infect the rest of the body.
To be fair, many of these topics aren’t new to the scientific community. Researchers have long linked sickle cell anemia with an the ability to fight off malaria, for example. But Moalem and Prince aren’t writing for scientists, and the majority of this material will be new to everyone else. The book goes out of its way to be accessible. Bruce Lee, Hannibal Lecter, Ted Williams, and an I-pod are all used to explain medical situations. Because the authors try so hard to make the material entertaining, conclusions sometimes come off as punch lines, especially in the first few chapters. Maybe comparing Diamond to Moalem is a bit like comparing pound cake to pez in terms of substance, but hey, they’re both desserts and they’re both enjoyable.
I found the best chapters to be the last few on the frightening flexibility of our genes. Many people know that mitochondria, the energy factories inside every human cell, were at one point in time separate organisms. New studies have found that up to 1/3 of all human DNA (mostly the ‘spare’ material that has no clear function) genetically resembles a virus. In other words, it appears that over time, hundreds and hundreds of viruses have pasted their genetic material onto ours. Fascinating and down right creepy.
If you have an interest in medicine or just enjoy thinking outside the norm, give Survival of the Sickest a try. Do fat people produce babies that are genetically pre-disposed to gain weight? Do miscarriages of male babies increase during times of stress? Will we eventually be able to stop our cells from aging? I’m still on the fence regarding some of these things, but I sure enjoyed thinking about them.
The above review was contributed by: Alex Bosworth, Freelance Writer. To read Alex's reviews CLICK HEREClick Here To Purchase From Amazon SURVIVAL OF THE SICKEST