Review of “The Story of the Human Body” by Daniel E. Lieberman

This excellent book far exceeded my expectations, and indeed, wasn’t at all about what I thought it would be about from the title. The author, a professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, seeks to acquaint us with the evolutionary imperatives that make our current health habits non-adaptive. In particular, he argues that many of the chronic illnesses besetting 21st Century humans can and should be avoided.


He explains:

“The fundamental answer to why so many humans are getting sick from previously rare illnesses is that many of the body’s features that were adaptive in environments for which we evolved have become maladaptive in the modern environment we have now created.”

One example is how our bodies were developed to store fat before the age of easy food, grocery stores, refrigerators, freezers, and hot fudge sundaes. We still have that adaptation in our bodies, but now we access and store way too much fat, leading to problems like heart disease, obesity, and Type II Diabetes. This mismatch between the way our bodies evolved and our current sedentary and overindulgent lifestyles forms the basis of the emerging field of evolutionary medicine, which applies the insights gleaned from studying evolution to biology and health. The author explains the origin and nature of the problem in detail in this book.

He tells you so many interesting facts about the human body: who knew that the semicircular canals of the inner ear function like data-emitting gyroscopes: not only sensing how fast the head pitches, rolls, and yaws when one runs, but then triggering reflexes that cause the eye and neck muscles to counter these movements. Or who knew that the Achilles tendon, only four inches long, stores and releases almost 35% of the mechanical energy generated by the body during running!

Discussion: This book can fill you with anxiety or even cause you to hyperventilate (speaking for myself, at any rate) as the author details the many ways in which we modern humans hurt our bodies. In fact, I listened to it in the car, which totally ruined my grocery store shopping trips. How could I buy cookies and ice cream when I could hear the author in my mind excoriating me? I can tell you definitively that he would not be in favor of the technique employed by the rich people in The Hunger Games, who ate all they wanted and then threw up so they could eat more. Rather, he would suggest we consider adhering to a regimen of a healthy diet and moderate exercise. (Gasp!) And I could picture him nodding his head sadly at the brilliant section in Julianna Baggott’s book Fuse (see my review here), in which the hero, Bradwell, bemoans the fact that the world was dying of “…the corn-fed grief, the unbearable weight of pie fillings…”

Evaluation: I found this book terrifically interesting. Every chapter provided me with new facts and insights, and new internal pressure to take better care of myself. I listened to this book on audio, and the narrator, Sean Runnette, was excellent. I recommend buying this for people you love, and insisting they read it.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover by Pantheon Books, a division of RandomHouse, LLC, 2013; published unabridged on 12 compact discs by Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc., 2013

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11 Responses to Review of “The Story of the Human Body” by Daniel E. Lieberman

  1. Beth F says:

    After a night of “forbidden” foods (by that I mean we ate pretzels and potato chips — we live dangerously!), I’m sure this book would depress me. LOL

  2. Vasilly says:

    Why of course I’m going to read this! I need something to push me into eating better.

  3. I’m all for eating better and taking care of my body, and I believe that it’s the bad eating habits that kill us and not the occasional treats. But I would probably also have anxiety and guilt trips reading this book!

  4. litandlife says:

    I’m trying to work on my health in the coming year – looks like a good book for me!

  5. Trish says:

    I’m going to go against my better sense and download this one on audio. Even though most of my listening time is while I’m driving to the grocery store (or in the grocery store if I’m alone). Maybe the weather will warm up and I can listen while walking…at least that will make me feel better, yes? Regardless it sounds fascinating (and terrifying).

  6. This does sound interesting Jill. Thanks for the review. Happy 2014

  7. Athira says:

    I am so getting this one! I could do with a little scaring to stay out of unhealthy food. It is so easy for me to forget how bad some ‘foods’ are!

  8. BermudaOnion says:

    This sounds interesting. I walk just about every day and lift a lot at the store and also try to eat healthy but I imagine I would still feel guilty if I read this.

  9. aartichapati says:

    Ooh, I love books like this! Thanks for the recommendation.

  10. stacybuckeye says:

    I’m pretty sure this would make me hyperventilate too. But it does look good and might keep me on the straight and narrow this year!

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