Survival of the Sickest? The title makes you blink...did I read correctly or is this a huge misnomer? Yes, you read it right and the title is not a misnomer. It is not an attention getter either. As you progress through the book you truly appreciate that to call this “a mind-blowing book” is an understatement! Not encrusted in professionally grandiloquent language, it comes through as a witty, reader friendly book, for lay people.
The author, Dr. Sharon Moalem, has a Ph.D. in human physiology, plus in the emerging fields of neurogenetics and evolutionary medicine. At the same time he works as a researcher. As a teenager he suspected a link between his grandfather’s Alzheimer’s and a build-up of iron in his brain which theory he proved years later.
He has authored this book with Jonathan Prince, who was a senior adviser and speechwriter in the Clinton White House. During the war in Kosovo, he oversaw communications strategy at NATO.
Dr. Sharon starts his introduction thus —
This is a book about mysteries and miracles. About medicine and myth. About cold iron, red blood and neverending ice... Welcome to our magical, medical mystery tour.
In this magical, medical mystery tour we become Alice in the wonderland of biological evolution. Launched into a maze of theories and hurtling through the findings revealed in this book, we are disposed to turning a bold, new gaze on evolutionary history and are dumbfounded by a mindboggling fact — most conditions that we term diseases today, were actually survival tactics for our ancestors! A creative nonfiction thriller is what I call this book...a myth breaker that trips up the existing mental circuit of what we believe we know about illness; it catapults us into a startlingly new approach to the human body, diseases and evolution with an almost philosophical and reverential view of our inter-connectedness to the tiniest living organisms on this earth. Giving us an insight into how little modern medical science really comprehends human health, this book addresses staggering questions such as :
What helped our ancestors survive the bubonic plague of Europe? Was it a deadly genetic disease called hemochromatosis – a hazardous accumulation of iron in the body? How? The ambiguity is explained in ‘Ironing It Out’ [Chapter I]
Did lifestyle diseases like diabetes evolve as a response to the last Ice Age? The answer to this intriguing question is to be found in ‘A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Temperature Go Down’[Chapter II]
Is cholesterol— the ‘big bad boy’ being knocked about recently—necessary for the survival of certain population groups? 100%. High levels of cholesterol are needed by people living in certain geographical zones to produce sufficient vitamin D; but the flip side of increased levels of cholesterol and its booster protein called ApoE4, is the risk for heart disease and stroke. So the evolutionary solutions of one generation adapting to its environment can also become a problem for the next generation that does not need the particular environmental safeguard, says the author in ‘The Cholesterol Also Rises’ [Chapter III]
How and to whom can G6PD deficiency be beneficial? How impactful is plant evolution on us and our relationship with plants?
“Eat your vegetables. Your vegetables can kill you” says the author. “Mother Nature is sending mixed messages again. The truth – as you’ve no doubt gathered – is complicated. Many plant toxins can be good for us. The trick is understanding how they work, how we work, and how it all works together.” Hey, Bud, Can You Do Me a Fava? [Chapter IV]
Would you believe that microorganisms actually control the hosts(human included) they inhabit? This chapter takes us on an incredible jaunt into some chic scheming methods devised by viruses and bacteria! “Nature abounds with examples of host manipulation; generally – no big surprise here – they involve a critical step in the parasite’s efforts to reproduce.” Of Microbes and Men [Chapter V]
Have viruses provided the code that helped us evolve from our primate relatives? How do humans benefit from jumping genes? Nobel Prize winning microbiologist Salvador Luria is credited with being the first to suggest “that viruses have helped to spark human evolution from the inside, not just from the outside.” Jump into the Gene Pool [Chapter VI]
We know about genetic science but have you heard about epigenetics? Do you know that genes can be switched on or off by environmental factors? What is DNA methylation? Find these answers in Methyl Madness: Road to the Final Phenotype [Chapter VII]
Is aging genetically controlled? Is death pre-programmed in us? In evolutionary history do humans have an aquatic or semiaquatic past?
Interesting questions whose answers are revealed in That’s Life: Why You and Your iPod Must Die[Chapter VIII]
In addition to its eight chapters, not including the introduction and conclusion, the readers get a bonus treat of insights, interviews and more of the author in P.S. Fifteen pages to get to know the author better. In ‘A Conversation with Sharon Moalem’, asked why he wrote this book(Pg.7), the author says, “One of the reasons I wanted to write this book was to get people to step back and ask some basic questions pertaining to the origins of disease. This can only be done once you acknowledge the true degree of interconnectedness of life on earth...” This is biological interconnectedness that we read about here. Ancient spiritual wisdom of indigenous peoples also lays stress on the interconnectedness of all that is in the universe. Can there be a meeting point of the two?
This definitely is an amazingly transformational book. It not only edifies the interdependence of all living organisms but also teaches us to treat the miraculous wonder that is our body and the priceless gift of good health, with deferential respect. With all the answers it offers, it ignites our minds with innumerable astounding speculations.
Survival of the Sickest
Publisher — Harper Collins, New York, NY 10022
ISBN — 978-0-06-088966-1 (Pbk)
Price - USA $13.99