Book Review -
“Survival of the Sickest”
by Dr. Sharon Moalem
HarperCollins Publishers, New York NY 2007
Evolution is a long process played out over multiple generations. Not necessarily.
Dr. Moalem’s book “Survival of the Sickest” touches on a number of evolutionary adaptations in humans which allowed populations to survive catastrophic disease. But there is a price to pay for this protection–in the absence of these environmental challenges or malevolent diseases such adaptations can result in chronic health conditions.
Do you believe that as a human you are on an elevated position on the evolutionary web of life? Then pay attention the next time you sneeze. Are you sneezing by choice or is a microbe manipulating your behavior for its own purposes?
Moalem also challenges common thinking about how animal populations adapt to survive by discussing the field of epigenetics. Scientific evidence is building to show that dramatic physical variances can occur from one generation to the next by means of genes that are turned on and off. Behavior of the parent, before and during fetal development and at certain specific windows after birth, can actually change which genes are activated. Such changes can then be passed on to later generations.
Moalem’s “Survival of the Sickest” is thought provoking science presented for a lay audience. He explains complicated ideas clearly and challenges you to think outside the box. For me, I was making connections to how individuals from a single finch species on the Galapagos Islands can have completely different beak structure from one generation to the next in response to environmental changes in food supply. Biologists are trying to understand how a specific Asian wolf population made the leap from wolf to dog. Perhaps epigenetics played a role.
There is growing evidence that major evolutionary changes happen in bursts. Epigenetics seems to support these theories. If so, global warming may be a catalyst for dramatic change in the natural world as species must adapt quickly or perish. If indeed evolution can happen over the course of just a few generations, the changes that occur my shock us all.