Sunday, September 10, 2017

Book Review: 'Survival of the Sickest' by Sharon Moalem

Dr. Sharon Moalem, in "Survival of the Sickest," theorizes that hemochromatosis, "a disorder that causes iron to build up in the body," diabetes, and high cholesterol may have, at one time, been protective to human beings afflicted with them. Hemochromatosis shielded people from the Black Death, diabetes kept people who lived in freezing temperatures from succumbing to the bitter cold, and high cholesterol maximized the body's production of vitamin D in those who could not produce enough on their own to stay healthy. Unfortunately, "one generation's evolutionary solution is another generation's evolutionary problem." Today, hemochromatosis, diabetes, and high cholesterol have outlived their usefulness. What helped us survive and reproduce in the past can harm us today.

When this book was published, Moalem was on his way to obtaining his medical degree and had a doctorate in human physiology. Today, he is a physician and scientist who is versed in neurogenetics, biotechnology, and evolutionary medicine. Moalem is a creative individual who encourages us to stretch our minds and imagine the unimaginable. The bottom line is that it is possible to use our knowledge of how microbes, evolution, and genes function to improve our lives.

There is a fascinating chapter on mutations that highlights the findings of Nobel Laureate Barbara McClintock. She discovered that "jumping genes" in corn cut and pasted themselves from "one place in the corn's DNA to another." The implications are staggering. We now know that the genome is a great deal more flexible than we originally assumed. Equally surprising is that fact that viruses play an important role in how our genes change over time. They are "master mutators" and "the ultimate genetic creators, inventing new genes in large numbers...." Our DNA is not set in stone, which leads Dr. Moalem to the subject of "epigenetics," the study of how the environment can affect inherited traits.

"Survival of the Fittest" is entertaining and enlightening, but a bit too technical. Moalem tries to keep his tone light and conversational, and gears his explanations to laymen as much as possible. However, those who are not experts in biology will likely be bewildered by some of the author's more complex ideas. Nevertheless, this volume is well worth reading, because it offers intriguing, albeit speculative, ways to understand the past, present, and future of humankind. There is an enormous new frontier to explore, and Dr. Sharon Moalem is eager to take us along on this exciting journey.

Editor's note: This review was written by Eleanor Bukowsky and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right

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