I’m regularly contacted by people who find the emerging field of Darwinian medicine intriguing and fascinating. Many of these individuals aren’t comfortable with just sitting idly by watching the Darwinian medicine train passing them by. They want to get on and be a part of the journey. Some may even hope to become a part of the crew that plans where the train will go and the route it will travel. Typically, these people ask me if I have any tips on books and articles that they can read in order to enhance their knowledge about health, medicine, and evolutionary theory.
In the past I’ve put up several posts here on the site that include links to articles, books, and videos that delve into the science of Darwinian medicine (e.g., here, here, and here). However, I have yet to put up a post that contains both a list and short description of my favorite books on ancestral health and Darwinian medicine. This is something I thought I’d do today. The 6 books I’ve selected are books that I think everyone who’s interested in health and medicine should consider reading.
1. The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease
This is my favorite non-fiction book of all time. If you’re just going to read one of the books on the list, then it should be this one. The author, Daniel Lieberman, is a professor at Harvard University who specializes in evolutionary biology and Darwinian medicine. In The Story of the Human Body he takes an in-depth look at the evolutionary processes that got our species to where it is today; examines why the human body is designed the way it is; discusses what our ancestors can teach us about health and fitness; and looks into the origins of modern illness.
I don’t agree with Daniel Lieberman in everything. For example, I think he underestimates the importance of diet and microbes in shaping human health. That said, the book, as a whole, is excellent. It’s the closest thing you’ll find to a complete Darwinian medicine starter kit. I would go as far as to say that if you thoroughly read this book and absorb the information contained within it, you’ll know more about the root causes of modern illness than many medical practitioners.
If you want to learn more about the book before you decide whether to buy it or not, then I recommend that you check out this article.
2. On the Origin of Species
The book that started it all! No list of books on biology, medicine, or evolution is complete without Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species. On the Origins of Species is not a health book; however, the principles discussed within it are vitally important to medicine.
You don’t have to read this book to figure out what Darwinian medicine is all about; however, you should understand the principles that form the basis of Darwin’s theories. The key principle is of course natural selection, the evolutionary force that acts on all living organisms, shaping their genetic make-up and physical characteristics.
On the Origin of Species is not a light read. It takes some effort and concentration to absorb and understand the information contained within it. If you’re completely new to the science of Darwinian medicine and/or know little about biology, then this book may not be the best book to start out with, as it could make you feel a little overwhelmed. That said, it’s definitely a book you should consider reading at some point.
3. Food and Western Disease: Health and Nutrition From an Evolutionary Perspective
Staffan Lindeberg’s book is an excellent read. I highly recommend it, particularly to nutrition students and nutritionists who are interested in expanding their knowledge beyond what they’ve learned in school. In the book, Dr. Lindeberg takes an in-depth look at the evolution of the human diet and examines the role that diet plays in the pathogenesis of various diseases and health problems.
The first part of the book gives a general overview of humans’ nutritional journey. This part is easy to digest, and I think everyone will find it interesting. The later parts of the book – the parts that outline the impact of diet upon diseases such as diabetes and heart disease – demand a little more digestive effort. These parts are definitely interesting; however, if you’re not that interested in the proximate causes of disease, then you may find them overly detailed. If that’s the case, you could consider just skimming through them.
4. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration
For those of you who don’t know, Weston Price was a medical practitioner – a dentist to be more exact – who traveled around the world during the early 20th century together with his wife. The purpose of his trip was to find isolated groups of people who had not been absorbed by modern civilization, and examine how their health and physical characteristics compared to that of westernized people.
Dr. Price spent several years traveling and visited indigenous cultures all over the world. The book contains detailed information about the diet and living conditions of the groups he visited, as well an impressive collection of photographs he took on his journeys. Even if you’re not interested in delving into the details of Dr. Price’s research, you’ll probably find the book enjoyable, due to all the pictures it contains.
5. Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine
This book, written by medical doctor Randolph M. Nesse and renowned biologist George C. Williams, is a seminal book on Darwinian medicine. This book helped set the Darwinian medicine train in motion and was largely responsible for putting the term Darwinian medicine out into the world. The book is quite old (it was published in 1994), but it’s still a good read.
I have much respect for the authors of this book and the work they’ve put into driving the field of Darwinian medicine forward. With that said, I don’t agree with them in everything. Also, we differ with regards to the areas of medicine we put the most focus on. This is to be expected, as we come from very different backgrounds. Among other things, I’m more skeptical of the mainstream approach to medicine than they are and place more emphasis on the importance of nutrition, mismatch resolution, and microbiome restoration.
What is important to remember, though, it that this book was written more than 20 years ago. Over the past two decades, a lot of new research on hunter-gatherers, epigenetics, and evolution has been published. Moreover, we’ve entered into the era of the microbiome. Radolph M. Nesse – the only author that’s still alive – has obviously changed and updated his views somewhat in the time that has passed since he published this book. He is a pioneer in this field. I highly recommend that you check out his book, as well as his other work.
6. The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet
One of the things that makes Robb’s book different from other Paleo books is that it contains quite a bit of humor. When I read it, I found myself laughing several times, which is not something that usually happens when I read books about diet and health. In other words, this book is not one of those non-fiction books that you have to work your way through. It’s more like a gripping fiction. Certain sections and paragraphs of it can seem a little disorganized/chaotic, but this doesn’t matter that much, as it doesn’t really inhibit the conveyance of the book’s main message.
If you’re looking for a light, but solid, introduction to the Paleolithic diet, then you should definitely consider reading the Paleo Solution. Among other things, this book contains information about the structure and nutritional characteristics of ancestral diets, talks about how gluten and various antinutrients affect human health, and looks into the root causes of modern illness.