The Story of the Human Body

  • by Daniel Lieberman
  • Narrated by Sean Runnette
  • 14 hrs and 58 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

In this landmark book of popular science, Daniel E. Lieberman - chair of the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University and a leader in the field - gives us a lucid and engaging account of how the human body evolved over millions of years, even as it shows how the increasing disparity between the jumble of adaptations in our Stone Age bodies and advancements in the modern world is occasioning this paradox: greater longevity but increased chronic disease.
The Story of the Human Body brilliantly illuminates as never before the major transformations that contributed key adaptations to the body: the rise of bipedalism; the shift to a non-fruit-based diet; the advent of hunting and gathering, leading to our superlative endurance athleticism; the development of a very large brain; and the incipience of cultural proficiencies. Lieberman also elucidates how cultural evolution differs from biological evolution, and how our bodies were further transformed during the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions.
While these ongoing changes have brought about many benefits, they have also created conditions to which our bodies are not entirely adapted, Lieberman argues, resulting in the growing incidence of obesity and new but avoidable diseases, such as type 2 diabetes. Lieberman proposes that many of these chronic illnesses persist and in some cases are intensifying because of "dysevolution," a pernicious dynamic whereby only the symptoms rather than the causes of these maladies are treated. And finally - provocatively - he advocates the use of evolutionary information to help nudge, push, and sometimes even compel us to create a more salubrious environment.

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What the Critics Say

"No one understands the human body like Daniel Lieberman or tells its story more eloquently. He's found a tale inside our skin that's riveting, enlightening, and more than a little frightening." (Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run)
"Monumental: The Story of the Human Body, by one of our leading experts, takes us on an epic voyage that reveals how the past six million years shaped every part of us - our heads, limbs, and even our metabolism. Through Lieberman's eyes, evolutionary history not only comes alive, it becomes the means to understand, and ultimately influence, our body's future." (Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish)
"A lucid, engaging account of how the human body evolved and the increasing disparity between the jumble of adaptations in our Stone Age bodies and the modern world." (Publishers Weekly)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

A great discussion of human evolution/physiology

I love human evolution books. This one didn't get started for me until well into the 2nd chapter because it is basic knowledge. The rest of the book goes into length and specifics discussing hominid development from a physiological perspective. I am familiar with most of the material from other audiobooks but enjoyed the overview. It is easy to follow and discusses how pre-humans and early humans compare. 4 stars because much of the info is standard fair.
This is a good science book for audio.

It may be too familiar for some listeners [nerds] who are familiar with the topic.
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- G-Man

From tree to car

This is a really enjoyable book. I suppose the points made aren’t all that novel or mind-blowing, but they are made in a really entertaining, comprehensive and satisfying way and it is packed with insights reinforcing the world-view of evolutionary biology that I’ve gleaned from similar audiobooks on related topics.

The author is a Harvard professor of biology, and the subject is the human body. He spends the first half of the book describing how the human body evolved since the time of our last common ancestor with the other great apes. Over these six million years or so our bodies have changed due to a sequence of important adaptations, and his explanations of each of these changes and their advantages in the environmental conditions of the time are truly enlightening. Although some of these are well-known to the point of being clichéd, e.g. becoming bipedal, losing our fur, developing better voice-boxes, etc, he describes each of these steps to a level of detail that really boosted my understanding of the subject.

An example of this is the bipedal adaptation. In order to become efficient walkers our legs got longer, our hips turned inwards, we developed arches in our feet, and the end result was that we use significantly fewer calories to cover a given distance compared to a chimp. We covered long distances in great heat to find food, losing our fur and developing sweat glands to facilitate this activity in the hot African sun – retaining head hair to protect us from sunburn. I knew that we were good walkers but I hadn’t previously realised that we also evolved as runners. We are very slow runners compared to most of our predators (e.g. lions) and I thought that was just the price we had to pay for becoming bipedal and freeing up our hands for tool-use. But actually, while being rubbish at sprinting, we are excellent, well-evolved long-distance runners. There is evidence that we hunted large mammals using a ‘persistence’ method; We would patiently jog after a large mammal, which would gallop off until it had to rest in the shade. We would catch up with it and it would gallop off again before it had time to fully recover, and this sequence would continue until the beast eventually collapsed with heat-stroke, making it an easy kill.

The second part of the book focuses on the concept of evolutionary ‘mismatch’. This is a detailed look at how, when faced with a changing environment, our bodies have initially been poorly matched and have taken time to adapt. There is then a special emphasis on the mismatches that we currently face, with our modern Western lifestyle (the extremely new environment of chairs, beds, computers, pollution, abundant high calorie food, etc, etc).

So many modern chronic diseases seem to be associated with us using our bodies in ways they weren’t adapted for. They are too numerous to mention, but examples are heart disease, fallen arches, type 2 diabetes, short-sightedness and lower back pain. These diseases are rare in present day hunter-gatherer societies, and it isn’t because they don’t live long enough to succumb to these ‘old-age’ disorders, the older members of these societies don’t typically get them either.

So there’s a really good discussion of how modern ailments have resulted from the mismatch between our bodies and our new environment. Again, this is not a particularly novel idea, but it’s a thorough and stimulating discussion with many suggestions for how we could prevent or reduce these diseases, both on a societal and a personal level. If you’re interested in this kind of stuff, I wholeheartedly recommend this book.
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- Mark

Book Details

  • Release Date: 10-01-2013
  • Publisher: Random House Audio