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By appointment to the prime minister – Our best brain

by 21 May 2009Reviews0 comments

Mismatch cover elements combined with Boot nude

Choosing Our Best Body: Gluckman and Hanson explain how many of us don’t get the best body on offer, thanks to misleading environmental signals reaching the fetus—work that is of profound importance to world health. Montage (including Ingrid Boot’s Naked) Mahurangi Magazine

Mismatch: Why our world no longer fits our bodies
Review first published as Our Best Body in the Mahurangi Magazine, January 2007

Re-published to celebrate the appointment of Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, founding director of the Liggins Institute, as the inaugural chief science adviser to the prime minister.

Max Cherry was a Mahurangi oyster farmer in the 1970s, and a highly successful one.

Whilst work was humming along, Max could be heard contentedly whistling the theme from z Cars—he had been a promising police officer, but had become disillusioned with his masters.

Despite being hugely industrious, Max always took time out to plan the workflow, with particular attention to ergonomics. It was a ritual he enjoyed and refused to rush, nor resent the suggestions of a younger person. The investment invariably promptly paid off in increased productivity.

The reviewer was young and fit and delighted in the hard physical work; Max said he could work harder than any person he knew. But when the former’s work changed from working with his hands to working with his fingers, his body changed for the worse.

Manufacturers of personal computers are aware of the hazards and provide advice as to how to avoid the likes of occupational overuse syndrome—good posture, correct positioning of keyboard and display, taking breaks. And there is always the pre–personal computer wisdom that those in sedentary occupations should take exercise. Our bodies were not designed to be locked immobile to a keyboard and screen—for us to interact with our world through micro movements of fingers and eyes. The answer is to design work environments that have us dancing about in the manner of the hunter–gatherers our evolution equipped us to be. In Mismatch: Why our world no longer fits our bodies, Peter Gluckman and Mark Hanson remind us that there has been negligible genetic evolution in the 11 000 years since agriculture developed, never mind anything in the tiny period since industrialisation.

We should be interacting with displays that take up an entire wall, not something little bigger than a piddling 1950s television screen. We need to be writing and drawing with our whole hand, arm, shoulder torso and legs—be rewarded for moving rather than penalised. Work up sweat, rather than induce numbness in immobilised fingers and necks. But Mismatch: Why our world no longer fits our bodies is not to do with ergonomics. And the title is self-explanatory of only of one strand of its story. More provocatively, it might have been Mismatch: Why so many of us select the wrong body. Because, the revelation that will stagger most readers is not that we live in a world very different than the one in which we evolved, but that many of us have been born with the wrong body option.

Our genetic blueprint, this book reveals, is not a blueprint as such. It is more analogous to a set of blueprints for the same basic structure but detailing a range of options, and sizes—much like the builder of small range of stock houses might offer, albeit one with particularly fixed ideas about layout. Crucially, the set of plans, or options selected is determined by the environment—in some circumstances, pre-selected by the environment experienced by the maternal grandmother.

Focusing on the option with the most profound consequences, animals are designed so that if food is in short supply, the builder will be handed the blueprints for the small infant—the one that will mature quickly and run on the smell of an oily rag. The adaptive advantage is that there is at least a chance that the mother’s genetic material will be passed on.

The downside for the downsized child is a shorter life expectancy. A bit like choosing the smaller option and kiln-dried, untreated timber—quicker and cheaper to build, but not a great long-term investment. In an extremely cruel irony, many mothers in developed and developing countries are inadvertently fooling their fetus into preparing for conditions akin to those in the Horn of Africa. Instead they meet a high-energy diet commencing with cow’s milk and progressing to shakes and fries—poor little perishers are born obesity–diabetic time bombs. There are a number of ways mothers can achieve this cruel trick. Being too young, eating poorly, and smoking cigarettes—smoking, alone, will do it. The default, incidentally are full-sized babies that become full-sized people who live long and mostly healthy lives—barring, of course, environmental hazards such as the alcohol–automobile–power-pole combination that is so often lethal.

Health, of course, does become increasingly problematic once breeding age is exceeded—there was apparently little adaptive value in investing in building bodies to be durable much beyond that point. The brief given to the master draughtsman (merely to continue the analogy; definitely not to suggest intelligent design) was that the house had to last just a little longer than the useful life of the occupant. The only way evolution is going to be tricked into endowing humans with bodies that will greatly exceed their ‘breed by’ date is selective breeding, or genetic engineering.

Lesson one, to intelligently select the best blueprint, refrain from smoking and binge drinking around the time of conception. Rest assured that the authors don’t bang on about builders’ blueprints. That is the reviewer’s crude effort at interpreting their work. However, they do use a lot of automobile analogies, and whimsy, as exampled by some chapter titles: When We Were Very Young, Things Ain’t What They Used to Be. Not that they serve up the science on the entertaining scale of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Or as lavishly as the special illustrated edition of that work—treatment that Mismatch: Why our world no longer fits our bodies richly deserves.

Bryson’s book is valuable in helping reverse the excesses of the anti-science 1960s, and since, because the planet needs all the help science can bring.

But Mismatch: Why our world no longer fits our bodies is not merely valuable, it is crucial. It is specifically our best hope of heading off the burgeoning epidemic of heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis that will otherwise overwhelm the world’s health delivery systems. It is up there, and inextricably linked together with warfare, hunger, and global warming.

Beating the mismatch epidemics, without understanding their epigenetic causation, would be like expecting the roofers to finish before the house was erected.


Footnote The nude used in the graphic accompanying this review was one of several artworks by local painter Ingrid Boot that featured in the article in the January 2007 Mahurangi Magazine, titled: Fine Start to Summer. Ingrid kindly allowed her painting to be used to illustrate the review of Mismatch in that magazine but, due to a production error, an inferior layout went to press.

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