Book review: Too Much of a Good Thing by Lee Goldman

My fourth read of 2017 was Too Much of a Good Thing: How Four Key Survival Traits Are Now Killing Us, by Lee Goldman.

Dr Lee Goldman is Dean of Columbia University’s medical school. In Too Much of a Good Thing, Goldman explains how our bodies have become out of sync with the modern world, focusing on the four evolutionary survival traits that are now disadvantageous in the modern world.

These four traits are resulting in obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, mental illness, heart disease, and stroke.

While this is a primarily a medical book, with detailed explanations of the biological processes behind each survival trait, it’s accessible and highly readable. I was particularly interested in Goldman’s exploration of genetics.

Here are some of the passages I highlighted from the book.

Beyond its slow speed, another major limitation of natural selection is that it can only favor what’s best right now — there’s no window into the future to predict what mutations may be better years or generations from now.
Our genes can’t possibly mutate fast enough to keep pace with the rate of change in today’s world. And as long as modern killers afflict us after we bear children who will in turn have their own children, there’s no natural selection process to give an advantage to genes that hypothetically could help us catch up.
Obesity, diabetes, and their associated diseases now kill far more people worldwide each year than starvation or undernutrition do.
Our genes, which were so well adapted to help our ancestors survive in varying environments, each with its own caloric challenges, are ill suited to a sedentary world with a plentiful food supply.
All the remarkable traits that helped our ancestors survive recurrent food shortages are simply out of sync with modern supermarkets, fast-food restaurants, and unlimited snacking options.
As described in Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization and expanded upon in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, skeletal remains across multiple archaeological sites show that about 15 percent of prehistoric human hunter-gatherers died violent deaths as they fought with nature and one another for resources, mates, revenge, or pride.
Psychologists David Buss and Joshua Duntley argue that the ability to commit murder is an evolutionary asset that’s been preserved and enhanced since the Paleolithic era.
We don’t have an identifiable “murder gene,” but more than 90 percent of men and more than 80 percent of women will, on close questioning, report explicitly homicidal thoughts.
The psychiatrist H. Stefan Bracha describes six ways to defend against danger or an acute attack: freeze, faint, flee, fight, be submissive, or play dead.
No one likes being sad, so sadness serves as an unpleasant trigger telling us to find alternative ways to pursue our inalienable right to happiness.
Because of sutures, blood transfusions, less violence, and better obstetrical care, we’re now at far lower risk of bleeding to death than ever before in human history.
This striking decline in life expectancy in modern America raises an obvious but critical question. Is it just a temporary or isolated anomaly, or will improvements in living standards paradoxically decrease life expectancy as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, heart attacks, and strokes all increase?
Natural selection favors any trait that increases reproductive success early in life, even if it’s bad for us later in life. That leads us to the following problem: the overprotective genes that drive us to eat too much food, consume too much salt, get too sad, and clot too much currently don’t kill us quickly, don’t prohibit us from finding a mate or having children, and don’t prohibit those children from living long enough to have children of their own.
When a new mutation first appears, it faces a daunting challenge because its perpetuation is dependent on a single person who can only give it to 50 percent of her offspring.
Despite our best hopes for change, our past behavior is about four times more likely to predict future behavior than are any new goals.
For people who don’t want to lose weight or can’t, the Heart Attack Grill exemplifies an unapologetic counterculture in which morbid obesity becomes acceptable and even glorified.
Just a 1.2 gram per day reduction in the average American’s sodium intake would collectively avoid about 50,000 strokes and about 75,000 heart attacks in the United States each year.
Studies in twins, both identical and fraternal, indicate that about 40–50 percent of our happiness is genetic, but another 40 percent may be linked to intentional activities over which we have control. Happiness often equates with a sense of well-being, which is linked to feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
People are generally happier if they’re healthier, better educated, married, have a higher social status, have a job that they like, participate in leisure activities that they enjoy, are more religious, and have more friends.
The future is worrisome if our genes can’t change fast enough to keep us from getting fatter, having higher blood pressure, being more anxious and depressed, and clotting too much.
So part of our obesity problem may be that essentially none of us — unless we’re still faced with challenges like those faced by the indigenous Siberians discussed in chapter 6 — now needs to provide nearly as much of our own body heat to protect against the cold.
We soon may be able to activate, deactivate, or even change genes by taking advantage of a bacterial protein called Cas9, which can be linked to RNA to find a specific DNA sequence that it can then snip out, in a form of genetic microsurgery.

I would definitely recommend this book for anyone with an interest in evolution, health or self-improvement.

My next read for 2017, book number five, is Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport.

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