Friday, March 18, 2022

"Human Errors" by Nathan H. Lents--Nonfiction Review

Today my dear obscurists, we’re talking about biology! Don’t worry, it’ll be more fun than it seems because “Human Errors” by Nathan H. Lents is an awesome book.

Nathan H. Lents

What I love about this book:

I re-read a lot of fiction, and not so much when it comes to nonfiction titles, but I’ve probably read “Human Errors” three or four times now—it’s that good. This book is so good, in my opinion, because it transcends just being informative about a topic I find interesting, the biology of the human body, and is genuinely funny. There is not a chapter in it that you won’t be entertained if you randomly flip to it. Lents’s writing is smoothly consistent from start to finish in that regard.

Once you start viewing the world from this book’s lens of the human body is just one big pile of “eh, close enough” biological engineering, you start seeing our bodies’ limitations that are frankly arbitrary. For instance, open your hand and have it palm up. Now have it face down, easy, right? Bet you can even make it go a little further than just straight up or just straight down. Look how flexible you are. But why can’t you make it go all the way around? Wouldn’t a ball joint where our hands could just rotate on—be way more flexible? Oh, and this up-down thing with the hand? Try it with your foot, and you’ll break your ankle. In fact, a lot of our bones in our wrists don’t actually do anything other than float there and get shittier with age.

It isn’t just our suboptimal form, but how our guts function too is often bizarrely inefficient. For instance, humans are terrible at making their own vitamins—unlike most other animals, it turns out. As every desperately poor person has found out since the dawn of civilization—people need a wide and rich variety of food in their diet to stand any chance of having decent health. We’re prone to a panoply of illnesses brought on by poor nutrition without that variety. And yet—consider human’s best friend—the dog. Dogs can eat the same dog food day-in, day-out without complaint their entire lives and never get rickets or scurvy.

What I don’t love about this book:

It’s hard to come up with things I don’t love about this book—there is my ever continuing petty complaint that the chapters are all long, but there is no bite there because they all feel like twenty minutes to me.

The only thing I picked up on—is that Lents seems to be a bit hard on vegans and vegetarians when nutrition comes up. And sure, some nutrients are harder to come by in an entirely plant-based diet, but it isn’t like the solutions in the modern era aren’t plentiful. Either because people have far more access to fruits and vegetables in a greater variety than what can be grown locally, or there are supplements that make up the shortfalls. Also, it isn’t like meat is the be-all-end-all health food for us—which makes sense when you consider that our ancestors rarely ate meat, but only because we’re naturally not great hunters. We lack the physical traits to be great at the activity, and the skills to be a successful hunter are hard-learned, whereas most animals have an instinct for the activity. 

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Parting thoughts:

Evolution is thought of—wrongly—as a process of adaptation for improvements’ sake. Often there is a villain in a sci-fi monologuing about how they and their people are the next steps in human evolution. But what evolution is, is over the great gulf of time, an aggregate of the genetic traits which have survived. Sometimes those traits are useful, but that isn’t actually a given.

Returning to a prior topic, the phrase “Ye scurvy dog” is especially ironic because dogs don’t get scurvy—well, at least in normal circumstances. So long as they eat and all of their organs function correctly, their bodies make all the vitamin C they will ever need. Our body has all the same machinery to do the same trick, but we lack one key enzyme, which renders the process useless. Why? Because in the distant past, a common ancestor, who was apparently prolific in spreading their genes, had a busted gene that controls this process.

So why didn’t natural selection naturally select this out of us before we all inherited the bum trait of only being close to capable of creating our own vitamin C? Well, again, and this is a difficult concept for people, but evolution doesn’t actually design anything. Not on purpose, at least. Purpose implies a conscious designer who makes choices. Whereas in this case, how adaptation and evolution work is through the mistake. When any animal reproduces sexually, its offspring typically will inherit all of its genetic traits from its parents. The DNA is all dutifully copied, and voila, that’s how traits are passed down from parent to child. But, every so often, there is a mistake in that copy, which manifests as a new genetic trait—and that trait is often cancer—and that organism dies. But sometimes, that trait is just benign or helpful. And after millions of years of this, the differences are profound.

Not being able to manufacture your own vitamin C versus being able to seems like a significant disadvantage. Why wouldn’t the ones that could produce this vitamin be more successful? Well, you must consider the birthplace of humanity—along the equator—in about the north of Africa. What do you also find there in the world? A lot of fruit which has high concentrations of Vitamin C. So, we all have this problem, because back in the day, it just didn’t matter all that much. Assuming you continued to live near a source of the vitamin.

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