Monday, February 27, 2012

Survival of the SIckest

Survival of the Sickest offers an interesting perspective of evolution to the casual reader. The handful of Americans that do believe in evolution (joke) likely think in terms of ape-like creatures morphing into humans or survival of the fittest, some even considering the evolution of birds from dinosaurs or the mutation of viruses like HIV/AIDS. But Dr. Moalem leaves such readers with a very different appreciation for the wonders of this theory. He describes evolution as constantly dynamic, for better or for worse, and implicating all different organisms on the planet. I read the book quite avidly and quickly, especially given the accessible language and sensational examples. He starts off personal before getting into these examples, into his journey to investigate hemochromatosis, and subsequently the evolutionary reason behind numerous ailments. I especially enjoyed how he emphasized the genetic interaction of DNA of bacteria, viruses, and us as mammals. This portrays earth as a cohesive and dynamic enormous organism, all interconnected and evolving as a whole, subsequently taking the individualized notion of evolution out of people’s head, which I found very pleasing. If people adopted this former image into their political and everyday life, perhaps we would lead a far more satisfying and holistic reality.

I did maintain a few qualms about the book, mainly concerning the scientific evidence he uses to support his loose thesis. I wondered why he hadn’t used more concrete and solid research to support his claims, but rather became stuck on light ‘junky’ science. The last edition of the book was titled Survival of the Sickest: A Medical Maverick Discovers Why We Need Disease. Upon seeing this I was also left me wondering every time I read something especially surprising; what would non-mavericks in the field think of this? Why did he need a professional speechwriter to help him write this popular science book? There is a point at which Sharon states that some of his claims are still being investigated, or some words to that affect. Nevertheless, I believe he was more intent on offering an invigorating and different perspective on existence, and for me he succeeded to some degree.


  1. I think you raise an interesting point about the book not providing substantial evidence for many of his points. I think it’s always important to put books in context of their intended audiences. In this case, the book was a New York Times Bestseller, so it’s not necessarily written for the science audience but rather for somebody like me whose knowledge is essentially limited to what I learned in high school. Of course, it didn’t immediately occur to me that the book lacked concrete information in justifying many of his claims, but it does explain why I was able to read this book with more ease than the others.

  2. I must say, Donald's opinion of Survival of the Sickest very much reflects my own. (Thanks for putting it so nicely!)
    I too, enjoyed the book a great deal- it really is an invigorating read. I especially enjoyed his explanation of the surprisingly dynamic nature of the human genome. I was already familiar with most of the research he discussed on the topic, but I thought he put it together in a very approachable and cohesive manner.
    However, I was also skeptical of some of the more wild conclusions he drew. For example, his argument that the evolution of diabetes was enabled by the ice age seemed a bit far fetched to me. It just didn't feel like he had enough solid scientific evidence. I was ready to dismiss Moalem's conclusions (harsh, I know) until I looked at the back cover of the book, where Moalem was referred to as a "modern myth buster". I then became more understanding of the purpose of Survival of the Sickest. It was written to be a popular, interesting, fun read that is still somewhat grounded in science. I can forgive Moalem for the fact that the public is not going to want to read serious peer-reviewed research papers. Overall, I enjoyed the book and feel that Moalem succeed in writing a mind-opening and fun book.