Book Review: Survival of the Sickest

I really enjoyed reading Survival of the Sickest: A Medical Maverick Discovers Why We Need Disease. Dr. Maolem explains how the diseases we suffer from have helped us survive in the past. For example, people with hemochromatosis were more likely to survive the plague. (Bacteria needs iron to survive and while people with hemochromatosis have lots of iron in their blood, they don't have any in their macrophages.) They died early due to their disease but after their child bearing years so the disease, and its advantages and disadvantages, were passed along.

He theorizes that diabetes might have helped people survive a mini ice age – sugar lowered the freezing temperature of blood.

Like good teachers, Dr. Maolem and his co-author Jonathan Prince use a lot of interesting anecdotes and facts to make the material easy to relate to and memorable. (Did you know Inuit hunters can raise the temperature of the skin on their hands from freezing to fifty degrees in minutes? And do so periodically when they are outside?)

You may or may not end up agreeing with all of Dr. Maolem's theories, but if you like understanding why and how the human body and evolution work, you'll probably enjoy Survival of the Sickest.

4 Replies to “Book Review: Survival of the Sickest”

  1. At the risk of revealing my own ignorance or illiteracy, it seems to me that in order to support the first half of the sentence, sugar would have to *lower* the freezing point of blood, much like salt.

  2. Also at the risk of revealing my ignorance, it seems that the *freezing* temperature of the blood is somewhat irrelevant for humans. Say, 20 degrees Celsius (68F) is well above freezing temperature, but if human body is chilled to that temperature, the prospects will be rather gloomy. (And cold-blooded animals, IIRC, have special cell mechanisms to prevent damage from freezing, anyway).

  3. You are right that you can’t freeze a human and revive them. (He does talk about a frog that can be frozen …) But his theory is that the sugar enabled people to survive at colder temperatures. There’s only a couple of pages on this theory in the book so I obviously don’t know enough to defend it. But the ideas and theories he had were very intriguing and could potentially explain a lot about us. Someone interested in any particular one would have to do more research to get the whole story.

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