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Rob Brooks

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Sex Genes & Rock 'n' Roll

Posted: 03/ 1/2012 10:34 am

Evolution by natural selection is a deeply fascinating subject. According to the philosopher Daniel Dennett, it is also 'the most important idea anybody ever had.'

This very simple process fashioned almost every aspect of the living world; from human consciousness to the mould that grows on your bread.

Yet few adults, and fewer politicians, recognize how important evolution is. The number of wonderful books on evolution at your local bookstore may be growing, but it is easily outstripped by dubious or even harmful self-help manuals, dating advice, astrology, diet books and management babble.

Throughout the history of medicine, most progress came from improved understanding of how we get infections, diseases and other mental and physical afflictions. But medicine can become even better when we understand why we get sick, and why our bodies, including our minds, respond to infections and stress in the ways that they do. The new field of Darwinian Medicine illuminates the origins of diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's disease and the causes of obesity, depression and schizophrenia.

Important evolutionary insights go well beyond medicine. Evolution is useful anywhere living organisms are involved, such as agriculture, fisheries, biotechnology, conservation, and carbon accounting. Most of all, evolution can teach us much about what it means to be alive, and why people do what they do. Another new field, evolutionary psychology, could be the most important development in understanding human behavior since Herr Professor Freud cracked open his note book and asked for the first time 'So, tell me about your childhood.'

In my new book Sex, Genes & Rock 'n' Roll: How Evolution has Shaped the Modern World (University of New Hampshire Press), I aim to provide an entertaining glimpse of the world through the eyes of an evolutionary biologist. I research animal and human evolution in order to understand both human history and the lives people lead today.

The following slides provide a few highlights from the book, tidbits showing how an evolutionary perspective can give useful and interesting insights into familiar issues and problems.

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Our ancestors evolved a strong need to meet our bodies' protein needs: for every calorie of protein we miss out on, we have to eat 53 calories of carbohydrates to compensate. This causes people whose diet comprises less than 15% protein to overeat.

But modern food production, storage and distribution methods make protein-rich foods much more expensive at the grocery store than carbohydrate-rich, and especially sugary foods.

This explains why, in wealthy industrialised countries, poor and disadvantaged people are far more likely than wealthy people to be obese. They can afford to eat, but not to eat healthy lean protein and vegetables, and so their high-carb diets predispose them to obesity, diabetes and the metabolic syndrome.
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