The Fragile Wisdom

The Fragile Wisdom: an evolutionary view on women's biology and health

Grazyna Jasienska
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 298
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jbqb2
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  • Book Info
    The Fragile Wisdom
    Book Description:

    Women’s physiology evolved to aid reproduction, not to reduce disease. Any trait—however detrimental to post-reproductive health—is preserved in the next generation if it increases the chances of having offspring who will survive and reproduce. For this reason, the author argues, many common diseases are especially difficult for women to prevent.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06719-6
    Subjects: Health Sciences, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. INTRODUCTION: Why It Is So Difficult to Be Perfectly Healthy
    (pp. 1-12)

    Many women put a lot of effort into following what they are told is a healthy lifestyle. They do not smoke, eliminate fatty foods from their diets, cut back on sweets, take stairs instead of elevators, and walk to work. When they get sick with breast cancer, heart disease, or osteoporosis, they often blame themselves and ask, “What did I do wrong?” We hear so much about how different diseases can be prevented by a “healthy” way of living that when we become ill we often believe that it happened because we somehow failed in our attempts to follow all...

  4. 1 IF REPRODUCTIVE HORMONES ARE SO IMPORTANT, WHY IS THERE SO MUCH VARIATION?
    (pp. 13-43)

    When it comes to the area of fertility, many people, including some health professionals, believe that women of reproductive age can be divided into two groups: those who are fertile, and those who are not. The group with fertility problems is very diverse, as medical science today can identify numerous anatomical, genetic, physiological, and metabolic disorders leading to fertility impairments. The group of healthy, fertile women is considered much less interesting, especially if they have regular menstrual cycles, because they can conceive children without assistance, which places them beyond the interest of medical professionals specializing in reproductive health. What the...

  5. 2 COEVOLUTION OF BIOLOGY AND CULTURE: Agriculture and Selection for High Levels of Estrogen
    (pp. 44-71)

    The term “genetic variation” (or genetic polymorphism) means that all individuals in the population do not have identical genetic makeup with respect to a particular gene. Why do we observe genetic variation in the genes responsible for the levels of reproductive hormones? Because high levels of hormones are important determinants of female fertility, one would expect a strong selective pressure for alleles encoding high levels of reproductive hormones. These alleles should be favored by natural selection and by now should be prevalent in all populations. Instead, in all studied populations there is considerable polymorphism in the genes involved in steroid...

  6. 3 YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT . . . AS A FETUS
    (pp. 72-91)

    A connection between fetal development and reproductive physiology in adulthood is not surprising. Poor nutrition while in utero has a profound influence on the subsequent condition of the individual—a phenomenon sometimes called “fetal programming.” Especially well proven is the relationship between undernutrition experienced early in life and an elevated risk of several metabolic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disorders, and stroke (Barker 1994). Some physiological mechanisms leading to such adverse outcomes are already understood, mostly thanks to animal studies. Poor nutrition in utero causes changes in the physiology and metabolism of the organism that seem to be permanent. In...

  7. 4 THE FRENCH PARADOX: Did Child Welfare Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease?
    (pp. 92-101)

    Jane Sharp, a British midwife, was the first woman to write a book for women on pregnancy and childbirth. The Midwives Book, or the Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered, Directing Childbearing Women How to Behave Themselves in Their Conception, Breeding, Bearing, and Nursing of Children, was published in 1671. Sharp, with thirty years of professional experience, seemed to have a clear understanding that a good maternal condition is important for a healthy outcome of pregnancy. She listed three requisites for “forming a child”: “1. Fruitful seed from both sexes wherein the soul rests with its forming faculty; 2. The mother’s...

  8. 5 INTERGENERATIONAL ECHOES OF SLAVERY
    (pp. 102-130)

    Babies of American mothers of African descent have a higher risk of prematurity and low birth weight compared with the babies born to American mothers of European descent. National vital statistics reports for 2003 show that African American infants had an average birth weight of 3,122 grams compared with an average white infant weight of 3,384 grams. Out of all African American infants born that year, 11.58 percent had a clinically low (less than 2,500 grams) birth weight in comparison with 5.11 percent of all white infants. In the same year, the U.S. Hispanic population had the average birth weight...

  9. 6 THE PRICE OF REPRODUCTION
    (pp. 131-153)

    In poor environments with inadequate diets, intense workloads, and a high burden of disease, it is not easy for individuals to maintain energy balance and health. Reproduction adds additional costs and makes the task of surviving even more challenging. The costs of reproduction are higher for women than for men due to the energetic and nutritional requirements of pregnancy and lactation, and to traditionally female-oriented childcare.

    In New South Wales (Australia) between 1898 and 1902, women who had six children lived longer than those with larger families. The investigator explained these results, published in 1905, as a result of “incessant...

  10. 7 THE ULTIMATE TEST OF THE COSTS OF REPRODUCTION: Life Span
    (pp. 154-170)

    The relationship between reproduction and longevity has been the focus of many epidemiological and historical demographic studies. The epidemiological research has most often been concerned with the differences in disease and mortality risk between women who have or do not have children, rather than with the relationship between the number of children and a woman’s life span. This is understandable because these studies are usually conducted in modern populations from developed countries where women have low fertility, which excludes women with high parity. The value of these studies lies in their collection of information about many potentially confounding—and thus...

  11. 8 EVOLUTIONARY PAST AND MODERN DIET
    (pp. 171-189)

    The connection between diet and human health and disease has been one of the most intensely studied areas of epidemiology and public health. Yet there is still no agreement as to what is the most appropriate diet for humans to consume. Moreover, no other area of study of such profound importance to health seems to produce so many conflicting and contradictory take-home messages. Even the recommendations about such basic matters as the correct proportions of major macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates, and proteins) in our daily dietary intake are still under debate. In the United States and several other countries, many people...

  12. 9 EVOLUTION AND PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
    (pp. 190-203)

    In contemporary !Kung San hunter-gatherers, an average adult walks about 2,400 kilometers per year, amounting to about 6.6 kilometers per day. An average !Kung male has a day range of 14.9 kilometers, compared with an average U.S. male office worker whose walking day range is not much higher than zero kilometers (Cordain, Gotshall, and Eaton 1997). !Kung women walk these long distances while carrying substantial loads. A child is carried 1,500 kilometers during its first two years of life. Weighing 3 kilograms when born and up to 15 kilograms by age four, a child usually is carried by the mother...

  13. 10 EVOLUTIONARY TRADE-OFFS AND CULTURE
    (pp. 204-219)

    Cultural beliefs and practices may help people deal with biological trade-offs, but some practices are definitely detrimental to biological fitness. Some aspects of culture relax biological trade-offs to the extent that survival or reproduction is enhanced, but many customs cannot be as easily classified as either enhancing or lowering the biological “quality” of individuals, and these customs’ interactions with human biology are complex. Thus, anthropological literature frequently speculates about the purpose served by these cultural beliefs and customs, and often many explanations are provided for the observed phenomena (though I will not attempt to review all anthropological interpretations).

    For example,...

  14. 11 FALLACIES OF PHILANTHROPY
    (pp. 220-231)

    Gardeners know well that yellow roses are more resistant to frost but at the same time are more susceptible to fungal diseases. Awareness of such trade-offs is enough for a gardener to have a beautiful rose garden, and she or he does not need to know why yellow roses cannot have resistance to both problems. In areas with little danger from frost, a problem-free rose garden can be designed by planting roses of pink and red colors. From health professionals working in all areas related to human health we should, however, expect more than from amateur gardeners. Health practitioners should...

  15. 12 FIXING GENES VERSUS FIXING LIFESTYLES
    (pp. 232-246)

    Most health problems in developing countries still result from inadequate nutrition and excessive work, whereas overabundant energy consumption and lack of physical activity are considered the most health-threatening factors in economically developed countries. Some people believe that the most health problems plaguing economically developed nations will soon disappear or will become much less prevalent thanks to genome sequencing, cloning, and genetic engineering.

    Genome sequencing and many other recent advancements in genetics and molecular biology are clearly important for both medical research and medical practice (Chiche, Cariou, and Mira 2002). No one can deny that the treatment of diseases, at least...

  16. CONCLUSION: Is Our Physiology Obsolete?
    (pp. 247-252)

    This book has used an evolutionary framework to explore variation in selected aspects of women’s physiology and health. I believe that an evolutionary life history framework is important to take into account when designing comprehensive disease prevention programs that would work better than the ones used today. An evolutionary perspective comes with a dose of skepticism. Those who do not have training in evolution are more optimistic than evolutionary biologists are about our ability to design a perfect health preservation program. During the course of our evolution, just as in any other species, natural selection promoted adaptations to increase our...

  17. REFERENCES
    (pp. 255-304)
  18. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 305-308)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 309-317)