Two recent books about our flawed bodies and the ultimate pointlessness of trying to control them…
Natural Causes: Life, Death and the Illusion of Control by Barbara Ehrenreich
A decade ago, Barbara Ehrenreich discovered a startling paradox through a Scientific American article: the immune system assists the growth and spread of tumors, including in breast cancer, which she had in 2000. It was an epiphany for her, confirming that no matter how hard we try with diet, exercise and early diagnosis, there’s only so much we can do to preserve our health; “not everything is potentially within our control, not even our own bodies and minds.” I love Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die (alternate title: Bright-Sided), which is what I call an anti-self-help book refuting the supposed health benefits of positive thinking. In that book I felt like her skeptical approach was fully warranted, and I could sympathize with her frustration – nay, outrage – when people tried to suggest she’d attracted her cancer and limited her chances of survival through her pessimism.
However, Natural Causes is so relentlessly negative and so selective in the evidence it provides that, even though it’s sure to be considered for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize longlist, I would be unlikely to recommend it. In the first chapter, “Midlife Revolt,” which has been excerpted at Literary Hub and is worth reading, Ehrenreich writes of her decision to give up routine medical screening after a false positive mammogram caused undue stress. She decided once she passed 70 she was old enough to die without accepting a “medicalized life.” Moreover, she believes there’s an epidemic of “overdiagnosis,” especially in the USA, where there can be a profit motive behind testing. (This is certainly not the case in the UK, where the NHS doesn’t pester me about getting cervical smear tests to line any pockets; no, it’s about saving taxpayers money by catching cancer early and thus minimizing treatment costs.)
Ehrenreich goes on to argue that many medical procedures are simply rituals to establish patient trust, that cancer screening is invasive and ineffective, that there is little evidence that meditation does any good, and that fitness has become a collective obsession that probably doesn’t help us live any longer. It’s uncomfortable to hear her dismiss early detection techniques as worthless; no one whose doctor found cancer in the early stages would agree. The author also seems unwilling to confront her own personal prejudices (e.g. against yoga).
Although she uses plenty of statistics to back up her points, these usually come from newspapers and websites rather than peer-reviewed journals; only in two chapters about how macrophages ‘betray’ the body by abetting cancer does she consult the scientific literature, in keeping with her PhD in cellular immunology. Her most bizarre example of how our bodies aren’t evolutionarily fit for purpose is copious menstruation. Overall, the book is a strange mixture of hard science, social science, and, in later chapters, philosophy, as Ehrenreich asks about the nature of the self and the soul and what survives of us after death. As usual, her work is very readable, but this doesn’t match up to many other mind/body books I’ve read.
“The only cure for bad science is more science, which has to include both statistical analysis and some recognition that the patient is not ‘just a statistic,’ but a conscious, intelligent agent, just as the doctor is.”
“The objection raised over and over to any proposed expansion of health insurance was, in so many words: Why should I contribute to the care of those degenerates who choose to smoke and eat cheeseburgers? … we persist in subjecting anyone who dies at a seemingly untimely age to a kind of bio-moral autopsy: Did she smoke? Drink excessively? Eat too much fat and not enough fiber? Can she, in other words, be blamed for her own death?”
Natural Causes was published in the UK by Granta on April 12th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes by Nathan H. Lents
Lents is a biology professor at John Jay College, City University of New York, and in this, his second book, he explores the ways in which the human body is flawed. These errors come in three categories: adaptations to the way the world was for early humans (to take advantage of once-scarce nutrients, we gain weight quickly – but lose it only with difficulty); incomplete adaptations (our knees are still not fit for upright walking); and the basic limitations of our evolution (inefficient systems such as the throat handling both breath and food, and the recurrent laryngeal nerve being three times longer than necessary because it loops around the aorta). Consider that myopia rates are 30% or higher, the retina faces backward, sinuses drain upwards, there are 100+ autoimmune diseases, we have redundant bones in our wrist and ankle, and we can’t produce most of the vitamins we need. Put simply, we’re not a designer’s ideal. And yet this all makes a lot of sense for an evolved species.
My favorite chapter was on the inefficiencies of human reproduction compared to that of other mammals. Infertility and miscarriage rates are notably high, and gestation is shorter than it really needs to be: because otherwise their heads would get too big to pass through the birth canal, all babies are effectively born premature, so are helpless for much longer than other newborn mammals. I also especially liked the short section on cancer, which would eventually get us all if we only lived long enough. As it is, “evolution has struck an uneasy balance with cancer. Mutations cause cancer, which kills individuals, but it also brings diversity and innovation, which is good for the population.”
Lents writes in a good conversational style and usually avoids oversimplifying the science. In places his book reminded me of Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong and Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine. It’s a wry and gentle treatment of human weakness; the content never turns depressing or bitter. Recommended for all curious readers of popular science.
“While lithopedions [“stone babies”] and abdominal pregnancies are quite rare, they are also 100 percent the result of poor design. Any reasonable plumber would have attached the fallopian tube to the ovary, thereby preventing tragic and often fatal mishaps like these.”
“to call our immune system perfectly designed would be equally inaccurate. There are millions of people who once happily walked this planet only to meet their demise because their bodies simply self-sabotaged. When bodies fight themselves, there can be no winner.”
Human Errors was published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
A debut memoir with food, medical and literary themes and a bibliotherapy-affirming title – this book ticks a whole lot of boxes for me. The very day I saw it mentioned on Twitter I requested a copy, and it was a warming, cozy read for the dark days of late December. As a teenager, freelance journalist Laura Freeman suffered from anorexia, and ever since she has struggled to regain a healthy relationship with food. This is decidedly not an anorexia memoir; if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll want to pick up Nancy Tucker’s grueling but inventive The Time in Between. Instead, it’s about the lifelong joy of reading and how books have helped Freeman in the years that she has been haltingly recovering a joy of eating.
If asked to name a favorite food, Freeman writes that it would be porridge – or, if she was really pressed, perhaps her mother’s roast chicken dinner. But it’s been so long since she’s thought of food in terms of pleasure that written accounts of feasting from the likes of M.F.K. Fisher or Parson Woodforde might as well be written in a foreign language. When in 2012 she decided to read the whole of Charles Dickens’s oeuvre in his bicentenary year, she was struck afresh by the delight his characters take in meals.
While I was reading Dickens something changed. I didn’t want to be on the outside, looking at pictures, tasting recipes at one remove, seeing the last muffin go to someone else. I began to want to want food. To share it, savour it, to have it without guilt.
This nascent desire for a broader and more sumptuous food repertoire fuels the author through her voracious reading: of war writers like Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves with their boiled eggs and cocoa; of travel writers Laurie Lee and Patrick Leigh Fermor and their enthusiastic acceptance of whatever food came their way on treks; and of rediscovered favorite children’s books from The Secret Garden through the Harry Potter series with the characters’ greedy appetite for sweets. Other chapters are devoted to Virginia Woolf, whose depression and food issues especially resonate for Freeman; food writers; famous gluttons; and the specific challenge of chocolate, which she can’t yet bring herself to sample because it’s “so tangled up in my mind with ideas of sin, greed and loss of control.”
It’s these psychological and emotional aspects of food that Freeman is so good at capturing. She recognizes a tendency to all-or-nothing thinking that makes her prey to clean eating fads and exclusion diets. Today she still works to stifle the voices that tell her she’ll never be well and she doesn’t deserve to eat; she also tries to block out society’s contradictory messages about fat versus thin, healthy versus unhealthy, this diet versus that one. Channeling Dickens, she advises, “Don’t make a Marshalsea prison of rules for yourself – no biscuits at tea, no meat in the week, no pudding, not ever. Don’t trap yourself in lonely habits.”
Freeman’s taste in both food and literature seems a trifle old-fashioned, leaning towards jolly ol’ English stuff, but that’s because this is about comfort reading as much as it is about rediscovering comfort eating. Her memoir delicately balances optimism with reality, and encourages us to take another look at the books we love and really notice all those food scenes. Maybe our favorite writers have been teaching us how to eat well all along.
The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite is published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. My thanks to Virginia Woolstencroft for the review copy.