REVIEW: Human Errors by Nathan H. Lents
An illuminating, entertaining tour of the physical imperfections—from faulty knees to junk DNA—that make us human.
We humans like to think of ourselves as highly evolved creatures. But if we are supposedly evolution’s greatest creation, why do we have such bad knees? Why do we catch head colds so often—two hundred times more often than a dog? How come our wrists have so many useless bones? Why is the vast majority of our genetic code pointless? And are we really supposed to swallow and breathe through the same narrow tube? Surely there’s been some kind of mistake.
As professor of biology Nathan H. Lents explains in Human Errors, our evolutionary history is nothing if not a litany of mistakes, each more entertaining and enlightening than the last. The human body, perhaps evolution’s greatest creation, is one big pile of compromises. But that is also a testament to our greatness: as Lents shows, humans have so many design flaws precisely because we are very, very good at getting around them.
A rollicking, deeply informative tour of humans’ four-billion-year-long evolutionary saga, Human Errors both celebrates our imperfections and offers an unconventional accounting of the cost of our success.
Dear Mr. Lents,
The subject of this book intrigued me. Humans are justly proud of how far we’ve evolved, what we can do and that fact that we can do all that we do despite the fact that we’re not the fastest nor strongest. We don’t have the best eyesight, hearing, or sense of smell. We can’t fly or swim on our own. We’re more jack of all trades and not the best at anything except for one thing – we’ve got powerful brains and miraculously our bodies have evolved to allow us to expand it and make the best (or maybe not) use of it. This book, though, explains just how messed up we are. After reading it, I agree that it’s amazing we’ve come as far as we have and managed to dodge all the problems that could have wiped us out. We are clever and successful but as the book says – we are far from perfect.
DNA? Yeah, we got it and ours is riddled with useless junk that our amazing cells dutifully replicate over and over and over and over. Or there’s a sudden mutation that eliminates our ability to synthesize vitamins that we depend on not to get various horrible diseases like scurvy. If our dietary needs and metabolism hadn’t gotten so off kilter between our ancient days on the savannah and now, our bookstores wouldn’t feature so many diet and food guides. Yet those mutations can also increase our cranial space – handy for our larger brains even if they aren’t quite large enough properly arrange our nasal cavities – and let us see more colors. As you stand in the paint store and dither back and forth over the seemingly endless shades and hues, thank a distance ancestor whose pseudogene borked and actually did something useful for us.
The legion of (stupid) young men who post youtube and facebook videos that start with “I bet I can [insert stupid action]” followed by “here, hold my beer and watch this” and then end in disaster are the product of our evolutionary progression that rewards such risky behavior as men try and impress not only the largest number of nubile young women with their physical prowess but also their peers. The fact that (potential) young female mates were and are impressed with these “costly signals” plays right into the plots and actions some of our romance books and heroes.
Orthopedic surgeons live off of our shift to upright posture and increased strain on joints and tendons that didn’t quite finish the anatomical adaptation. Geneticists, fertility specialists, and OB/GYNs are needed to help us cope with our reproduction problems which are the gift of our increased cranium, horribly engineered female reproductive tract, sperm that can only move in right turns, and other issues that cause such a shockingly high percentage of pregnancies to end early. It’s truly a wonder that we reproduced enough as a species to survive.
The scientific details behind all this and more are sometimes a little detailed but are explained clearly enough so that I believe I understood most of it. Past random mutations might have been the cause of many of our modern problems but they’ve also allowed us to be malleable enough to survive challenges that could have wiped us out or left us still chipping stone tools and hefting spears at antelopes. Some of our ingrained behaviors, survival skills and poor decision making still haven’t caught up with a modern world where they can cause us PTSD, risky gambling, poor money handling, belief in anecdotes over data and faulty memories.
Will we be able to move past our stalled adaptation to Pleistocene life, our needlessly complicated body, and our excessive lode of useless DNA – among other things? Well, we’ve survived up until this point against some incredible odds and our own faulty designs. I enjoyed this look at a selection of the things about us that ought to have eliminated us eons ago along with the other Hominini and marveled that we’ve made it to the stage where we are able to write and read books about ourselves. B