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16: Contemporary Topics: Human Biology and Health

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    Learning Objectives

    • Describe what is meant by a “mismatch” between our evolved biology and contemporary lifestyles and how this is reflected in modern disease patterns.
    • Describe diet and physical activity patterns among preagricultural hunter-gatherers.
    • Describe changes in subsistence, diet, and activity patterns that occurred as a result of the transition to food production and how these affected health among early agriculturalists.
    • Explain what is meant by an epidemiological transition and describe the major transitions in patterns of disease among humans that have occurred throughout human evolution.
    • Explain what is meant by examining health issues from an ecological perspective.
    • Discuss examples of contemporary evolution.

    When is the last time you needed to do research for an upcoming paper? I bet you started by looking for information online. How did you go about your search? Which websites looked promising? Which ones did not entice you to click past the home page? Once you found one you thought might be useful, how much time did you spend searching for information? At what point did you decide to leave that site and move on? I would wager money that you never once thought your behavior had anything do with human evolution, but it does.

    Although we may not often stop to think about it, our evolutionary past is reflected in many aspects of modern life. The ways we “forage” for information on the internet mimics the ways we once foraged for food during our several-million-year history as hunter-gatherers (Chin et al. 2015). Humans are visual hunters (Lieberman 2006). We practice optimal foraging strategy, meaning we make decisions based on energy return for investment (McElroy and Townsend 2009). When we search for information online, we locate a “patch,” in this case a website or research article, then quickly scan the contents to discern how many resources it has that we can use. Like our hominin ancestors, we spend more time in “patches” with abundant resources and abandon sites quickly and move on once we have exhausted the available goods. As with internet searches, our evolutionary past is also reflected in the kinds of landscapes we find appealing, the foods that taste good to us, why we break a sweat at the gym, and why we have to go to the gym at all (Bogin 1991; Dutton 2009; Lieberman 2015). Many of the health problems facing humans in the 21st century also have their beginnings in the millions of years we roamed the earth as foragers.

    This chapter addresses contemporary health issues from an evolutionary perspective. It begins with a review of diet, activity patterns, and causes of morbidity and mortality among our preagricultural ancestors, which form the foundation for the ways our bodies function today. This is followed by a discussion of the health consequences of the transition to agriculture, marking the first of three major epidemiological transitions experienced by humankind. It then hones in on health conditions that have become all too familiar to those of us living in modern, industrialized societies, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, osteoarthritis, cancer, and the impact of stress on health. The environments in which we now live and the choices we make put a strain on biological systems that came about in response to selective pressures in our past. Furthermore, the transitions happened too quickly for natural selection to keep up (Stearns et al. 2008).

    About the Author

    Joylin Namie

    Truckee Meadows Community College,

    Joylin Namie

    Dr. Joylin Namie teaches courses in biological and cultural anthropology at Truckee Meadows Community College. Her research interests are in the areas of food, gender, media, and health. She began her career interviewing women in Costa Rica regarding beliefs about breast cancer and investigating the ways these affected engagement with cancer screening. She then moved to food studies, publishing on a variety of topics, including the cultural reasons mothers feed their children junk food, how images of successful athletes are used to market unhealthy foods as “fuel” for athletic pursuits, and feminine representation in sports nutrition advertising. She enjoys collaborating with students, including exploring plastic surgery among Latter-day Saint (Mormon) women in Utah, which resulted in a documentary film and an article that won the award for best paper in Social Science from the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters. She also co-researched and co-authored an article with students on the ways Mormon masculinity promotes involvement with child-feeding. In addition to teaching and research, Dr. Namie’s favorite things in life are competing in sports and traveling, often with her dog, Brooklyn, who has run behind her mountain bike everywhere from Vermont to Vancouver Island.

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    Figure Attributions

    Figure 16.1 Carcinogenic Meats a derivative work original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology by Katie Nelson is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License. [Includes Hot dog PNG image by unknown, CC BY-NC 4.0; Rasher of Bacon by unknown, public domain (CC0); Salami aka by André Karwath Aka, CC BY-SA 2.5; Cow PNG image by unknown, CC BY-NC 4.0; sheep PNG image by unknown, CC BY-NC 4.0; Pig on white background by unknown, public domain (CC0).]

    Figure 16.2 Hadazbe returning from hunt by Andreas Lederer has been modified (cropped) and is used under a CC BY 2.0 License.

    Figure 16.3 Obesity rates by country original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology by Katie Nelson is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License. Based on data from Obesity Update. 2017. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Health Statistics.

    Figure 16.4 The potato in three modern forms a derivative work original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology by Joylin Namie and Katie Nelson is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License. [Includes Potato by unknown, public domain (CC0); McDonalds-French-Fries-Plate by Evan-Amos, public domain (CC0); Potato chips bowl by unknown, public domain (CC0).]

    Figure 16.5 Participants of a walk against Diabetes and for general fitness around Nauru airport by Lorrie Graham, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is used under a CC BY 2.0 License.

    Figure 16.6 Medical complications of obesity by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is in the public domain.

    Figure 16.7 Glucose metabolism original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology by Mary Nelson is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

    Figure 16.8 Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology by Mary Nelson is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

    Figure 16.9 Top ten causes of death in the U.S. and worldwide original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology by Joylin Namie is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License. Based on data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016) and World Health Organization (2018).

    Figure 16.10 Map of CCR5-delta32 allele distribution original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology by Katie Nelson is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License. [Includes Europe Map Western Political 32847, unknown, Pixabay License; data from Solloch, Ute V., Kathrin Lang, Vinzenz Lange, and Irena Böhme. 2017. “Frequencies of gene variant CCR5-Δ32 in 87 countries based on next-generation sequencing of 1.3 million individuals sampled from 3 national DKMS donor centers.” Human Immonology, 78 (11-12).]

    Figure 16.11 HIV-world-map-UNAIDS by UNAIDS has been designated to the public domain (CC0).

    Figure 16.12 Row four man woman people walking together 3755342 by MaxPixel has been designated to the public domain (CC0).

    This page titled 16: Contemporary Topics: Human Biology and Health is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Beth Shook, Katie Nelson, Kelsie Aguilera, & Lara Braff, Eds. (Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.