Sep 052007
Authors: Griffin Faust

Survival of the Sickest; A Medical Maverick Discovers Why We Need Disease

by Dr. Sharon Moalem with Jonathan Prince

Congratulations, all young generations of highly developed humans – until, of course, that congrats is shifted appropriately to our own children, a generation that will be the utmost product of evolutionary pressures. Millions of years of interaction with diseases, parasites, ice ages, migration and countless other perilous forces will all be ingredients for a complex romance of genetic intricacies and germ lines to produce the next little peanut.

The book, Survival of the Sickest; A Medical Maverick Discovers Why We Need Disease, by Dr. Sharon Moalem, was packed full of fascinating lore and medical answers to the question, “if evolution is all about survival, why would it select for deadly diseases?” And if that is the kind of stuff you’re into, this book is for you. I’m actually not studying biology – and I haven’t for some time – but I liked this book because I am of curious nature, and that is exactly who Moalem is writing for: a curious gal or fellow. With the amount of edgy evolutionary science and microbiology involved in the content, this book is stunningly easy to read and follow, so really it’s just the sudden pinch to get started on the breezy tone and then you get wrapped up in the science. It’s pretty cool how Moalem does it.

Each chapter is like a mini study on a particular human condition. The book covers a lot of new science, since it was just released in hardcover last April; Survival starts with hereditary conditions like hemochromatosis, diabetes and cholesterol and explains the importance of these life threatening sicknesses. In short, conditions like iron-loading in the blood still exist in evolutionary biology because they fend off something else that would kill much, much sooner. But please, don’t take my word for it. Get science-ed up and find it out from this book.

From there, Moalem discusses the relationship between microbes and humans, setting up a messy scene, if trillions of minute bugs make you queasy. For me, this chapter had a comfort-zone breach on me after I read that I host approximately 3 pounds of foreign microbial “pets” that collectively outnumber my whole genome. Other chapters address myths between racial groups, why there are racial groups, behavior manipulation of parasites and just too many cool concepts to mention here. In an age when new discoveries emerge about human health and possible treatments at a pace too fast to follow, this book offers a clever and qualified way to bring the mass public up to speed.

I liked this book in an unexpected way – Moalem makes a good effort to apply a metaphor to each concept or biological process, and although at times I huffed at how oversimplified the author conveyed the material, it was still fun and beneficial to read. My favorite parts are when something completely trivial is under scrutiny; if you haven’t gathered this yet, Survival of the Sickest is a great example of trivia knowledge. Did you know that wood frogs intentionally freeze (no heartbeat, no brain) during winter, and come to life again in spring? Did you know sunglasses can get you sunburned? It’s a food-for-thought book, something to mentally and factually build you up before the next tangential conversation you always find yourself in at parties.


Griffin Faust will review one book every two weeks and can be reached at

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.