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In Ancient Bodies, Modern Lives: How Evolution Has Shaped Women's Health author Wenda Trevathan discusses women's health in relation to evolution and modern day practices, diets and cultural beliefs. Trevathan suggests that by examining evolutionary selected traits and how evolution has shaped women's bodies and health we can better understand why today's women might experience bad health or reproductive issues. Trevathan thereby proposes that medicine and evolutionary theory can work together in order to enhance women's health.
Trevathan suggests that evolutionary theory and findings can positively impact women's health in its understanding of why the body and reproduction is successful and what makes certain traits adaptive and selected for. For example, moderate exercise and physical activity is believed to have been an adaptive trait which was selected for due to the fact that women in the past were still highly mobile throughout their pregnancies since they had to search for food. Certain cultural practices that emphasize low or no mobility for pregnant women might in fact negatively impact the mother and her unborn child. Thereby, evolutionary knowledge can be applied and women can be encouraged to engage in moderate physical activity during pregnancy.
To provide another example, Trevathan also discusses how the rising occurrence of c-sections can negatively impact the baby at time of delivery. Here she emphasizes how "going back" to an ancestral way of life might in fact benefit the mother and child. She discusses studies that have found that babies who go through physical labor often tend to have better functioning organs, and higher body temperature (amongst many other positives). It is believed that contractions "massage" the baby and gets its systems going. Trevathan compares contractions to animals licking of the newborns in order to heat their bodies and initiate respiration. By increasing the occurrence of c-sections we are culturally inferring with evolutionary selected traits.
Trevathan's purpose with this book is to highlight modern day practices that contradict the evolutionary purpose of biologically selected traits. A very interesting and worth while evolutionary trait is that of the vernix. The vernix is the top layer of skin found on the newborn baby after delivery. In many cultures the baby is washed and cleaned up in order to remove any non attractive fluids and to properly present the child to the mother. The vernix, however, protects and hydrates the child's skin and helps prevents it from dryness. By neglecting evolutionary findings such as the usefulness and purpose of the vernix we might act against "nature" and its biological and natural advantages.
In regards to the cultural practices Trevathan discusses, one such example is societal reactions to menopause. Trevathan provides examples of how women's hormonal changes and move into menopause has been considered not biological but the result of women's neglect of their families and responsibilities.
What can be considered a negative of Trevathan's writing is the incidence of circular arguments. Circular arguments at times appear common in evolutionary theory due to its theoretical nature and, at times, lack of solid evidence. Although the author outlines challenges facing evolutionary theory in the first few pages of the book she still at times assumes that evolutionary products always do hold a purpose. When Trevathan discusses sexual activity that extends beyond the reproductive years she states that there must be an advantage to such activity even though she does not discuss findings which support this idea. Statements such as these can actually serve to minimize the impact of an argument and disbelievers of evolutionary theory have often pointed to the tendency of evolutionary thinking to attempt to explain every trait or behavior as if it must have had evolutionary value. When evolutionary findings appear to contradict each other or produce both negative and positive outcomes there is a tendency to simply explain this by utilizing the phrase "balancing selection" which appears to not warrant further explanation.
What Trevathan does very well is to emphasize how different cultures adhere to different expectations and practices. She strongly emphasizes, throughout the book, the difference between women in "health rich" and in "health poor" countries. She also thoroughly criticizes and questions the idea of "normality" in regards to women's bodies. An example discussed by Trevathan is the fact that birth control has usually been tested on women from "health rich" countries and then applied to all women. This is troublesome since women from "health rich" and "health poor" countries often differ in their hormonal profiles and the amount of hormones their bodies produce. The author, in her discussion of evolutionary theory, thereby highlights population differences and variations.
The book is of quite academic nature and would be especially suitable for a reader with some background knowledge of evolutionary theory. Trevathan's use of language is not complicated as such but many of the words and phrases she uses are specific to biology and evolutionary theory. Therefore, the reader should ideally be somewhat familiar with phrases and words that are commonly found in regards to biology and evolutionary literature.
© 2011 Elin Weiss
Elin Weiss has a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology from University College Dublin, Ireland, and is currently working on her Master's Degree in Women's Studies at the same university.