Monday, May 11, 2020

Thoughts on Lents' Human Errors: Fascinating physiological & molecular anecdotes on our species' weaknesses, illuminating the non-obvious paths of evolution

I read Nathan Lents' book Human Errors with great interest. This book goes over a variety of physiological and molecular errors in humans that are somewhat paradoxical: they make us, in a sense, significantly more vulnerable than our immediate animal cousins. In particular, writing this review from the vantage point of mid-2020, I found it fascinating that this book was published in 2018 and cautions us on how vulnerable the human species is to global pandemic.

The book begins by describing examples of physiological oddities, such as our prevalence of knee injuries (i.e., ACL) and our upside-down sinus drainage patterns, which to some degree were caused by our recently upright posture. Next, the book delves into molecular defects, looking at the large amount of supposedly junk DNA and the many pseudogenes in our genome. Lents relates the pseudogenes to vitamin deficiencies such as the pseudogene for the GULO enzyme being associated with vitamin C deficiency. Lents then talks about autoimmune diseases, such as Graves disease and Myasthenia gravis, that we are much more prone to than our immediate animal relatives. The book culminates with a focus on the human brain and how it, too, sometimes suffers in comparison to cognitive set-ups elsewhere in the animal kingdom. For instance, our flicker-fusion threshold is considerably lower than that of dogs and birds, meaning that we are less able to resolve things moving quickly. In addition, we tend to be easily overwhelmed by large amounts of data, despite our belief that we can reason with "big data" well.

Overall, the book is a good read. I have some small quibbles on the discussion of junk DNA, which I think is a bit exaggerated. I believe that much of this DNA does have various uses, albeit somewhat indirect. Nevertheless, Lents' illustration of how evolution doesn't always lead to the optimal endpoint is compelling.

Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes
by Nathan H. Lents (Author)


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