Review and Summary: On the Origin of Being

Review and Summary: On the Origin of Being

If you’re curious about how our ancestors lived and how we can use their wisdom to improve our health and fitness today, then On the Origin of Being: Understanding the Science of Evolution to Enhance Your Quality of Life by Luke Comer and Jenny Powers is a must-read.

The key topics of this book is sleep, nutrition, work-life balance, and reconnecting with nature. Comer and Powers highlight the importance of aligning our sleep with natural day-night cycles, eating wholesome, natural foods, and stepping away from the stress of corporate culture. The book uses helpful visuals to explain complex ideas, making them easy to understand.

What I love most about this book is its practical advice for blending ancient practices with modern life. It offers a fresh perspective on living a balanced and healthy life in today’s world.

Summary

Sleep

The Evolution

  • Mammals evolved during the Mesozoic era, a time dominated by dinosaurs. To avoid becoming prey, early mammals were nocturnal. After the dinosaurs went extinct, some mammals began to venture out during the day. They first went through an intermediate stage before fully adapting to daytime living.
  • Human sleep evolved to become more concentrated, intense, and efficient, with a REM-dominated but shorter sleep period compared to other primates.

Modern Sleep and Its Consequences

  • Our sleeping patterns changed dramatically with the presence of electricity.
    • Industrialization and technology keep us up past our natural bedtimes and drive us indoors, where the light levels are much lower than natural sunlight.
      • Normally, our brains secrete melatonin after dark. However, the blue light from technology tricks our brains into thinking it is still daytime, suppressing melatonin release.
        • Exposure to blue light one hour before bed can delay melatonin release and REM sleep by 30 minutes.
  • Disrupted light exposure affects sleep and leads to:
    • sleep deprivation, causing habitual sleepiness, bad moods, and poor emotional regulation.
    • misalignment of the circadian rhythm, leading to issues like disregulated cell division, DNA damage, dysregulated metabolic hormones, and increased risks of cancer, depression, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Nutrition

Transition to Agriculture

  • Around 10,000 BCE, a more stable and warmer climate emerged, leading to the shift from transient farming to full-time agriculture.
  • As humans began to farm permanently, their diets and food practices transformed radically. Planning and tending crops replaced daily foraging. This shift increased fertility rates; even with higher infant mortality, more children were born more frequently. Babies were weaned onto cereals and cow’s milk earlier so mothers could conceive again, leading to an increase in birth rates.

Modern Diet and Its Consequences

Protein

  • Today, food is abundant and we are disrupting our metabolic equilibrium by overconsuming calories while undermetabolizing them.
  • Many of our ancestors got most of their protein from plants, whereas modern diets rely on meat. Plant proteins offer many health benefits in counteracting modern diseases.
  • Unlike early humans who consumed the whole animal, modern diets focus on muscle meat (e.g., steaks, chicken breasts). We miss out on collagen proteins and organ meats, which are beneficial for skin, ligaments, tendons, and cardiovascular and nervous tissues. Organ meats, like liver, provide essential vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B12 and preformed vitamin A.

Fat

  • We now consume more fat than our metabolic needs require.
  • Historically, humans consumed more animal products, but now there’s a trend towards consuming less. Low-fat diets inadvertently led to increased consumption of refined carbohydrates and sugars.
  • The type of fat we consume and what we replace it with in low-fat diets is crucial. The effects of sugar on health have been largely overlooked until recently.

Carbohydrates

  • Before the industrial revolution, grains were consumed whole with fiber intact. Modern technologies refine grains, removing fiber and leaving mostly endosperm. About 85% of our grain consumption is in this refined form.
    • Without fiber, carbohydrates become denser, leading to overeating. Fiber helps us feel fuller longer and prevents overeating.
    • Fiber slows the absorption of sugars in the digestive tract, whereas refined carbohydrates digest quickly, causing rapid spikes in blood glucose and insulin levels. Long-term, this has severe health consequences.

Rest and Work

  • The seeds of a toxic overwork ethos were planted thousands of years ago when we transitioned from hunter-gatherers to farmers by planting domesticated crops.
  • Human productivity has increased tremendously, but the time spent at work has soared rather than decreased. Our instinct to work hard and create new wealth has been a major obstacle.
  • The Agricultural Revolution fundamentally changed our views about work. This shift spurred the accumulation of wealth, developed a future-oriented mindset, and made work monotonous, individual, and compulsory. It altered our temporal outlook on life. The delay between farming work and consuming its products, known as the delayed-return economy, made us future-oriented.

Work in Hunter-Gatherer Societies

  • Hunter-gatherers worked less, had fewer material wants, and lived in the present, focusing on meeting immediate needs.
    • However, groups in more challenging environments had to plan for future survival. For example, the Inuit needed to store enough food during the warm months to survive the long, cold winters.
    • Modern humans see time as linear and finite, while hunter-gatherers viewed it as cyclical and rhythmic, marked by the predictability of seasons and celestial movements.
  • Work as Play
    • For hunter-gatherers, work and productivity were not arduous tasks. They enjoyed their work and did it because they found it fulfilling.

Modern Work Culture and Its Consequences

  • Today, we spend nearly 400 more hours at work per year than we did 30 years ago. Factors contributing to this increase include uncertain economic times, the rise of a global economy, and growing economic inequality.
  • Consequences of Overwork
    • Poor health, more illness, and increased mortality.
    • Depressive symptoms can vary depending on whether overtime is worked or not.
    • Overwork leads to stress, drowsiness, fatigue, and a higher likelihood of mistakes and misjudgments.
    • Economic and social consequences: An imbalance between effort and reward amplifies stress, leading to illness. The broader economic and social impacts of overwork also contribute to physical and mental health issues.

The Natural world

  • The Agricultural Revolution changed our relationship with the environment. Our living spaces shrank from expansive hills, streams, woods, and sky to cramped structures of wood, stone, or mud. We became more separated from our neighbors and led more self-centered lives. While we still worked outside in fields, it was not the same as the nature we once knew.

Modern Humans and Nature

  • Our genes, which evolved in natural environments suited to hunter-gatherers, have not had time to adapt to artificial, urban lifestyles. The stress our bodies and minds encounter due to this mismatch suggests that urban environments are not our optimal habitats.

Physiological Consequences

  • The stress reduction theory suggests that natural environments promote recovery from stress because they have lower levels of information that need processing.
  • Urbanization leads to a sedentary lifestyle, increasing obesity.
  • Stress negatively affects the immune system.
  • Staying indoors reduces exposure to natural sunlight, leading to vitamin D deficiency and osteoporosis.

Psychological Consequences

  • In children, stress leads to elevated cortisol levels, disrupting brain development and impacting mental health and resilience. It can trigger emotional and depressive problems and negatively affect attention and inhibitory control.
  • Experiencing the wonder of nature increases generosity, ethical decision-making, prosocial behavior, and feelings of humility.

Suggestions

1. Sleep

  • Manage Lighting: Offices often have bright fluorescent lights that emit blue wavelengths, which can disrupt sleep patterns. Use softer lighting when possible.
  • Take Outdoor Breaks: A mid-morning walk outside can improve attention and mood.
  • Consistent Wake-Up Time: Maintain a regular wake-up time to regulate your body clock.
  • Morning Light Exposure: Get bright light exposure in the morning to help set your circadian rhythm.
  • Take Naps: Incorporate short naps into your day to recharge.
  • Limit Nighttime Screen Use: Avoid bright screens before bedtime to prevent melatonin suppression.
  • Cold Showers: Taking a cold shower before bed can help prepare your body for sleep.
  • Adapt to Your Chronotype: Adjust your sleep and activity schedule according to your natural sleep preferences.
  • Don’t Overthink Sleep: Relax and avoid stressing about sleep to improve its quality.

2. Nutrition

  • Listen to Your Hunger: Use your hunger as a guide to determine when to eat.
  • Protein Needs: The more you exercise, especially strenuous exercise, the more protein you need.
  • Complete Proteins: Consume complete proteins that provide all essential amino acids.
  • Avoid Trans Fats: Eliminate unnatural, man-made, hydrogenated trans fats from your diet.
  • Balance Omega Fats: Consume both omega-3 and omega-6 fats, but prioritize increasing omega-3 intake.
  • Carbohydrate Intake: Adjust your carbohydrate intake based on age, sex, metabolism, activity levels, and overall health. A general guideline is 45-65 grams per meal, totaling 3-4 servings per day.
  • Healthy Surroundings: Surround yourself with natural, healthy foods to make better dietary choices.

3. Work and Rest

  • Minimalist Lifestyle: Embrace minimalism to reduce stress and focus on what’s important.
  • Mindfulness: Practice mindfulness to stay present and reduce anxiety.
  • Take Breaks: Regularly take breaks from work for leisure and recovery.
  • Find Playfulness in Work: Look for playful and enjoyable aspects of your work to enhance satisfaction and productivity.

4. Nature Life

  • Be Aware of Nature: Take off the “blinders” and notice the natural world around you every day.
  • Outdoor Breaks: Spend your breaks outside, surrounded by as much greenery as possible.
  • Respect for Nature: Cultivate a respect for nature, which fosters humility and reduces self-importance.
  • Environmental Learning: Engage in environmental education to reconnect with nature, as people care more about what they know and understand.
  • Live Sustainably: Take only what you need, minimize possessions, and produce little waste to live more sustainably and harmoniously with the environment.

My Favorite Bits

To be human is to know that our lives will ultimately end. However, from birth to death, one fundamental element of a good life is living in a dynamic state of health.

Luke Comer and Jenny Powers, PhD, On the Origin of Being: Understanding the Science of Evolution to Enhance Your Quality of Life

A big thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy of this book. Grateful for the chance to read and review it!


Author: Luke Comer and Jenny Powers, PhD

Publication date: 24 June 2024

Number of pages: 298 pages


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