Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Pg. 99: Tessa Pollard's "Western Diseases"

The current feature at the Page 99 Test: Tessa M. Pollard's Western Diseases: An Evolutionary Perspective.

About the book, from the publisher:
As a group, western diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, allergies and mental health problems constitute one of the major problems facing humans at the beginning of the 21st century, particularly as they extend into poorer countries. An evolutionary perspective has much to offer standard biomedical understandings of western diseases. At the heart of this approach is the notion that human evolution occurred in circumstances very different from the modern affluent western environment and that, as a consequence, human biology is not adapted to the contemporary western environment. Written with an anthropological perspective and aimed at advanced undergraduates and graduates taking courses in the ecology and evolution of disease, Tessa Pollard applies and extends this evolutionary perspective by analysing trends in rates of western diseases and providing a new synthesis of current understandings of evolutionary processes, and of the biology and epidemiology of disease.
Among the acclaim for the book:
Western Diseases provides the young and growing field of evolutionary medicine with a new voice. Pollard has masterfully melded two of the most powerful integrative perspectives on the human condition, evolutionary biology and anthropology, and turned that lens on the “big questions” of contemporary health and disease. The profile of morbidity and mortality observed in modern, industrialized societies has changed dramatically in the past two hundred years, differs in important ways from that observed in more traditional societies, and is still changing. Pollard shows, for each of the burgeoning categories of contemporary health concern, how these trends are rooted in our changing ecology and the legacy of our evolutionary past. Where other books on evolutionary medicine have produced a smorgasbord of examples regarding the ways evolutionary principles can elucidate a broad range of issues in human heath, Pollard has provided a synthetic treatment, filtered through one, clear-sighted mind and focused on the most important contemporary health issues. The result is a powerful and compelling evolutionary analysis of the “diseases of civilization,” a stellar achievement, not just a promise of what might be achieved. Pollard’s prose is engaging and her reasoning accessible. Any educated person can read Western Diseases with profit and pleasure. But every medical student, practitioner, and researcher in the field of human health should read it. I fervently hope that Pollard’s wonderful book finds its way onto many university and medical school syllabi. It will certainly be on mine.’
--Peter T. Ellison, John Cowles Professor of Biological Anthropology, Harvard University

‘Cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease are the greatest sources of mortality among western nations, and the toll taken from these diseases may well increase in the coming years due to an epidemic of obesity that is sweeping much of the world. Along with these disease plagues, there are other signs of trouble in paradise: a sizable number of adults with impaired reproductive function, rising levels of asthma that chokes our children, and increasing levels of stress and depression in people of all ages. Dr. Tessa Pollard’s book Western Diseases takes a sweeping, evolutionary approach to the complexities of these curses of modernization. She manages to combine a rich, detailed account of the physiological causes of these problems in the broad context of comparative studies at the population level, and compresses this information into the pages of this lovely small book. Dr. Pollard’s book is a beautifully written, very up-to-date review of the most current information on the chronic illnesses that beset modern peoples. She explains the changes that have come about due to modernization, and then highlights the diversity in modernization problems among societies throughout the world. That western nations have responded somewhat differently to modernization than other populations increases understanding of what particular characteristics of the modernization process contribute to risk for these illnesses. It is the broad comparative and evolutionary approaches that makes this book stand out, and belie the title that suggests only western people are being considered. It is a book that is a must-read for people who are interested in the major illnesses that are characteristic of our modern times.’
--Daniel Brown, Professor of Anthropology and Coordinator of Research and Graduate Studies, University of Hawai'i at Hilo

‘"Western Diseases" is a concise review of the risk factors for obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, female and male reproductive cancers, allergic diseases, and depression. Carefully researched details provide a nuanced picture of current and projected disease prevalence rates across the world. "Western Diseases" is, however, much more than an excellent review of the epidemiology of non-communicable diseases. It also provides a history of competing explanations for the increasing prevalence of each ailment, as well as explanations for variation in diseases across populations. Due to similarities in risk factors, and due to the interconnectedness of the chronic conditions themselves, Pollard returns to ideas such as the thrifty genotype from several perspectives, always with an acknowledgment of the history of the idea and an awareness of contemporary critiques. Her own critique is grounded in the perspectives of evolutionary medicine where diseases are seen as the result of our "old" human biology, shaped by a long evolutionary history in Plio-Pleistocene environments, confronting a "new" obesogenic environment; life history theory; and a lifespan perspective that focuses on the developmental effects of low birth weight and a poor early environment. These three perspectives are integrated throughout the text in thoughtful and insightful ways, particularly when considering diabetes, hypertension, and symptoms associated with peri-menopausal estrogen decline. Pollard offers new ways to approach old problems and never shies away from pointing out the sometimes surprising gaps in our present knowledge. This is an excellent text for undergraduate and graduate students interested in public health, medical anthropology, reproductive ecology, biological anthropology, and/or evolutionary medicine.’
--Professor Lynnette Leidy Sievert, Department of Anthropology, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Read an excerpt from Western Diseases, and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

Tessa M. Pollard is Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and member of The Wolfson Research Institute at Durham University.

The Page 99 Test: Western Diseases.

--Marshal Zeringue