Saturday, October 20, 2012

Evolution, Health and Neglecting the Flesh

Daniel Lieberman is a Harvard evolutionary biologist who studies the evolution of brain size. It turns out it may be the brain's adaptations to bipedal physiology - in particular locomotion over long distances - that allowed growth of cognitive capacity. What's most interesting to the atheist community is his comment below, which is reminiscent of what happens to dualists when they believe body and mind exist in separate realms (i.e., that our consciousness is related to a soul).

It's only in the last 100 years, in fact maybe for many people the last 20, 30, 40, 50 years, that human beings have been able to lead extremely sedentary lives without any physical activity. A typical American today living in a post-industrial information technology world can get up in the morning, reach to the cabinet, get breakfast cereal that's in a box, pour it, reach to the refrigerator, pour some milk in there. He or she can spend his or her entire day without ever elevating his heart rate or her heart rate. You can sit in wheelie chairs all day long, take an elevator to your floor, sit in a chair all day long staring into a computer, and drive home from work. Dinner basically involves pressing a few buttons, or if you have to go to the supermarket, wheeling around a cart. Human beings today don't have to engage in physical activity anymore. It's natural and normal for us to think that the world around us is normal. But our world, our lives today are profoundly abnormal, especially in the case of no longer having to use physical activity as part of our daily routine.

We've also got this bizarre notion that finally came true, that our bodies don't really matter. Think about St. Thomas Aquinas, who believed that the flesh was irrelevant and that all that really mattered was your soul. But only monks and rich clerics in Europe could get away with that kind of opinion in the Middle Ages, because everybody else had to work like a dog. But now, your average human being can live a life of ease and luxury, much more physically inactive than even kings and queens of Europe in the old days. We've finally been able to realize St. Thomas Aquinas's dream of basically ignoring the flesh, ignoring the body. The result is an epidemic of obesity and heart disease and various kinds of cancers such as colon cancer and breast cancer that largely come from physical inactivity combined with a really loathsome diet.

Full article here.

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