Asking the right question


Asking the right question


Did you ever see a study and say to yourself, “Ohmygod! Of COURSE!”


It happens.


I remember an aha! Moment when reading a study about people who were gay. It was so Aha! That I didn’t write down the author, the journal, or the name of the study. It seemed so obvious to me that once this was public, everyone would agree and the author would be famous forever.


You see, normally when scientists go searching for why people are gay, the approach is “What makes this bad thing happen?” What makes this disability, this other-ness, this wrongness, occur?


The author of this study took a historical as well as a genetic or abnormality look at it. Knowing that there have been gay people throughout recorded history, and that gay people mostly are offspring of het people, and that the proportion of gay to het people tends to remain the same, what is the advantage to the species of this variation?

He reasoned that there must be a species advantage, since the trait didn’t depend wholly on genetics, nor was it communicable.


He found some advantages, too. I would encourage you to read the article but darn it! I can’t find it. It seemed so obvious to me, so it’s-about-time, to me that being gay is a normal variation that I didn’t think I’d have to write the name down.


Asking the right question is more likely than asking the common question to yield the right answer.


Somebody asked, “Why do we even HAVE fevers when we are sick?” rather than “How can we get this fever to go down?” and in my lifetime the attitude was changed from giving the kid aspirin (a bad idea, anyway) at the first sign of elevated temp to letting it do what it is supposed to do, kill the germs, unless the fever itself becomes life or brain-threatening.



A similar approach was taken in the book Survival of the Sickest. This author chose to look at diabetes, and similar problems—especially the kind particular to specific populations—and examine when there might be an advantage to something we commonly see as a disease.


Please read Survival of the Sickest. It is wonderful


I don’t remember the author tackling middle aged spread.


I think he should.


When, throughout history and across cultures, it is well known that as we reach middle age, both men and women tend to put on weight, it is time we asked: what might the advantage be to the species?


I will digress a minute and compare being large sized with levels of literacy.


I can accept that sometimes large sized people simply eat too much and exercise too little. But that isn’t everybody, same as not everyone who does not read well is unintelligent.


As a culture, we can accept that some people who don’t read well have dyslexia, some were never taught well, some might not enjoy it for a number of reasons, some may even have vision problems.


When we meet the person with dyslexia, we probably accept that this person will never read well. When we meet a person who is blind we easily understand that Braille will be a better solution than the printed word.


But with large sized people, we tend to assume the person is lazy, and that being smaller would improve his health.


We wouldn’t tell a blind person, “You’d do better in school if you would just pick up a book!”


But we do tell large people, “You’d be healthier if you lost weight.”


This is simply crazy.


Studies have shown that being what is thought of as “normal” has no longevity advantage over being “overweight;” it is not until one reaches morbid obesity that it matters.


In addition, we fail to separate the whys. It may be true that a large person who was large because of fast food is healthier when switching to a whole foods diet.


It may not be that a large person who is already on a whole foods diet will be healthier when fighting his body and starving it to stay smaller.


It turns out that calories in, calories out is bullshit for several reasons, and we have a good example of this folly, right now. The show Biggest Loser has the most successful dieters in history. Guess what: they all have artificially lowered metabolic rates following starving themselves for the show. They can not go back to the way a healthy, normal person would eat if they intend to stay small because their bodies now burn calories so slowly.

Here it is, for all of us to see: there are problems with the calories in, calories out model, because calories burn differently on different people, or even on the same people after different lifestyles.

The calories in, calories out model also stinks because it assumes the only thing to change if you starve yourself is to get smaller. Well, you might get smaller. But it might be that with less energy something else that takes energy will suffer. You may have lower mentation (means your brain is in a fog). You could have your hair fall out.


What are the advantages to the species of getting heavier as we age?


Nothing comes to mind at the moment.


Going grey has advantages to the species. It identifies the older, wiser, and less fertile of us.


Humans are unusual in the animal kingdom in that we live far after our fertility is gone.


And we tend to get “old and fat.” It is a common phrase.


So maybe there is a good reason for middle aged spread. Maybe we just don’t know what it is because we are so focused on the “wrongness.”


Anecdotally, everyone knows old timers who said in THEIR day, they had real winters, real cold, not this wimpy stuff. Collectively, we laughed at them, and then scientists confirmed Global Warming (and then renamed it Climate Change.) The old timers were right. The anecdotes told real stories we should have listened to.


Everyone knows an old woman who sighs that what she used to do to lose weight doesn’t work. We have laughed at her. She told us, but we laughed. She risked heart disease and decreased mentation and incurred great expenses to lose weight, and society laughed at her even as she tried to explain that, really, her body is as stubborn about holding on to the weight as the world is stubborn about providing warmer winters.


What if she is right? What if, not only is she right, but there’s an evolutionary reason for what’s going on?


It is high time we asked those questions.


3 thoughts on “Asking the right question

  1. Added “Survival of the Sickest” to my reading list! My guess would be gaining weight in middle age is evolutionarily an advantage for the same reason that in some cultures, fatter people are more attractive mates, and the same reason that “fat” has historically, in Western culture, been equated with happiness, jolliness, and wealth. If you get fat, it means you’ve succeeded: you have more than enough food!

    I agree that we need to stop fat-shaming and that “The Biggest Loser” is just plain wrong. I also think it’s important to consider how quickly and dramatically life expectancy, quality of life, and diet has changed in the last hundred or so years. Not too long ago, ice cream was a delicacy that people ate maybe once or twice a year; now you can have ice cream every day. The amount of sugar Americans eat has gone up a lot! Sugar is in cereal, in hamburger buns, in salad dressing, in coffee and tea. And at the same time, many of our lifestyles have become more sedentary. We evolved to crave high-calorie foods like sugar and fat and now they’re everywhere and it’s hard to resist. So that would be my guess at the evolutionary reason for why people are fat, and why some people are obese and have all the associated health problems. A combination of evolution and change in culture.


    1. And then, easier access to sugar would certainly explain the population as a whole being bigger, but would not explain people who don’t change food or exercise habits becoming bigger as they age. 🙂


  2. Hey, thanks for reading! And I just can’t say enough about “Survival of the Sickest,” although I wish I were more of a scientist and could analyze it better. After writing this post, I read somewhere that middle aged spread provides some protection against osteoporosis. This makes immediate sense to me, as it seems the more slender older women tend to have it, more than the bigger ones. But of course that is anecdotal, not science. 🙂


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