Biology vs Evolutionary Biology

What’s the difference?  This is not a question that I can answer with any efficiency.  I’m neither a molecular- nor an evolutionary biologist.  However, I pose the question for two reasons 1) to highlight the aha moment I experienced near the end of the summer when all the disparate elements I was trying to integrate into my weight-loss/fitness process dawned and 2) to encourage those of us wading through the loose strands of regular/molecular biology; the biology of cancer, of telomeres, of mTOR and so on to try on another pair of glasses.  If you’re like me and you’re geeky enough to even examine some of these things, you have to ask yourself, “is it necessary get a handle on all these metabolic pathways both intellectually and practically to optimize health or is there a simpler way?

I’m an artist by temperament and my reading of the biology is that of an artist and for that reason you should beware.  This is my limitation and bias. As a shiatsu therapist the human being is always taking first place rather than the science, which has both strengths and weaknesses.  I’m sure you have your own biases and neither of us is in a position to ignore these. For example those with a stake in the energy medicine game find it easy to cherry pick studies to advance their cause or when convenient to ignore the science altogether and stand on convention/tradition/authority.  Those running the quack-watch websites and others professing pure allegiance to the scientific method can also fall victim to citing poorly done studies or ignoring the possibility that scientists also respond to incentives like professorships, tenure and straight out cash when they sit down to interpret the data.  It’s of course not supposed to be that way anymore than politicians are not suppose to stuff the ballet box but there is a real world existing apart from our innermost desires for justice and truth.

So, I can’t break down what evolutionary biology is in its deepest sense but I can give you my take on Michael R. Rose’s 55 Theses and how they tie together the many strands of information related to the biology of obesity, weight loss and the diseases of aging that have occupied me over the last several years.

In regular biology or what MJR sometimes calls 20th century biology, two main theories hold sway as to why we start to decay as we age.  The first is that there is an internal program that gets triggered which causes us to age. This program theory of aging can be further broken down into three aspects which you can examine for yourself in the link. The other is the damage theory of aging.  Over time our cells, tissues and genetic material accumulate all sorts of junk and damage and that we are never able to eliminate this with enough efficiency to maintain a state of youthful vigor. At the molecular level these seem to be true, biological programs run amok and damage is accumulating however Rose posits a different cause, perhaps a level up.

Dr. Rose points out that aging itself is not universal and that some species do not age (those reproducing through fissile division). He has observed in his laboratory experiments that in species that do age there is a point where aging actually stops, a point where visible and cellular decay plateaus. He contents that aging actually is a function of the lessening of the force of natural selection in organisms and that there are environmental factors affecting this decrease such as the first and last ages of reproduction and food quality and availability. From this perspective cellular damage is not the cause of aging but the result of the diminishing force of natural selection, which is the true cause of aging. It may seem like semantics but closer inspection of Rose’s methods (which I will not take time to do here) will show that he is offering quite a different point of view.

Dr. Rose is admittedly a “fruit fly guy,” meaning that all of his experiments over the last several decades have been conducted on fruit flies. However he draws two basic conclusions for human populations from this research. 1) Those populations that live in environments closest to the ones that humans evolved to live in will show the highest levels of natural selection.  These populations will tend to reach this theoretical plateau where aging stops much earlier. 2) Delaying the age of first reproduction will over time (many generations) lead to an increase in the overall longevity of a given population.  Please examine the links for the details (which are fascinating) but he essentially says that the ancestral hunter gatherer diet and lifestyle i.e. physical activity, sleep et cetera create the earliest plateau in aging, sometimes as early as 50 or 60 years of age. The agricultural diet and lifestyle causes a significantly later plateau of 75 to 80 and that our industrial diet and lifestyle creates a plateau at around 90 to 95 years.

What does this mean in general?  It means that there is no program per se; that aging is not an evolutionary given and decay is dependent on evolutionary adaptive forces rather than something like telomere length (correlations aside) or diminished cellular apoptosis. He makes the suggestion that different human populations will reap differing levels of benefit from an evolutionary approach of returning to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle after the last age of reproduction.  For example, those populations with lesser adaptations to agricultural and industrial foods and lifestyles like the Inuit who return to their traditional diets and lifestyles will achieve earlier aging plateaus and therefore maintain greater physical function than say European populations that are further along in the process of agricultural adaption to things like cereal grains and milk drinking.  These populations will have later aging plateaus than the Inuit when adopting what is popularly called a “paleo” diet but it would be an improvement over remaining on an industrial or even agricultural diet.

For me in particular it means that that there just may be a simpler way of reaching greater function in old age than calorie counting or restrictive macronutrient schemes.  We’ll just have to see won’t we?

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