Phenotype Plasticity – We Shape Our Future

We respond, adjust and adapt based on environmental stressors. The big issue Daniel Lieberman discusses in his book, The Story of the Human Body : Evolution, Health, and Disease, are how the stressors, what was present in our environment, shaped us into who we are today. He explains how the cultural revolution has outpaced biological revolution and is now the driving force. The reason our environment is so important and a driving force is because it shapes us and has added meaning to the idea of plasticity.


This book also explains why and how so much of the work by a variety of people relate. It explains why doing certain things or creating specific environment Nudges, as described by Thaler and Sustein, pushes our bodies to respond, adapt and change because of our reaction to present stressors.

The idea of plasticity is getting a lot of press lately. A lot of news has been shed about brain plasticity and how the brain continues to evolve and change based on its environmental stressors. Examples are shown from meditators and how their brains have changed because of their meditation practices. We also hear all the time about people doing things that were supposedly impossible. Of course impossibility is a situational statement.

Those impossibility statements mean it is impossible based on what we know and can do now, TODAY. At one time flying, going to the moon, running the 4 minute mile, and even making video calls was thought to be impossible. Even the late Christopher Reeves, who played Superman in the movies, who was paralyzed in a horsing accident, taught himself to walk again, something supposedly impossible.

To me what this means is that we have to be creators of the environment we want, not passive consumers. In other words we must create an environment that nurtures, supports, encourages, and reinforces factors that create a desirable future. Some examples Lieberman shares in his book of how what we do shapes what we become relate to issues with our feet, our teeth, obesity and diabetes which he argues does not have to be our evolutionary destiny.

He explains in detail we evolved to move and stress our body through movement. He demonstrates how our movements helped us realize our potential by creating strengths and abilities that were built in but not yet developed. With regard to feet, he suggests orthotics or other shoes that soften the stress on our foot only worsens any problems by weakening rather than strengthening our feet. He says we should work to develop strength in our feet and then our foot muscles will not become strained and inflamed, which he explains is the cause of the pain.

In a personal example, my girls got warts on their feet from hours and hours of gymnastics. To treat the wart the doctor burned the the bottom of the wart. I asked why and she said that doing so ignites our own immune system and then immune system treats the wart. I am sure there is more to it but sure enough, within a week the warts were gone. This is another example to show how our body adapts adjusts and correspondingly reacts to the environmental stressors, a burn in this case.


To me one of the most interesting issues he discussed focused on teeth. Of course we have more cavities today because we eat more sugar and starches than in our evolution because of farming, but we have created a remedy – dentists. What I found very educational was when he says data suggests our jaws have become 5-10% smaller over the last few thousand years because our food is easy to chew from processing. He cites data that indicates if we stressed our jaw more during our youth with vigorous chewing, even sugar free gum chewing, our jaws would be bigger. If our jaws were bigger, it would eliminate the need for the common practice of wisdom teeth removal. After all, why would we have evolved to have more teeth than our jaw could hold. Our ancestors did not have dentists who removed wisdom teeth – because there was no need. On a personal note, I chewed a lot of gum when I was young and I have not had  need to get my wisdom teeth removed, very coincidental.

With regard to obesity and diabetes, he suggests these conditions are outcomes of what we were evolved to do. Evolution did not prepare us to live in a world of abundant food and leisure. Eating and behaving, evolution says eat and relax, however our actions create outcomes and those outcomes are results of our actions. Our actions are the result of how we react to the environments we choose.

Another highly publicized example of our personal plasticity was made popular by Dr. Carol Dweck. I posted about her findings related to brain plasticity and the growth and fixed mindset here with McDonough and Braungart’s Upcycle work. To document the significant power of the brain, Alia Crum continued this work to show how just thinking about food can create physiological response. If you wan to learn more, I wrote about Dr. Crum’s work here.

Our stress response represents an even more basic level of our plasticity. We can learn new things or stress our brain to learn new things in school or at work and our brain capacity and potential expands – an example of plasticity. This is how our brain evolved. As I posted before more can be learned from Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk – Stress Can Improve Your Health and here.

If you are interested in learning more, I am again offering links to a TED Presentation he made and interview he had with Brian Lehrer and Steven Colbert. I found them interesting. Enjoy.

This link takes you to Lieberman Interview on Brian Lehrer Show  BL

This link takes you to his interview with Stephen Colbert On the Colbert Report  Unknown 

Be Well’r,
Craig Becker

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