Sunday, November 14, 2010

Review: Origins- Annie Murphy Paul

Some say it’s the genes we inherit at conception. Others are sure it’s the environment we experience in childhood. But could it be that many of our individual characteristics—our health, our intelligence, our temperaments—are influenced by the conditions we encountered before birth?

That’s the claim of an exciting and provocative field known as fetal origins. Over the past twenty years, scientists have been developing a radically new understanding of our very earliest experiences and how they exert lasting effects on us from infancy well into adulthood. Their research offers a bold new view of pregnancy as a crucial staging ground for our health, ability, and well-being throughout life. 

Author and journalist Annie Murphy Paul ventures into the laboratories of fetal researchers, interviews experts from around the world, and delves into the rich history of ideas about how we’re shaped before birth.

‘Origins’ was yet another book that my lovely father found for me—I’ve come to realize that his popular science recommendations are usually the ones I like best. (Oddly enough, he is not a scientist in any way, shape or form.) Overall, it was an interesting book about a topic I hadn’t heard much about.

There’s a reason I found the science of foetal origins particularly interesting, even though I tend to focus more on genetics: I was born premature, at around 7 months and 2.2 lbs.  Aside from meaning that I’m not six feet tall like the rest of my family (which is frankly a blessing), it’s had very little effect on my life. Despite that, I've always been curious as to exactly why it happened in the first place.

Although the book would never have been able to answer my specific personal questions, it did a brilliant job of covering a wide range of cause-and-effect combinations without getting bogged down in unintelligible and highly academic science. From the children of Holocaust survivors who themselves suffer from PTSD to starved women who have babies that go on to become highly overweight, ‘Origins’ transcends the horrors of thalidomide and foetal alcohol syndrome to uncover less serious but more interesting ways that the actions of the mother during pregnancy can affect the child.

Murphy Paul peppers the book with personal anecdotes of her own pregnancy and is careful never to be preachy or scare expecting mothers into action. The combination of comprehensible science and beautifully written narrative turns her slim but fascinating book into a read that’s half popular-science, half highly readable memoir.


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