Sunday, February 6, 2011

Book Review: Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives

Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our LivesOrigins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives by Annie Murphy Paul

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is full of fascinating facts based on research into fetal origins. Some things I found especially interesting include:

* According to some researchers, about one-third of gay men are gay because their mothers had more sons before them. The researchers hypothesize that this is because the mother's immune system manufactures antibodies directed at proteins secreted by male fetuses. When she becomes pregnant with another son, these antibodies allegedly affect the baby's developing brain in a way that predisposes him to homosexuality. According to these researchers, the more older brothers a boy has, the more likely he is to be gay.
* Babies reap the same benefits their moms do from cardiovascular exercise: their heart rates and heart-rate variability are lower than those of fetuses whose moms don't exercise.
*One emerging consensus coming about due to fetal origins research is that one's disposition to heart disease may have as much to do with prenatal nutrition as one's diet and activity level. Specifically, a lack of healthful nutrients during gestation seems to predispose offspring to cardiac and other organ problems.

These are just a few examples of the interesting research that Murphy Paul writes about. The reason I can’t give the book more stars is that the author seems particularly prone to confirmation bias; she is all too eager to unquestioningly accept research that supports her theories, and is apt to confuse causation with correlation. One example of this is Murphy Paul’s descriptions of the effects of obese mothers on their babies. She cites a study comparing the obesity rates of children born to the same mothers pre- and post- gastric bypass surgery. The kids gestated post-surgery were 52 percent less likely to be obese than siblings born to the same mom when she was obese. Murphy Paul takes this as proof that the changed physiology of the mother causes the changed obesity rates of the post-surgery offspring.

I found this conclusion arresting, because anyone who successfully loses and keeps weight off after bariatric surgery has made major changes to her diet and presumably her household environment that supports that diet. Murphy Paul erroneously drawing these conclusions, and blindly accepting research results and/or confusing causation with correlation, cast a pall over the rest of the book for me. It made me doubt whether I could trust her reporting of the clinical studies. Fortunately, the book is well-sourced, so I can personally look up any studies that I have questions about.

Another thing that disturbed me was how Murphy Paul blindly seemed to use the research she found to justify her own experiences. She was pregnant at the time she wrote the book, and it flows between data about fetal origins and how that meshes with Murphy Paul’s experiences as a pregnant woman. Both of her sons were born via cesarean sections, and I found myself rolling my eyes when she was extolling their virtues, such as the assertion that children born via c-section are less likely to experience pain as infants. There was no information whatsoever about the very real risk of c-sections to fetuses. In the interest of fairness in a book about fetal origins science, I would have preferred a more balanced look at the pros and cons of vaginal and caesarean births for the baby in light of current research on the topic.

Overall, this is a very entertaining read, but take it with a gigantic grain of salt.

View all my reviews

1 comment:

Stef said...

Hmm... It sounds more like popular magazine fare than hard-hitting scientific query. But if you were entertained by it, that's something, right? :) And to your point, you can read the actual research articles for yourself if some of them pique your interest. For that, cool.