Azara Blog: Surviving Famine

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Date published: 2006/02/24

The sixth lecture of the Darwin Lecture Series 2006 was by Andrew Prentice on "Surviving Famine". This was bound to be a grim lecture no matter what, and he started by showing photos (by Tom Stoddart) of famine victims.

Now most academics, not surprisingly, think their subject is the most important on the face of the Earth and is central to life. Prentice certainly seemed to be no exception to that rule. He even claimed several times that famine was a "powerful selective influence on the human genome". But he also claimed that famine was a rare event for hunter gatherers and it was the agricultural age that heralded the era of mass starvation.

Well both those statements are rather bold. And unfortunately he didn't really provide any evidence for either statement. If they are true then it implies that famine has been an extremely strong selective pressure since it is not that long ago (on the evolutionary scale) that humans took up agriculture. Of course it is possible that people with certain alleles survive better than people with other alleles, and famine would cause the former to be selected for, but Prentice did not address this issue directly.

He listed examples of famine over recorded history which were caused by nature and (more recently) others caused by man. Well needless to say there has been a lot of famine, but for a few billion people this is now a more remote possibility.

He then talked quite extensively about how people respond to famine, including behavioural changes. He talked about the recent drift towards obesity in rich countries. As he noted, the hunger drive is much more powerful in man than the satiety drive. But he even tried to claim that anorexia nervosa is a "maladaptive echo of surviving famine", which is starting to stretch things. And he pondered whether global warming would produce massive famines in the near future.

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