"...Q. Are there any practical benefits to your research?
A. There are. A majority of the undergraduates who register for my evolutionary anatomy and physiology class here at Harvard are pre-medical students. Learning this will help them become better doctors. Many of the conditions they’ll be treating are rooted in the mismatch between the world we live in today and the Paleolithic bodies we’ve inherited.
For example, impacted wisdom teeth and malocclusions are very recent problems. They arise because we now process our food so much that we chew with little force. These interactions affect how our faces grow, which causes previously unknown dental problems. Hunter-gatherers — who live in ways similar to our ancestors — don’t have impacted wisdom teeth or cavities. There are many other conditions rooted in the mismatch — fallen arches, osteoporosis, cancer, myopia, diabetes and back trouble. So understanding evolutionary biology will definitely help my students when they become orthopedists, orthodontists and craniofacial surgeons....
...Q. In your lab, you study the phenomenon of barefoot running. How did that become part of your portfolio?
"...A. About a year after the Nature paper came out, I gave a public lecture where this bearded guy, with only socks and duct tape on his feet, came up to me and said, “I don’t like to wear shoes when I run — how come?” He’d become a barefoot runner because his feet hurt in shoes. The man was “Barefoot Jeffrey,” a Harvard grad who owned a bicycle shop in Jamaica Plains. What a great question!
"Obviously, people had run barefoot for millions of years before shoes, socks, Nikes. I’d sometimes wondered if some of the sports injuries that runners get are related to an issue connected to how people run in shoes — the heel strike, it’s called. When most of us run, we land hard on our heels, and that causes a shockwave and it travels up your leg and eventually hits your head, which jiggles really fast. Those of us who wear shoes think that’s normal, to land with a big jolt.
"So I asked Barefoot Jeffrey to come to the lab and show me how he ran. He ran in this beautiful way that was completely collision-free. Light as a feather. When he hit the ground, he didn’t land on his heel. Instead, he landed on the ball of his foot, and there was no shock wave that hit his head. That led us to producing another paper in Nature where we actually studied barefoot runners like Jeffrey.
"We also went to Africa and went to people who’d never worn shoes. What we discovered was that people who run barefoot tend to run differently than people who wear modern shoes; they run in a much lighter and gentler way because it would hurt to run the way people do in shoes..."
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