Nora Ephron’s amusingly titled her musings on aging “I Feel Bad About My Neck.” This is a very female preoccupation. As men age they feel bad about many parts of their anatomy, but the skin on their neck would be way down the list.
The things I feel bad about aren’t necessarily the things that feel bad. What feels bad is my back, or rather my spine. I am not alone. I knew that, but I know more about it now after having watching an enjoyable series on public television, “Your Inner Fish.”
Airing it in certain jurisdictions may have required some courage since there are quite a few places in this country that still believe the verdict in the Scopes Trial was right (evolution lost). Of course the verdict in the scientific community has been that evolution is correct since about 1859, but who’s counting?
One of the great pleasures of the three part series is not just the science, but the scientists. As the presenter Neil Shubin, a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, and his distinguished guests interact, you see a gleeful, childlike pleasure in understanding the wonderful ways in which the creatures of the earth have evolved. Economists are gloomy, artists are starving or tortured, but these guys are having a blast.
In the course of the show, Shubin spans the globe to demonstrate what our species owes to its biological ancestors –- fish, reptiles and earlier primates. Our branch of the latter took the unprecedented step of standing upright. As we all know, this was a really bad idea.
Several of Shubin’s guest experts in primate anatomy show how getting up off all fours and onto all twos required a significant alteration of the spine into an S curve to allow us to stand upright and look forward at the same time.
The new upright attitude put serious pressure on all those curvy places, the lumbar, thoracic and cervical. As a result all of us big apes feel bad abut our necks, our lower backs and points in between. We are at significant risk of painful disk problems. According to research cited by Shubin, upwards of 75% of people, if they live long enough, are destined to experience back symptoms.
Life is trade-offs, they say. Evolving to a biped and freeing our hands to do the clever things our larger brain could concoct had an upside. It allowed us to conquer the world, subdue the rest of nature, reach the moon, write sonnets and symphonies and devise the science that explains our own evolution. But the price has been high. A pain in the neck.
And for evolution deniers who can’t blame Darwin, you-know-who is on the hook for the faulty design of our backs. Knees too.