Premature Book Review: Origins
I’m 131 pages into Origins, but was hooked after the first chapter. Annie Murphy Paul has written a book that every woman (expectant or not), father-to-be, scientist, science buff, and lover of babies will want to read. (As a female scientist who adores babies, you can see why it appealed to me.) Paul compiles and distills much of what is known about the environment’s effect on the embryo and relates it to her own experience navigating the murky, ever-changing waters of prenatal care. We follow her, month by month, as she explores the science behind each stage of fetal development.
At the beginning of the book, Paul has just discovered she’s pregnant with her second child; she’s 7 weeks along and only beginning to remember (and worry about) the transformation her life is about to undergo. No drinking, no smoking, no hot baths. (I hadn’t heard of this restriction before, but prolonged exposure to high temperatures early in pregnancy can cause birth defects.) Even the grocery store is fraught with potential hazards. At times, the litany of purported pitfalls makes one marvel that so many babies are born healthy. But Paul’s focus is not so much the dangers a pregnant woman should avoid, but the positive impact a new mother can have on her unborn baby’s life.
She cites one study that investigated the baby-protecting effects of feeding pregnant mice cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower). The researchers were testing the idea that eating certain foods during pregnancy could defend offspring from diseases. They were surprised to find that pups of veggie-eating mouse mothers avoided cancer, even late into life.
Paul delves into the research behind many popular pregnancy truisms, and debunks the ones not rooted in science. (A couple of glasses of wine per week, for example, are not associated with fetal alcohol syndrome, and cocaine may actually be less harmful than cigarettes). Paul acknowledges that many maternal choices are based in fear, not facts, and promotes the idea that expectant mothers who understand the environment’s in utero impact will be better equipped to make decisions that benefit their children.
Though heavily peppered with experimental data, Origins is approachable, sincere, and endlessly fascinating. Even readers with only a casual interest in human development will appreciate the link between the lives we lead now and the forces that shaped our physical and mental development in the first 9 months of life. I can’t wait to finish.