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On Fertile Ground: A Natural History of Human Reproduction [Paperback]

Peter T. Ellison
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

June 29 2003 0674011120 978-0674011120

Reproduction is among the most basic of human biological functions, both for our distant ancestors and for ourselves, whether we live on the plains of Africa or in North American suburbs. Our reproductive biology unites us as a species, but it has also been an important engine of our evolution. In the way our bodies function today we can see both the imprint of our formative past and implications for our future. It is the infinitely subtle and endlessly dramatic story of human reproduction and its evolutionary context that Peter T. Ellison tells in On Fertile Ground.

Ranging from the latest achievements of modern fertility clinics to the lives of subsistence farmers in the rain forests of Africa, this book offers both a remarkably broad and a minutely detailed exploration of human reproduction. Ellison, a leading pioneer in the field, combines the perspectives of anthropology, stressing the range and variation of human experience; ecology, sensitive to the two-way interactions between humans and their environments; and evolutionary biology, emphasizing a functional understanding of human reproductive biology and its role in our evolutionary history.

Whether contrasting female athletes missing their periods and male athletes using anabolic steroids with Polish farm women and hunter-gatherers in Paraguay, or exploring the intricate choreography of an implanting embryo or of a nursing mother and her child, On Fertile Ground advances a rich and deeply satisfying explanation of the mechanisms by which we reproduce and the evolutionary forces behind their design.


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From Publishers Weekly

Fertility is undoubtedly the least often discussed facet of the reproductive process, in large part because scientists haven't had the tools needed to study it until recently, but also because, well, it's just not very sexy. But as Ellison, professor of anthropology and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, shows in this comprehensive study, fertility plays a far more important role than the sexual act in our development as a species. "It may well be... that it was an adaptation in our reproductive physiology that originally set the stage for our intellectual and cultural development," he asserts. But important aspects of female physiology aren't obvious outcomes of natural selection: the head size required for the relatively large fetal brain played a major role in the high incidence of women's death in childbirth in earlier centuries. The author tells us that scientists have discovered that there seems to be little correlation between sperm counts and male fecundity. One man can have the minimum normal sperm count of 15,000-20,000 per milliliter and another an astonishing 250 million, but both face roughly the same odds of impregnating a fertile egg. Ellison tilts perhaps a little too strongly toward female fertility; males receive only one relatively short chapter. The book is not an easy read and will probably appeal mainly to professionals in medicine and related fields. Still, any reader will be astounded not only by how much has been learned about human fertility but by how much still remains to be explored. (Mar.)
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Ellison describes the evolution of human reproduction clearly and concisely, beginning with the forces that shaped the process of conception and^B proceeding to the reproductive process, birth, and the subsequent six months of development. Focusing heavily on the biochemical basis of reproduction, he notes competing theories as to the origins and development of each major reproductive event, evaluating them in the context of current research. Most interesting, however, is the concluding description of how evolutionary forces shaping human reproduction allowed for the development of greater brain size and especially for the development of the neocortex, thereby laying the foundation for early humans' dramatic increase in intelligence. Adapting to a food-availability pattern consisting of alternating abundance and want, hominids developed the ability to store fat in large quantities. Consequently, mothers could store fat in the early stages of pregnancy, becoming abler to meet fetal energy demands, including the very high demands of developing brain tissue, in the later stages of pregnancy. Sure to delight anyone interested in the external forces that helped create humanity. Bonnie Johnston
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely Fascinating! Sept. 1 2001
Format:Hardcover
The is a beautifully crafted and engrossing description of human reproductive physiology and sociology. The non-specialist reader will learn more than he or she ever though possible about the nature of being a human being -- and be continually fascinated along the journey. Allan Watts once complained that no "Owner's Manuals" were issued to human beings. Ellison has certainly made a wonderful contribution to one.
Was this review helpful to you?
Format:Hardcover
Professor Ellison has written the definitive book on the physiology and life history of a central pillar of human evolution; reproduction. Moreover, this book is unique in it's elegance and treatment of human reproduction. It melds three often elusive topics that beg to be integrated, evolutionary theory, life history theory, and physiology. As a biological anthropologist with expertise in evolutionary and life history theory, endocrinology, and field methods, Professor Ellison has skillfully woven these perspectives into a concise discussion of how human reproductive physiology responds to environmental challenges. Anthropologists and physiologists have often been at odds in explaining variation in human fertility resulting in frustrating discussions that typify the false dichotomy between genes and environment. Ellison avoids these potential pitfalls and masterfully presents a fresh and quantitatively compelling perspective that describes the evolution of human reproduction as an interplay between the genotype and environment, resulting in adaptations that involve graded physiologic responses to ecological challenges such as caloric deficiencies and energetic expenditure. Indeed, the ability of human reproductive physiology to respond to environmental challenges seems to have been a key adaptation during human evolution. 'On Fertile Ground' is the product of years of field and laboratory investigation by both Ellison and his colleagues. The ramifications of this research include both the reexamination of human physiological variation as well as the constraints and selection pressures that shaped human evolution. In addition, this research provides a fresh perspective on the etiology of contemporary health issues such as steroid sensitive cancers. Read more ›
Was this review helpful to you?
Format:Hardcover
Professor Ellison has written the definitive book on the physiology and life history of a central pillar of human evolution; reproduction. Moreover, this book is unique in it's elegance and treatment of human reproduction. It melds three often elusive topics that beg to be integrated, evolutionary theory, life history theory, and physiology. As a biological anthropologist with expertise in evolutionary and life history theory, endocrinology, and field methods, Professor Ellison has skillfully woven these perspectives into a concise discussion of how human reproductive physiology responds to environmental challenges. Anthropologists and physiologists have often been at odds in explaining variation in human fertility resulting in frustrating discussions involving the false dichotomy between genes and environment. Ellison rejects these simplistic notions and masterfully outlines how human reproduction consists of an interplay between the genotype and environment, resulting in adaptations that involve graded physiologic responses to ecological challenges such as caloric deficiencies and energetic expenditure. Indeed, the ability of human reproductive physiology to respond to environmental challenges seems to have been a key adaptation during human evolution. 'On Fertile Ground' is the product of years of field and laboratory research by both Ellison and his colleagues, the ramifications of which include a reexamination of human physiological variation, the constraints and selection pressures that shaped human evolution, as well as a fresh perspective on the etiology of contemporary health issues such as breast cancer. The writing is superb and the illustrations are outstanding in their detail and clarity. Read more ›
Was this review helpful to you?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely Fascinating! Aug. 31 2001
By W. James D. Easton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The is a beautifully crafted and engrossing description of human reproductive physiology and sociology. The non-specialist reader will learn more than he or she ever though possible about the nature of being a human being -- and be continually fascinated along the journey. Allan Watts once complained that no "Owner's Manuals" were issued to human beings. Ellison has certainly made a wonderful contribution to one.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A ground breaking contribution to human evolutionary biology June 9 2001
By Richard Bribiescas - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Professor Ellison has written the definitive book on the physiology and life history of a central pillar of human evolution; reproduction. Moreover, this book is unique in it's elegance and treatment of human reproduction. It melds three often elusive topics that beg to be integrated, evolutionary theory, life history theory, and physiology. As a biological anthropologist with expertise in evolutionary and life history theory, endocrinology, and field methods, Professor Ellison has skillfully woven these perspectives into a concise discussion of how human reproductive physiology responds to environmental challenges. Anthropologists and physiologists have often been at odds in explaining variation in human fertility resulting in frustrating discussions involving the false dichotomy between genes and environment. Ellison rejects these simplistic notions and masterfully outlines how human reproduction consists of an interplay between the genotype and environment, resulting in adaptations that involve graded physiologic responses to ecological challenges such as caloric deficiencies and energetic expenditure. Indeed, the ability of human reproductive physiology to respond to environmental challenges seems to have been a key adaptation during human evolution. 'On Fertile Ground' is the product of years of field and laboratory research by both Ellison and his colleagues, the ramifications of which include a reexamination of human physiological variation, the constraints and selection pressures that shaped human evolution, as well as a fresh perspective on the etiology of contemporary health issues such as breast cancer. The writing is superb and the illustrations are outstanding in their detail and clarity. 'On Fertile Ground' is an extremely valuable and important contribution to contemporary biological anthropology and evolutionary biology as a whole. Indeed, 'On Fertile Ground' will be required reading for undergraduate and graduate students studying reproductive ecology in the biological anthropology program at Yale University. Ellison's work is an extraordinary achievement!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Review is specific to the KINDLE EDITION not the quality of the author's writing. Sept. 3 2013
By Sugar Plum - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Normally I feel that book reviews should be about the content of the actual book but in this case I have no other way to warn Kindle users what they'll be getting if they purchase the Kindle edition of this text. Textbooks that have been properly formatted and created for Kindle look just like the physical book itself, that is not the case here.

This is a very poor Kindle edition textbook, some may read this for leisure but this is typically a textbook so page numbers are of vital importance. The KINDLE EDITION OF THIS TEXT COMLETELY LACKS PAGE NUMBERS, just has the locations, which do not relate to anything outside of Amazon and are very unhelpful when trying to correspond to the page numbers listed in a syllabus. Also, NONE OF THE IMAGES FROM THE PHYSICAL TEXT ARE IN THE KINDLE VERSION, why? To have included the images in the physical text, the author clearly felt them to be significant.

I have several textbooks, not novels, but textbooks on my Kindle that I purchased in the past that are wonderful examples of what you should expect when purchasing a textbook in Kindle edition; every image is there for you to see just as in the physical text and every page corresponds directly to the physical text (with numbers on each page). So to purchase this text in Kindle edition and see the vast difference was extremely disappointing and frustrating and that's on Amazon because if its not at the standard it should be, then it should not be for sale. The frustration of having no page numbers and the omission of all of the images that appear in the physical text completely outweighs the convenience of having this text on your Kindle. This is not a novel, a textbook needs to mimic the physical text in its entirety.

For those of you that are students specifically (but anyone in general) who enjoy being able to get rid of physical textbooks and have it readily available on your Kindle, just BE AWARE, purchase with caution and forewarning that you may be better off just going to your bookstore and renting it; it's cheaper to rent it anyway! Don't pay more money for a subpar product. If you take a chance and purchase the Kindle edition and are unhappy just remember, you have 7 days to return it and get your money back.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A ground breaking contribution to human evolutionary biology June 9 2001
By Richard Bribiescas - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Professor Ellison has written the definitive book on the physiology and life history of a central pillar of human evolution; reproduction. Moreover, this book is unique in it's elegance and treatment of human reproduction. It melds three often elusive topics that beg to be integrated, evolutionary theory, life history theory, and physiology. As a biological anthropologist with expertise in evolutionary and life history theory, endocrinology, and field methods, Professor Ellison has skillfully woven these perspectives into a concise discussion of how human reproductive physiology responds to environmental challenges. Anthropologists and physiologists have often been at odds in explaining variation in human fertility resulting in frustrating discussions that typify the false dichotomy between genes and environment. Ellison avoids these potential pitfalls and masterfully presents a fresh and quantitatively compelling perspective that describes the evolution of human reproduction as an interplay between the genotype and environment, resulting in adaptations that involve graded physiologic responses to ecological challenges such as caloric deficiencies and energetic expenditure. Indeed, the ability of human reproductive physiology to respond to environmental challenges seems to have been a key adaptation during human evolution. 'On Fertile Ground' is the product of years of field and laboratory investigation by both Ellison and his colleagues. The ramifications of this research include both the reexamination of human physiological variation as well as the constraints and selection pressures that shaped human evolution. In addition, this research provides a fresh perspective on the etiology of contemporary health issues such as steroid sensitive cancers. The writing is superb and the illustrations are outstanding in their detail and clarity. 'On Fertile Ground' is an extremely valuable and important contribution to contemporary biological anthropology and evolutionary biology as a whole. Indeed, 'On Fertile Ground' will be required reading for undergraduate and graduate students studying reproductive ecology in the biological anthropology program at Yale University. Ellison's work is an extraordinary achievement!
5.0 out of 5 stars Well written! Feb. 9 2014
By mkh2692 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I had to get this book as a text for one of my university courses. This book is well written, clear, and interesting. It gives a great perspective on all of the intricacies of reproduction.
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