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Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives [Hardcover]

Annie Murphy Paul

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Book Description

Sept. 28 2010

What makes us the
way we are? Some say it’s the genes we inherit at conception. Others are sure it’s the environment we experience in childhood. But could it be that many of our individual characteristics—our health, our intelligence, our temperaments—are influenced by the conditions we encountered before birth?

That’s the claim of an exciting and provocative field known as fetal origins. Over the past twenty years, scientists have been developing a radically new understanding of our very earliest experiences and how they exert lasting effects on us from infancy well into adulthood. Their research offers a bold new view of pregnancy as a crucial staging ground for our health, ability, and well-being throughout life.

Author and journalist Annie Murphy Paul ventures into the laboratories of fetal researchers, interviews experts from around the world, and delves into the rich history of ideas about how we’re shaped before birth. She discovers dramatic stories: how individuals gestated during the Nazi siege of Holland in World War II are still feeling its consequences decades later; how pregnant women who experienced the 9/11 attacks passed their trauma on to their offspring in the womb; how a lab accident led to the discovery of a common household chemical that can harm the developing fetus; how the study of a century-old flu pandemic reveals the high personal and societal costs of poor prenatal experience.

also brings to light astonishing scientific findings: how a single exposure to an environmental toxin may produce damage that is passed on to multiple generations; how conditions as varied as diabetes, heart disease, and mental illness may get their start in utero; why the womb is medicine’s latest target for the promotion of lifelong health, from preventing cancer to reducing obesity. The fetus is not an inert being, but an active and dynamic creature, responding and adapting as it readies itself for life in the particular world it will enter. The pregnant woman is not merely a source of potential harm to her fetus, as she is so often reminded, but a source of influence on her future child that is far more powerful and positive than we ever knew. And pregnancy is not a nine-month wait for the big event of birth, but a momentous period unto itself, a cradle of individual strength and wellness and a crucible of public health and social equality.

With the intimacy of a personal memoir and the sweep of a scientific revolution, Origins presents a stunning new vision of our beginnings that will change the way you think about yourself, your children, and human nature itself.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (Sept. 28 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743296621
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743296625
  • Product Dimensions: 23.2 x 15.8 x 2.7 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 476 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #202,161 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


“Exciting, cutting-edge scientific research in the field of epigenetics has changed the way the medical profession looks at pregnancy, and we are fortunate to have Annie Murphy Paul as our guide through this fascinating new terrain. With stellar insight and expansive research, Origins is a thrilling survey of how fetal origins is changing the way we think about the nine months before birth.” – Dr. Mehmet Oz, author of YOU: Having a Baby, YOU: Raising Your Child, and YOU: On a Diet

"Annie Murphy Paul, a gifted science writer, combines impeccable science, extraordinary tenderness and lyrical prose to produce a truly revolutionary chronicle of pregnancy. In Origins, she shows that pregnancy is not a condition to be endured but the first nine months of being a mother, a time full of far-reaching choices. Origins is sweet, smart and very fresh. You'll never think about pregnancy the same way again."—Sylvia Nasar, author, A Beautiful Mind

"Origins is, quite simply, a must-read for parents-in-waiting—and for anyone interested in what makes us who we are. Paul has written a superb introduction to the emerging science of fetal origins. There are still a lot more questions than answers, but this book shows how science is -- at long last -- engaging deeply with the reality that a pregnant woman's lifestyle can dramatically impact the future life of her child." -- David Shenk, author of The Genius in All of Us and The Forgetting

"What goes on during pregnancy is a scientific puzzle as mysterious and fascinating as what goes on inside an atom. In Origins, Annie Murphy Paul probes the murky realm in which our futures as human beings are forged. She combines in-depth reporting on cutting-edge research with a personal memoir of her own pregnancy and the anxieties and insights it produced. The result is an important, elegant piece of science writing."

--Carl Zimmer, author of Soul Made Flesh The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution

"This is a terrific book on a fascinating and largely unexplored subject—the mysteries of prenatal development. It is lucid, scientifically accurate and clear and gracefully written. Combining good science and a personal perspective is rare, especially in writing about children and motherhood, but Annie Paul has accomplished it beautifully."—Alison Gopnik, author of The Scientist in the Crib and The Philosophical Baby

Origins is that rare, beautiful, wonderful bird of a book: As engrossing as a good novel and informed by impactful, cutting-edge research. Origins is an absolute must-read for expectant mothers and everyone who cares about them -- what you learn here could make your baby healthier, stronger, and even smarter. Best of all, the information unfolds in chapters structured around the 9 months of the author's own pregnancy, giving the book the momentum of a personal story (will she have a girl or a boy? how will the birth go?) A thoroughly enjoyable, readable look into amazing research with real consequences.
-- Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me

"As the author delves deeply into the vulnerabilities of the prenatal environment, she comes away with a compelling sense of the importance of how society cares for and supports pregnant women...Paul’s thought-provoking text reveals that this pivotal period may be even more significant and far-reaching than ever imagined." --PW

"Paul is honorable about examining the scientific, social and moral complexities of her subject." --Perri Klass, The Washington Post

"Tobacco, heavy drinking, illegal drugs, depression: We seem to grasp that these aren't healthy for anyone, let alone a pregnant woman. But just what effect do the things that women inhale, consume and experience have on a fetus? In "Origins," Annie Murphy Paul sets out to discover the answer. Along the way she explodes myths, reviews scientific evidence and explores the new frontier of fetal-origins research, the study of how we are shaped in utero by a combination of genes and environment." --The Wall Street Journal

" Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, documents [Annie Murphy Paul's] fascinating journey into the emerging science of fetal origins - and how knowledge made her feel more in control. " --The Toronto Star

A New York Times Notable Book of 2010

"A terrific and important new book . . . offers a new window into the unexpected forces that shape us." --Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times

About the Author

Annie Murphy Paul is a magazine journalist and book author who writes about the biological and social sciences. Born in Philadelphia, she graduated from Yale University and from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. A former senior editor at Psychology Today magazine, she was awarded the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, Slate, Discover, Health, O: The Oprah Magazine, and many other publications. She is the author of Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives and The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.8 out of 5 stars  56 reviews
96 of 102 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Great as a memoir, terrible as a pop science book Jan. 7 2011
By Kaeli Vandertulip - Published on
I should start this review by explaining what I hope for from a popular-interest science book. I expect an explanation of a theory, discovery, or scientific concept which is accurate, fun to read, well-cited (with citations to scholarly publications so I can read them too), and well-written. I appreciate a little humor, too. Some experiential asides are fine with me, but I don't want to read an autobiography. I prefer my authors to have a science or medical background, but this is not a requirement; I love Mary Roach after all.
I was incredibly excited to read Origins. I'm currently pregnant and love reading and researching all of the odd things that happen, all the dictates given by doctors, and I'm fascinated by the history of pregnancy and childbirth. I was the first one in my library to check this out (mainly because the tech services people moved this book to the front of the line for me and gave it to me as soon as they were done).
Unfortunatly, Annie Murphy Hall falls far short of my expectations. Her book is 8 parts memoir, 1 part historical overview, 1 part interview recollections. I really don't care about her shopping trips to Whole Foods while she was pregnant. I am curious about the mercury in fish debate. Guess which got more print?
Furthermore, she is way too reliant on quotes. It was like reading a freshman's first research paper. She also falls into the same trap that drives me crazy when journalists write about science (though not all journalists)--she cites information found in newspapers and news magazines with the same level of credibility as a scholarly journal.

In short, I REALLY wanted to like this book. I love the topic and enjoyed hearing the author's interviews on NPR. But I heard far too much about her pregnancy and far too little about how pregnancy effects us before we're even born.
92 of 111 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Frustrating... Nov. 10 2010
By Nora Alexander - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I bought this book immediately after TIME Magazine featured it on its cover, because Ms. Paul's title asserted itself as an authority over this much needed topic. As someone who is in her early 30's and is planning to have children in the near future, I thought this book would offer in depth specifics that could help any woman give birth to a healthy baby. To her credit, Ms. Paul does cite key tips that every expecting mother should be doing to ensure a healthy child: take Folic acid and other B vitamins, exercise, reduce stress levels, eat breakfast every day, and stay mindful of the food one consumes. Moreover, she cites a few scientists and doctors who are in the process of making novel discoveries about how we can prevent birth defects and other illness that occur after birth. Ms. Paul also cities several historical events that reinforce the idea that childbirth is actually a collective effort hinging on a nation's efforts to provide basic needs. Without these provisions, children are unlikely to become productive citizens or even have the chance to live to adulthood. For this much, I think the book is a good start; however, I find much of the writing lacking in two major areas.

I understand that it's an easier read to blend her own experience as a soon-to-be mother; but as she shares her life with us, I am often reminded of her privilege as a Upper-West-Side New Yorker that allows her to make choices (often purely emotional) to ensure the health of her child while many mothers in the US (and even within New York City) can't afford to make. What's troubling about this aspect of the writing - for example - is that she'll clear her kitchen of BPA plastic products because she moved by one researcher's findings on BPA. She continues to write about her fears of BPA which is found in almost all the products we have. As I read this, I start getting antsy, but also helpless and wanting to hear other findings. Ms. Paul cited one scientist who is studying this. What about others? And what about other mothers who can't just throw away all their plastic and afford glass containers and Kleen Kanteen bottles? What are they going to do?

Throughout the book, Ms. Paul highlights certain historical events and other circumstances (ie: living in LA) which can produce a potential threat to an unborn fetus. Again, I start feeling nervous and wonder what I can do. Ms. Paul thinly resolves my concerns by glossing over current research and at times quotes no longer than a sentence from a scientist about their findings. There are too many examples of these passages and they are just not enough information for anyone to make an educated decision on how to move forward. At best I am left with mulling over her own testimonials and guessing it might be the right choice -- but I'm not sure. I'm also not sure about her self created term "Fetal Origins" because much of her book blurs the line between personal experiences and cliff-note science. It's more accurate to rename the title: "How the Nine Months Before Birth CAN SHAPE the Rest of Our Lives." Ms. Paul is no authority.

On the whole, this book will be useful to anyone who has the luxury of being anxious and has the means to take whatever measures they can to birth a healthy child. To a more critical reader, you may only find more substantial information in the NOTES section of the book to figure out what's hype versus fact. I would however, recommend this book to local and national policy makers. Again, Ms. Paul makes a point which should not be ignored: if you want to ensure a productive future for the state, ensure the well being of the most vulnerable -- the unborn.
36 of 42 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Another White Privilidged Yuppy Mother Writes Book on her Fetus Feb. 19 2012
By Amy - Published on
I had several major issues with this book, where Ann Murphy Paul, in attempting to illustrate all the ways the fetus is impacted by the mother's actions and environment during pregnancy. First of all, she is a journalist writing about science. This is not to say that one must be a trained scientist only in order to write about anything scientific, but I often found myself questioning her methods. She gives the same weight to newspaper articles as published journals, and I often wondered how much of her research she did based off of google searches.

However, what bothered me most was her narrow-minded and somewhat blinded approach. She is an upper-class white woman who is educated and has access to top-of-the line pre-natal care, something which she seems to rub in constantly in her book. She can not separate her research from her own pregnancy, and her bias is made even more evident by her intentionality in doing everything she possibly can to avoid anything potentially harmful to her child. She describes meandering through the isles of Whole Foods, going to yoga classes and meditations, taking her folate and avoiding mercury-rich fish, tossing all of the BPA plastics out of her kitchen, avoiding any and all medications etc, in order to have the smartest and healthiest child she can. But she can not escape her own hypocrisy. She launches into the history of gender prediction, and seems to glorify the ultrasound as an actual window into her womb to see and "know" her unborn baby. Her unwillingness to question the process of ultrasound and its safety is entirely absent. Ironic for a book about how a fetus' experience in utero can have lasting impact. The truth is, though we believe ultrasounds to be safe, we truly don't know whether they are safe. Paul herself points out that DES, thalidomide, and alcohol were all at one time lauded as not only being safe, but actually beneficial to an unborn fetus. Ultrasound, which was developed for use underwater in submarines absolutely impacts marine creatures, and the government itself noted that the sonar caused changes to the reproductive organs and processes of whales and dolphins. We have not yet had a generation of children who received serial ultrasounds in the womb grow up and reproduce themselves, so the truth is that we have no idea if an ultrasound is really safe. But Paul is never really clear if she is attempting to write a scientific book on the impact of fetal origins, or document her own pregnancy and is completely blinded by the glitter and glimmer of determining her baby's gender to put on her objective journalist hat and question (or even discuss) ultrasounds.

Finally, Paul is having a scheduled cesarean section. She briefly attempts to justify that babies experience less stress via a cesarean versus vaginal birth, and even writes that some suggest offering pain medication to babies during birth. This, to me, is the ultimate arrogance of Paul in her book. Again, it suits her own purpose and ego to conveniently decline to touch the subject of how the birth experience impacts the child. This is a gross oversight, but convenient for her in the case of her elective c-section. She might have discussed the impact of narcotics or epidurals on a fetus (and yes, an epidural crosses the placenta so that both the mother and baby are drugged). She might have discussed the physiological process of the baby being squeezed through the birth canal and how it removes fluids from their lungs to help them breathe and adjust to extra-uterine life. But Paul seems completely blinded by her own hypocrisy to actually imply that birth by cesarean is preferable and beneficial to her baby.
25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Must read for anyone pregnant or planning on getting pregnant Oct. 3 2010
By K. Jones - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I ready this book straight through in one day and found it packed with useful scientific findings on the long-term impact of the uterine environment on developing fetuses. Yet, it doesn't seem overwhelming or "preachy" just informative and thought-provoking. As I read through it, I found myself underlining key passages or findings to go back to later and contemplate (I'm hoping to become pregnant soon).

I think the most interesting aspect of this book were the numerous findings that things women do before their child is even born (healthier eating, exercise, positive mood, decrease stress, etc...)can have an equal or greater impact than things done after birth. Yet, as the author points out, "Prenatal experience doesn't force the individual down a particular path; at most, it points us in a general direction, and we can take another route if we choose."

Excellent book, easy and informative read, and a must for anyone interested in this topic, pregnant, or planning on getting pregnant!
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, thought-provoking read Aug. 21 2011
By MLR - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
If you've already read What To Expect and found yourself saying "Okay, but why?", this book has some answers (and provokes more questions). This book, rather than a pregnancy guide, is a combined science and history of how the information in our current pregnancy literature came to be there, and what we might see in the future. The topic of fetal origins is fascinating, but this book isn't a "pregnancy book" like one might expect; I would compare many of the topics and ideas to "Freakonomics". It's a great book for scientifically minded moms- and dads-to-be to read and discuss together.
When I first picked up this book, written about pregnancy by an expectant mother, I expected to put it down and want to purge my cupboards of all foods artificial, buy an air purifier, and join a gym, but the author manages to keep all preachiness and judgement out of her writing, and I simply feel informed and intrigued, eager to follow fetal origins research as the field becomes more mainstream.

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