The Stress Of Life, by Hans Selye
At times it is useful to discuss how I came about a book. As it happens, I got this book from a free book table given by some acquaintances of mine, one of whom struggles with a problem that I do, and that is talked about in this book. As it happens, this book was written in 1950, and the edition I have was published in 1956. The book is part of a genre that I greatly appreciate, and that is the scientific memoir . This particular book offers quite an excellent example of the genre which has much to offer both as a memoir as well as an account of a major and often neglected scientific discovery and the development of its theoretical foundation from firm empirical experimentation.
The book itself is organized into five “books” that total 300 pages of excellent text with a lot of experimental diagrams. The first book shows the “discovery” of the stress concept and makes a thoughtful examination of how discovery is not the recognition of isolated facts but their connection to the rest of the world. The second book shows a dissection of the mechanism of adaptation by which the body is attacked by and defends itself against stress. The third book shows diseases of adaptation, ranging from mental disorders to disorders of the digestive system to problems with the adrenals and kidneys. The fourth book shows a sketch for the unified theory, showing how the theory of stress offers a way of connecting together many previously isolated phenomena into a unified concept that shows how the body’s characteristic ways of responding to outside threats and internal pressures presents tradeoffs and intractable dilemmas. The fifth book is perhaps the most thought-provoking of all, a philosophical defense of teleological thinking that shows the implications and applications of stress theory to show how people can live a better life in light of knowing how the body deals with the pressures of life.
In many ways this book is both a landmark as well as a major missed opportunity. To think that it was not until Selye’s work in the 1930’s that stress was recognized as a concept is rather shocking given its importance to our contemporary efforts at bettering our standard of living. The book has a lot of touches that are somewhat unexpected and very excellent. An entire chapter is devoted to what happens when scientists disagree, showing a debt of gratitude between Selye and an older scientist who was a mentor of sorts for him. Another chapter is devoted to defending the role of teleology in science in a way that anticipates intelligent design theory, showing how mindless evolutionary thought has harmed science by preventing us from recognizing the design inherent in our body’s reactions against outside and internal problems, as well as the ways these defenses can go wrong in diseases of inflammation (like arthritis), and even cancer. Yet another chapter is devoted to defending the importance of gratitude as one of the most important ways to live life well in light of a desire to live long and well. Still another chapter is devoted to defending the legitimacy of animal experimentation in light of its experimental benefits for people, while the serendipitous nature of experiments with rats and chickens and even monkeys cover the pages of this book, showing how researchers learned about stress from the sufferings of small animals.
The missed opportunity is how little the research and theory examined in this book has been put into practice through the medical community. The book itself hints at a few of the reasons why the research has been hard to practice. Among them are the fact that the book itself focuses on behavior rather than drugs, cutting against the trends of our time to pursue behavioral fixes to major societal evils rather than relying on drugs that merely focus on the side effects. Likewise, the hold of mindless evolutionary thinking has prevented the recognition of design in the body’s defenses and how they go awry. This is a case where we see the practical effects of bad theory in a major way. It is a shame that it has harmed the health of many people who could benefit from this theory and its applications simply because it leads in directions that scientists are unwilling to accept, proof of the author’s contention that scientists are not merely logical but have emotions and prejudices of their own. The fact that scientists are unwilling to admit this, by and large, does not make it any less true.
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