As Dr. David Agus lays out in the introduction to his new book, The Book of Animal Secrets: Nature’s Lessons for a Long and Happy Life, he’s a “cancer doctor who opened his eyes.” Cancer, as he puts it, is a “wily disease,” and he’d grown frustrated with how resilient of a foe it is, constantly evolving along with our attempts to stop it. So he zoomed out to consider evolution more broadly. Since humans are relative latecomers to our planet, he wondered what we can learn from “more experienced” species that are “smart in their own special ways and have been gaming earth for eons.” The answer is: a lot! “I’m thrilled to tell you,” Dr. Agus writes, “that possibilities for a better, healthier tomorrow in fact do exist if we learn where to look to find the clues that can inform us how to change what we are doing today to benefit us tomorrow.”
While we’ve been so focused on ourselves, Dr. Agus writes, “one of the things we’ve missed is that every other creature on earth has also been evolving, figuring out how to handle threatening stressors, procreate, and thrive.” For instance, elephants very rarely get cancer. Giraffes don’t get cardiovascular problems even with the highest known blood pressure of any animal. Queen ants are able to live 80 times longer than their genetically similar colony mates. Chimps have lessons about helicopter parenting for us. It’s only fitting that Dr. Agus dedicates the book to his dog Georgie, who, he writes, is “a better person than I, even though you are a dog.”
Dr. Agus hopes the book “might change not only how you think and live each day, but also how you lead, parent, work, teach, discipline, make decisions, show affection, love, play, collaborate, create, relate with others (strangers included), deal with challenges, cope with stress, forgive the past, be in the present, plan the future, and even prepare to die.” And he’s right — I keep encountering daily moments that bring his book to mind.
And that’s because the book isn’t just about all the incredible things we can learn from our fellow — but more experienced — earth dwellers, it’s also a guide to all the ways we can affect our health, our well-being and even our longevity through simple lifestyle changes.
You might wonder, given how differently we’ve evolved from animals, how the fact that so many of them don’t get cancer, don’t become obese and aren’t afflicted by stress or mental health problems like depression and anxiety could be applicable to our lives. The answer is that genes account for less than 7% of our life span. “Our longevity is based mostly on our lifestyle choices,” Dr. Agus writes, “what we eat and drink, how much we move, what kind of stress wears on us, and even other factors like the quality of our relationships.” Dr. Agus cites an amazing study showing that how long your mother-in-law lives is a better predictor of how long you’ll live than what’s in your genome — because we tend to share the lifestyle of those we marry. And in fact, our lifestyle can actually change our DNA through epigenetics, which, as Dr. Agus writes, is about “how your behaviors and environment can cause molecular changes in your DNA that affect the way your genes work.”
One of the biggest themes of the book is stress, and the connection between stress and chronic inflammation, which Dr. Agus writes is “at the center of virtually all of our most pernicious ailments,” including diabetes, obesity, vascular diseases, dementia and depression. And even cancer. “Yes, how you think — and respond to stressors in your life — factors into your risk for cancer,” he writes. He describes “metabolic syndrome” — a constellation of factors including excess body fat and high levels of blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure that increases the risk of a host of diseases — as “the ultimate disease of civilization not seen in the wild.”
So what are some animal secrets? Elephants have a strong defense against cancer based on a certain protein. But they also, as Dr. Agus describes, “interact positively with one another and work together for the collective good especially during moments of distress.”
And there are so many lessons we can learn from chimps. Dr. Agus cites studies showing how bad ultra processed foods are for us and how they raise our risk for cancer. “Survival of the fittest today isn’t about getting enough calories through hunting and gathering to survive,” writes Dr. Agus. “It’s about choosing to consume the right foods from the bounty.” That’s exactly what chimps do — by eating a varied diet, they lessen their risk of taking in too much of any particular toxin.
Here are other lessons we can learn from our genetic cousins. Instead of helicopter parenting, chimp mothers keep a watchful eye on their offspring but also allow them to take risks and fall down. Chimps, Dr. Agus writes, “use meals with others as currency for connection.” He cites studies showing that loneliness is as dangerous for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Chimps, like elephants, look up to their elders and take wisdom from them. Japan is a culture that honors its elders, and has a high rate of centenarians.
There’s a fascinating discussion on what we can learn from optimistic pigs (yes, their moods vary and can be studied) on accepting pain in life and how our mood can impact our health. As an example, Dr. Agus cites research on the World Cup, which provided an opportunity to study something that would otherwise be impossible — the health effects of a country going through collective euphoria at the same time. The 1998 World Cup, in which France defeated Brazil in the finals, was watched by 40% of the people in France. What researchers found was that the number of heart attacks dropped on the day of the finals. This prompts Dr. Agus to ask, “If optimism can protect against adverse health outcomes, then does pessimism prompt bad outcomes?” Yes — in fact, in one study, participants classified as optimists lived an average of 19% longer than those classified as pessimists. The lesson he draws? “Employ the power of altruism, positive thinking/optimism, bold sociality, and a feel-good environment.”
From ants we can learn how our work environment affects our well-being. In their first moments of life, ants adapt their social and job roles to the needs of the colony. And once in those roles, worker ants that are infected with harmful microbes alter their behavior to avoid interaction with other colony members. In humans, researchers have discovered that 10 to 38% of the difference in life expectancy can be attributed to our job conditions and how we experience them. “That means our jobs do indeed take part in our longevity, and more so than we appreciate or imagine,” writes Dr. Agus.
Of course, most people can’t just change jobs at will. But as Dr. Agus notes, “there are little things we each can be doing within our chosen professions to reduce those risks and maintain practices that help counter any dangers that are beyond our control.” For instance, he recommends coming up with three beneficial habits within the duties of our job that can tip the scales of longevity in our favor.
And that brings up the importance of habits of all kinds. Nearly half of our daily actions are habits, which are essential to our health. That’s why it’s so important to get them right. “They are as much shapers of our lives as we are shapers of our habits,” writes Dr. Agus.
Yet another reason for optimism is how simple and small actions can have powerful benefits for us. That’s the basis for Thrive’s Microsteps — small, science-backed actions we can incorporate into our daily lives to build healthy habits.
For instance, as Dr. Agus points out, animals hardly spend hours on the treadmill, but they constantly engage in brief bursts of activity, which Dr. Agus calls “nature’s best exercise.” As he notes, just two minutes of activity per hour can extend our lives significantly, and even just three seconds of contracting our arm muscles can increase the strength of our biceps.
We consider ourselves more intelligent than animals, but here, too, we have much to learn. “We may think we sit on top of the animal kingdom,” writes Dr. Agus, “but when it comes to intelligence, that viewpoint is grossly oversimplified.” True intelligence, he argues, is the ability to invent new behaviors, make decisions and adapt on the fly. “Whether we’re a human or an octopus,” writes Dr. Agus, “one truth remains the same: a good life is about being able to adapt to our environment, learn from experience, and overcome obstacles.”
And there’s so much more — about what we can learn from dogs (about friendship and being in the moment, from fish (about the value of moving and adapting to our environment), from rhinos (about, yes, fertility), and from dolphins (about neurodegeneration). I can promise you that once you pick this book up, you won’t look at either the animal world or your own human world the same way ever again. In fact, you’ll no longer see them as different worlds. All around us, the solutions to virtually all of our physical and mental ailments — from our chronic illnesses to our existential angst — are hiding in plain sight. And these solutions are proven to work — not in randomized controlled trials, but something even better: they’ve been tested and refined by evolution for longer than we’ve been around.
As Dr. Agus concludes, “The more we can spend time with and love other people, form lasting bonds, and enjoy nature’s contributions to wellness, the more we stand to gain more vibrant years to life.” And the “keys to this kingdom” are available to us all: “be openhearted and strike up conversations with strangers (even if you’re an introvert); hug those you love (aim for a solid twenty seconds) and use written forms of oxytocin in correspondence with them; embrace people’s weirdness; gossip for good; be nice to people and make friends; create memories in group settings like dancing and going to the movies (even taking one friend to the movies is better than going solo); think about how to be of service to others and act accordingly; be as good of a neighbor as a lover; and tune into the calls from the crickets at night and the birds by day.” If animals can do it, why can’t we?
Subscribe here for Arianna’s On My Mind Newsletter, where you’ll find inspiration and actionable advice on how to build healthy habits, resilience and connections in our unprecedented times.