Modern humans and modern life: an evolutionary mismatch

Casts of humanoid skulls on display at Diablo Valley College. Photo by Nikki Moylan.

Quick. What do you have in common with a homo sapien who lived 20,000 years ago?

If you answered that you both share the same genome, you’re right.

And if you said you’re both exquisitely well-adapted to live 20,000 years ago, give yourself bonus points!

Unfortunately for you, humans just haven’t evolved fast enough to be well-adapted to modern life.

“Our ancestors evolved to do things one way and modern human culture and technology have put us in a very different set of circumstances,” Dr. Steven Johnson, an anthropology instructor at Diablo Valley College, says.

Professor Chris Mercer, Johnson’s colleague in the anthropology department says, “Our culture is in a state of severe maladaptation. Not only is it bad for our physical selves but for our emotional selves.” It even impacts our perception of the the quality of life, he says.

In the last several decades, Johnson and Mercer have witnessed an explosion of discoveries in the fields of paleontology, comparative anatomy, cellular biology and genomics. During the same period, they’ve seen their students struggle to carve out meaningful lives and flounder under the weight of poor lifestyle choices and societal pressures. Mercer and Johnson realized emerging scientific discoveries needed to be the foundation for empowering students to create the lives they are biologically adapted to live.

“What are we evolved to do?” is the key question posed to students, Mercer says. It’s a broad  question with some fairly concrete answers.

Archaeologists believe humans survived, in part, by persistence hunting- a method of tracking prey until it became exhausted. The method, as you might imagine, requires walking and running over quite long distances. Humans tasked with foraging and gathering food would have spent a good portion of the day walking, climbing and digging.

Human bodies have evolved for a lot of physical activity every day. In fact, we’re healthiest when we’re moving far more than a daily 30 minute walk or a workout at the gym a few times a week. Unfortunately, the most some of us get each day is a walk from a parking lot and back.

The level of activity needed for our ancient ancestors to survive required a lot of energy. They met this demand by eating a high-calorie diet. But early humans faced food shortages, too. Winters ended availability of most fruits and vegetables. Migration patterns of prey would have rendered hunting some game a seasonal endeavor. Any change of weather pattern could have been a death knell if it made a relied-upon food source scarce. But humans, like many other animals, had a nifty solution to this hardship. They stored calories in the form of fat in a highly efficient manner, just as we do today!

The original complete skull of 2.1 million year old Australopithecus africans, “Mrs. Ples.” Photo  by José Braga and Didier Descouens.

Today it seems, we’re constantly struggling against the thing that once helped us survive. Our expanding waistlines have a three-pronged culprit, as every dieter knows: we are not nearly as physically active as our bodies have evolved to be, our bodies’ demand a high calorie diet due to an ancient survival mechanism of storing up fat, and the modern industrial diet tends to have lower nutritional value and loads of simple sugars with a sky-high ability to convert directly to extra padding.

The result is a shocking example of how our bodies are so ill-adapted to industrial society. Epidemics in obesity, Type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease are growing.

There are emotional consequences to our modern environments as well, Mercer says. “We evolved to live in very small groups of 20 to 50 persons who you got to know intimately throughout your life.”

“There is a tremendous amount of social stress and anxiety produced when group size and dynamics get above a certain proportion,” he says.

Social groups are getting larger and more disconnected, according to Mercer. We move more often than any people before, changing residence from neighborhood to neighborhood, to new cities and culturally distinct regions. Little value is placed on our local communities and while we all we suffer for it, children are impacted most.

Mercer says children are often thrust into environments with high contact to a large number of people, but with a low amount of interpersonal interaction. Children begin to dissociate from other people he says, and this can lead to a sense of alienation, anxiety and depression.

This is a stark contrast to the small groups in which we evolved early in human history. Mercer says, small, highly-familiar groups tend to provide life-enriching, interactive communities. He says it’s important to re-establish those in our own neighborhoods to foster a sense of security and belonging. This greatly increases one’s sense of satisfaction in life.

Our relationship with nature in the broadest sense is a human evolutionary adaptation. Professor Jamie Nakama, an eco-anthropologist at Diablo Valley College, studies how indigenous peoples interact with and care for nature.

“Most, if not all, indigenous people have a very different relationship with the environment,” Nakama says. “In fact, usually, there is no indigenous word for ‘nature’ or ‘environment’ because human world, spirit world and nature are all interconnected. So when you have this intimate spirit connection with the natural world, you automatically treat it with respect and reverence.”

Both Nakama and Johnson believe that the shared mythic tales of modern industrial cultures need a radical update to bring us into greater harmony with the environment. Nakama says the spiritual relationship to nature is vital for our survival.

Twenty-thousand years ago, humans were genetically the same as we are today. It looks as though humans in modern societies are being drawn back, mostly out of necessity, to live in greater alignment with how we evolved to thrive way back then.

 

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