If you were to go out on the street and ask two dozen people what they believe is the biggest and most pressing issue in the world today, chances are many of the individuals you ask would say that it’s pollution, global warming, warfare, or food insecurity. The obesity epidemic, terrorism, and a widespread infiltration of technology into our society may also be brought up as key issues.
Few, if anyone, will probably say that the biggest and most pressing issue is evolutionary mismatch. Most likely, none of the people you ask will have heard the term before, much less know what it represents. That’s unfortunate, because the fact is that all of the above issues – ranging from global warming to technological immersion – can be said to be a part of a larger, more fundamental issue involving incompatibilities between the design of organisms and the environment in which they live.
What do global warming, food insecurity, and other major global issues have to do with evolution?
The principle reason why we’re worried about the aforementioned issues is that we’re concerned about the way they affect the ecosystem of the Earth, in particular its human constituents. Given that this is the case, it follows that we need to invoke evolutionary theory in order to fully make sense of the relevant issues, seeing as all of the organisms that make up the ecosystem of the Earth are a product of evolution.
As for pollution and global warming, we already know that these issues have taken a major toll on our health, as well as the health of many other organisms, and have contributed to causing millions of premature deaths and the extinction of a number of species (1, 2, 3). What’s often overlooked is that this is ultimately the result of evolutionary mismatch, seeing as the reason organisms generally don’t fare so well in environments that are congested with sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, arsenic, and/or other common pollutants is that natural selection has never gotten around to equipping us with the physiological machineries that are required to effectively detoxify large quantities of those compounds. Nor has it prepared us for the climatic changes that global warming has brought with it.
Similar evolutionary explanations can be found for all the rest of the aforementioned issues as well. It’s certainly not a novel occurrence that humans engage in warfare or perform hateful acts against others; however, there’s no doubt that the evolutionarily recent development of a civilization in which money and social hierarchies are of vital importance, people of different cultures and with different beliefs are routinely exposed to one another, and environmental factors that are known to adversely affect the development and workings of our brains abound has made us more predisposed towards violence.
Food-related issues, whether they have to do with food insecurity, malnutrition, or overeating and obesity, can also be understood in the light of evolution, for the simple reason that our nutritional requirements and proclivities were shaped by the selective pressures that were imposed on us over evolutionary time. If we’re subjected to nutritional conditions for which we’re not fully adapted, we’re bound to suffer.
Finally, the issues that modern technology has brought with it, many of which are related to our mental health, sleep, and ability to stay present in the moment, are also rooted in a conflict between our biological design and the conditions under which we live, in the sense that modern technology taps into and “hijacks” primal parts of our brains that evolved because they aided our ancestors’ ability to survive and reproduce in an environment where mobile phones, social media platforms, and computers were nowhere to be found.
Why is it important to recognize that genome-environment incompatibilities are at the root of many of our problems?
The above issues are only some of the many issues currently facing the inhabitants of the Earth that are a part of a larger, underlying mismatch problem.This is a profound realization and helps bring a sense of order and structure to the world. Furthermore, it helps us make sense of what’s required of us if we are to solve the problems we currently face. It doesn’t bring about quick fixes or magic remedies; however, it allows us to locate the sources of our problems, which in turn can help us deal with the issues in a more effective and prudent manner.
For example, by recognizing that we’re inherently driven to seek out information about what goes on in the world around us, we immediately get a better understanding of not only why we behave the way we do, but also why more isn’t always better when it comes to information. Such an inherent drive would have proven very useful in the distant past, but is mismatched to our current information-congested, technology-driven society. This realization may cause us to take pause, think about, and potentially change our information-seeing behavior and the way we use technology.
Part of what makes Darwinian science so powerful and beautiful is the fact that it applies to all living things on this planet. Furthermore, it can help us bring sense of pretty much anything that has to do with life. It’s not just relevant in medical or nutritional contexts, but also in discussions and investigations related to violence, racism, kinship, and much more. That’s one of the key things that appeals to me about evolutionary theory.
Many of the organisms that make up the ecosystem of the Earth as it currently exists live under environmental conditions that differ markedly from the conditions for which their physiology was designed through evolution via natural selection. As a result, a number of issues have presented themselves, ranging from issues pertaining to nutrition, exposure to pollutants, multiculturalism, drug addiction, light exposure, and much more. All of these issues are a part of a larger evolutionary mismatch problem. This is often overlooked, which is unfortunate, because in order to fully understand the problems we’re facing, we need to approach them from an evolutionary point of view.