Humans are arguably the most successful species in the world, adapting and spreading across a spectrum of environments like no other. You might see, for example, ants or grass or birds all over the world, but you won’t see a particular species of any of them in the desert and in the rainforest and in the Arctic. But you will find Homo sapiens. Our secret, the one that allows us to spread so well to different environments, is that we don’t adapt only by altering our genetics slowly over time, as other species do, but instead we use culture—and a special subset of culture, technology—to help us. When we want to live in the cold of the Arctic, for example, we don’t rely on evolving fur or thick layers of fat, which could take millennia, but instead make jackets, igloos, and the occasional mug of hot cocoa. We then use our culture to improve and share our ideas with those around us, making sure our descendants can make just as good a cup of cocoa without having to figure it out for themselves.
Culture and technology can supercharge adaptation because they have relatively short feedback loops. Genetic change can only occur with each new generation, and the changes are typically small, since (despite what I learned from the X-Men) most mutations are harmful with regard to survival. Technology, on the other hand, changes quickly, partly because change is often clearly “better” or not; it’s easier to improve when it’s obvious the new version is better than the old. Cultural change occurs slower than technological change because the outcomes are muddier, but still faster than genetic change. Genetic feedback loops use only the number of offspring as a measure of success, requiring many generations to result in even small changes. Although none of this is under anyone’s total direct control, we can speed cultural and technological adaptation by purposely making changes that nudge or push things in a particular direction. We don’t have much ability to do this with genetic change.
This speed of adaptation, with technology > culture > genetics explains how we often have a gap between when technology develops and when we adjust to it. Whether it’s electric lights, cars, or email, there’s always a lag as our institutions and social norms adapt to what’s new. And our physical selves, which have been basically unchanged for 300,000 years, really lag behind. Our reflexes still haven’t adapted to the velocity of our machines, for example, and instead we require additional technology in the form of control interfaces and safety devices, and additional culture in the form of habits, social norms, and regulations in order to allow us to operate with any margin of safety. It also means that a time traveler—if they were so inclined—could successfully mate with a human from 100,000 years ago, yet individuals can lose touch with modern culture and technology even within their single lifespan. We find ourselves, for all practical purposes, frozen physiologically, while the world rapidly shifts around us.
The environment that shaped our physical development does not resemble our current world in many ways. For example, we developed in a relatively calorie-poor environment, so we’ve adapted instincts and tastes that seek out rich sources of energy and nutrients, such as fatty, sweet, and salty food. But recent technological advancements have allowed for many of us to live in calorie-rich environments requiring very little effort to obtain large amounts of energy, and our once-useful adaptations have become a liability, with diet-related diseases now causing significant harm in the form of diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
Especially in fiercely individualistic countries like United States, we tend to place the burden of solving these problems on the individual, focusing on their personal choices rather than the underlying physiology: if you overeat, we seem to say, it’s because of your lack of self-control, poor choices, or maybe ignorance. While there is an element of personal responsibility, and of course individuals are able to behave in ways that go against our built-in instincts, we can’t ignore the fact that we are still physical beings, still basically animals, and it’s not so easy to shake off millions of years of adaptation. These adaptations are, after all, not mistakes, but elegant developments that allowed us to survive to this point. They just can’t keep up with our current speed of change.
OK, so we’re physically ancient beings, trying to get by in a modern world… but are there any practical applications of this realization, besides making us more forgiving of ourselves? This insight can be useful on two levels—the large scale and the personal. If you are trying to make any changes involving large groups of people, whether it’s your company, your city, or your country, you are going to have to take into account the basic human-ness of the people you are working with. On average, people are going to be people, acting in concert with their nature, even if their nature is more suited to the savanna than to the city street. They will have an easier time trusting personal experience than statistics (there was no way to report statistics 300,000 years ago). They are more likely to behave like those around them rather than following a set of rules (copying the behavior of the group is, generally the safest option). And since for most of evolution basic survival has been tough enough, people are going to have a hard time focusing on abstract goals when their more fundamental physical needs are not being met.
If we don’t take into account human nature, we’re not going to be able to solve problems at scale. With diet, for example, we’ve mostly focused on trying to get individuals to change their behavior by just telling them to do better. This may have some effect, but it’s certainly swimming against the tide of evolution. If we want to improve health by changing the diet of a population, we should understand that a desire for sweet or fatty food was adaptive and isn’t going to go away; if those types of food are available, people are going to eat them. We have to use our superpowers—culture and technology—to see if we can shift the mean toward a healthier direction. Maybe we can, as some are trying, create food that satisfies our cravings without the negative effects. Or perhaps we in the US can move toward the example set by other cultures, who emphasize smaller portions and more plant-based foods. We need to understand and embrace our human nature, not ignore it.
That said, we should also keep in mind that our human-ness doesn’t mean that we are base, simplistic creatures. Some, for example, assume that people are, at their core, selfish beings who will always act to optimize their own self-interest, a view that ignores that fact that altruism is not only common in both primates and other animals, but is also adaptive under certain circumstances. Acknowledging our humanity doesn’t mean assuming the lowest common denominator.
On a personal level, I try to be honest with myself when thinking about my human limitations. For example, when I consider the people, services, and technology that I allow into my life, I try to understand if this thing takes into account my human nature in order to help me adapt and achieve my goals, or does it instead exploit my humanity for its own benefit? In other words, am I using it, or is it using me? With web sites that serve me stories that get me mad, food that keeps me eating long after I’m full, or a deal that seems too good to pass up—for a limited time only!—I think the answer is obvious. I try (sometimes even successfully) to bring into my life those things that help me adapt to my environment, rather than take advantage of my many maladaptations.
We weren’t made for these times, we were made for a simpler, harsher world. That said, genetic evolution is not speeding up to match the rate of change in our environment; people are people, and they are going to stay that way for a long time. We will probably do better to meet humanity—and ourselves—where we are, and not where we want to be.
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