The majority of humans on the planet today are not living as we were adapted to. We may be surviving, reproducing, and even enjoying ourselves, but we are living in an unnatural environment. Why is this important to consider? Because many of the features of our bodies that made us well adapted for our natural environment are now harmful to us in our unnatural, modern environment. From evolving in a world where food was scarce and movement was abundant, we now contend with overabundant food and a deficiency in movement. This “mismatch” of our bodies to our current environment has led to the increasing development of a wide variety of previously rare or nonexistent diseases and ailments. While there are many ways we attempt to alleviate the symptoms of living unnaturally, it would be more effective to treat the root cause of the problem. The first step is being educated on why human evolution matters today and its significance in your life.
I’ve just finished reading the fascinating book The Story of the Human Body, by Daniel Lieberman. A professor of human evolution, Lieberman addresses exactly what I discussed above. Because I found it so relevant to every human living today, as well as to my work, I’d like to review the main points covered in his book.
Our species has been around for about 200,000 years. The main differences between us and other early Hominids at the time were in our brains and faces. Our basic anatomy and physiology have not changed very much since our ancestor Homo erectus evolved to hunt and gather, almost 2 million years ago. The act of hunting and gathering defined a lot of what made us human rather than ape, including walking and running on two legs, cooperating as a group, and developing the cognitive skills to track animals. Only 10,000 years ago did people begin to farm. With farming, peoples’ lifestyles began to change drastically, and the first “mismatch” diseases started to appear. However, it has only been in the last couple hundred years or so that lifestyles have changed exponentially, leading to a boom in even more mismatch diseases. Only since the 1970’s has sugary, calorie-rich food become cheap and accessible while jobs involving sitting a lot and using one’s brain and not one’s body have become the norm. So although it seems normal to be living as we do, it has really been a minuscule amount of time from an evolutionary standpoint. It makes sense that our bodies have not had the time to adapt to our vastly different environment of today.
The costs of our modern lifestyles are substantial. Mismatch diseases—diseases caused by living in an environment other than that to which one has adapted—can include heart disease, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, plantar fasciitis, bunions, irritable bowel syndrome, myopia, and lower back pain. Lieberman states, “You are most likely to die from a mismatch disease. You are most likely to suffer from disabilities caused by a mismatch disease. Mismatch diseases contribute to the bulk of health care spending throughout the world.” (Lieberman, 2013, p. 168)
So where do we go from here? How can we try to thrive in this modern world while living in ancient bodies? Lieberman calls for more research in preventative medicine, more public education on how to prevent mismatch diseases, and a change in our environment to make it easier to live a healthy lifestyle. This last one is the most intriguing. Lieberman recognizes that it is only natural for us to consistently make choices based on the short term rewards rather than the long term (such as eating my cake now rather than preventing cardiovascular disease in thirty years). Therefore, rather than relying on willpower, we need to put in place a cultural environment that encourages us to make better decisions. Examples he provides include putting taxes on soda and other junk food, just like we do already on cigarettes and alcohol. How much of a difference would it make if organic, locally grown food cost less than sugary, salty processed food? Imagine if architects and city planners were to design buildings and landscapes with “make people move” as part of their criteria.
Lieberman’s final message is that we can use an evolutionary perspective to look at many problems that are common today but were rare 10,000 years ago in order to address their root causes rather than their symptoms. Also, most of us cannot lead healthy lives by willpower alone but need our cultural environment to support us in living in a manner to which we were biologically adapted.
What changes to your environment would make it easier for you to move better and make healthier decisions? In what ways does your culture need to evolve to help you nurture your body, and what are some things you can change yourself? The most important part of my work is to ask these questions of myself and to help you find your own answers.
Lieberman, D. E. (2013) The story of the human body, New York, NY, Pantheon Books.