Why Everything Feels So Wrong
A look at how evolution has backfired.
“The time scale for evolutionary or genetic change is very long. A characteristic period for the emergence of one advanced species from another is perhaps a hundred thousand years… but today we do not have ten million years to wait for the next advance. We live in a time when our world is changing at an unprecedented rate. While the changes are largely of our own making, they cannot be ignored. We must adjust and adapt and control, or we perish.”
— Carl Sagan
Have you ever felt lost? Confused? Out of place, like something is missing? Felt a nagging sensation that something, just something, was wrong?
Well, here’s one potential reason.
We weren’t meant for this.
What do I mean by that?
Natural selection is the process by which organisms (including us) adapt to their environments through the change in heritable traits. Unfortunately (?), it is slow. And modern society is fast.
Natural selection has been left in the dust.
It’s simple: there’s a mismatch between the world we evolved for, and the world we all live in today.
Rapid economic and social changes, caused in large part by technological advancements, have left homo sapiens completely bewildered. You and I did not evolved to live in highly complex nation-states with computers, nuclear weapons, and dense urban environments.
We evolved to live in nature. In small tribes. Gathering and hunting for food. With spears and rocks.
Here’s a bit of a primer:
Homo sapiens emerged around 300,000 years ago… but we didn’t start to farm until around 10,000 BCE.
That means we’ve only had large-scale agriculture for around 4% of our entire time as a species.
Here’s a rough timeline to give a better sense of perspective:
~ 300,000 BCE: Emergence of homo sapiens.
~ 70,000 BCE: Humans begin migration out of Africa.
10,000 BCE: Humans begin to practice agriculture.
6,000 BCE: First cities emerge in the Middle East.
3,000 BCE: First civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt emerge. These cultures develop the first forms of the wheel, mathematics, and writing.
500 BCE: First empires emerge. Foundations of modern Western modern philosophy develop in Greece.
300 CE to 1000 CE : Classical Empires fall, slowing down of progress, loss of development.
1300’s-1500’s CE: Renaissance in Europe.
1492 CE: Columbus sails to America.
1600s CE: Modern nation states emerge.
1750–1900 CE: Industrial Revolution changes economies forever, creating massive wealth. Living standards and global population increasing to unprecedented levels. Technological explosion. European countries form worldwide colonial empires. Emergence of global economy.
1870 CE: Invention of the telephone.
1930’s CE: Invention of first “modern” computer.
1945 CE: First nuclear test. End of WW2.
1980–2000 CE: Development and initial spread of the internet.
2004 CE: Creation of Facebook.
The human condition has changed rapidly over the past few millennia, and even more quickly in the past three centuries. Evolution/natural selection, usually a much slower process, has not been able to keep up.
The vast change in the human situation caused by technological advancements and corresponding social changes have made evolutionary adaptations that were once advantageous become counterproductive. Humans have become “dislocated” from their environment.
I’m going to go over just a few clear examples:
I think a lot of us feel out of place. Isolated, especially in these past few years. I think that the structure of modern society has a lot to do with it.
When we evolved for hundreds of thousands of years, it was with tight-nit kin-based groups. While we don’t know the exact composition of the typical hunter-gatherer tribe, it makes common sense to think that essentially all of your immediate, and then extended family, were included. After all, there was no job in the city across the country, or a college in another state. Shifting social groups was inherently risk in a life where you couldn’t always count on the next meal, and you didn’t have cars, planes, or buses to get around. All you had was your feet, and you didn’t know what you’d find across the boundaries of your small world. You stuck with what you know, because that’s what would keep you alive.
And that meant sticking with those closest to you.
You lived together. You died together. And you did that for your entire life.
That tight-nit group is so different then what we have today.
It’s no wonder we often feel lonely. Why we feel isolated. We didn’t evolve to be alone, to be separated from our group, or to pick up our bags and be a stranger with millions of other strangers in a large, unknown city. No one had Facebook, or dating apps, or a friend of a friend of a friend, or going out for drinks with people you barely even know.
We’re trying to reform these connections that our ancestors had, these deep, tight knit bonded groups. It’s no wonder that people feel so bad when they don’t have them, or even when they do.
In the past, being without a group often meant you’d end up dead. It’s no surprise that those who naturally sought out connection and thrived in close groups ended up being the ones to pass on their genes… and why we’re constantly trying to replicate that in a modern society that often pushes us away from one another. If our ancestors didn’t, they’d die. Now… we get lonely. And anxious. And depressed. All emotional incentives screaming at us to make some friends… even when it’s no longer a matter of life and death.
2. Scarcity of Resources:
For thousands of years (really, all the way since life first emerged) humans and their ancestors have suffered because of the problem of scarcity. There was not always food/other resources to meet the basic needs necessary for everyone’s survival. People often died due to the lack of food, water, etc. Sometimes, there was just not enough to go arounds. Being hyperaware of the distribution of resources within your social groups, and to always want more, was extremely valuable, because a little extra would often mean the difference between life and death.
Humans also evolved to grab as many calories as they could, and with the capacity to store excess into fat, which could then be tapped into during leaner times.
Members of the population would often have to engage in physical conflicts (either within or without their social group) in order to protect or take resources necessary for physical survival. Those without this aggression/strength, or ability to be aware of resource distribution, often ended up dead (natural selection in action.)
Contrast this with today.
For the first time in the history, obesity is a bigger problem in much of the world than starvation. Thousand of people, if not millions, die every year due to obesity-related causes. Why can’t we stop eating what’s bad for us? Well… in the past it wasn’t bad. It was good. Fatty (“unhealthy”) foods kept us alive. So those with the ability to store fat and who enjoyed the taste of unhealthy foods survived more often to have offspring… that trait was passed on… and now most of us find fatty foods delicious, even when its killing us.
But despite these changes in material circumstances, humans are still wired to overreact to issues of resource distribution. In other words, politics. Why? Those who didn’t fight tooth and nail in the thousands of years of human evolution were wiped out. When we all have enough to go around, people still often react to politics like it means life and death, because it used to. Those who didn't’ react strongly and didn’t treat politics seriously often died. And those genes were never passed on.
Same thing as above. In a time when you often didn’t have enough to go around, being willing to attack other groups/individuals for their resources often kept you alive. It made perfect sense for the Rock Tribe to attack the Fish Tribe to steal their food and women. If a few warriors died, well, that was often still a good trade. And so those aggressive traits were then often those that made it to the next generation… and so on. And so on.
Aggression might be the thing that gets us all killed. If the leader of nation-state gives into aggressive impulses and attacks a foreign rival… it could end in a nuclear holocaust. It might have made sense to attack when all it meant was chucking a few spears, not launching thousands of ICBM’s.
But we didn’t evolve to deal with ICBM’s and empires. We evolved to handle spears and the idiotic tribe next door. Those same war-like, aggressive impulses are still with us… but all they do now is load bullets into a gun pointed at our own heads.
A Note of Hope:
Sorry, this posting ended up being a bit more negative than I had planned. But there’s cause for hope!
First, simply being aware that humans evolved in a very different environment can help you make sense of the emotions/drives that you experience, and that while they’re often extremely disproportionate, they’re not “meaningless.” For example, I haven't talked to anyone who enjoys moving. In fact, most of what I hear is that it makes people extremely anxious/nervous.
And that makes sense!
A bad moving experience during pre-history times could get you killed. Now, you can have a bad time, but unless things go really off the rails, you’re not going to die from it.
I hope this helps you understand yourself a bit more, and love yourself as well.
Second, humans are inherently adaptable. Look at what our species can accomplish! The latte-sipping college student at Harvard has essentially the same genes as the spear-throwing hunter-gatherer in pre-historic times. What’s changed is the society and environment that we all grow up in. And those things, to a certain extend, are under our control!
Third, things could get better! We’re living in a very strange time in human history. We’ve advanced enormously as a species, but so quickly as well that it’s like we’re a clumsy teenager trying to manage a growth spurt. We haven't quite figured out how to yet. Some signs are promising. The fact that so many Americans are now able to work from home in whatever place they choose has allowed a lot of people to be closer to their families.
However, the technology wheel will (hopefully) keep spinning, and this might increase the “dislocation” we all feel to some extent. In the distant future (and this is where I get controversial, depending on your views) we will probably be able to tinker with our genetic code (we already can, to some extent, but we don’t know enough about what each gene does to do so comfortably).
If this sounds horrifying to you, your in good company, but it also can serve as a point of hope. Even if the slow pace of natural selection can no longer keep up with the rapid changes to our society, we can do it ourselves! Craving unhealthy foods or feeling like you might get attacked during a move would be inconveniences of the distant past. People might look back at our time as the uncomfortable “middle” stage of human progress, where we had changed just enough to feel out of place, but not enough to address our problems.
There were a lot more traits/things I could have included in this post (including in mating strategy and human attraction) but it would have made it far too long. Please let me know what you all think! Would love to spark some discussion.