What is “evolutionary mismatch?”
If you struggle with your fitness, your health, if you struggle to exercise consistently and eat the right foods, to get enough sleep and manage your weight, it’s not your fault.
Consider this question:
If you pluck a zebra from it’s natural habitat and relocate it to New England, will it survive without human intervention? And, if so, for how long?
The answer is that, at best, it will greatly suffer and most likely not survive long without human intervention. Why?
Because the zebra evolved and adapted over thousands of generations to the conditions that exist in Africa; like what food sources to pursue and where to find them, which ones to avoid. It adapted to know how to find safe sources of water. It adapted to know which predators to watch out for, signs that indicate that predators are in the area, how to evade them. It adapted for the hot, dry African weather. It adapted to Africa.
Take that zebra out of Africa and drop it in New England and it’s no longer in alignment with the environment in which it adapted to survive. This is what evolutionary biologists call “evolutionary mismatch.”
The zebra in New England won’t have access to it’s normal food sources. The plant life in Massachusetts is quite different than that of Africa. It won’t know what is safe to eat, where to find it, what to avoid.
It won’t know where to find safe drinking water.
It won’t know what predators to avoid, how to avoid them and how to recognize signs that predators are in the area. Zebras are adapted to recognize and avoid big cats and hyenas, not coyotes and bears.
Oh, and good luck crossing the freeway.
Lastly, perhaps most importantly, it won’t survive the winter. Zebras are adapted to dry heat, not cold, and certainly not snow. The frigid New England winter will spell the end for our poor Zebra.
So, why am I talking about zebras?
Because, in the human story, WE are the zebra.
The way it was back THEN
No one outside of scientific circles seems to be talking about this issue and how it relates to human health and wellness. (One notable exception is Daniel Lieberman).
Your brain and biology are very old. Not YOUR brain and biology, specifically, but the human brain and biology. They have evolved and adapted over millions of years.
And, while you many think of yourself as modern and current, your brain and biology are NOT. They are stuck in the past. Thousands upon thousands of years in the past.
That’s a problem, because you live now.
For almost the entirety of the millions of years that variations of the human species have been in existence, we were hunter-gatherers living in a natural environment.
We lived in small tribes made up mostly of family members. We cooperated and collaborated because we had to in order to survive. Alone, the human animal is weak and vulnerable, so we evolved to be highly social animals dependent upon each other.
Our daily routine consisted of roaming far and wide, up to 10 miles per day, foraging, tracking and hunting in order to secure the calories we needed for the survival of the tribe. We were nomadic. We built shelters and tools, we carried little with us but carried it, nonetheless, on our backs.
We ate what the environment presented; plants, mostly, and fish, insects, animals when we could successfully hunt or scavenge.
The sun rose, the sun set, and that’s how we organized our sleep. Mostly in groups, outside, around the fire.
When danger presented itself our stress-response systems sprang to action and then subsided when the danger passed.
This is how it went. Up until about 10,000 years ago when things began to change. They BEGAN to change, they didn’t change all at once. Humans, in different parts of the world, began to domesticate plants (and animals, though that began earlier). The Agricultural Revolution began as a way to control calorie production, a smart and instinctive “solution” to the challenges of daily foraging. Hunting and gathering began to get replaced and crowded out.
Urbanization, the establishment of large cities, replaced small tribes. Sedentism, living in one place, replaced nomadism.
Then, about 250 years ago, the industrial revolution began and our environment would never be the same.
The problem with NOW
Now, those of us who live in industrialized nations live in an environment for which we are not biologically suited. It’s not our fault, it’s just that the environment has evolved into something for which we are not adapted.
Exercise, as we know it, is not natural. As hunter-gatherers we never even thought about physical exercise for health. We didn’t have to. We lived very active lives as a matter of daily survival.
But now, instead of roaming far and wide every single day searching for food, abundant calories are always within arm’s reach, within a stroll from the couch to the kitchen, a short drive away, available to be delivered with a click of a button or a phone call.
Technology has further reduced the need for physical activity in any form. We don’t walk or even ride horses, we drive. We don’t have to labor around the house as much, we have dishwashers, laundry machines, vacuum cleaners, we don’t have to plant and cultivate food. Our gardens aren’t even hand-watered; they run on timers. We don’t have to chop wood for the fireplace, we have natural gas instead. We build nothing.
We used to get several hours of physical activity every single day. Not as “exercise.” Not even as “recreation.” We had to expend physical effort every day foraging for food, tracking & hunting, moving from camp to camp, building shelters, collecting fuel for the fire, digging, chopping, dragging. Now, we move very, very little, if at all, because we simply don’t HAVE to.
Perhaps the most dangerous change in our environment has been in the food supply.
We no longer eat what the natural world provided us, we eat industrialized food. Plants, our go-to food since the beginning of time, were an amazing source of necessary micronutrients in a low-calorie package that virtually guaranteed great health without the risk of becoming overweight.
Even the animals we ate were different. They were free-range, nomadic animals that fed on the natural environment, consuming dozens if not hundreds of different types of plants, an incredible variety that ensured that they were healthy. All of the nutrition they consumed, we consumed. They weren’t grain-fed, they weren’t grass-fed, they weren’t crammed into stalls, side-by-side, covered in filth and surrounded by infectious disease. They were wild, healthy and free. We didn’t focus on eating muscle (steak), as we do now. We ate the organs which were loaded with nutrition, we ate the fatty brains, we ate the good parts.
We didn’t drink calories.
The dangerous amounts of refined sugar and simple carbohydrates present in our food now wasn’t available in nature. There are no natural sources of “dense packets of carbohydrates” available to us except for honey and tubers, which were prized but difficult to come by. There were no refined flours. “Processed food,” in hunter-gatherer terms, was food either cooked or pounded to make it more easily chewed and nutrition extracted. But our bodies are not biologically adapted to cope with industrialized food and large doses of simple carbohydrates.
The advent of artificial light in the mid 1800’s changed sleep forever. Blue screens from handheld devices changed it further. Our brains are fooled into thinking it’s still daytime and our sleep hormones are suppressed.
The light from a campfire doesn’t do that. Moonlight doesn’t do that. Man-made light does.
We didn’t isolate ourselves in ones and twos to go to sleep. We slept together, vigilant, protecting each other, providing safety. Some scientists believe that sleeping in isolation may work against our natural need for safety in numbers.
Our schedules manage us instead of the other way around. We still hold on to the “you can rest when you’re dead” mentality. Which is bullshit. If you don’t rest, you’ll BE dead. The science is clear; you need 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep every night.
Our stress response systems are designed to address ACUTE stress, not CHRONIC stress. Acute stress is something like, “Whoa! There’s something in the bushes, RUN!!!” It’s fast, it’s powerful, it’s brief, and then it’s gone. When you are no longer afraid of whatever you thought was in the bushes, the response subsides.
Our brains can’t really discern between the sound in the bushes and an unpaid parking ticket. Or “is my kid going to get into private school?” Or fear of losing your job. Or economic insecurity and stress paying the mortgage. Or low social status. Or wondering if we look fat in jeans or if our car is going to break down. So our bodies are continually flooded with stress hormones that wreak havoc on our health and make us feel awful.
Being always available doesn’t help. Constant connectivity to email, social media and texts creates additional stress. We never have the ability to wind down after a day of work, we are never able to relax. There is a continual, low-level of vigilance present that promotes stress.
What does all this mean?
What all of this suggests is that:
- Not wanting to exercise is normal. Exercise is not something we adapted to need, physical activity was simply necessary for survival (until it wasn’t). When we weren’t actively expending energy on survival we relaxed, conserving energy (calories) and allowing our bodies to recover for the next day’s foraging. So, when you want to kick back and relax at the end of the day instead of going to the gym you’re simply responding to ancient biological cues.
- Overeating and craving energy-dense, industrialized foods make sense. Storing extra calories and body fat would have been an evolutionary advantage for millions of years. The impulse to binge is a reaction to your body’s belief that we still live in a calorie-scarce environment.
- Having difficulty getting healthy sleep may be the result of unnatural forces in the environment impeding your body’s natural sleep process.
- Experiencing high levels of stress and the accompanying conditions (anxiety, depression) may be the result of our stress-response system being mismatched with current conditions.
In other words, it’s not your fault.
“We have the brains of our ancestors, but temptations they never had to face.” – James Clear
Nevertheless, it IS your responsibility.
Understanding the genesis of the health problem is important. Obesity, overweight, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, dementia, depression, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, stroke and a whole host of other “mismatch” diseases have increased hugely over the last few generations. Are we to believe that something essential in human genetics has changed in that short period of time to create this scenario? That’s not how adaptation works. Not in that short span of time.
Are we to believe we are suffering as a species because we lack discipline, self-control, willpower, motivation? Really? For millions of years we survived in a way that allowed our population to explode and suddenly in a span of several decades we’ve simply become lazy and apathetic? If this was the result of biological incompetence we would have been shuffled into the extinction bin long ago. That’s how natural selection works.
We didn’t change. Our environment did. Radically, and in a short period of time considering the millions of years we’ve been around.
So, let’s set aside the nonsense and approach this from a different perspective. There’s nothing WRONG with us, we’re just facing environmental factors that are misaligned with our biology and we’re struggling to keep up.
This isn’t a personal failure. This isn’t a character flaw. This isn’t some deficiency. This is nature.
Knowing this gives you power. You’re not doomed, you just need to learn a new way to manage your own environment, to create your own personal ecosystem that promotes health.
This entire subject is HUGE and we’ve just barely scratched the surface here. The takeaway is to recognize the very real and very powerful forces assembled against us in the pursuit of health and to stop beating yourself up for simply responding to cues that exist in your environment.
For more information on this subject, I recommend:
- This awesome YouTube video by Daniel Lieberman, chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.
- Daniel Lieberman’s amazing book, The Story of the Human Body.
- The wonderful book, Younger Next Year, which introduces the concepts of evolutionary biology and mismatch in a down to earth and entertaining way.
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