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Human culture is changing at a rate too high for evolution to catch up - so it could affect each of us

Some problematic trends can be understood from a mismatched evolutionary fit. For example, competition and anxiety about social status have been linked to obsessions with studies, competing for prestigious positions and materialism. There is a growing trend of "getting even poorer to look rich", as people accumulate debt to afford things that create an impression of status

A green city, for mental health. Credit: The Science website. The image was produced using DALEE for illustrative purposes and is not a scientific image
A green city, for mental health. Credit: The Science website. The image was produced using DALEE for illustrative purposes and is not a scientific image

By Jose Jung, Research Associate Lecturer in Psychology, Northumbria University, Newcastle, From The Conversation UK website

Studies show that many problems in our time, such as an increase in the prevalence of mental problems, arise from rapid technological development and modernization. A theory that can explain why we react badly to modern conditions, despite the freedom of choice, security and additional benefits they bring, explains that it is an evolutionary mismatch.

This mismatch occurs when a developed adaptation, whether physical or mental, is out of sync with the environment. Take the example of moths and certain species of night flies. Since they have to navigate in the dark, they evolved to use the moon for guidance. But due to the invention of artificial lighting, moths and flies are attracted to street lamps and interior lights.

This happens to humans too. A classic example is the "sweet tooth", which motivated our ancestors to seek high-calorie foods in scarce nutritional environments. This fondness is becoming incompatible in our modern world as food companies produce masses of foods saturated in sugars and processed fats, using a once-beneficial trait. The result is tooth decay, obesity and diabetes.

The modern world is full of things that disrupt our once fine-tuned instincts. For example, humans evolved to live in closely related tribal groups of 50 to 150 people. Our need to belong works well in such environments. But in big cities with hundreds of thousands of strangers, people may feel lonely and lack close friends.

Studies have also shown that when social animals are kept in crowded spaces, they experience competitive stress with consequences for physical health such as poor immune system function and decreased fertility. Like the animals in overcrowding studies, humans living in crowded cities can experience unprecedented levels of stress and tend to have fewer children.

Social inequality in modern societies also differs from the more egalitarian hunter-gatherer environment. Humans have evolved to cultivate an interest in social status, which motivates us to correct status differences between ourselves and others. But when the social gap is too great and people like Elon Musk, whose net worth would take the average American several million years of work to equal their net worth, are frequently featured in the media, our concerns about social status can lead to anxiety about our social status.

Social media exacerbates the problems associated with social comparisons. Because people usually share the good sides of themselves online, social media presents a false picture of reality that can make viewers feel worse about themselves. Measuring meaning by likes and followers also allows people to disappear into the meaning of others.

Some problematic trends can be understood from a mismatched evolutionary fit. For example, competition and anxiety about social status have been linked to obsessions with studies, competing for prestigious positions and materialism. There is a growing trend of "getting even poorer to look rich", as people accumulate debt to afford things that create an impression of status.

It is also likely that people will take risks when they feel they need to gain a competitive advantage. Along with the rising cost of living, people may find that their work is not only sufficient to meet societal expectations but also to build wealth. A 2023 report by the CFA Institute, an association of investment academics, noted that many of Generation Z are turning to risky investments such as cryptocurrencies in an attempt to cope with the problem. The fiercely competitive modern world may also push people to undergo risky cosmetic surgeries and extreme weight loss programs.

As people struggle to meet society's expectations of successful adults, they seem to change their goals in life. Surveys of Generation Z and Millennials have found that the rising costs of living are forcing these age groups to lower their career aspirations and give up on buying a home, starting a family and even finding a romantic partner. A 2023 survey of 55,000 people born between 1981 and 2012 found that respondents focus more on taking care of their mental and physical health rather than the social sphere.

When the competition becomes too intense, people may internalize the pressure and experience anxiety or depression. Researchers have linked self-harm and depression to the feeling that they can no longer cope with the demands of modern society. These trends are especially common in countries with a strong shame culture, such as Japan and South Korea.

Studies have shown that some external reactions may include anger at the unfairness of seemingly impossible competition, leading to cynicism, aggression, and hostility. An expression of this anger can be seen, for example, in "insel" circles, where men often feel that they are unable to find a romantic or sexual partner because the odds are unfairly against them.

what can we do

The evolutionary mismatch perspective does not suggest fully returning to life in the form of our ancestors, but rather finding ways to adjust the environment to better suit our evolved nature. For example, you can think of ways to design the built environment to reduce density or increase access to nature. Indeed, being in nature, such as forest bathing (focusing on sensory engagement to connect with nature) and community gardening, can reduce stress and improve well-being.

Lifestyle changes to reduce consumerism and exposure to mass and social media, along with focusing on meaningful work instead of the prestige of work, will also help. Some of the counter-trends such as minimalism and situational awareness indicate a growing awareness that finding satisfaction in small things can allow us to avoid the pitfalls of modernity.

These are just some of the ideas. But appreciating the evolutionary basis of our problems and raising awareness of the mismatch perspective may give us a better chance of tackling them at the root.

More of the topic in Hayadan:

4 תגובות

  1. Okay, I've been at it for a good few years because I apply the abundance method to myself instead of the lack method. There is plenty around me and within me, so I know how to satisfy my needs and desires without being jealous of others or feeling inferior.

  2. The pictures show buildings with greenery and trees and nature.
    In reality I only see concrete construction and black/white design.. no green and much less nature than what is shown in the pictures. It is sad that it is so.

  3. There is and has never been any evolution. How many lies and deceptions in the name of science?! Every lie they want to push into our minds begins with the magic word, science!

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