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We aren't evolving fast enough to keep up with changes in culture




Research is showing that many of our contemporary problems, such as the rising prevalence of mental Health issues, are emerging from rapid technological advancement and modernization. A theory that can help explain why we respond poorly to modern conditions, despite the choices, safety and other benefits they bring, is evolutionary mismatch.

Mismatch happens when an evolved adaptation, either physical or psychological, becomes misaligned with the environment. Take moths and some species of nocturnal flies, for example. Because they have to navigate in the dark, they evolved to use the moon for direction. But due to the invention of artificial lighting, many moths and flies are drawn to street lamps and indoor lights instead.

The same happens for humans. A classic example is our “sweet tooth”, which motivated ancestral humans to search for calorie-rich foods in nutritionally scarce environments. This sweet tooth becomes mismatched to the modern world when food companies mass produce foods laden with refined sugars and fat, hijacking an otherwise useful trait. The result is tooth decay, obesity and diabetes.

The modern world is replete with things that make our once-adaptive instincts go awry. For instance, humans evolved to live in kin-based, nomadic tribes of approximately 50 to 150 close-knit people. Our adaptive need to belong functions well in such settings. In large cities populated by hundreds of thousands of strangers, however, people can end up feeling lonely and like they have not many close friends.

Studies have also shown that when social Animals are kept in crowded spaces, they experience comPetitive stress which has consequences for physical Health such as poorer immune functioning and reduced fertility. Like the Animals in the crowding studies, humans living in crowded cities too can experience unprecedented levels of stress and tend to have fewer children.

city with blue lights

Cities can be a lonely place to live. (Image credit: metamorworks/Shutterstock)

The social inequality in modern societies also differs from the more egalitarian hunter-gatherer environment. Humans evolved to care about social status, which motivates us to redress status gaps between ourselves and others. But when social disparity is too intense and people like Elon Musk, whose net worth would take the average American several million years of work at the mean annual wage to catch up with, are regularly made salient by the media, our concerns with social status can lead to social status anxiety.

Social media exacerbates the problems associated with social comparisons. As people typically share the best sides of themselves online, social media presents a skewed impression of reality, which can make viewers feel worse about their own. The quantification of worth through likes and followers also allows people to obsess with greater precision over where they stand in relation to others.