How to Hack Evolutionary Biases

The more I delve into the mechanisms of health, the more I realise the importance of understanding how we have evolved to be. So much of the research seems to point towards the fact that a large proportion of our modern illnesses are a direct result of us moving further away from our evolutionary roots. After all, 150 years of hyper development since the industrial revolution is only a micro blip in evolutionary terms and certainly not enough time to change our hard coded biology. I’ve put together a quick run through below to give you an idea. Each of these subjects are so rich in interesting findings that they may well become a blog post each at some point.

  • Gut health – a varied and seasonal nuts, seeds, berries and vegetable based diet with occasional meat seems to complement the gut microbiome. Decimating the population through the use of antibiotics has been linked with allergies, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases.
  • Mental health – chronic loneliness of modern life and how understanding evolutionary biology plays a key part in understanding the epidemic can be seen in this superb short animation.
  • Sleep – this brilliant video with Dr Matthew Walker explains how important our circadian rhythm is – to mimic the quality and duration of sleep that replicates our ancestors. The vast array of illnesses that could be prevented through quality sleep, including diabetes, heart disease, obesity and depression, is mind boggling – often by very simple measures such as dimming the light in our houses in the evening. The linked video is a dense conversation between scientists. A more casual version is here.
  • Running and exercise – we are by far the best long distance running species on this planet and we ran for millions of years barefoot to hunt as a tribe. Are we born to run? Check out Christopher McDougall’s brilliant presentation.

2 million to 200,000 years of continuous natural selection (depending on where you define as the start of an anatomical human) is a pretty powerful force to be reckoned with. Those that performed well under hunter gather lifestyles passed on their genes and it’s not that difficult to see how the daily gathering and hunting provided plenty of exercise. The seasonal, local, organic bounty of nuts, fruits, leaves and occasional game provided high quality varied nutrients that had the added benefit of being resilient against catastrophes compared to monoculture. But what surprised me most was that hunter gatherers had significantly more free time than the modern Western counterpart, which they probably used to create stronger social bonds.

A study from 1966 found that it took a Ju/’hoansi only about seventeen hours a week, on average, to find an adequate supply of food; another nineteen hours were spent on domestic activities and chores…. At the time these figures were first established, a comparable week in the United States involved forty hours of work and thirty-six of domestic labor. 

From a superb article on New Yorker about a case against civilisation.

When I began to piece these factors together, it seemed clear that our modern, post industrial world, full of technological wonders and miracles may not be as good as it was being sold to us. And that we are fundamentally no different anatomically from early hunter gathers who awoke with the sunlight and slept after sunset, foraged wild foods, ran for miles and spent their entire lives within a small trusted tribe of about 100 to 150.

Negative Consequences

For individual health and fulfilment, understanding how we’ve evolved can give us some insights into how we should perhaps live. However, this gave me the confidence to suspect that there are similar biological mechanisms in place for the reason why, as a species, we are fully aware of the biggest existential threats and yet unable to change our ways. Nuclear catastrophe, climate change and technological disruptions are, after all, man-made issues, with many decades of data for us to know it’s something we should be addressing pretty quickly.

“The origin of civil government.. is that .. men are not able radically to cure, either in themselves or others, that narrowness of soul, which makes them prefer the present to the remote.”

David Hume in 1739

This question has been on the back of my mind for well over a decade now and I settled on the idea that perhaps, as apes with an average lifespan of about 80 years, most of us are incapable of imagining more than a few years ahead, a few decades for some and a couple of generations at the most. The lack of imagination – our collective inability to seriously visualise the long term consequences of our actions today – seemed to me like a probable suspect. And if this deficit was genetically hard wired, the outlook for the future seemed seriously pessimistic. If you would like to read little more about our societal short-termism this recent article was really good.

The other day, however, I came across an interesting article that brought in a few more cognitive biases into the narrative. It was the first time I came across another person trying to decipher our seemingly suicidal course of action through looking at our evolutionary history and was absolutely thrilled. Matthew Wilburn King, the author of the article and president and chairman of COMMON Foundation, notes 4 important biases to understand why we lack the will to act on climate change.

Hyperbolic discounting. This is our perception that the present is more important than the future. Throughout most of our evolution it was more advantageous to focus on what might kill us or eat us now, not later. This bias now impedes our ability to take action to address more distant-feeling, slower and complex challenges.

Our lack of concern for future generations. Evolutionary theory suggests that we care most about just a few generations of family members: our great-grandparents to great-grandchildren. While we may understand what needs to be done to address climate change, it’s hard for us to see how the sacrifices required for generations existing beyond this short time span are worth it.

The bystander effect. We tend to believe that someone else will deal with a crisis. This developed for good reason: if a threatening wild animal is lurking at the edge of our hunter-gatherer group, it’s a waste of effort for every single member to spring into action — not to mention could needlessly put more people into danger. In smaller groups, it was usually pretty clearly delineated who would step up for which threats, so this worked. Today, however, this leads us to assume (often wrongly) that our leaders must be doing something about the crisis of climate change. And the larger the group, the stronger this bias becomes.

The sunk-cost fallacy. We are biased towards staying the course even in the face of negative outcomes. The more we’ve invested time, energy or resources into that course, the more likely we are to stick with it – even if it no longer seems optimal. This helps explain, for example, our continued reliance on fossil fuels as a primary source of energy in the face of decades of evidence that we both can and should transition to clean energy and a carbon neutral future.
Young demonstrators hold placards as they attend a climate change protest organised by “Youth Strike 4 Climate”, (Photo by Ben STANSALL / AFP)

Is It Hopeless?

King doesn’t seem to think so. He gives few examples of how to override the ingrained biases.

  1. Work in small local groups. I’ve written a while ago about the idea behind ‘Dumbar’s Number’ – how we are only able to sustain meaningful relationships with 150 or so individuals. By creating a narrative with individual interests, we overcome the bystander effect, give ownership of the idea (endowment effect) and tap into our inclinations as social creatures (social comparison). He suggests solving local issues, focusing on the local impacts and local solutions.
  2. Frame it positively. I was well aware of the ‘framing effect’ through my teacher years. Children respond better when they are addressed positively, using phrases such as ‘be respectful’ rather than ‘don’t be rude’. But I did not realise this effect continued into adulthood. How we communicate about the challenges seems to make a big difference in how we respond.
  3. Incentivise the change. King gives an example of Costa Rica where since 1997, carbon tax on fossil fuel is given back to farmers and indigenous groups to protect and regrow forests. The country now powers 98% of electricity from renewable resources and aims to be carbon neutral by 2050. The key to such large scale action, King suggests, is the support of smaller groups and communities.
  4. Innovate and spread. Lastly, he stresses the importance of our capacity to innovate and solve problems. Couple that with our current communication technology and we may be able to rapidly spread new ideas and technology to instigate rapid changes.

For me, I found a twinkling speck of optimism in the idea of alternative forms of education. To equip the next generation with the skills and experiences, not only to be able to adapt to the ever changing world and to tackle the gigantic issues discussed above, but to regenerate the Earth and to flourish on it. I’ve always found it very strange that institutions designed to prepare children for the future were not seriously considering what the future might look like and what kind of skills the children will need. It is these apparent shortcomings of the system that propels me on my current physical and intellectual journey in search of sustainable solutions.

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