Evolution and Human Behavior – Thoughts for 6th Graders
In late 2011, my daughter Megan, then 11, was taking an awesome social studies class in 6th grade. Her teacher, Ms. Naclerio, was very interested in evolution and human origins - so Megan chimed in and and was like "hey, my dad sort of studies that kind of stuff - maybe he can come in and talk about it with the class." So the deal was done before I even got home that day!
Hmm - I'm an evolutionary psychologist - not a fossil guy who's done fieldwork in the African Savanna. What ideas from my field could I talk about that would explicate some important ideas related to their curriculum on human origins?
As luck would have it, this all was right around the time that we were planning a visit to campus with the iconic Robb Wolf (author of The Paleo Solution), as part of SUNY New Paltz's Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) Seminar Series. Robb's work (encapsulated in Robb's talk at New Paltz, found here) focuses largely on an idea that's basic in evolutionary psychology - Evolutionary Mismatch - or the idea that problems emerge when an organism happens to exist in an environment currently that mismatches important features of the environment that was typical during the evolutionary history of that organism. According to Robb and others in the Paleo field, people in "advanced" societies like ours have many major health problems, such as obesity, because our modern environments (which include things like McDonald's) have historically unprecedented amounts of unnatural, processed foods (milkshakes, high-fat meat, foods densely loaded with carbs, etc.).
Evolutionary Psychology (as addressed in my newest work; Geher & Kaufman, 2013) largely focuses on this idea of mismatch - our family structures mismatch ancestral structures (which included a higher proportion of kin who were local; see Hrdy, 2009), our educational structures mismatch ancestral educational "structures" (which were not really "structured" at all; see Gray, 2011), and so forth. I figured that this general idea, of evolutionary mismatch, would be accessible and provocative for the 6th graders to think about.
And I've got to say, I think it went really well. The kids seemed every bit as attentive as my awesome college students - and the questions are on-task and got me to think quite a bit - it was lots of fun! And I think it got kids thinking about how evolution may impact several aspects of everyday life. And, as luck would have it, Principal Wiesenthal and Assistant Principal Tantillo were in attendance - this made me happy!
Below is the outline of the presentation I gave, to give a sense of the content. This outline was put up on the board during my presentation and I gave copies to students as a handout as well.
Evolution and Human Behavior - A presentation by Glenn Geher given to 6th graders at New Paltz Middle School
How can understanding human evolutionary origins help us understand how people think and behave?
- “Modern humans possess a Stoneage mind in a modern world”
- The Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA) – ancestral conditions that characterized what the world was like when our ancestors were evolving into humans.
- African Savanna
- PRE-AGRICULTURE – for 99% of human evolutionary history, humans were nomads – following the food as opposed to growing it
- Civilization and Cities DEPEND ON AGRICULTURE!
- So there were no cities until about 10,000 years ago (after the advent of agriculture)
- Bands of humans tended to be capped at about 150 (including many kin members)
- Droughts were common – and with droughts came famine
- Average human bands would walk up to 20 miles a day – regularly
- IMPLICATIONS FOR MODERN HUMAN BEHAVIOR
- FOOD – since famine was common, people evolved to like foods with high sugar and high fat – these food preferences helped people put on needed fat to make it through famine conditions
- BUT POST-AGRICULTURE, these food preferences are actually unhealthy!
- Further, these evolved food preferences explain why McDonald’s has sold billions and billions …
- EXERCISE – our human ancestors were not overweight – partly due to famine conditions – and partly due to exercise. They didn’t need to pay $500 a month to join a gym – life was a gym – and the savanna was their treadmill!
- EDUCATION – under ancestral conditions, there were no schools! People learned by observing and interacting with others in their band. And good evidence suggests that the main teachers of kids were kids who were slightly older than themselves – being outside, doing stuff that needed to be done, and interacting in a mixed-age environment was school for our ancestors. No report cards!
- EVOLUTIONARY MISMATCH
- When the modern conditions of an animal don’t match the animal’s EEA
- Humans live in contexts that are, in some ways, very different from the EEA
- This is partly why we have issues such as obesity in societies like ours
- Making modern societies more like the EEA might be a key to improving human health.
Geher, G., & Kaufman, S. B. (2013). Mating intelligence unleashed: The role of the mind in sex, dating, and love. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gray, P. (2011). The special value of age-mixed play. American Journal of Play, 3, 500-522.
Hrdy, S. B. (2009) Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Cambridge: Harvard University.
Wolff, R. (2010). The Paleo Solution. Las Vegas, NV. Victory Belt Publishing.
This post is cross-posted at my EvoS blog, Building Darwin's Bridges and on Robb Wolf's blogsite - Revolutionary Solutions to Modern Life