The evolutionary psychology framework is powerful, and the basic idea is actually quite simple: Evolutionary psychology is the radical notion that human behavior is part of the natural world. (For more, see my brief textbook, Evolutionary Psychology 101.)
A core idea underlying the field is the notion of “evolutionary mismatch,” which pertains to situations where an organism’s current environment differs from the environment that characterized the environments of its ancestors in a significant way. It's a state of affairs that often leads to physical and/or behavioral problems, such as when a rhesus monkey—with ancestry going back deep into the jungles of Asia—is forced to live in isolation in a cage in a lab in a large city in North America. Monkeys in such a situation show all kinds of “abnormal” behavior and markers of stress (see Harlowe & Suomi, 1971). The reason is simple: Their current environment is not matched to the environment that characterized their ancestral environment.
One of the greatest gifts of the field of evolutionary psychology pertains to work on evolutionary mismatch in humans. By understanding how evolutionary mismatch connects with modern problems, the field can offer clear guidance for living. Following are five examples of evolutionary mismatch in modern humans, along with some clear guidance for dodging the evolutionary mismatch trap.
Perhaps the most basic and well-documented mismatch in modern humans pertains to diet. Our ancestors in the African savanna often ran into drought and famine, but they also rarely had access to foods that were high in sugar and fat. Across evolutionary time, our ancestors evolved taste preferences such that they would prefer and, thus, seek out foods high in sugar and fat content—precisely because such foods were rare and adaptive under those ancestral conditions. Well, look at us now. We now have highly-processed foods that are full of sugar and fat and these foods are, ironically, incredibly cheap and easy to access. What a mismatch! And if you are looking for the cause of modern obesity problems (and resultant health issues such as Type-II diabetes) that characterize so many western nations, look no further. This evolutionary mismatch is the ultimate cause of all of these problems (see Wolf, 2010).
Solution: Eat natural foods. Consume the kinds of foods that would have been available under ancestral conditions—ideally, only those foods. Your body will thank you.
A corollary to the problem of diet is that of exercise. Under ancestral conditions, before the advent of agriculture and civilization, everyone was a nomad. No exceptions. And by definition, nomads are on the go. Today, in pre-westernized societies, no one has the luxury of making their living by sitting in front of a computer and maybe venturing out to the living room to watch some reality TV. The same was true of our ancestors. Running and walking (and lifting, etc.) were a regular part of the survival deal. Today, our technology is so “advanced” that we can lead lives that are nearly fully sedentary. This may feel good in the short term, but in the long term, such a lifestyle can be downright deadly.
Solution: Exercise a lot. Our ancestors did, and our bodies evolved under such conditions—run, walk, lift, hike, etc.
There were no large-scale politics under ancestral conditions. There were intra-tribal politics within one’s clan (usually comprised of about 100-150 kin and individuals with long-standing relations to oneself; see Dunbar, 1992). And there were politics connected with outgroups, or rival clans. But there was nothing related to national or international politics. Our ancestors did not have to worry about anything like Brexit—they never worried about whether millions of people on an island halfway across the world voted whether to be part of a union of other nations that are also not part of their own immediate group. Large-scale politics are a product of our modern, evolutionarily-mismatched world (see Geher et al., 2015).
Solution: When thinking about politics, get beyond the emotional and personal aspects. For our ancestors, making political decisions based fully on gut feelings and liking of others was probably sufficient. Today, such an approach to politics might be disastrous.
4. Extended Family
Our hominid ancestors were rarely far from their extended kin (see Hrdy, 2009). In fact, being close (geographically and emotionally) with extended kin is something that characterized our ancestors across thousands of generations of human evolution. We now live in very large countries with kin spread across continents. We don’t think much of it, but perhaps we should. Having a strong kin network that is close by is something humans evolved to have. Living far from kin is a significant predictor of mental health issues (see Srivastava, 2009).
Solution: If you have conflict with kin members, make peace. And you might want to reconsider the idea that it doesn’t matter if someone moves far away from family just to “chase his or her dream.” Never forget that humans are, by evolutionary forces, a highly social and kin-oriented primate.
If you look at how education is handled today in nomadic groups around the globe, you will find that nothing like the “formal education” of westernized societies seems to characterize such groups—and you can bet that the same was true for our pre-agrarian ancestors (see Gray, 2011). Learning, play, and work blend seamlessly in childhood interactions in pre-westernized groups, and learning takes place regularly in mixed-age contexts. We did not evolve under conditions in which 25 10-year-olds sit at desks all day with a single teacher instructing them about pretty much everything.
Solution: Make sure your kids have experiences that go well beyond the classroom, such as playgroups, athletic organizations, recreational opportunities, camps, etc. I am a huge advocate of public education and also, concurrently, a huge advocate of all education being as holistic and as natural as possible.
The Bottom Line: Modern life is mismatched in countless ways from the conditions that characterized the environments of our ancestors during the bulk of human evolution. Such evolutionary mismatches often lead to problems of body, society, and mind. Fortunately, when it comes to ways to address problems of evolutionary mismatch, evolutionary psychology provides clear answers. (See Geher, 2014.) Want guidance for how to live a richer and healthier life? Take a look at what Darwin had to say.
Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 22(6), 469–493.
Geher, G., Carmen, R., Guitar, A., Gangemi, B., Sancak Aydin, G., and Shimkus, A. (2015) The evolutionary psychology of small-scale versus large-scale politics: Ancestral conditions did not include large-scale politics. European Journal of Social Psychology, doi: 10.1002/ejsp.2158.
Gray, P. (2011). The special value of age-mixed play. American Journal of Play, 3, 500-522.
Harlow, H.F., & Suomi, S. J. (1971). Social Recovery by Isolation-Reared Monkeys, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America, 68,1534-1538.
Hrdy, S. B. (2009) Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Cambridge: Harvard University.
Srivastava, K. (2009). Urbanization and mental health, Industrial Psychiatry Journal, 18, 75-76.
Wolf, R. (2010). The Paleo Solution. Las Vegas, NV. Victory Belt Publishing.