The Problem with Living in the Modern World

How the environment of evolutionary adaptedness can help us understand today.

Posted Dec 31, 2018

Taniusha I / Flicker
Source: Taniusha I / Flicker

The modern world of today differs in many important respects from the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA). This mismatch serves as a useful starting point for understanding the function and design of current psychological mechanisms.  The list of novelties offered by our modern world, but not present in the EEA includes agriculture, electricity, refrigeration, large-scale weapons, medicines, mass communication, effective contraceptive devices, and virtually unlimited access to all types of proteins and carbohydrates.  We are navigating our current social and physical world with psychological mechanisms designed to solve problems associated with survival and reproduction in an ancestral environment much different than the one we live in now (Bennett, 2017). 

The Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA) refers to the ancestral environment to which a species is adapted.   

An adaptationist or evolutionary psychology approach to studying a particular behavior involves understanding the environment in which the brain and behavior evolved.  The idea of the EEA was first proposed by John Bowlby (1969) in the context of attachment theory.  He described it as conceptual space—not a specific place—that describes the conditions and properties in which adaptation occurs: 

“In the case of biological systems, structure takes a form that is determined by the kind of environment in which the system has been in fact operating during its evolution…This environment I propose to term the system’s ‘environment of adaptedness.’  Only within its environment of adaptedness can it be expected that a system will work efficiently."

The EEA does not exist as a single geographical location during a discrete period of time during human evolution.  Rather, it is a set of selection pressures that formed a given adaptation.  For example, ancestral humans faced the adaptive problem of securing and digesting food to maximize energy.  Taste buds were shaped in response to this adaptive problem.  Our ancestors who showed a preference for salt, fat, and sugar were selectively favored over those individuals who did not have similar preferences. 

The acquisition of salt, fat, and sugar would have been challenging for our ancestors given the absence of agriculture and the inability to mass produce high concentrations of those items.  The probability of survival and reproduction for individuals who showed a preference for those foods would have been greater than for those who did not.  Our taste preferences were shaped in response to the problems posed by this environment. 

Adaptations evolve over many generations and change “in tune” with reliable features of the environment.  It is possible for an adaptation to fail to perform properly (i.e., fall “out of tune”) if the environment changes.  A behavior that is maladaptive in one environment may not be maladaptive in other environments. 

One could make the case that the salt, fat, and sugar we consume today has a negative impact on health when consumed in large quantities over long periods of time.  This certainly seems to be the case.  However, this is not evidence of maladaptivity in the EEA.  Moreover, the “lack of fit” to the current environment does not change the intense desire for those substances formed in the EEA.  The preference was shaped in the distant past and that is what we carry with us today, even though the consequences of the preference might be detrimental in today’s environment. 

References

Bennett, K. (2018). Environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA). In Zeigler-Hill, V., & Shackelford, T.K. (eds.), Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer International Publishing AG. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1627-1

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss. New York: Basic Books.