Technological “Advances” and the Erosion of Society
Five modern technologies that are leading us down a bad path.
Posted Nov 24, 2018
We tend to see novel technologies as true “advances.” This makes sense, as that’s sort of a defining feature of technology. The wheel allowed our ancestors to move large items across great distances. Controlled fire allowed our ancestors to prepare food that could be digested relatively quickly. And rocket technologies ultimately allowed us to put a man on the moon. Sure, in many ways, technology goes hand-in-hand with progress.
The evolutionary perspective on understanding the human condition provides an important perspective on the nature of technology. In short, the evolutionary perspective (see my brief textbook, Evolutionary Psychology 101) suggests that when thinking about any human problem, it’s useful to consider the fact that the human mind evolved not under modern conditions, but rather under ancestral conditions that characterized the lion’s share of human evolution.
An important facet of this thinking pertains to the fact that agriculture and “civilization” are relatively recent, having only been developed in the past 10,000 years. Prior to this point, all human beings lived in small nomadic bands. They only ate natural foods. They necessarily exercised a lot. And their lives were, of course, without iPhones and the Internet. Our evolved psychology was shaped to match those pre-agrarian conditions.
As is true with any organism, when humans experience dramatic cases of “evolutionary mismatch” (see Giphart & Van Vugt, 2018), we often run into problems. For the same reason that a palm tree will not do well in my front yard in upstate New York, humans often don’t do well in modern conditions ─ the conditions don’t match the conditions that the organism evolved to experience. Palm trees evolved adaptations to match relatively warm climates. Humans evolved adaptations to match small-scale societies where nature, natural foods, and exercise were abundant parts of the day-to-day experience.
From the evolutionary perspective, then, any new technology should be considered in terms of this bigger-picture evolutionary context. It is highly plausible that some technology may only provide short-term benefits to individuals (because it makes us feel good), while, inadvertently, having long-term adverse consequences (such as leading to long-term social or physical problems). We need to be wary of this kind of situation, as businesses are in it for profit, and that goes along with creating products that have short-term gain.
Modern Technologies As Supernormal Stimuli
From an evolutionary perspective, a “supernormal stimulus” is an exaggerated version of some stimulus that an organism evolved to respond to because such a response had adaptive value during the evolutionary history of that organism. A famous example comes from renowned behavioral scientist Niko Tinbergen (1953), who studied the tendency for male stickleback fish to show an aggressive response to the red coloration of other male stickleback fishes. Tinbergen created supernormal versions of the red stimulus, simply creating fake fish that had larger and more saturated red sections on their exterior. Tinbergen found essentially that the fish showed a “the more red, the more behavior” effect. That is, the supernormal stimuli with the higher proportion of red led to more consistent and stronger aggressive responses.
The lesson is this: Evolved behavioral responses can be hijacked by technology. If the fish evolved to attack “red,” then anyone can make a “super-red” stimulus that leads to an even stronger behavioral response.
It turns out that humans are, actually, very similar to male stickleback fish in this broader regard. Technologies that hijack our evolved tendencies are all around you right now. The food industry has figured out the flavors that our ancestors evolved to like and has exaggerated them in tasty treats. The computer gaming industry has figured out what kinds of experiences activate our brain’s pleasure centers and has provided supernormal stimuli that represent extreme versions of these stimuli. These things feel good in the moment, because that’s exactly how these technologies work: They exploit our evolved psychology ─ not for our own long-term benefit, but rather for corporate profit. McDonald’s really doesn’t care if their milkshakes are contributing significantly to the modern health crisis in the United States. They care about their bottom line.
Below are five examples of modern technologies that might be thought of from this evolutionary perspective. Several of these technologies hijack our evolved psychology for the benefit of corporate profit — often to the detriment of our own long-term health.
Five Technological “Advances” That May Be Driving Us Down a Bad Path
1. Processed food
Recent research on the proportion of processed foods eaten by Americans has led to outrageous conclusions (see Guitar, 2017). More than 60 percent of the food that we eat is processed. This statistic is hugely out of whack with the fact that before the advent of agriculture, during the lion’s share of human evolutionary history, all food that was eaten was natural by definition. Under ancestral conditions in the African savanna, where we can all trace our ancestors, drought and famine were common. Under such conditions, preferences for foods that are high in fat and sugar were adaptive, so that ancestral humans could get some fat on their bones to try to survive through the next famine. Today, those same food preferences, which have not had time to evolve out of us, often prove fatal, leading to such adverse health outcomes as Type-II diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
As is true with any sexually reproducing species, humans evolved a variety of mating-relevant adaptations, including various preferences in mates (see Geher & Kaufman, 2013). Pornography provides a clear example of supernormal stimuli. Men evolved to be attracted to certain qualities in the female body, because such attraction led to increases in sexual relationships that ultimately facilitated reproductive success. The porn industry takes these stimuli and ramps them up a notch. Or 100.
While the topic of whether pornography is truly harmful to people or to society is in the midst of hot academic debate, several published studies have found that pornography addiction is a real addiction in terms of our brain’s physiology (see Banca et al., 2016). Further, pornography use seems to be associated with adverse relationship outcomes, such as divorce (with those showing higher porn use being more likely to have relationships that end in divorce; Perry & Davis, 2017). From a supernormal stimulus perspective, these outcomes are not surprising.
3. Video Games
Video games represent supernormal stimuli sine qua non. Everything about them takes some facet of our evolved psychology and gives us an overdose of it. We evolved to be task-oriented, because people who were task-oriented got stuff done and were relatively likely to survive and ultimately reproduce as a result. If you were around in the 1980s, like I was, you know that Pac Man and Asteroids were all about completing the task. One more game! One more level! I know I can get to the next level, I just know it!
Modern video games, such as Fortnite, are, of course, amped up compared to old Pac Man. They often include a social component. They include high risk. They include human coalitions. They sometimes have sexy characters. They have elements that focus on social status. And so forth. Why are our kids so darned addicted to these stupid video games? Because these video games are hijacking their evolved psychological adaptations.
Consider yourself lucky if you are truly not addicted to your smartphone. In a recent CNN poll of teens in the U.S., more than 50 percent admitted to being addicted to their phones. And we all well know that the other 50 percent were lying! I have to say that I am checking my phone way more than I wish I were these days. These things are so addictive! And evolutionary psychology tells us why.
As is the case with video games, smartphones have so many things that we evolved to focus on right at our fingertips. 24/7. Sex? Relationships? Your social status? Your family? Things that make you happy? Things that make you excited? Things that make you surprised? Risky behaviors? We have specially evolved psychology regarding all these things. And with smartphones, exaggerated information on all of these is now more accessible than ever.
5. Your couch
How many hours a week do you think an average American spends sitting on the couch? Many of us have more than one couch in the house. Hey, we try to make our houses comfortable. The word “home,” in fact, is all about the comfort that we experience in our houses. I love my house, so I’m not one to judge. But under ancestral conditions, before the advent of agriculture and “civilization,” people were not sitting around on their couches. Not by any means!
For the lion’s share of human evolutionary history, exercise was not a choice. Sitting around on the couch all day watching an Impractical Jokers marathon, drinking Pepsi and Sam Adams, and eating chips was not a possibility. Estimates of ancestral exercise patterns, in fact, suggest that traveling more than 20 miles in a day was a regular occurrence (see Platek et al., 2011). Further, as is true with all animals, we evolved to take advantage of opportunities to not expend energy. Under ancestral conditions, chilling out whenever possible and saving up energy for future physical activity was a good idea. In today’s world, where we can easily go a full day that includes walking less than two miles and sitting on comfortable chairs and couches for 10 or so hours, this tendency to rest up whenever the opportunity presents itself is incredibly unhealthy. We’ve made our environments too comfortable! And all the technologies that we have to increase our comfort, including electronic garage doors so that we don’t have to get out of our cars, dog doors so that we don’t have to get up to walk the dog, reclining chairs, Netflix, couches that cost thousands of dollars, etc., work against the fact that our bodies evolved to move a lot every single day.
Beware of technology. Technological “advances” often present some short-term benefit with an unspecified (and often invisible) long-term cost. Companies that make technology are motivated to get people to buy their stuff. They are not too motivated to worry much about potential long-term, adverse consequences associated with their products.
The evolutionary framework changes the playing field when it comes to thinking about technology. We need to think about the long-term human consequences of technology. And we also need to ask the question of what evolved psychological adaptation the technology is tapping into. Further, we need to ask whether the technology is somehow exploiting our evolved psychology for corporate gain. There’s something to think about when you go out holiday shopping.
Banca, P. et al. (2016) Novelty, conditioning and attentional bias to sexual rewards. Journal of Psychiatric Research.
Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.
Geher, G., & Kaufman, S. B. (2013). Mating Intelligence Unleashed. New York: Oxford University Press.
Giphart, R., & van Vugt, M. (2018). Mismatch: How our stone age brain deceives us every day (and what we can do about it). Little Brown.
Guitar, A. E. (2017). Evolutionary Medicine: A not so radical (but absolutely necessary) Paradigm for Modern Health and Behavior, Presentation given at SUNY New Paltz Evolutionary Studies Seminar Series, New Paltz, NY
Perry, S.L. & Davis, J.T. (2017). Are pornography users more likely to experience a romantic breakup? Evidence from Longitudinal Data. Sexuality & Culture, July 2017. Pre-publication online access. DOI 10.1007/s12119-017-9444-8.
Platek, S., Geher, G., Heywood, L., Stapell, H., Porter, R., & Waters, T. (2011). Walking the walk to teach the talk: Implementing ancestral lifestyle changes as the newest tool in evolutionary studies. Evolution: Education & Outreach, 4, 41-51. Special issue on EvoS Consortium (R. Chang, G. Geher, J. Waldo, & D. S. Wilson, Eds).
Tinbergen, N. 1953. The Herring Gull's World. London: Collins.