Is Natural Living Reserved for the Rich?

An evolutionary perspective on social inequality in the USA.

Posted Apr 23, 2019

So here are three facts for you to consider:

  • Tuition for an elementary-aged student at the Hudson Valley Sudbury School is $8,051.75.
  • Five pounds of organic Honeycrisp apples from Whole Foods costs about $19 (~$.24/ounce).
  • Registration for the New York City Marathon is $295.  

Compare the above numbers with the following:

  • Public education in the United States (K-12) is free (sure, taxes, I know … but hear me out …).
  • A giant box of Froot Loops at Wal Mart costs $3.64 (~$.19/ounce)
  • Watching the New York City Marathon from home? Absolutely free!
Glenn Geher
sunset over New Paltz
Source: Glenn Geher

A common theme that is found among these contrasting examples is found in an evolutionary approach to the human experience (see Geher & Wedberg, 2019).

As was noted by the capstone talk in our campus’ annual Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) seminar series, given by Katie Gruskin (free and streaming here), most standard forms of public education are evolutionarily mismatched in important ways. That is, in most modern-day classrooms, the educational experience is not in line with the kinds of educational experiences that would have been common throughout human evolutionary history. Based on assessments of education and learning in nomadic groups around the world today, our best guesses regarding ancestral education suggest that across the lion’s share of human existence, children learned in mixed-age groups with kids collaborating with one another in unstructured, playful contexts—with very little adult supervision (see Gruskin & Geher, 2017; Gray, 2013).

As our student Rory Schiafo pointed out in yesterday’s discussion on evolutionary approaches to education, it is the case that you can take your kid out of the public schools and get him or her into a school that largely follows this pre-westernized, unstructured model. The Hudson Valley Sudbury School is a well-known such example in our region. And such schools do, in fact, have impressive track records when it comes to cultivating learning and student success. The ticket price for the Hudson Valley Sudbury School? Over $8,000 a year.

Something similar has happened with our modern food industry. In our post-industrialized world, processed food is relatively cheap. And natural foods are relatively expensive. This is partly why it’s much less expensive to do your grocery shopping at WalMart than at Whole Foods. And, as I elaborate on in a later section, it is deeply ironic.

So who can afford to eat natural, healthy foods? The same people who can afford to send their kids to a school that offers a relatively natural educational experience. Rich people.

A while ago, I wrote a piece that was titled Want to be Healthy? Get Rich! Therein, I talk about the economic disparities connected with modern health movements. The demographics of people who do CrossFit, compete in triathlons, and run marathons are pretty clear. They are relatively wealthy. And this fact makes sense because this stuff all costs money. These health-facilitating activities are largely reserved for the fiscally elite.

The Irony of Mismatch in the Modern World

Health disparities in the US famously track economic disparities. As Braverman et al. (2010) write in their summary of a large-scale study that they conducted on this issue: “Those with the lowest income and who were least educated were consistently least healthy.”

From an evolutionary perspective, there is serious irony going on here.

Think about it: The ability to have your kids educated in an evolutionary natural context. The opportunity to have a diet comprised mostly of natural foods. Opportunities to get plenty of exercise. In the United States, access to each of these kinds of experiences is increasingly reserved for the rich.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s kind of crazy. In any nomadic group around the world today, the following are true:

  • The kids are all educated in evolutionarily natural contexts
  • The only foods available to anyone are natural, non-processed foods
  • Everyone exercises a lot, out of necessity. And no one has to pay for a gym membership.

Social Inequality and Evolutionary Mismatch in Today’s World

If you’re like me and you’re concerned about social inequality in the US, you might find it useful to think about the role of evolutionary mismatch. The ability to live a relatively natural life should be, to my mind, available to everyone, simply as a basic human right.

The United States famously has extraordinary disparities between the haves and the have-nots. We often think about these disparities in terms of access to high-quality healthcare and education.

The evolutionary perspective on the human experience gives us another intellectual tool for thinking about social inequality. From an evolutionary perspective, the haves and the have-nots differ in terms of access to basic services that are, in important ways, evolutionarily natural. The haves can afford to shop at Whole Foods, filled with the fruits of the earth. The have-nots live in food deserts across the US, where McDonald’s and WalMart are the primary providers of the nutrition for entire families. This is pretty ironic, because natural food is, well, natural—it literally grows on trees. It should be easily accessible to everyone. No exceptions.

Bottom Line

Civilizations emerged about 10,000 years ago. Before the advent of civilization, all humans were nomadic. They only ate natural foods. They exercised a lot. And the learning that took place in their young looked nothing like the assessment-crazy culture of public education in the modern US. A lot has changed in the past 10,000 years.

The concept of evolutionary mismatch gives us a different angle on thinking about fiscal and social inequality in the US. Based on the reasoning provided here, it is clear that, in many ways, the have-nots in our society are not offered the opportunity to simply live natural lives.

I don’t know about you, but I think this is a problem. And I plan to keep doing my part in working toward solutions. And I’m hopeful that the evolutionary perspective on the human experience will help. Here’s to trying. And here’s to our shared future.

References

Braveman, P. A., Cubbin, C., Egerter, S., Williams, D. R., & Pamuk, E. (2010). Socioeconomic disparities in health in the United States: what the patterns tell us. American journal of public health, 100 Suppl 1(Suppl 1), S186–S196. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2009.166082

Geher, G. & Wedberg, N. (2019). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Gruskin, K., & Geher, G. (2017). The Evolved Classroom: Using Evolutionary Theory to Inform Elementary Pedagogy. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ebs0000111