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The Dark Side of Civilization

5 ways that nomads may have it right after all.

Key points

  • When agriculture emerged about 10,000 years ago, people were able to settle in one place; this is when "civilization" emerged.
  • The term "civilized" has come to connote some group of people who are relatively "advanced" in some important ways relative to others.
  • The concept of "evolutionary mismatch" forces us to re-examine just how "advanced" our "civilized societies" truly are.
npewny / Pixabay
Source: npewny / Pixabay

We often think of the modern, "civilized" world as being somehow luxurious and advanced relative to how most people lived thousands of years ago. And some people will often think of others who are "in the third world" or who currently live in nomadic bands, just as our ancestors all did prior to the agricultural revolution, as "less than civilized," which has all kinds of negative connotations.

The evolutionary perspective in the behavioral sciences forces us to truly question this conception of civilization. In the same breath, the evolutionary perspective forces us to question so many features of our own lives today.

The Agricultural Revolution and Civilization

Prior to the advent of agriculture, all of our human ancestors were nomads, living in small bands that were typically comprised of no more than about 150 others, most of whom included blood relatives (kin) and/or others who were all quite familiar to one another. They only ate natural foods. And exercise was a daily occurrence, like it or not (see Geher, 2014).

The agricultural revolution changed all that. Once people became able to cultivate and raise food on their own, they had the option to create farms and, ultimately, to stay put. In this context, small villages, followed ultimately by large cities, emerged.

People started to specialize in work that was not fully dedicated to finding food for the day. Life changed in all kinds of ways. At the drop of a hat. And the result is often referred to as civilization.

While civilization has all kinds of perks, one thing that our early-agricultural ancestors did not take into account was our evolved psychology, which, in many ways, was shaped for nomadic, small-scale living over eons of evolutionary time (see Geher & Wedberg, 2020). In short, our early-agricultural ancestors did not understand the concept of evolutionary mismatch, which speaks to situations in which an organism is living in a current environment that is dramatically mismatched from the conditions that surrounded the evolution of the ancestors of that organism. And much of what we know about evolutionary mismatch in the modern human experience speaks to a variety of problems that plague our modern lives to this day (see Giphart & Van Vugt, 2018).

In other words, in many ways, maybe nomads across the globe today, who, in certain circles, get tagged with the negative term of "uncivilized," actually have it right. Below are five ways that this, in fact, may be the case.

5 Ways that the Nomads Probably Have it Right

1. Face-to-face communication truly is best.

In a famous body of research in social psychology, Phil Zimbardo documented, in detail, the fact that anonymous communication seems to breed all kinds of anti-social behavior (Zimbardo, 2007). In nomadic groups around the world today, there is a high proportion of daily communication that is actually of the face-to-face variety. In the "civilized" world, most of our communication these days is done through screens, often in anonymous ways. And this fact is, actually, deeply problematic.

2. Life with social media and the internet is not all peaches and cream.

According to this detailed report by Comparitech, cyberbullying, and all of the unpleasantries that go along with it, such as major mental health problems among adolescents and young adults, has been on the rise over the past several years, with a curve that eerily parallels curves associated with social media usage among members of this same demographic (see Twenge et al., 2019). While our "smart" phones may seem super advanced in so many ways, given that they are the primary conduits for social media, it is clear that there are adverse social and psychological outcomes associated with the rise of cell phone technology in the "civilized" world. And these effects are nothing short of staggering.

3. Loneliness seems to be a consequence of large-scale living.

An ironic finding in the research on loneliness is this: Loneliness rates tend to be higher in relatively large, densely populated cities relative to comparable rates in smaller-scale societies (see Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2018). This fact, which adversely affects so many of us on a daily basis, provides further evidence that our "civilized" lives may not be all that they are cracked up to be.

4. Rates of mental health problems increase with markers of population density.

On this same theme, it is noteworthy that mental health problems seem to be significantly more prevalent in large, "civilized" societies than in small-scale communities (Srivastava, 2009). And this finding seems to be relatively general across geographical locations. Living in large-scale societies corresponds to an increased risk of mental health problems—and this is true across the globe.

5. Nomads had ample physical activity and only natural diets.

Obesity and other outcomes associated with low levels of physical exercise and relatively high intake of processed foods in one's diet are, without questions, problems of the "civilized world." These outcomes correspond to all kinds of adverse health outcomes such as Type-II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, immunological problems, and more. Our modern, sedentary lifestyles may be a mark of "civilization," but they also are deeply mismatched from the environments that our bodies evolved to exist in. And our health is suffering as a consequence.

Bottom Line

Look, although I wish it weren't true, I am as connected to my cell phone as you are to yours. I am a product of the modern, industrialized world and I hardly have plans to leave everything behind and join a nomadic group in another part of the world. That said, as an evolutionist with a deep concern for the human condition, I think that it is important for people in all industries to understand the nature of evolutionary mismatch as it relates to such things as technology, social media, food, exercise, education, and more. When you start thinking carefully about the issue of evolutionary mismatch, you start to see it in all spheres of life.

Understanding the concept of evolutionary mismatch along with how this relates to our modern worlds can go a long way toward helping people lead healthier and richer lives.

For the lion's share of human evolutionary history, our ancestors were nomads who lived in small groups, exercised daily, communicated only in face-to-face fashion, and only ate natural foods. These are hallmarks of the environments that our bodies and minds were shaped for across evolutionary time. Keeping these facts in mind can help us lead richer lives today.

References

Cacioppo, J. T., & Cacioppo, S. (2018). The growing problem of loneliness. Lancet, 391(10119), 426. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)30142-9

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Geher, G. & Wedberg, N. (2020). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Giphart, R. & Van Vugt, M. (2018). Mismatch. Robinson.

Twenge, J. M., Cooper, A. B., Joiner, T. E., Duffy, M. E., & Binau, S. G. (2019). Age, period, and cohort trends in mood disorder indicators and suicide-related outcomes in a nationally representative dataset, 2005-2017. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 128, 185-199.

Zimbardo, P. (2007). “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil,” The Journal of The American Medical Association. 298 (11): 1338–1340.

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