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3 Modern Problem-Solving Tips From Evolutionary History

Adapting to modern life with "A Hunter-Gatherer's Guide to The 21st Century."

Key points

  • Evolutionary biologists Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein share strategies for adapting to modern life in their new book.
  • They remind us not to overlook evolved solutions, provided by cultures and traditions, when facing present-day problems.
  • They advise that we use caution and consider possible long-term losses, as we adopt new and innovative options.
  • Furthermore, they counsel us to remember that adaptation involves trade-offs—so we need to carefully consider the cost of our choices too.

I am a voracious reader, especially of different perspectives on decision-making and human interaction. Therefore, when evolutionary biologists (and DarkHorse Podcast hosts) Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein came out with a new book discussing evolution and the challenges of modern life, I was curious to check it out. Fortunately, A Hunter-Gatherer's Guide to The 21st Century did not disappoint.

Within the book, I found simple principles and helpful insights, which make adapting to the ever-changing demands of modern life a bit easier. As a result, I was inspired to share three of those principles below with you.

The Omega Principle

Heying and Weinstein (2021) begin by noting that humans adapt to various niches and lifestyles quickly because their cognition and culture (called Epigenetic Regulators) are more flexible than the genetic adaptation of animals over time. Nevertheless, they also highlight that our epigenetic regulators ultimately serve our genes too. Heying and Weinstein (2021) offer this insight as their first decision-making concept (The Omega Principle) and conclude from it that, "any expensive and long-lasting cultural trait (such as traditions passed down within a lineage for thousands of years) should be presumed to be adaptive" (p. 17).

Put simply, there is no need to reinvent the wheel when someone already did it! Therefore, when in doubt, first consider the solutions derived by others, especially those that have been shown to last. In other words, as I have discussed elsewhere, when making a decision, sometimes it helps to take time and consider what other people are doing.

The Precautionary Principle

Heying and Weinstein (2021) then go on to consider our modern situation, where our niches in the world change so rapidly that our genetics or culture may not adapt fast enough (called Hyper-Novelty). In that case, when there seems to be no tried and true solutions, how do we proceed? Here, they suggest caution as the second decision-making concept (The Precautionary Principle). Specifically, they explain, "when faced with questions of innovation, the precautionary principle considers the risk of engaging in any particular activity, and recommends caution when the risk is high" (p.43). Put simply, look before you leap!

Heying and Weinstein (2021) then link those two principles with the allegory of Chesterton's Fence, which suggests that "a fence should not be removed until you have discovered something of its function" (p. 47). This is similar to the old saying, if it isn't broke, don't fix it.

Given that, until you understand historical solutions to a problem (omega principle), proceed with caution (precautionary principle). Do not discard options until you are sure they no longer apply. Taken together, as I have discussed elsewhere, this means to make sure to look at your options from multiple perspectives, especially perspectives that minimize your losses!

The Sucker's Folly Principle

The third decision-making concept I want to highlight, from Heying and Weinstein (2021), is the notion of trade-offs. They point out that ancient adaptations may have hidden benefits (omega principle) and modern solutions may have unknown costs (precautionary principle). This is because all adaptations and decisions require trade-offs (e.g. you cannot be both the biggest and fastest, you cannot have your cake and eat it too, etc.).

When we disregard the reality of those trade-offs, however, we leave ourselves open for the Sucker's Folly. As Heying and Weinstein (2021) explain, the sucker's folly is, "the tendency of concentrated short-term benefit not only to obscure risk and long-term cost, but also to drive acceptance even when the net analysis is negative" (p. 10). Thus, as the saying goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Therefore, as I have explained in previous articles, good decision-making requires time and consideration—rather than thoughtlessly jumping on the first enticing option. Otherwise, you may miss potential costs, even though you will still have to pay them. That, indeed, is the sucker's folly of all who act impulsively.

Principles in Practice

Throughout the remainder of the book, Heying and Weinstein (2021) discuss how those principles can explain the challenges of modern life and help us to adapt to them. Particularly, in the interpersonal realm, they highlight some of the same issues that I have discussed in my other relationship blog. For example, with the omega principle in mind, they discuss the adaptive benefits of gender roles. Rather than rejecting them outright for their downsides and shortcomings, they thoughtfully consider, as I have, where and how such evolved roles might still be usefully applied.

Utilizing the precautionary principle, they also echo my own research, indicating that modern hooking-up and sex without commitment may not be beneficial for everyone. Overall, they argue from an evolutionary perspective, what I have come to see from social and cultural evaluations too. Essentially, modern dating and relationship problems for many individuals are a sucker's folly, resulting from throwing away cultural adaptations and adopting new solutions too quickly, without thoroughly considering the trade-offs. As a result, they become detached from the basic steps of human mating and relating, on both an evolutionary and cultural level.

Beyond those relational issues, Heying and Weinstein (2021) describe how our failure to learn from both evolutionary adaptation and cultural wisdom has caused problems with our eating, sleeping, schooling, and general human development as well. Therefore, no matter what challenge you are currently facing in modern life, applying the principles above can help you through it. After all, they have "evolved" to be foundational and successful aspects of our human adaptation over time. So, even our modern decision-making efforts would be smart to include them!

© 2021 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.


Heying, H., & Weinstein, B. (2021). A hunter-gatherer's guide to the 21st century: Evolution and the challenges of modern life. Penguin.