Mismatch?

Are our evolutionary human characteristics still well-functioning adaptations, or can they lead to disadvantages for human well-being and the sustainable development of our species under today's environmental conditions?

As a mismatch refer to biologists characteristics that are adaptations to previous environmental conditions, and under the given environmental conditions do not fulfill their function to the extent as before. Are problems of sustainable development at different levels indicative of the impact of such mismatch?

After all, cultural evolution has fundamentally changed the social and natural environment of humans within a few generations and a few decades. Do we have a "stone-age brain" that can not cope with these changes?

On the other hand, a special flexibility characterizes our species: We humans, in particular our perception, our norms, our behavior are less influenced by genes and significantly by the social environment and experiences in the course of our development. What was normal for the previous generation may be unthinkable and unacceptable to the next generation, and vice versa. Our cultural evolution goes hand in hand with this flexibility of our species.

To what extent can we use our understanding of these causes of our human characteristics to prepare for the challenges of sustainable development and to avoid the effects of potential mismatches?

Some possible instances of mismatch today are:

  • Unhealthy diet
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Addiction and substance abuse
  • Social isolation
  • (Cyber-)bullying
  • Stress and burnout
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Nationalism, xenophobia
  • Resource consumption, materialism
  • Socioeconomic inequality

Unhealthy diet

Our body and metabolism are adapted to environmental conditions in which high-calorie (fat-, protein-rich) food usually was not abundant. So our body can store these nutrients for a long time and extract as much energy as possible from the intake of food, with some variation between humans.

However, in today's environmental conditions, many people have almost unlimited access to foods high in fat, sugar and protein. Many people today suffer from health problems or die from causes that are due to too much fat and sugar in their diet: diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity.

Can we motivate and empower people to consciously change their diet and eat healthily, even when confronted with high-fat, high-salt and high-sugar foods in their environment? Or do we have to change the environmental conditions to make it easier for people to eat healthily?

What role can technologies, commonly-established regulations in food production, social norms, media, and education play?

Lack of physical exercise

We are adapted to environmental conditions under which we have to move a lot to get enough food and keep us alive. For example, our body is adapted to endurance and long-distance running. Under today's environmental conditions, many people do not have to move much. Thus, lack of exercise can lead to physical and mental health problems.

Can we motivate and empower people to move and exercise on a regular basis, even when confronted with an environment where exercise is not necessary? Or do we have to change the environmental conditions to make it easier for people to move regularly?

What role can technologies, commonly established regulations at school or workplace, social norms, media, and education play?

Addiction and substance abuse

Our brain has a so-called reward system that encourages us to look for things in the environment or to do things that are important to our survival or reproduction: food, mating partners, other people, new knowledge, new resources. When we find these things or achieve something, we feel a positive feeling or "kick." This feeling motivates us to make an effort in the future to continue searching for these things. For example, endurance sports also give us a kind of kick, because it was important for our survival to perform such behaviors like endurance running. This reward system is very old in evolutionary terms, and we have it in common with many animals.

Under today's environmental conditions, we have access to many things that give us that kick: food, alcohol, coffee, drugs, sex, computer games. Thus, there is a danger that people will develop an addiction to these things: they get into a cycle that is driven by their reward system: they need more and more of this thing at ever shorter intervals, possibly neglecting other things that are important to their lives.

Can we motivate and empower people not to become addicted to certain things, even when confronted with an environment in which these things are abundantly present? Or do we have to change the environmental conditions in such a way that it is easier for people not to become addicted to these things?

What role can technologies, social environment, commonly-established regulations, media, education and education play?

Social isolation

We are primarily adapted to living in groups of up to 150 people, where everyone is familiar and in close contact with each other every day. Human relationships and group affiliation are important basic needs for human well-being because evolution and survival depended on group life over the course of evolutionary history. Sharing with others, sharing laughter and emotions, telling each other things, having common interests, create feelings of happiness.

In today's social environment, many people no longer live together in small and close communities. Families are smaller, and rarely more than two generations live under one roof. Half of humanity lives in cities today. In cities, human encounters are primarily characterized by superficial, short-term encounters with strangers. Moreover, much of the interpersonal communication today is done over the telephone and the internet, minimizing the interaction between people - we do not see faces, do not touch each other, do not know each other, do not have the opportunity to share our emotions, worries and hopes with others. So some psychologists suggest that social isolation for many people contributes to depression and anxiety disorders.

Can we motivate and empower people to embrace and nurture important social relationships, even when confronted with an environment where many encounters are superficial and occur on the internet? Or do we have to change environmental conditions to make it easier for people to build and maintain important social relationships?

What role can technologies, social environment, commonly-established regulations, social norms, media, education and education play?

(Cyber-)Mobbing, communication on social media

We are primarily adapted to communication through direct contact with people - eye contact, facial expression and voice help us communicate with others. They convey not only words but also emotions and thus allow emotional bonds between people.

However, communication over the internet is quite different - within a few seconds, we can tell other, far away, even completely unknown people words, or get told words by other people. We do not know who the other person is, what experience they have had, or how they feel. We do not have to look people in the eye the next day. We are more likely to communicate things that we would probably rather keep to ourselves in face to face situations, because emotions such as empathy, guilt or shame have less of an impact on our communication behavior.

But words still hold a powerful meaning: our brains process them and connect them with our identity, they become part of our thoughts, our memories and our daily experience. Thus, cyberbullying can become a major problem for the mental health of people.

Moreover, communication on social media aggravates the disagreements that exist in any large and heterogeneous group of people.

see also: OpenMind

Can we motivate and empower people to shape interpersonal communication in such a way that it is characterized by respect, perspective taking and tolerance, even when confronted with communication opportunities that allow insults, bullying and discrimination to be done easily?

Or do we have to change the environmental conditions to make it easier for people to maintain respectful interpersonal communication on the Internet?

What role can and should technologies, social environment, commonly-established regulations, social norms, media, education and education play?

Stress and Burn-out, Depression, Anxiety

The stress response is evolutionary very old, we find it in insects, fish, reptiles, mammals. It allows animals to respond quickly in dangerous situations by abruptly taking flight or attacking, especially after the perception of predators or competitors. Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline cause an increased heart rate, accelerate the breath, boost metabolism, make muscles tense and increase sweat production. Since the environment is full of potential dangers, the stress response is a highly effective adaptation. But it is also very energy-intensive for the body, and a constant state of stress can lead to impairment of physical and mental health.

Also, the human ability for language and symbols, combined with our ability to think about the past and the future, may today be a kind of mismatch under some circumstances. These abilities allow us and allowed our ancestors to communicate about absent things (and even things that are not yet existing), to learn from the past, and to align present behavior with future goals. In order to make tools, plan for the hunt, and learning all these skills to master them in the future, language, symbols, and "mental time travel" were helpful and increased chances of survival and reproduction.

Under today's environmental conditions, people are less likely to be exposed to real dangerous situations that would be life-threatening. Today, stress is caused a lot by social and psychological factors: perceived performance pressures and expectations at school, at work or in the family, nervousness in public, perceived time constraints, worries about the future, memories of traumatic experiences from the past, fears of failure, recurring negative thoughts, bullying.

Sometimes language, symbols, "mental time travel" into the past and future and the stress response can help us in such situations by encouraging us to become active. But in many situations these thoughts and reactions are evoked without them causing effective behavior. Especially with triggers that are psychological: fears, pressure, worries about the future, etc. In these situations, stress and negative thoughts can only cause more of these triggers - even more fears, pressure, self-criticism, and worries - and the person becomes less and less able to act. Thus, our thoughts and the stress response can become a reinforcing feedback loop, and can eventually lead to burnout, depression and anxiety disorders.

"Although we humans have gained the ability to extract ourselves from the physical jungle, through language we are now recreating the danger of the jungle in our heads again and again."

Louise Hayes & Joseph Ciarrocchi (In: Wilson, D.S. & Hayes, S. (2018). Evolution and contextual behavioral science. p. 118)

Can we motivate and empower people to make their lives less susceptible to stress, pressure to perform and self-criticism, even when faced with a social environment where performance, career and wealth are the benchmarks?

Or do we have to change the environmental conditions to make it easier for people to live a life worth living for them, in which stress reactions, memories and thinking about the future mostly play a positive role in their behavior and well-being?

What role can technologies, social environment, commonly-established regulations, social norms, media, education and education play?

A short film about the evolution and function of the human mind. Possible discussion questions:

  • What types of mental processes do we experience daily and even every second in our waking state?
  • What functions do these processes (thoughts, emotions, memories) of our brain fulfill? What was their adaptive valuein the course of our evolutionary history?
  • Why can these processes lead to problems for human well-being under today's (social) environmental conditions?
  • What options do you see to mitigate these negative consequences? What can one do as an individual? What can / should we do as a society? What can / should education do?

Nationalism, xenophobia

in preparation

Ressource use and materialism

in preparation

Social inequality

in preparation