Ancient traits in modern life

How at odds is our neurobiology with our contemporary environment?

On the first day of the HowTheLightGetsIn festival, a riveting panel discussion unfolded between the Future of Humanity Institute's Anders Sandberg, Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology Sunetra Gupta, and philosopher of human nature, Subrena E. Smith. The key issue? How much our neurobiology is at odds with the contemporary environment we've crafted.


Evolution has seen us climb the ladder of survival. Our ascent significantly fuelled by our brain's complex development. However, these same neurobiological traits that once safeguarded us against the crude realities of the primitive world might now be our undoing in the face of our increasingly intricate and complex modern world.

The debate was in part inspired by the concept of an 'evolutionary mismatch’. A theory that posits that organisms evolve under specific conditions, and when these conditions are changed for extended periods, a discord occurs. As Glenn Geher, a professor of evolutionary psychology, explains, our brains are designed for certain conditions that our surroundings no longer satisfy. The idea of humans being at odds with their environment can also be seen to take inspiration from the primitivist myth of the noble savage, of the unsullied purity of human nature, innocent, and at peace with its surroundings and itself. Although this is a violently inaccurate representation of the harsh realities our primitive selves faced, it’s still tempting to think of our pre-digital, pre-industrial and pre-agricultural lives as a kind of steady-state utopia, unblemished by the widespread complexity, anxieties and chronic pains that seem to enfeeble us today.

While we may presume such a mismatch, Subrena E. Smith began her pitch by arguing, with healthy Pyrrhonic scepticism, that we cannot know exactly what the makeup of the neurobiology of our ancestors was. If we believe there is an unbreakable link between the neurobiological structures installed in our ancestors and us, “it’s very easy to make the inference that our neurobiology is ill-equipped for the contemporary world.”


We no longer need to animate the world around us with our minds, we have done so by dint of our godlike technology.


Smith also touched on the relationship between evolutionary biology and human values. While we often perceive evolution as a raw and brutish force, Smith argued that this is a misconstrued interpretation. Evolution continues to act upon us, even within our modern societies and is inevitably intertwined with the differences we instigate. She posits an inherent tension between the ground of evolution - the ground of biology - and the kind of values we, as human beings, would like to establish.

This chimed well with Sunetra Gupta who pointed out that evolution, while pivotal in our development, is a slow process that can't be forced to comply with our whims. Emphasizing the inherent maladaptiveness of all organisms, she suggested that our inherent traits need to be accepted and dealt with through creative outlets such as art and poetry. Gupta further argued that the primary challenge we face is not innate violence but greed, framing it as an inevitable product of natural selection.

Gupta also proposed that human beings are hard-wired for stories that help create a semblance of social coherence. This innate tendency can lead to a Narrative fallacy - a concept popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb which refers to our tendency to construct stories or explanations around facts or occurrences, especially when it comes to random or complex events. Gupta states that this innate addiction to simplistic narratives can cause us to dismiss facts.

On the other hand, Anders Sandberg proposed that we have diverged from our biological evolutionary goals. We are now capable of valuing the quality of our lives over the quantity of our offspring. It is this radical shift, according to Sandberg, differentiates us from other species. However, he also mentions another important fact that differentiates us from other species: our ideas. This thinking, Sandberg says, “is a very separate part of our evolution, it is the evolution of our ideas, our ways of running our culture.” These ideas are not part of our genetic inheritance in any way. But it is this capacity to preserve and transmit knowledge that differentiates us from almost all other species. It is our knowledge of things like tools, farming and hygiene that have allowed us to not simply survive but thrive as a species.

Humanity’s deployment of technology (i.e., culture) is indeed a new evolutionary force in the history of the planet. Although we cannot be certain that our neurobiology is the same as it was for the 99.5% of human existence spent in the palaeolithic era, we can be certain that our artefacts, by many degrees of magnitude, are incomparable. We no longer need to animate the world around us with our minds, we have done so by dint of our godlike technology. It would be a grave error, however, to bestow our seemingly transcendent technology with the same logic of inevitability we do our evolution. Especially when the interplay between our innovations and our economic motivations have thus far been inimical to our psychological well-being to say nothing of our ability to be free-thinking individuals. 

Gunes Taylor then pulls the discussion back to one of its central themes. Despite agreeing human beings have to some extent ascended past the point of evolutionary pressures, it doesn’t necessarily negate the idea of the "anxious ape" – a term used to describe the paradox of being a highly evolved species in a modern world, still governed by primal instincts and inhibitions. Our ancestors, indeed, thrived in an immediate return environment, where daily actions directly influenced survival, and stressors were acute and fleeting. Today, we exist in a delayed return environment, where actions seldom yield immediate rewards, and stressors are chronic, inducing persistent stress and anxiety. This shift is perhaps most evident in our addiction to instant gratification through social media, and our abysmal response to long-term threats like climate change.


Our adaptions are all part of the same natural agglomeration, and to distinguish them at all is to create a false dichotomy between that which is natural and that which is artificial. 


For Smith, it is an open question as to whether our brains can be considered ill-equipped for our modern environments. But to her mind, “we are functioning, our neurobiology is serving us.” And it is true that from the vast demiurgic vantage point of the sum development of our species, we are no doubt almost destined to be such that we are. We may have altered our environment, but this and our coeval adaptions are all part of the same natural agglomeration, and to distinguish them at all is to create a false dichotomy between that which is natural and that which is artificial. Humans, like all other life forms, are a product of nature, and by extension, so are our creations. In this sense, electricity, cities, smartphones, and even virtual realities can be seen as natural phenomena, because they are the product of a species interacting with and manipulating its environment, something which occurs throughout the natural world.

Such a view, however, seems at odds with the scale of our phenomenology. It is hard to make the case that we are not violently maladapted when every day we engage in the most significant and menial of acts - we make cups of tea, we build houses, we have sex, and we plan for the future - but all in the knowledge that as a collective, we engage in planetary wide activities that will likely render our environment so inhospitable it will eventually lead to the cessation of our entire species.

While our ability to create and use explanatory knowledge has given us the power to transform nature and act against our evolutionary binding, why, when faced with knowledge of existential threats we do so little? Why is there, at such a scale a civilization as we have built, such a violent disjunct between the knowledge at our disposal and our ability to put it into practice?

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