How the last 10,000 years have screwed you over
15 December 2013
For the most part, the last 10,000 years have been a huge success for the humankind. As a result of the Agricultural Revolution, it was suddenly possible to produce a surplus of food, which allowed a growing number of people to focus on other things besides just finding or killing the next meal. Permanent settlements, labour diversification, trading, and culture all resulted from this surplus.
Later, the Industrial Revolution skyrocketed our productivity. As every object produced was no longer required to pass through the hands of an artisan, a growing number of people could, again, focus on other things. The living standards of the masses improved and economic growth has been relatively stable ever since.
As an on-going result of the Information Revolution, many of us no longer work in industrial jobs, but rather with producing, assessing, and manipulating information. The same sea change has made it possible for you to connect to anyone, anywhere, and anytime.
There has been a sudden (sudden relative to the 60-million-year history of primates) explosion in the structure of world around us, and yet we are still to a large extent the same animal that we were before it. DNA evidence suggests that there has been little change in basic human physiology during the last 10,000 years, but the environment in which we live has undergone a change so fundamental that our ancestors from that time wouldn’t recognise it as the same world. Though some traits, such as lactose tolerance (at least) in Indo-Europeans, seem to have occurred during that time, 10,000 years is an evolutionary eye-blink.
Though much of this has been beneficial to our standard of living and the state of humanity, many of our modern problems also stem from this sudden change in the environment.
First, the Agricultural Revolution ruined our diet. Prior to agriculture, our species relied on hunting and gathering for nourishment, which provided a varied, seasonal, and healthy diet. As a result of farming and animal husbandry, we started relaying more on domesticated animals, grains, and other high-carbohydrate crops: the average height dropped, tooth decay appeared, and an array of different deficiency-related diseases developed. Modern consequences of relaying on agriculture-based diet and industrially refined food are obesity, chronic low-level inflammation, hypertension, and diabetes, just to mention a few.
Second, these revolutions have dropped our physical activity levels to an all time low. Many of us are no longer required to exert physically to bring food to the table, which has given birth to the notion of exercising, a concept that our ancestors would have probably found funny. According to one story, when a group of Amazonian indigenous people were flown to New York City to take part in a conference on the topic of deforestation, they came across some joggers in Central Park. These hunter-gatherers found the fact that the joggers were running around in the park for no apparent reason simply hilarious. For them, strenuous physical labour always had a function related to such basic activities as gathering food, escaping enemies, or building dwellings. If these hunter-gatherers had been asked to make a choice between rest and work, they would have surely opted for rest; saving energy as opposed to spending it has obvious evolutionary benefits. For them, however, physical activity wasn’t about staying fit; it was about staying alive.
Third, as one of the results of the Information Revolution and urbanisation, the number of people with whom we maintain a social relationship, both offline and online, has exploded. Before widescale urbanization and before technology afforded us fast means of transport and communication, our social circles were restricted to the people who happened to live in the same physical community with us. These communities were relatively small compared to the urban settings of today.
Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive upper limit to the number of people in our social circles. The number is actually determined by a physiological trait: British anthropologist Robert Dunbar found a correlation between the size of the neocortex in primates and the maximum number of members that their social groups could accommodate (neocortex is the evolutionarily latest addition to our brains, responsible for many higher cognitive functions). Dunbar suggested that the size of our neocortex allows us to have meaningful relationships with only about 150 other humans.
Just think of all your friends, colleagues, and schoolmates. Then add the number of those people up with your Facebook friends or LinkedIn connections. Over 150? No wonder that you may feel overwhelmed juggling all these relationships.
We crave for connection with others, which is why so many of the most widely adopted inventions deal with quenching our social thirst. The postal system, telephone, instant messaging, and Facebook are all so popular because they fill such a basic human need as connectedness. Every letter, phone call, blip on a screen, and notification is a chance that someone is connecting with you, paying attention to you, loving you. It’s addictive, and it’s no wonder that these technologies have given rise to conditions such as social media addiction, texting while driving, and FOMO.
Our species evolved to be what we are today in an environment completely different from the environment in which we exist today. Eating disorders, allergies, chemical addictions, obesity, many forms of anxieties, messed up circadian rhythms, loneliness, loss of bone density, insomnia, stress... The list could be continued with many other conditions resulting from the mismatch between the nature of the animal that we are and the nature of the environment in which the animal today lives.
Though the last 10,000 years have been a huge success for the humankind, we should also be aware of the many ways this period of time has screwed us over. Embracing those parts of the present that work for our benefit, and those parts from our primal past that are good for us seems to me a solid strategy to strive in the environment that we are now living in. We are still the same animal.