- In so many ways, the modern world is mismatched from the conditions that humans evolved to exist in, causing all kinds of problems.
- Mismatch has adverse effects when it comes to education, nutrition, and exercise—just to name a few.
- If you care about reducing social inequality in the industrialized world, you should understand evolutionary mismatch—and its implications.
- So many social inequalities can be better understood with a strong understanding of evolutionary mismatch applied to the human experience.
In so many ways, our modern worlds differ from the environments that our hominid ancestors evolved to expect. Instead of living in small, tight-knit clans, so many of us live in large-scale towns and cities—sometimes including millions of others. Instead of having only natural foods available to us, so many of us have inexpensive, tasty foods available to us at the corner store or at the click of a button. And instead of having to walk or run miles a day to acquire food sources, we can use DoorDash or Instacart while scrolling to see what's on Netflix. The modern world is full of evolutionary mismatches, and we are only in the beginning stages of understanding just how problematic this fact is (see my and Nicole Wedberg's book, Positive Evolutionary Psychology, for a deep-dive into this problem).
Evolutionary mismatch is not a small problem. It has been documented to play a role in such adverse outcomes as obesity (Wolf, 2010), educational failure (see Gruskin & Geher, 2018), unhealthy exercise levels (see Platek et al., 2011), and more.
Evolutionary Mismatch and Income Inequality
Much work in the field of modern academia focuses on income inequality, which stands as a major systemic issue regarding all kinds of life outcomes (see Barber et al,. 2021). Income inequality is simply enormous in places such as the United States.
One overlooked contributor to large-scale income inequality is found in the concept of evolutionary mismatch. In so many ways, mismatch leads to a broad array of physical, emotional, interpersonal, and societal problems. And as is true in so many spheres of life, solutions to this ubiquitous problem are buffered by access to resources.
In short: Opportunities to mitigate problems associated with mismatch are buffered by wealth.
This fact is good for some but bad for so many others.
5 Ways the Wealthy are Buffered from the Adverse Effects of Evolutionary Mismatch
Modern public education bears little resemblance to the ways that our nomadic ancestors learned. Several relatively expensive forms of private education, such as the Sudbury School, are designed to address this issue. But it's not cheap. A typical year at a Sudbury School costs over $10,000 per child.
Evolutionarily-informed education is for the wealthy.
The United States is filled with "food deserts"; locations in which natural, healthy foods—consistent with the kinds of foods eaten by our pre-agrarian ancestors—are virtually non-existent. Famously, food deserts, where McDonald's and bags of Doritos are primary offerings, often go hand-in-hand with poverty (See Guitar, 2017).
Our modern world offers so much in terms of a sedentary lifestyle that many of us exercise close to zero on a daily basis. Further, evolutionarily informed exercise regimens, such as CrossFit, typically cost over $1,000 a year (see Fell & Geher, 2018). If you want to be healthy, it sure helps to be rich.
4. Physical Health in General
Physical health, more generally, seems to track income quite closely (see, for instance, this Pew report on the fact that poverty is a strong predictor of having adverse effects to COVID). Wealth allows people to eat natural foods, exercise regularly, have access to high-caliber health care, and more. It is little wonder that expected lifespan and income have regularly been found to be positively correlated with one another (see Chetty et al, 2016).
5. Mental Health
So many mismatches of the modern world, such as the large-scale anonymous communication that exists via social media, wreak havoc on emotional health, including—especially—that of adolescents and young adults (see Twenge et al., 2019).
Across cultures, increased use of social media has been found to predict all sorts of adverse mental health outcomes, including anxiety and depression. To my mind, this fact is one of the most critical evolutionary mismatches of our day, leading to adverse outcomes for so many of our young people.
Those with access to resources, including money and high-quality health insurance, are able to tap much-needed mental health resources to mitigate these effects.
Those without the privilege of such resources simply do not. Think about that.
In so many ways, evolutionary mismatch, often without us even noticing, adversely affects our lives. It plays a role in such problematic issues as obesity, attentional disorders, cyberbullying, educational failure, increasing levels of anxiety, and more.
As is true in so many spheres of the modern human experience, access to resources helps to buffer people from the adverse effects of mismatch. The rich can afford evolutionarily informed private education for their kids. They can afford natural foods and CrossFit. In fact, money can buy all kinds of products that are designed to mitigate the effects of evolutionary mismatch.
If you care about fixing the systemic problem of income inequality, which sits as an elephant in the room in places like the United States, take some the time to learn about evolutionary mismatch. Understanding our evolutionary roots is critical to solving any and all modern human problems.
Barber, W. J., Barnes, S. G., Bivens, J., Faries, K., Lee, T., & Theoharis, L. (2021). Moral Policy = Good Economics. American Educator, 45(3), 4-13.
Chetty R, Stepner M, Abraham S, et al. The Association Between Income and Life Expectancy in the United States, 2001-2014. JAMA. 2016;315(16):1750–1766. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.4226
Fell, J., & Geher, G. (2018) Psychological Outcomes Associated with CrossFit, Journal of Evolution and Health, 2(2), Article 7. https://doi.org/10.15310/2334-3591.1071
Gruskin, K., & Geher, G. (2018). The Evolved Classroom: Using Evolutionary Theory to Inform Elementary Pedagogy. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 12, 1-13.
Guitar, A. (2017). Evolutionary Medicine: A not so radical (but absolutely necessary) Paradigm for Modern Health and Behavior (seminar given in SUNY New Paltz Evolutionary Studies Seminar Series)
Platek, S., Geher, G., Heywood, L., Stapell, H., Porter, R., & Waters, T. (2011). Walking the walk to teach the talk: Implementing ancestral lifestyle changes as the newest tool in evolutionary studies. Evolution: Education & Outreach, 4, 41-51. Special issue on EvoS Consortium (R. Chang, G. Geher, J. Waldo, & D. S. Wilson, Eds).
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.
Wolf, R. (2010). The Paleo Solution. Las Vegas, NV. Victory Belt Publishing.