Is Our Evolutionary Biology Destroying Humanity?

Natalie Salvesen Posted by Natalie Salvesen on 26 May 2017 / Comments

Humans are without a doubt the most consciously powerful species on Earth. We have found methods to manipulate our lifespan and rapidly expand our population, we have domesticated animals for our own benefit, and we are a dominant influence on the world's ecology. Through agriculture, the industrial evolution and global co-operation we have largely overcome the greatest threats to humanity during the 20th Century; famine, disease and war. This is a huge achievement, but it is my observation that our survival strategies have created a new environment which poses new threats on humanity. Paradoxically, the mass agriculture which largely solved famine is now creating climate change, which disturbs the ecology of our planet and will potentially lead to further famine. The prevalence of chronic disease and mental illness is escalating despite an abundance of food, shelter and medicine. While there is epidemiological evidence of these changes, it seems humanity has not yet understood the scale of these problems nor prioritised accordingly. In reality, sugar poses a greater risk to humanity than terrorism, but there is a much greater focus and fear associated with the latter. Medications are being developed to help people cope with chronic diseases, but this only slows deterioration and does not tackle the root cause to create sustainable change. Many of the current real threats to humanity have not yet been acknowledged and resources have not been directed towards resolving them.

An observation I have made is that our evolutionary biology has not had time to keep up with the threats posed by the rapidly changing environment we have created over the past century. It is interesting to observe that in developed countries, the prevalence of suicides is 25/100,000, but in developing countries the prevalence it is only 1/100,000. In other words, the countries which have excelled the most in terms of wealth and industrial development seem to have a greater number of people suffering from extreme depression. Why should this be the case? My theory is that this is partly because of easy access to immediate pleasure and convenience in the developed world. People are being tricked into thinking their basic needs are met, but actually in many cases pleasure distracts them from some of the core human needs; emotional fulfillment and connection.

The human brain is neurobiologically wired to seek pleasure and reward. Thousands of years ago when food was scarce and mere survival was a challenge, these brain mechanisms were essential for the success of homo sapiens. Pleasure from sweet foods protected humans from eating poisons and encouraged them to eat as much as possible given the relative scarcity of food during those times. Pleasure from emotional connection and sex ensured reproduction and protection from community. Over generations these brain pathways have been reinforced again and again through habitual human behavior conducive to survival. However, in our current convenience-focused environment, pleasure seems to be one of the driving forces of human self-destruction.

Abundance of cheap non-nutritious calorific food satisfies the pleasure pathways in our brain, but ultimately leads to obesity and the physical/emotional consequences. The popular rise of digitalised lives and social media has created constant entertainment and the illusion of community, but it is taking away true human connection and intimacy. By living a convenient, digitalised life, our core emotional needs are being neglected. Our lives are stressfully full yet emotionally empty which is driving many of us to desperately seek out coping mechanisms. Drugs, food, alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes are quick pleasure fixes people have started to use to get through their day, but the damage these substances do to our physical and mental health is rarely acknowledged. Further, pleasure is only short lived, leading to a need and ultimately dependency on repeatedly using these substances to stay 'happy'. Perhaps because of our evolutionary wiring, our default focus is on using short term pleasure as a way to cope and distract us from our problems rather than getting to their core. The source of many addictions lies in the reward neurocircuitry which has so cleverly helped humans survive thousands of years. We need to acknowledge that not enough time has passed for our brains to have adapted to our new environment, and to take the steps to prevent ourselves becoming dependent on short term pleasure.

Although the plasticity of our brains allows us to change these pleasure seeking habits and with time change to healthier coping mechanisms, building awareness of this whole concept would help to prevent harm in the first place. Acknowledging the importance of emotional fulfillment through true connection and integrity could help to reduce the need for our vulnerable brains to seek out destructive coping mechanisms. This will become increasingly important as the next generation grows up in a more digitalised environment where human connections are increasingly superficial. It seems strange to me why there is still such a dominant focus on academia in schools when academic skills are increasingly taken over by machines. A curriculum which values emotional intelligence as much as academic intelligence would surely help the next generation build resilience in a rapidly changing world and harbor qualities unique only to humans eg creativity, leadership.