Evolutionary psychology, and evolutionary explanations for modern day human behaviors, have become more popular recently. The argument is that much of what humans do today, some of which makes sense and some of which doesn’t seem to make sense, can be understood by looking into the distant human past and understanding how ancient humans lived. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book Sapiens, “the flourishing field of evolutionary psychology argues that many of our present-day social and psychological characteristics were shaped during this long pre-agricultural era.” The era mentioned by Harari was the tens of thousands of years during which ancient humans lived in small bands as hunters and gatherers.
Humans lived with scarcity for tens to hundreds of thousands of years. Humans were not the most physically dominant and impressive species on the planet, didn’t often have a lot of food to eat, and didn’t have much security in terms of shelter or family. In such an environment, humans evolved specific genes to help them survive as relatively weak scavengers in small groups. But evolution for humans did not stop there. Cognitively, humans continued to improve and brains became more powerful, ultimately allowing humans to shoot up the dominance ladder, creating modern societies. Our new environment is dramatically different than the environment that almost all humans have lived in. Over a few hundred years we have created societies of abundance, of hundreds of thousands to millions of humans living together in close contact, and societies of impressive technological comfort. But evolution is much slower than our ascent, and has created challenges for us.
Regarding our modern environment and situation, Harari continues, “this environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed, and pressured. To understand why, evolutionary psychologists argue, we need to delve into the hunter-gatherer world that shaped us, the world that we subconsciously still inhabit.”
Harari explains that our bad habit of overeating sugary and greasy food becomes understandable if we look back at the environment that our human ancestors found themselves in and evolved through. Sugary food was rare. Ripe fruit, and greasy meat was hard to come by for a foraging species that couldn’t compete with larger animals to defend a downed antelope or tree full of figs. If a human did find a bunch of ripe fruit or a carcass that wasn’t being attended to by some hungry hyenas, then the human’s best bet was to eat as much as possible in one sitting. Today, in affluent societies, we have all the food we can want – we can even have it delivered to our door – but we still have the genes that told our ancestors to eat as much as possible when sugary and greasy food was available. This mismatch doesn’t serve us well in the modern day, but the evolutionary psychology argument suggests that it was beneficial for survival in the past. Evolutionary psychology allows us to better understand ourselves today by exploring how our ancestors lived and what genetic pressures were placed on them. The challenge we now face, extending far beyond genes that influence our preference for foods, is that we no longer inhabit the world that our genes and bodies evolved to fit within. Subconsciously, and at an instinctual level likely influenced to a high degree by our genes, we still inhabit worlds that no longer exist. Our evolutionary past and psychology haven’t caught up with the modern world we live in, but we don’t always realize that is the case.