Biggest Problem in the World? – A Species Haunted by Evolutionary Mismatch

Is it Terrorism? No. Climate Change? Guess again. Broken Politics? Wrong!

Chances are “The Biggest Problem in the World” isn’t featured on the News. Are these hot button issues merely symptoms of a much larger problem? Enough with the small talk, what is it?

Evolutionary Mismatch

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What does that mean?

Evolutionary mismatch, also known as mismatch theory or evolutionary trap, is a concept in evolutionary biology that refers to evolved traits that were once advantageous but became maladaptive due to changes in the environment.

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Evolutionary Mismatch huh?… Alright cool, that sounds like a couple of words put together by a pretentious, half-way decent, science teacher.

Lets see what Robert Wright,

(American journalist, scholar, and prize-winning author of best-selling books about science, evolutionary psychology, history, religion, and game theory, including The Evolution of GodNonzero: The Logic of Human DestinyThe Moral AnimalWhy Buddhism is True, and Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information. He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of He is a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation,[1] a think tank that has been described as radical centrist in orientation.[2] Additionally, Wright teaches an undergraduate seminar at Princeton University on the connections between modern cognitive science and Buddhism, in addition to an online course on the same subject.)

has to say about Evolutionary Mismatch.

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“We aren’t designed to stand on crowded subway platforms, or to live in suburbs next door to people we never talk to, or to get hired or fired, or to watch the evening news. This disjunction (mismatch) between the contexts of our design and our lives is probably responsible for much psychopathology, as well as much suffering of a less dramatic sort” (The Moral Animal, Chapter 2: Male and Female – Playing God)

Not convinced?, What if I told you that Evolutionary Mismatch causes Heart disease The #1 Leading cause of death in the U.S., Cancer, Type II Diabetes, Depression and many more Non-Infectious Diseases. (Check out this Table from the book “The Story of The Human Body”]Image result for non-infectious diseases evolutionary mismatch

Image result for the story of the human bodyby Daniel E. Lieberman, Harvard Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology.

These are all mostly preventable but odds are, you or someone you know has been afflicted by these Non-Infectious diseases. The crazy part is that this is only a partial list. Which leaves us asking:

Where did all these Mismatch Diseases come from!?Image result for Daniel Lieberman“Most of the mismatch diseases from which we currently suffer stem from the transition from hunting and gathering to farming”(Daniel Lieberman, The Story of The Human Body, Chapter 8, “Paradise Lost?”)

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Jared Diamond (Ecologist, Anthropologist, Author, Geographer and Biologist) Who wrote “Guns, Germs, and Steel” among other books, says farming was “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”.


(Extracted/Condensed from “The Story of The Human Body”)

Compared to Hunter-Gatherers, Farmers

  • Work harder
  • Eat a lower quality diet
  • Risk famine due to crop failure from floods, droughts, and other disasters

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  • Live in high population densities, which increases risk for infectious diseases and social stress. (As far as social stress, think about long lines accompanied by the frenetic hustle and bustle as you try to get your morning caffeine fix at Starbucks)
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This simple graph show the relationship between Population Density and Disease.
  • Close contact with animals through agriculture also spurred countless infectious diseases (Tuberculosis, Lethal Influenza). Thanks to improvements in medicine we are able to avoid a lot of these diseases which increases population density. So ironically, in a way, we are only becoming more vulnerable to evolving infectious diseases. 

So why was farming so successful?

The #1 Reason

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Farmers reproduced much faster than


Simply a numbers game. Farming created one of if not the biggest population booms in history.

These days, the thought of more children, make financially literate parents dread the notion of increased expenses. (College Tuition, Car payments, Sports, you name it) However harsh, excess children can be viewed as liabilities in today’s’ economy. (Even a source of poverty) Whereas children served as crucial assets in early agricultural societies. Children occupied the primary labor force on farms which increased their demand, hence: exponential reproduction. This cycle spreads farming, over and over. 

To ensure the survival of large populations, farmers grew only a few staple crops in large quantities (High Yields). Such reliance on grains like Wheat and Corn significantly lowered the variety and nutritional value evident in the Hunter-Gatherer diet.


*Keep in mind, some people in the nutrition community disagree with the information in books like Wheat Belly. Here is a link to an article with opposing views on the nutrition of 100% whole grains and wheat.

          This is one of the first Evolutionary Mismatches created by farming. Namely, deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals, leaves farmers susceptible to diseases. Another problem with the dependence on a small number of crops is famine (aforementioned). If you think about it like investing, Warren Buffett said something along the lines of “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”. When Buffett said that, he was advocating for a diversified portfolio. (He also strongly advocates against over-diversification).

       So how does this relate to farming? Early farmers “put all their eggs in one basket” so to speak, by growing only a few crops in mass quantity. As with investing, if you invested your life savings in one thing and it failed, your doomed. So say 90% of one of these early farmer’s crops is potatoes, what happens when a drought comes in and growing potatoes in longer viable? Malnutrition in children. Then what? Lots of people starve and die, this is called famine. (Irish Potato Famine, just one of the hundreds caused by agriculture) If a Hunter-Gatherer faced the same challenge, they would merely switch to another available food source, no big deal.

          So in accordance to the laws of life, Hunter-Gatherers had a more adaptable strategy for food acquisition, opposed to farmers. Another nagging evolutionary mismatch for farmers is food storage. Hunter-Gatherers would typically eat the acquired food within a day or two. Farmers storing food for long periods of time invites Alfatxoins (which thrive on cereals, nuts, and other common pantry items). Alfatoxins can cause a host of problems including: liver damage, cancer, and neurological problems.

       Farming also introduced yet another Evolutionary Mismatch inducing practice, stripping the fiber from grains. Fiber helps digest carbohydrates at a slower rate so our body can process them properly. This is the difference between a Sweet Potato (Complex Carbohydrate) and refined cereal (Simple Carbohydrate aka Starch). Starch that isn’t accompanied by fiber is quickly converted into sugar. Too much starch breaks down your enamel, breeds bacteria and ultimately causes rotten teeth and cavities (Mismatch Diseases). Especially through the High fructose corn syrup (zero fiber) in soft drinks. Image result for mountain dew mouth         Nobody wants “Mountain Dew Mouth” so this is definitely a prevalent but highly undesirable Evolutionary Mismatch. Excess sugar is probably the worst nutritional mismatch for our health. From less serious chronic mismatch diseases like Acne and cavities to more serious ones like diabetes and Heart Disease. In fact, American Science Writer, Gary Taubes wrote a whole book on it.
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      Now, I’m not going to do an in-depth societal cost-benefit analysis of the positive/negative impact of agriculture (Thats not the point). After only scratching the surface and highlighting a few of the maladaptive practices we’ve picked up, you can decide for yourself. After factoring in all the research, Daniel Lieberman seems to think “Simply put, over time, farming life generally became nastier, more brutish, shorter, and more painful”. (The Story of The Human Body, Chapter 8, Was Farming Worth It”). In this quote Lieberman is of course referring to our ancestors and early adopters of agriculture.

The next rapid growth in culture and technology was the Industrial Revolution which created even more mismatches we see today.

The Industrial Revolution

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          The whole premise of Evolutionary Mismatch is that we humans are walking around with Stone Age, Neolithic Bodies and Brains (Partially) that are not adapted to prosper in our modern environments. Since culture evolves much faster than biology and physiology, we are akin to fish out of water. The Industrial Revolution represents a significant time period of cultural growth which in turn surfaces more Evolutionary Mismatches that haunt us to this day.

One example is the mismatch of factory farming made possible by the industrial revolution. Factory Farming is innovative in the fact that it’s a system to feed more people, but simply put, it makes for lower quality food. Not to mention the cringe worthy ethical concerns. In align with Evolutionary Mismatch, as Joel Salatin would say “Folks This Ain’t Normal”

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        Simply put, the innovations of the Industrial Revolution allowed us to work less, plus have an over abundance of food and stimulation. This abundance of food we have today wasn’t available to our ancestors which causes a mismatch. (Eating more and being less active, you’ve heard it before) The Evolutionary perspective explains that storing fat (Energy Reserves) in the past was a survival method, for the lean months. The extra fat could have been the difference between life and death. In the modern world there are no lean months. Too much fat accumulated is problematic, this mismatch strongly increases the risk of multiple illnesses. (Cardiovascular Disease, Digestive Tissues Cancers, to name a few)

This point about the implications of excess energy is clearly articulated in a paragraph from the book “Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters”

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“Take for example our preference for sweets and fats as an evolved psychological mechanism. This psychological mechanism solved the adaptive problem of survival in the ancestral environment by allowing those who possessed it to live longer. Our consumption for sweets and fats was therefore adaptive in the ancestral environment. However, we now live in an environment where sweets and fats are abundantly available in every check out line, in every supermarket, in every city, in every industrial society, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. In other words, the original adaptive problem (malnutrition) no longer exists; very few people die of malnutrition in industrial societies. Yet we still possess the same psychological mechanism that compels us to consume sweets and fats. Because our environment is so vastly different from our ancestral environment, we now face a curious situation (Me, aka mismatch) where those who behave according to the dictates of evolved psychological mechanisms are worse off in terms of survival (Me, How Ironic). Obesity (to which overconsumption of sweets and fats leads) hinders survival. The Savanna Principle (Me- A principle in evolutionary psychology based around the notion that our brains/bodies are stuck in the stone age) suggests that we continue to have (currently maladaptive) preferences for sweets, and as a result, become obese, because our brain cannot readily comprehend the supermarkets, the abundance of food in general, and indeed agriculture, none of which existed in the ancestral environment. Our brain still assumes we are hunter-gatherers with very precarious and unpredictable sources of food.” – ( Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters by Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa, What is Evolutionary Psychology?)

Evolutionary Mismatch and Depression

*Obviously this can be seen as a vast oversimplification but one can definitely correlate the results of Evoulutionary Mismatch and depression.

Evolutionary Mismatch can disrupt your sleep quality, diet, and increase unnecessary stress. If you add something like loneliness and social isolation, you get a sure-fire recipe for depression. Depression is often treated with antidepressants, now I’m no doctor but this might be ignoring the root cause of depression: Evolutionary Mismatch. I might seem like the man with a hammer (Evolutionary Mismatch) where every problem looks like a nail, but hear me out. Mathew D. Lieberman (Bio – Professor and Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab Director at UCLA Department of Psychology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences) wrote a book called Social, explaining why our brains are hard-wired to be social. Lieberman also explains how socialization is/was fundamental to our success as a species.

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As a species, hard-wired to connect, a lack of socialization will lead to depression. Due to Evolutionary Mismatch, this detachment from society is now easier than ever. Our ancestors were confined to tribes of about 150 (Dunbar’s Number), and now we have overwhelming social media accounts with thousands of fleeting, shallow, interactions which have the potential deprive us of real human cooperation. Also with advent of airplanes, we no longer have to stay with our tribe (families) which is unique to our Evolutionary Psychology and can impair long-lasting social connections. The Evolutionary Mismatch at play is that we no longer have to live and work together in tribe but still have the brains that function best in that setting. Not to be a reductionist but the result, often accompanied by other destructive mismatches, is depression and all too common anxiety.

After stating some of the problems, here is a link to an article from PsychologyToday with solutions to Evolutionary Mismatch.


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