For the first 200,000 years of our evolution, as hunter gatherers, each generation of human beings lived more or less the same life as the previous generation.
Since the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago, however, the speed of technological innovation has increased exponentially and continues to accelerate, to the point where my life is significantly different than that of my parents and grandparents, and my children’s lives will be almost unrecognizable to my great grandparents. My grandfather grew up traveling by horse and buggy and my father by gas-powered car. Now I’m buying an electric car, and my children may travel by flying car.
The pace of our technological innovation continually introduces new and unnatural problems, which are addressed with new and unnatural solutions.
Electric cars for example, while certainly not “natural,” are almost universally seen as a marker of positive technological progress because they solve the problem of environmentally-damaging carbon emissions caused by gas-powered cars, which themselves solved the problem of giant piles of foul-smelling manure caused by ubiquitous horse-powered transportation in cities. Go back far enough and you’ll find that unnaturally dense cities were the solution to managing and eating unnaturally calorie-dense fields of agricultural crops.
As our pace of technological innovation has accelerated, our environment and our problems have become more and more unnatural, and so too have our solutions, from agriculture and cities to jogging and iPhones.
Unnatural is defined as, “Contrary to the ordinary course of nature.” Unnatural means filling in for biological evolution. It means developing a technology or activity to better align our biology with our environment, without any biological changes required.
Nearly every activity of modern humans is based on the framework of unnatural solutions to address unnatural problems. Let’s look at just a few examples to illustrate the point…
It’s unnatural to jog.
It’s absurd, really. We run and run, but WHERE ARE WE GOING?
We were born to run, but there’s no real purpose for it anymore. We run on treadmills or in circles around the block. Whereas our hunter gatherer ancestors ran to track prey or to escape predators, we now run for running’s sake.
In our evolutionary past, we didn’t have to try to be healthy and exercise; it happened naturally. In fact, we probably only “exercised” when it was required for survival, or as part of playing with others, as with dance. It’s not in our DNA to exude so much effort without any payoff. However, since we’re no longer required to hunt in order to eat meat or to gather in order to eat berries, our DNA is misaligned with our modern environment.
From an evolutionary perspective, going on a needless run by yourself is a good way to burn precious calories and make yourself a target for predators. It’s no wonder that so many people have a hard time sticking to a consistent running routine, especially at the beginning. Everything in your body is telling you to preserve calories unless there’s a good reason to spend them. But the research shows that running is good for you, makes you happier, and extends your life.
Thus, we need this unnatural solution (jogging) to address the unnatural problem of no longer needing to run, whether to chase down prey or run away from predators.
It’s unnatural to lift weights.
In a world of strollers, shopping carts, engines, and wheels, there’s little need to lift things or carry things around much anymore. Although we evolved lifting and carrying things all the time, from babies to buffalo meat, we’ve lost the need to.
Why would I use my back muscles to carry my baby down the street when that risks dropping the baby and makes my back sore? Why would I carry my groceries home, when I could put them in my cart, then in my car and drive them home; or better yet, have someone deliver them to my door?
Without a need to lift things, our bodies send us signals to take the easy way out, because 10,000 years ago the easy way would have been the exception, not the rule. But lifting weights is associated with pretty much every marker of health, from bone density and lean muscle mass to heart health, brain health, and fat loss, so we should find ways to lift things, and we do, however absurd.
It’s not natural (and a hunter gatherer would likely say it’s not sane) to repeatedly lift metal weights and then just put them down again–15 repetitions at a time for 3 sets–but it’s also not natural to have shopping carts, grocery stores, cars, and food delivery, so we resort to the unnatural solution of “working out” and lifting weights to address the unnatural problem of our technological innovations, from bottled water to Instacart.
Lifting weights and immediately putting them back down again–over and over and over–is unnatural, but the benefits of this absurdity make it worth doing.
It’s unnatural to do stretching exercises.
Yoga may seem like an ancient practice–and it is–but it’s “only” a few thousand years old; it’s a part of our cultural past, not our evolutionary past. Ancient yoga was started as a way to obtain enlightenment and to strengthen the physical-spiritual connection. Today, it’s used for those things by some, but has been embraced by millions of others as a way to stretch our muscles and relax our minds, sore from hunching over a computer, sitting in a chair, and/or staring at a screen all day.
That feeling of physical and mental tightness at the end of the day can be prevented by changing our environment and avoiding repetitive, stagnant, and stressful work, but that computer work often pays for our livelihoods, so removing that aspect of our environment is not an option for many. Thus, we prevent and relieve tight muscles and minds with yoga, meditation, stretching, and mobility–in addition to standing desks, ergonomic mice, psychotherapy, drugs, and posture devices–all of which are unnatural from an evolutionary perspective, but necessary in an environment where most of the developed world is stressed out, hunched over a screen and/or sitting in a chair for the better part of the day.
Our ancestors likely didn’t take 50 minutes out of their day for tadasana, virabhadrasana, and dhanurasana, but that’s because they didn’t need to. They were either lounging comfortably or moving with purpose, not stuck in the same uncomfortable position for 8 hours a day or forced to do meaningless work.
For us modern humans, it would be more natural to give up the screen, chair, and office job all together, but for those who have no choice but to be stagnant for long periods of time–from cashiers and software engineers to truckers and receptionists–the unnatural solution of stretching routines is better than no solution at all.
It’s unnatural to take vitamins.
We didn’t have Vitamin C capsules or greens powder, or any purified vitamins for that matter, until the early 20th century. Vitamins weren’t even discovered until 1912. We evolved acquiring most of our nutrients from the food we ate, but for a number of reasons, our food is not as nutritious as it used to be.
Poor soil health caused by generations of mono crops has led to food that is lower in nutrients than it was for our ancestors, even if we strive to emulate their diets. A banana today isn’t a banana from antiquity, and the meat of a grain-fed factory farm cow today isn’t the meat from a wild bull 50,000 years ago.
I would prefer the solution of growing more sustainable nutritious food, but the fact is that most of the world relies on mono crop grains and vegetable oils for sustenance. Until we change this reality, our populations will be malnourished without proper supplementation. Thus, the unnatural solution of taking vitamins is required because of the unnatural problem of relying on grains and vegetable oils as sources of calories and nutrients.
Sometimes, that supplementation and extra nutrition may need to come in the form of certain types of genetically modified medicines and foods as well, like artemisinin for malaria and golden rice for Vitamin A deficiency. These solutions are not necessarily natural, but are better than the alternative–a diseased and malnourished population.
It’s unnatural to read books and watch TV.
The printing press was only invented a few hundred years ago, and televisions are only a feat of the 20th century, not quite enough time to be a part of our evolutionary past. While reading and watching stories on the pages of a book or the screen of a television are a far cry from how we evolved to be entertained, it’s even less natural to have no entertainment at all and to stare at a wall every night.
Our ancestors danced, played, told stories, and gazed into the fire and up at the stars at night. While a more natural solution to our entertainment addiction would be to gather with family and close friends every night out in the country, in front of a fire, to tell each other of the day’s adventures, most people turn to stories from books and TV to fill in for family and friends.
It can be tough for grandma’s story about the family cat to compete with a multimillion dollar Hollywood storytelling and special effects budget, however unnatural. While this particular solution of TV and movies is likely doing more harm than good, it’s understandable.
In the case of reading books though, it’s likely doing more good than harm. The world of our ancestors was mostly contained to their band of a few dozen people, and the lands that they lived on. Today, our world is literally the entire world. A decision made in Beijing can affect our day-to-day life in California. New knowledge acquired in London can be relevant to my pursuits in San Francisco.
While storytelling and gossip 10,000 years ago was sufficient to cover the entirety of the news, knowledge, and updates for our ancient ancestors’ “world,” the best way to acquire knowledge, learn new concepts, and stay informed in today’s world is through reading.
It’s unnatural to wear sunscreen.
If 99% of your ancestors evolved in a certain latitude of the world, where sun exposure was consistent and predictable, it’s not natural that you live in a completely different latitude now. If you’re Nigerian and living in England, or English and living in Ecuador, your sun exposure is very misaligned with your evolutionary biology.
Dark skinned people in northern latitudes may struggle with Vitamin D deficiency without proper supplementation, and light skinned people near equatorial latitudes won’t last 10 minutes in the sun in the middle of the day without getting sunburned.
No amount of regular sun exposure will cause an extremely light skinned person to produce the melanin needed for sufficient protection from damaging UV rays near the equator, and no amount of cloudy weather will give a dark skinned person the sun-sensitive complexion of the poor lad in the photo above. We don’t evolve quite that quickly.
For many people, our biology (in this case, melanin levels) is not aligned with our environment (in this case, sun exposure and UV strength).We turn to unnatural solutions like sunscreen and Vitamin D to solve this unnatural geographical problem and “hack” our misaligned biology.
It’s unnatural to communicate over phones, emails, and chats.
We didn’t evolve to communicate with someone from hundreds or thousands of miles away. We evolved communicating to people from a few feet away, where we could see, smell, and sense them. Our tribes were made up of a few dozen people, and the majority of the people with whom we communicated were sleeping just a few yards away.
Now, however, our tribe can be made up of people we’ve never met in person, or of friends that live hundreds of miles away, or relatives that live on the other side of the planet. Who we communicate with is no longer constrained by who we physically live with. It’s not natural to communicate by typing or talking into a machine, but it’s also not natural for those in our tribe to be on the other side of the city, country, or planet.
A more natural solution would be to live and/or work in person with the people with whom you communicate most, to only communicate face to face, and to give up modern communication tools like WhatsApp, Slack, and Zoom.
While that’s a path that seems rather compelling at times, it’s not likely our society is going to make those sacrifices any time soon in order to align our evolutionary past with our modern environment. Thus, in the context of this unnatural world, we rely on unnatural technological solutions in order to do something that’s written deeply into our DNA–connect with other humans.
Where are we going?
It was only a hundred years ago that most of the world still communicated either face to face or by writing letters with iron gall ink. Relatively speaking, our technological journey–from language to writing to internet to iPhones–is still in its infancy. We’ve only recently learned to crawl, and are just starting to walk, which leaves us with the same question we asked about jogging at the beginning of this post: where are we going?
In the last few thousand years, our cultural and technological evolution has far exceeded our biological evolution. The story of our recent evolution is one of introducing solutions to solve problems, which were created by previous solutions to solve previous problems, ad nauseam.
Is the only real solution to break this pattern and go back to living like hunter gatherers?
Or is the story of humanity one of never-ending patchwork problem solving?
Will we someday reach a technological utopia with the help of artificial intelligence, where we’ve solved all of our major problems?
Or will we keep introducing new solutions and problems, until those problems become unsolvable–for either lack of technology, lack of cooperation, lack of long term thinking, or lack of time–and ultimately lead to our demise?
There’s no way of knowing, but I think we have the best chance of surviving our own solutions if they are as grounded in our evolution as possible. We should run barefoot and outside, lift free weights instead of pulling cables, get up from our desks and move regularly, use sunscreen with as few harmful chemicals as possible, communicate with our loved ones and closest friends more, check our email and phone notifications less frequently, eat the nutrient-dense foods we evolved eating and supplement only to fill in the gaps, focus less on mono crop agriculture and more on regenerative agriculture, and read inspiring and thought-provoking stories and concepts instead of watching whatever is new on Netflix.
We’re only in the very early days of understanding our own psychology, sociology, and biology. As we jog down this path of discovery and our technological innovation speeds up, we may someday reach escape velocity, no longer dependent on our biological selves or sociological foundations, but until then, we should embrace, not fight, the complexity and mystery of our evolutionary past.