Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life
-by Haydar Khan
“Evolution is a light which illuminates all facts, a curve that all lines must follow.”- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
In the recently published A Hunter Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century (Portfolio/Penguin 2021), authors/scientists Dr. Heather Heying and Dr. Bret Weinstein propose that the current configuration of the modern world, with all of its digital marvels and conveniences, is an ill fit for the creature known as Homo sapiens. The authors have coined a term to describe our predicament: hyper-novelty and describe it thusly: The cognitive dissonance spawned by trying to live in a society that is changing faster than we can accommodate is turning us into people who cannot fend for themselves. Simply put, it’s killing us. Do they argue that all is hopeless? Far from it, the couple make the case that by understanding what makes humanity unique, we can use evolution’s gifts to navigate this unfriendly world. Heying and Weinstein, a husband-and-wife team of evolutionary biologists, have broad experience in the research and teaching of
evolutionary biology. Using an evolutionary toolkit developed during their years in the field, the physical classroom, and the virtual classroom, they analyze a number of topics, ranging from the structure of human bodies, language, medicine, food, sleep, sex and gender, parenthood, childhood, school, and adulthood. However, it is in the analysis of more controversial topics such as culture and the trajectory of human civilization that Heying and Weinstein really pique interest. What are the components of the toolkit and what principles does it operate upon? The answers to this intersect with these controversial topics but are key to both understanding’s humanity’s predicament and finding a way around it.
Hunter Gatherer begins by elucidating what it is about mankind that makes it so exceptional. The answer is man’s ability to switch what biologists call niches. A niche is a habitat that supplies the factors necessary for the existence of an organism or species. How do humans alternate between niches? According to the authors, they do this by bouncing between two modes of operation: consciousness and culture. Consciousness, as the authors define, is “that
fraction of cognition that is packaged for exchange”. When humans encounter new challenges, they have the ability to communicate with other humans and pool each other’s consciousness into a shared problem-solving system. If the solution derived from collective consciousness holds up against the test of time, it is then added to other time-tested solutions derived from the collective problem-solving apparatus. This aggregation of time-tested solutions becomes a bank of solutions which humans can automatically draw upon. This, the authors argue, is culture. The consequences of this two-layered power are that humans can individually be specialists and by using the results of shared collective consciousness, be generalists as well.
It is the application of evolution to culture, I suspect, that will generate the most controversy out of all the topics covered in Hunter-Gatherer. The Doctors argue that genes and culture are both forms of inheritable information and that culture evolves in service of genes. The authors argue that there exists a single rule which explains the effect of culture (and other “above the genome” phenomena) upon genetic expression: the Omega Principle. The Omega Principle states that 1) Culture is more flexible than genes and can adapt faster than genes and 2)
cultures evolves in service to genes. An immediate consequence of Omega is that any cultural trait that is both costly in terms of time/resources and has endured for a long period of time is presumed to be adaptive (contributes to the persistence of the genes down through time). One can see controversy (which the field of evolutionary biology is no stranger to) erupting over the consequences of Omega and its corollary when applied to the prominent and persistent cultural component called religion. Indeed, the authors address the adaptive value of religion in a chapter dedicated to culture and consciousness and I leave it to would-be readers of Hunter-Gatherer to see what the doctors have to say on this topic.
In addition to Omega and its corollary, the evolutionary toolkit is comprised of a three-part test that “reveals the sufficient, but not necessary, evidence that something [genetic or cultural] is an adaption. The three parts of the test are 1) is the trait complex?, 2)is the trait costly in terms of resources, and 3) does the trait exhibit persistence down through evolutionary time? The example of the human appendix is used in the text to illustrate the adaptive value of an organ
which was long presumed to be vestigial but has now been discovered to be a back-up repository for beneficial gut bacteria. Since the appendix has adaptive value, removing it can lead to harmful consequences, such as having more frequent bouts of gastrointestinal illness.Therefore, the removal of the appendix serves as a cautionary tale as to the consequences of tampering/removing anything presumed to be a useless trait. The Roman-Catholic writer and
philosopher, G.K. Chesterton, had a parable that the doctors cite and which perfectly encapsulates the consequences of flippantly dismissing traits as obsolete. This is the parable of Chesterton’s Fence in which Chesterton uses the example of encountering a fence or gate erected across a road, a gate for which is presumed there is no purpose. Chesterton advises that before the barrier is removed, one must ascertain that there is indeed no purpose for the barrier before dismantling it. The wisdom of this parable can also be applied to traits (cultural or genetic) which modern day humanity may be too quick to dismiss. As Weinstein/Heying point out, tradeoffs are ever present and one must weigh the consequences of removing/ignoring genetic/cultural traits that pass the test for adaptation.
Hunter-Gatherer concludes with an analysis of mankind’s overall trajectory. As it stands, humanity is running into a sustainability crisis driven by our obsession with growth at any cost. The authors call this the senescence of human civilization, senescence being the consequences of embracing decision/enterprises/strategies which result in short-term gain but negative
consequences later in life. Mankind has nearly exhausted the three frontiers that exist: geographic, technological, and transfer-of -resource frontiers. What is mankind to do about this predicament? The authors argue that we need a new frontier: The Fourth Frontier. By using humanity’s evolutionary super power (niche switching) and the evolutionary toolkit, we must build a steady-state society that transcends civilizational senescence. Using our collective
consciousness, humanity must discover a system that is liberating, antifragile, capture proof, and is unable to be outcompeted by another strategy. A tall order, to be sure, but the alternative is extinction. As the authors say: “We must become more than our best selves, and save ourselves in the process.”