Please read the first post on this topic before you read this one.
What does evolution & adaptation mean and how long does it take?
Firstly, the phrase – “survival of the fittest” is quite misunderstood. For most people, this phrase has come to represent Darwin’s theory of evolution; and calling Darwin’s theory, a theory is a misnomer. In Science, it’s rare to find immutable laws, because even one verified observation can disprove a “theory”. But the theory of evolution is based upon observations confirmed by thousands of scientists across the world and is considered reasonably irrefutable by most scientists of repute.
The phrase survival of the fittest has come to be understood simply as “the fittest individual will survive”. However, that’s not how evolution works. Natural selection takes place over generations of a species, or rather those within those species who show a higher rate of survival or adaptation to the environment.
Let’s take the example of Penguins, who are classified as and are obviously birds – but birds that can’t fly with wings that are better suited to swimming rather than flying, with a body full layered with fat & fur to counter the cold. Imagine that some birds long long ago (like in the region of a few million years) found their way to the south pole – out of those birds, the ones with features such as more fat, more fur, stubby wings are more likely to have survived.
How did these birds have these features more suitable to the environment that they landed in? This happens by a process called mutation, which are random errors that occur when the DNA is replicated when being passed on from one generation to another. If DNA were replicated perfectly, then offspring would be far more of clones of their parents that is the case. So a set of birds with random but favorable mutation such as more fat / fur, stubbier wings had better survival rates and offspring of theirs with similarly favorable mutations in turn had better survival rates, a chain (of natural selection) which would continue till a subspecies such as the Emperor Penguin or the Adelie Penguin would reach an adaptation making them very well suited to their environment, while also making them almost unrecognizable from the original birds (but birds they are!). Of course these species seem stable only when viewed from the limited lens of a few hundred or thousand years, the extent to which humans have first-hand knowledge of the world (the rest of our knowledge is dug out from fossils).
You might have surmised that the process described above can only be a slow process, excruciatingly so, that it involves a very large number of years and a large population of the species involved. One of the common myths about evolution is that it’s a guided process, with nature (or for some God) trying to help a species adapt better to the environment, aiming to bring harmony and balance in nature. However, there’s no evidence of a guiding hand (hidden or visible) – mutation is just random; mindless and biologically mechanistic1.
An adaptation less drastic as compared to penguins was that of humans losing out fur to become apes with the least amount of hair2 and correspondingly the maximum number of sweat glands. Theories of why this happened include the ability to disperse heat far more easily in hot regions like the savannah giving them an advantage over other predators when hunting prey in the heat of the day, or to minimize infections due to hair lice3. What we need to understand is that this process is really slow. Apparently, humans started losing hair about 1.7 to 2 million years ago4, and yet clothing seems to have appeared only 50,000 years ago (without clothing it would be very difficult for hairless primates to survive cold nights even in the savannah).
What the examples above show is that while evolution does happen in the form of natural selection of those sub-species who are better suited to their environment, the rate of adaptive evolution due to mutation is agonizingly slow for any one human’s lifetime, by one estimate at least 4 orders of magnitude more than a human’s lifetime for long lasting changes5. So there’s no way that natural selection by evolution can keep up with the rapid pace of technological development which was measured in decades earlier and is now measured in years (if not days as yet).
Though the rate of adaptive evolution of humans has increased in the last 40,000 years due to a much large population size and therefore a lot more offspring relatively with variety of useful mutations (as well as not so useful ones) as well the diversity of our geographies, the genetic evolutionary rate is still measured in terms of thousands of years. On top of that there are many claims now that cultural evolution has substituted genetic evolution owing to our usage of modern medicine and lesser variation due to smaller family sizes6.
So any loose or layman claim that humans have evolved to cope up with modern lifestyles is bunkum from a truly evolutionary understanding. That brings us to the 2nd question that needs to be addressed.
Does adapting to tools means we have really adapted to modern lifestyles?
When we talk about humans having adapted to modern lifestyles, what we really mean is that we have become adept at learning how to use tools; we have been able to keep up (well at least most of us) with the explosion of tools in the last 300, 50 and 15 years. As individuals we were generally good at learning tools thanks to our larger brains, which itself took more than at least 1 million years to develop. Using tools and cooperating with each other to achieve a common purpose (such as hunting an animal together) is how we mastered every species on earth, including it seems the neanderthals. So our ability to use tools, including modern day ones, is not really a sign that we have evolved to use technology, but rather that as a society we have been able to cooperate and pool knowledge together to develop sophisticated stuff that individuals are adept at using – yes, only using, not really understanding.
We believe that we are smart and we know things. But reality is different. In their book, The Knowledge Illusion, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, give a simple example of the ignorance of our ignorance. They ask whether we know how modern toilets work. And many, or perhaps, most of us would instinctively say “yes, of course, we know.” But try explaining to even a 4 year old the principles on which it works, and you will probably get stuck beyond saying that it’s due to water pressure and has a U-bend. The explanation while not difficult is not obvious, which is what the point is. The fact that we use something regularly doesn’t mean that we understand how it works. It may have applied 5000 or even 500 years ago when the working of tools was rather obvious – whether a shovel or a plough. That’s not the case today. Just because we are comfortable in using a mobile phone or a car doesn’t mean we understand how it works.
Due to our short lifespans, poor memories and generally pathetic understanding of what evolution means, we believe that we are native to technology – and we are in the way we learn and use it but it’s the woozy-doozy stuff that’s far more tough for us to handle. Sloman and Fernbach say that its through shared knowledge and cooperation that we have been able to develop modern technology and no one person can tell you everything even about any one modern tools, including a toilet – for e.g. the knowledge about the right ceramics, plastic or metal to use, how to shape those materials, or where to procure them or make them and so on.
What it means is that as individuals we think we are smart, and we understand how things work, but we really don’t. Humanity is smart (not necessarily wise, but smart) as we have truly evolved to cooperate with each other to achieve common means even though that too has always had its set of challenges. But individuals aren’t smart in general. Even the smart ones are smart and knowledgeable about one thing, or some things. Not about everything.
How does it matter, our ignorance, our lack of “adaptation” or the fact that we haven’t evolved to use technology?
Our ignorance about how a toilet works doesn’t really matter as long as someone in society does (the toilet designer, the plumber). But it does matter hugely for so many other things.
Inability to make sense of the world
Our inability to make sense of large numbers means that we struggle to make sense of the world around us because both the physical, human and even the metaphysical world consist of really large numbers. So we are unable to see the stark truth that from the perspective of the universe, humanity is nothing more than a speck of sentience in the vast universe. To attribute the creation or day to day management (or rather gross mismanagement if I may say so) of our world to a godly figure can’t be anything more than a folly caused by an inflated sense of importance that we have accorded ourselves.
Early on, when we couldn’t understand natural phenomena such as the weather, earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, they were attributed to “godly” forces. Now that we have made significant progress in not just understanding these phenomena but also predicting them (although not yet potent enough to direct or prevent them), we don’t attribute the phenomena itself to godly forces. But we still fail at understanding the complex human world that we are a part of. When we meet someone we were least expecting to, and it turns out to be a blessing of sorts, we attribute that to “non-natural forces” not realizing that unbelievable coincidences will happen for sure because the law of large numbers dictates that even an event with a one in a million chance will occur when many million events are happening. Of course, movies and stories thrive on coincidences – without making them seem either supernatural or miraculous, but yet allowing faith in the “unknown” to thrive.
Mishandling of the explosion of information
When you are living in a tribe of 50 or even 500, 2 deaths due to a predator or illness is very much a crisis. But when we are living in a society of 50 Lakhs, not to mention 120 Crore people, 2 deaths due to a SARS virus or a predator are almost insignificant – especially when there are far far more deaths due to lifestyles diseases which are far more in our control, but far more difficult for most of us to act upon.
Of course news would be boring if it reported everyday a steady stream of deaths caused due to heart failures as compared to causing panic while reporting how Nipah virus is spreading in Kerala – the death toll due to which remained less than 20. The media has an obvious bad news bias – it wouldn’t thrive otherwise. The roots of this might be that the story-telling sessions thousands of years ago were meant to scare people into safety. But you only heard stories from 50 or maybe 500 people who lived within a few kilometers of you.
Those evening time fireside stories have become news from official and unofficial sources, the latter being fake news at times, which has had all kinds of consequences across the world. In the US it might have changed the course of the Clinton vs. Trump election. In India, rumours spread through social media tool have led to lynching on account of cows and child-kidnapping. The big issue here is that availability bias leads to us make the wrong villains in our heads – evolution hasn’t put a truth / coherence filter in our brains which will by default evaluate any news item that we come across; we have evolved to believe in whatever we hear, because we only heard it from family / tribe / village elders who were more likely to tell stories that would benefit their community.
But today you hear and see disaster stories non-stop from across the world, for every nook and corner of the world leading a lot of us to believe that the world is far less safer than it was 50 or 100 years ago. Steven Pinker debunks this claim authoritatively in his book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, where he shows with data that far less people, surely in relative terms, but in some cases, also in absolute terms are dying due to war, disease, poverty and even murders. Even the least safe countries are generally safer than they were 100 or 500 years ago.
Helplessness in the face of all-pervasive technology and its stresses, health & nutritional issues
Those who make and spread fake news do so with either a malicious or a sadistic intent and today’s technology allows them easy means of doing so, allowing to them to hide behind fake accounts and proxies thereby being able to do so without the fear of retribution. However, misuse of technology is not limited to only such people. Most of us find it difficult to push away our mobile phones – whether for checking insta photos, or chat messages or playing some game or even incessantly checking of news as if something major in going to happen in the world every ten minutes not realizing that reading that piece of news is going to make no difference to your life – or to anyone else’s life (you really are not going to do anything about those 40 Lakhs out-citizened souls in Assam, are you now?)
We crave for information and instant gratification naturally – and naturally here means that how we have naturally evolved. While this craving had limited sources even 50-60 years back, today there’s no end to the amount to the sources that are willing to satisfy this craving, whatever be the cost to our physical, mental or emotional wellbeing. The craving for instant gratification is perhaps strongest with respect to food – something we have addressed earlier which has caused havoc for anyone who lives well above the poverty line. In the last few decades, for the first time in the history of humankind, obesity is affecting more people than malnutrition (although in absolute terms the number of malnutritioned should still be an indicator for much action to be taken by humanity, especially Indians).
As we have seen the stresses that were necessary for us to survive from our past have become all-pervasive in our lives in rather innocuous non-life threatening situations leading to significant health and wellbeing issues. These stresses have been compounded due to the rapid changes in the family structures and therefore the nature of relationships that we have with family and friends.
Evolution allowed us to survive and indeed thrive as the “fittest species” but it also left vestiges of a lot of biases, which particularly affect our decision-making. Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow enumerates a range of them: availability, anchoring, confirmation, loss-aversion, framing and others. Kahneman also talks extensively about the two systems of thinking that we have, System 1, the fast system which we use to “jump to conclusions” and System 2, the slow system, which we use when we choose to deliberate about a question or issue.
System 1 is our default system, the system that kept us alive through the age of predators and other threats – the system that tells us to fight or fly instinctively (also seen as gut feelings or instinct at times). Today also it may save our lives in rare cases – say when you swerve your car to avoid a jay walker on the road, but those situations are rare. However, System 1 remains our default system for all our decision-making. It’s the system we use by default whether it’s for relationship, financial, political, or career decisions. It’s also why we look for easiest answers whether they are complex questions of science, faith or how the world works. Given the complexities of our world today as compared to 10000 years ago, System 1 doesn’t have the time or patience to consider all factors and possibilities and is likely to lead to wrong decisions.
Humans = Homo tech-savvy but not yet-adapted sapiens = young species not yet ready for today
We think we know what we are doing with our lives – at an individual level and at a societal level; thinking we have adapted to modern life; in reality we are nowhere close. We’re a young species – we are still trying to figure out what this meaning of life business is and especially in this age of technology. Life was harder earlier, with a lot more worries about food, security, wars, religions, kings, but it was also far less informed. Only recently have we gained some modicum of stability with respect to basic physiological and safety needs. But evolutionary, biological instincts aren’t enough for us to be able to fathom the needs of society today whether it’s exercise, food, family, marriage. Cavemen had no such needs, no reason to do so. Instant gratification is an biological instinct. One of the biggest impact is on our health and our understanding of food. The average hunter-gatherer certainly didn’t keep count of calories. They ate what they could. A balanced lifestyle was not a concern for our predecessors.
While genetic evolution has brought us the technological revolution, our evolution itself hasn’t brought us on par mentally or evolution in being able to adapt a “natural” way of living today. So it’s going to take us time as a species to adapt at a biological, emotional and mental level; to figure out roles, responsibilities, self balance, for the family, how to sift nonsense from sense, and how to make well-informed well thought-out decisions. Just the knowledge of what we aren’t biologically ready for can lead to a change in the way we lead our lives. As David Mcraney says, “You are now less dumb”, and hopefully more “evolved”.
1. Misconceptions about natural selection, Berkeley
2. Latest theory of why humans lost hair, Scientific American
3. Why fur and humans parted ways, New York Times
4. Our weird lack of hair may be the cause of our success, BBC
5. Lasting evolutionary changes take up to a million years, Oregon State University
6. Rate of adaptive evolution, Wikipedia
Featured Image Citation: patriziasoliani on Flickr