Should We Outsmart Our Genes? - Left, Right, and Mother Nature

Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide - Hector A. Garcia 2019

Should We Outsmart Our Genes?
Left, Right, and Mother Nature

Throughout this chapter we have explored how natural selection has left us with political preferences that originally took hold because they afforded our ancestors certain survival advantages. However, there are times at which a particular adaptation becomes a disadvantage when it no longer matches the current environment—known as an evolutionary mismatch. Mismatches typically occur as a function of temporal change (e.g., environmental change over time) or spatial change (e.g., an organism migrates to a new environment). Humans are unique in that our success with technology has created drastic, rapid environmental changes, far faster than we could adapt genetically. This progression has created a number of evolutionary mismatches.

One example comes from what and how we eat. Following animal migrations, relying on seasonal rains and the plant life, our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived far more at the mercy of nature. Notably, this way of living was marked by high physical activity and punctuated by periods of scarcity. In such an environment, it paid to binge when food was available, to crave high-calorie foods (such as fat and sugar), and to efficiently convert food to fat stores. Such adaptations allowed our ancestors to draw upon stored energy in times of hunger. But as technology advanced, we became much better at bending the natural world to our will. The advent of agriculture made food sources continuously available. Our ability to modify food has made salt, sugar, and fat available in higher concentrations and easier to obtain than in our evolutionary history. Finally, mechanization, specialization, and the domestication of animals have eliminated the need for most of us to chase down game or to toil in the fields in order to eat. In sum, our sedentary lifestyles combined with unfettered access to food sources that were scarce in our evolutionary past have resulted in epidemics of morbid obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and numerous other “mismatch diseases.” Indeed, in industrialized societies, we are more likely to die from noninfectious, mismatch diseases than any other cause of death.49

The concept of the evolutionary mismatch can help to illuminate the political challenges of our modern age. We evolved in small bands of competing tribes, in wild, uncertain environments where the competition between clans for scarce resources was often a zero-sum game (where one competitor's gain/loss equals the other's loss/gain). Across our history competition of this kind has led to staggering levels of human bloodshed. Yet today we literally have the capacity to feed the world in overabundance. Despite these gains, in many ways we remain closed, suspicious, tribalistic people straining to form a globalist union while using our Stone Age minds. Thus one important question is, How xenophobic do we really need to be in the face of our unprecedented ability to sustain ourselves?

Once again, evolutionary science suggests that another force behind our enduring political tribalism is an adaptation designed to help us avoid deadly pathogens. This adaptation was useful for more than 99 percent of our evolution when there was no such thing as sterilization, antibiotics, or vaccines. Thus our ancestors died from simple afflictions, such as the common cold, the flu, or diarrhea, with crushing regularity. Under those conditions, developing a prejudicial psychology to help us avoid human vectors of disease was evolutionarily practical. But we have made profound strides in the field of immunology. Many pathogens that wiped out entire populations of humans have since been eradicated, and many that remain can be deflected with cheap, widely available vaccines. Despite that today we are exponentially safer from pathogens, our mastery over germs has existed over a mere eye blink of our history as a species, far too recently to erase germ-driven prejudice from our psychology. The question, then, is how much an adaption designed to protect us from germs serves us in the face of these advancements in medicine, particularly since xenophobia has created so much bloody conflict over our species’ history. The reasons why humans could not openly cooperate on a global scale, freely sharing resources, information, and technology to advance humankind seem to lie less on the practical than the emotional. This is where evolutionary science can serve us. By examining the ultimate reasons for our fears, we have already achieved a critical degree of emotional distance. It is only with distance that we may judge which of our fears continue to serve us and which should be left on the savannas of our ancestors.