On the alleged mismatch between our evolved psychology and current technological environment (a conversation with a colleague)


Mismatch argument/example: There is insight in this argument, but I also think it is overstated/stated too briefly. ("2 million years" seems to refer to the genus Homo, not to our species.) The current state of technology -- and, really, even 19th C industrial technology -- is quite different from the conditions under which humans evolved. So it is quite likely that there is a mis-match between our evolved psychology and our current technological environment. For instance, it is probably not "natural" for us to work 8 hour sedentary days. (The general idea that our evolved psychology may not be well-suited to our current social context is something many evolutionary psychologists accept.)

Humans can evolve to new cultural technologies not just to their natural physical environment: But I would also argue that human technology/material culture co-evolved with the human species over 100,000 yrs. Even 15,000 years (since the birth of agriculture) is sufficient time for considerable genetic evolution to occur. Anthropologists like Boyd and Richerson (who emphasize gene-culture co-evolution) argue that our psychology continued to evolve to adjust to our new cultural context, leading to a new set of "tribal instincts" that were built on top of the ancestral instincts shared by other primates.

Individual humans can adapt to new cultural contexts: Here's one way to make the point: humans are highly adaptable. Some say that "culture" is our primary adaptation. Part of what this means is that we were born with instincts that make us prone to absorb the cultural context into which we're born. Thus, newborns simply pick up the new culture as it evolves.


I too think there is important insight in the idea that human happiness/fulfilment partially depends on avoiding a mismatch between our evolved nature and our current ways of living.

Am I correct that you suggest:

 1) How quick is gene-based psychological evolution? Gene-based psychological evolution may well have been occurring during the last 10,000 years of technological change. (How quickly can it occur? Could our gene-based psychology have evolved in response to industrial revolution technologies or even in response to recent information technologies?)

2) Humans can (non-genetically) change their nature so as to fit and be fulfilled in new cultural contexts: Humans have the capacity, have such a flexible nature, that individuals can change their own requirements for fulfilment/happiness, in response to the cultural/technological context in which they are raised?

         Reject strong genetic control: This latter point seems to jettison the idea of strong biological/genetic control over our nature.

         Mismatch view borders on biological reductionism of humans and ignores we are cultural, choosing beings: It also fits with the worry that the alleged problematic mismatch between our current environment and the environment of human origin takes a much too reductionist view of humans, as if we were simply biological and not at least as much cultural beings, and it ignores human freedom and choice to determine our nature. It involves too much of the idea that there is a fixed human nature and we must satisfy it. It also seems to assume a perfect fit between our ancient environment and our nature (falsely assuming natural selection creates a perfect fit between organisms and their environment) and that there could not be a better environment to satisfy our nature


I am asserting some version of both 1 and 2. I don't know how far we can go with (2), but some version of it seems right to me.

An example of an biological trait that evolved in response to a cultural shift: There is certainly evidence that gene-based evolution has occurred in the last 10,000 years. For example, lactose tolerance involves keeping a gene that all normal humans have as infants active into adulthood. In many societies with agriculture, this genetic change has taken place to allow humans to benefit from drinking the milk of our animals (cows, goats, etc.) In Europe, most adults can digest lactose and this change is "co-evolution" of our human genetic make-up and our social environment (agricultural practices).

Industrial/informational high tech too recent to result in biologically adaptation I would think that humans have not had enough time to evolve (much) in response to 19th C tech's; and there can't be any *biological* adaptation to information tech.


Evolution can be fast: I used to think evolution was slow. Then I read something about insects (or was it bacteria?) evolving new traits in days? I believe. I guess since humans don't reproduce as fast it would take us longer. And of course there is the whole issue of to what extent genes determine psychological traits.

Multitasking as an example of a trait/skill being selected for? Could it be that the psychological ability to multitask is a trait that both enhances reproductive success and is genetically based? If so the preponderance of that gene (or sets of genes) in the human population would have increase. That would be humans beginning to biologically/psychologically adapt to our new information technology world.


Another critique of mismatch argument: What makes humans happy/fulfilled–family, friends, respect, meaningful work, values–is not only possible in the biological environment of our origin

         Not clear modern tech society undermines these requirements, though it may (and primitivists argue it does)