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  • Dr. Mike Brooks

Unraveling Humanity's Evolutionary Puzzle: Part 3 -Unraveling Modernity's Evolutionary Puzzle

Welcome back, my fellow Connectors! I’ve been writing madly about our mad, mad world over the past month. My article mushroomed to 8000 words, so I thought it would be better to break this up! Are you ready to continue our “red pill” journey and delve deeper down the rabbit hole?

As you might recall from my very first article on Medium, Finding Greater Peace and Joy in Our “Crazy” World, I feel compelled to write and present because I look around and see quite a bit of “craziness” in our world, as I know countless millions of us do. We see increased political polarization, the rise of totalitarianism, struggling democracies, wars in the Middle East and between Russia and Ukraine, global climate change, culture wars, rising rates of mental health problems, especially among the young, and now the promise and perils of artificial intelligence. The global problems affect all of us in our interconnected world. This is my bottom line: I believe that the intricate, complicated problems of our modern world necessitate a much greater level of unity than humanity has been showing lately.

I don’t know that I can actually make a difference, but I want to “be the change” I wish to see in the world. My purpose is to be a uniter and not a divider — to be part of the solution and not just another part of the problem. Thus, in a nondualistic way, I’m going to do what I can to make a positive impact in this world with no delusions that I actually can. Those two things are separate in my mind. I must try the only way I know how — writing, presenting, and I will soon start sharing videos on my YouTube channel, Connect with Dr. Mike, as well as TikTok (I’m going into the belly of the beast!).

My conviction is that the roots of many (or most) of our problems at both individual and societal levels lies in our evolutionary roots. To put it simply, we did not evolve to live in the world we currently inhabit. The mismatch between our evolutionary heritage and the modern world we’ve created for ourselves leads to various kinds and levels of suffering. We are going to take a deeper dive into what is called evolutionary mismatch within this third part of our mini-series. Before we do that, a review of what we covered thus far will help us on this journey.

A Brief Recap of What Is Wrong With Our World

In the first part of this mini-series, What Is Wrong With Our World — Part 1: The Good News/Bad News, we covered how, although humanity has made much progress over the centuries, we have serious problems on our hands. These two truths co-exist. In the second part, What Is Wrong With Our World — Part 2: The Evolutionary Roots of Modern Problems, we covered how humans evolved as nomadic hunter-gatherers in small tribes of about 100–150 people over the course of millions of years. Our modern world is vastly different from that of our evolutionary ancestors, which leads to a multitude of thorny problems due to evolutionary mismatch.

As you recall, evolutionary mismatch refers to the incongruence between our ancient, evolved traits and the demands of our contemporary environment. Evolutionary mismatch is at the root of many of our modern problems for the simple fact is that we did not evolve to live in the world in which we now live. The mismatch between the world in which we evolved and the complexities of this modern world is at the root of a multitude of complex problems at both individual and societal levels.

Have you ever wondered why our high-tech, interconnected world still battles with fundamental issues like tribalism and short-sightedness? Do you see a lot of craziness that makes you think, “What the hell is going wrong with our world?” This conundrum lies at the heart of understanding the disconnect between our ancient brains and modern challenges.

Our evolutionary heritage makes navigating the complexities of modernity mind-bogglingly challenging. These complex challenges lead to the mad, mad world in which we are living. From this perspective, we aren’t going “crazy.” This world is going crazy, and this crazy world is making all of us a little crazy trying to deal with it.

When viewed through the lens of evolutionary mismatch, the feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, and pessimism that many of us are experiencing might even be considered normal, healthy reactions to this “crazy” world. Indeed, even our worsening societal divisions, which seem to tear at the fabric of our collective existence, can be viewed as a symptom of this evolutionary mismatch. It is a reflection of how our ancient brains struggle with the complexities and pressures of a world they never evolved to navigate.

Of course, evolutionary mismatch does not explain all the world’s problems. As I’ve stated numerous times, the world is extremely complicated, as are we human beings, and we can’t point to a single cause to the myriad of problems in life. However, evolutionary mismatch can be considered a “meta-explanation” — a unifying framework for understanding the problems of our world. Now, let’s take a closer look at an aspect of evolutionary mismatch that can help to explain many of the problems of our modern world.

From Simple Roots to Complex Realities: Navigating the Wicked Challenges of Modernity

A helpful way of looking at the difficult challenges in this modern world comes from the work of Dr. Robin Hogarth and his colleagues. In their research, they proposed that there are kind and wicked learning environments. Importantly, “kind” does not mean “good,” and “wicked” does not mean “evil” or “bad” in this context. Rather, kind learning environments are simple, straight-forward cause-and-effect relationships — if I do this, then that will happen.

Feedback in these kind learning environments is quick and relatively clear. For example, hunting and gathering food were carried out by our ancestors in kind learning environments. Finding shelter from a storm was also a kind challenge that our ancestors needed to manage.

We are naturally drawn toward more simple and concrete answers because our ancestors evolved in a world in which more short-term, causal thinking was adaptive. That’s primarily the type of thinking that they needed for survival: Find food, water, shelter, a mate, and stay alive. Life was so simple in those “good old days!”

While life in kind learning environments was straightforward, let’s contrast this with the complexities of wicked learning environments that we face today. Wicked learning environments are complicated and dynamically changing. Cause-and-effect relationships are difficult to see, many variables are involved, there is a lot of statistical “noise,” and predictions are inherently difficult to make. Feedback is infrequent, inconsistent, and often delayed in time. Moreover, in wicked learning environments, we often learn the wrong lessons because the variables, or inputs, are not clearly related to the outcomes.

The complexities of these wicked environments underscore a critical aspect of our psychology: cognitive biases. These biases, which are deeply ingrained within our psyche, were once beneficial in simpler, “kind” learning environments. However, as we grapple with the intricacies of modernity, these same biases often lead us astray. Let’s delve into how these cognitive shortcuts, while once advantageous, now contribute to our struggles in navigating the sophisticated challenges of today’s world.

Cognitive Biases, Misperceptions, and Evolutionary Mismatch: Navigating the Complexity of Modern Problems

The evolutionary mismatch between our ancestral environments and the complex modern world gives rise to a range of cognitive biases. These cognitive biases and and related concepts emerge from the mismatch between our ancestral environments and today’s world. From this perspective, these biases distort reality, but they do this (largely) because fitness (i.e., survival) is more important than reality. Cognitive biases, rooted in our ancestral “kind” environments, are unconscious ways to reduce decision-making complexity They are like mental shortcuts that allow us to make decisions more quickly to navigate potentially life-or-death situations.

These cognitive biases, while once serving survival purposes in “kind” learning environments, now often lead to misjudgments and issues in our “wicked,” complicated modern world. Given that our modern world is so wickedly complex and mismatched with that of our ancestors, our cognitive biases fill in the gaps created by the widening mismatch. In turn, these biases and perceptual distortions contribute to numerous troublesome problems. In fact, as discussed previously, so many of our modern problems (e.g., climate change, polarization) can be viewed as emergent properties, or negative externalities, of this inherent mismatch.

For example, we didn’t evolve to think statistically- that’s “wicked.” We evolved to learn more from cause-effect, observations, and anecdotal experiences within our tribes. Thus, we often form our opinions and values about what is “good” or “right” based upon anecdotal evidence and experiences rather than a careful, objective analysis of the data. It is as if our brains are trying to solve the challenges of wicked learning environments with the same cognitive approaches that helped our ancestors survive in those kind learning environments.

As we examine these concepts more closely, it becomes clear that the greater the mismatch between the complexities of our modern world and the simplicities of our ancestral environments, the greater the distortion in our perception of reality by cognitive biases. In turn, these cognitive distortions create more problems for us. The Mismatch-Equation for Suffering (MES) would be: More progress = more mismatch = greater cognitive distortions = more suffering.

These distortions not only affect individual perspectives but also amplifies societal issues, turning these biases into significant contributors to the array of challenges we face today (e.g., climate change and political polarization). Essentially, our evolutionary past, in being incongruent with the present, naturally seeds the very problems that plague our modern existence and threaten our future.

Let’s explore some key biases and constructs that have become very problematic as a result of living in our wickedly complicated world:

1.     Hedonic Adaptation: Our tendency to quickly return to a baseline level of happiness, regardless of significant positive or negative life changes, sets the stage for understanding our dissatisfaction in a world of constant progress. This adaptation, once a survival mechanism, now fuels our relentless pursuit of more, often leaving us unfulfilled. However, obtaining “more” or “better” when we have enough is not going to result in greater sustained happiness.

2.    Myside Bias: This bias leads us to process information in a way that favors our pre-existing beliefs and opinions. In a world flooded with information and misinformation, myside bias often hinders our ability to see issues objectively, feeding into social polarization and echo chambers, especially in digital spaces.

3.    Confirmation Bias: Closely linked to myside bias, confirmation bias is our tendency to search for, interpret, and recall information that confirms our preconceptions. This bias distorts our perception of reality, making us less open to diverse viewpoints and new information, further entrenching us in our beliefs that, in turn, contribute to greater levels of polarization.

4.    Negativity Bias: Our evolutionary focus on potential threats over positive events now manifests as an overwhelming attention to negative news. This bias, while once crucial for survival, now skews our worldview, often making us more pessimistic and fearful than warranted by objective data/facts. Moreover, our negativity bias forms the basis for and fuels the news media mantra, “If it bleeds, it leads.” We are drawn to negative news like moths to a flame.

5.    Availability Bias: We judge the frequency and importance of something based on how easily it comes to mind. In today’s world, where sensational and negative events are more prominently reported and shared, availability bias amplifies our perception of risk, threat, and danger.

6.    Prevalence-Induced Concept Change: As our environment evolves and we solve certain problems, our standards for what constitutes a problem shift. This tendency, while adaptive in the past, now complicates our ability to address complex societal issues. It is one reason why, even when things improve and we do make progress (e.g., women and minority rights), it never feels like it. This is because we’ve adapted to the “new normal” and the new problems feel as bad as the old ones.

7.     Supernormal Stimuli: Our brains evolved to respond to natural stimuli beneficial for survival, such as the sweetness of ripe fruit. Today’s world, however, amplifies these stimuli to extreme levels. Products like sugar-packed foods, captivating social media, pornography, and binge-worthy TV exploit these primal instincts, creating supernormal stimuli. While these exaggerated versions are highly profitable for companies, they can lead to various health and societal problems like obesity and mental health disorders. This scenario underscores the irony of our evolved preferences being hijacked by modern capitalism, often to our detriment.

8.    Temporal Discounting: Our preference for immediate rewards over future benefits, a survival mechanism in the past, now impedes our ability to tackle future-oriented challenges, like environmental conservation.

9.    Game Theory & Tragedy of the Commons: Our individual rational actions, in pursuit of personal gains, can lead to collectively irrational outcomes. This phenomenon, well-explained by game theory, is evident in the tragedy of the commons, where shared resources are depleted for individual benefit.

10.        Diffusion of Responsibility: In large, complex societies, this bias leads to a lack of personal accountability, especially in addressing large-scale issues like climate change, a modern challenge far removed from the clear-cut responsibilities of our ancestral tribes. We did not evolve to consider how our individual choices, when added collectively among millions or billions of us, contribute to both global problems and our individual suffering.

11. The Attention Economy — A Modern Tragedy of the Commons: In our digital age, the battle for our attention mirrors the tragedy of the commons. Our focus, constantly diverted by various stimuli, leaves us with diminished capacity for deep, meaningful engagement. This includes deep interpersonal, in-person, connections, which are the source of much of our happiness.

12.         The Paradox of Choice: In our modern, technology-driven world, we’re presented with an overwhelming array of choices for fulfilling our desires, from streaming platforms to online shopping. While this abundance seems like a luxury, it often leads to stress and dissatisfaction. The Paradox of Choice highlights how having too many options can leave us overwhelmed, less satisfied with our decisions, and perpetually second-guessing if we could have made a better choice. This paradox is a stark contrast to our ancestors’ simpler decision-making environments and further exemplifies the mismatch between our evolved preferences and the complexities of modern life. The abundances of modernity, fueled by our technologies, leaves us overwhelmed by a glut of great options.

13.         Miswanting and Digital Red Herrings of Happiness: Coupled with the Paradox of Choice is the concept of “miswanting” — our mistaken belief that fulfilling certain desires will bring happiness, when in fact, it leads us astray. In the attention economy, where endless digital distractions masquerade as fulfilling options, we often chase these “digital red herrings of happiness.” We’re drawn to the allure of endless digital possibilities, only to find ourselves more scattered and less content. The pursuit of these myriad options, driven by our evolved desire for novelty and choice, ironically results in less overall happiness and a diminished sense of fulfillment…or at least a poor “return on investment” of our time. We are caught in the paradoxical trap of wanting and pursuing more options, and technology being able to deliver those, but these are not translating into greater levels of personal or societal happinessMore of enough does not make us any happier.

Having explored these biases, let’s step back to see the bigger picture they paint. Our journey through these cognitive biases and concepts reveals a complex landscape in which our ancestral tools for survival and decision-making are constantly challenged by the realities of modern life. Each of these biases and concepts demonstrates how our brains, developed for straightforward, immediate (i.e., “kind”) challenges, now grapple with the intricate, interconnected (i.e., “wicked”) issues of modernity.

The Natural Emergence of the Wicked Problems of Modernity

Our exploration of cognitive biases and constructs now leads us to another critical aspect of modern life — the emergence of wicked problems. In an age where our reliance on technology demands a delicate balance, we find ourselves at odds with challenges that our ancestors never faced. These complex, dynamic, “wicked” problems naturally emerge from the very advancements we value and feverishly pursue. Unlike the “kind” but harsh world in which our brains evolved, today we navigate a landscape filled with challenges that are not only interconnected but also compounded by the progress we so cherish.

Understanding the evolutionary mismatch between kind and wicked learning environments is key to navigating our world skillfully. We cannot apply “kind” solutions to “wicked” problems effectively. It is like trying to fit a square peg through a round hole. It just doesn’t work. We must recognize that the pursuit of happiness in the modern age often requires a reevaluation of our instinctual desires and a conscious adaptation of our decision-making strategies to the novel demands of this modern world.

We struggle to effectively manage the problems of today because we never evolved to manage them in the first place. Let’s take a look at some of these wicked, modern challenges. We now face a multitude of modern challenges, each of which is intertwined with the technological and societal progress we cherish:

1.     Climate change: Our planet’s alarming warming trend signals distress for life, ecosystems, and economies alike.

2.    Biodiversity loss: The stark decline in wildlife since 1970 mirrors severe environmental distress.

3.    Nuclear risks: Nations like North Korea and Iran add to the persisting dread of nuclear conflict.

4.    Mental health crisis: Rising mental health issues, coupled with loneliness, reflect a society struggling despite technological connection.

5.    Socio-political turmoil: Persistent conflicts, exemplified by Ukraine and Israel-Palestine, fuel global instability.

6.    Political polarization: Deepening divisions, especially in the U.S., erode social cohesion and democratic norms.

7.     Authoritarian trends: The spread of authoritarianism poses a direct threat to global democracy and human rights.

8.    Poverty and inequality: Despite advancements, stark economic divides and extreme poverty persist.

9.    Healthcare accessibility: A staggering half of the global population lacks essential health services.

10.        Educational disparities: The pandemic has magnified inequalities in education, impacting young lives worldwide.

11. Cybersecurity threats: The digital revolution brings its own set of risks, challenging our safety and privacy.

12.         AI’s existential risks: The rapid evolution of AIs present possible dangers to societal stability and poses existential risks.

These challenges highlight the evolutionary mismatch confronting us. Our brains, which were honed over millions of years to survive and thrive in simpler times, now face the daunting task of navigating complexities like political polarization and climate change. These complex systems, which have emerged and evolved over time, represent wicked learning environments that are markedly different from our evolutionary origins.

Examples of Evolutionary Mismatch in Our Modern World

I am certain that you can think of many other concepts, ideas, and challenges that contribute to society’s struggles. That said, those still probably relate to evolutionary mismatch in one way or another. Let’s cover several examples of evolutionary mismatch to drive this important point home to which we can all relate:

1.   Obesity Epidemic: Our ancestors were adapted to scarcity, not abundance. They didn’t have constant access to high-calorie, processed foods. Today, our bodies are still wired to crave sugars and fats, but the modern food environment offers them in excess, leading to widespread obesity.

2.    Sedentary Lifestyles: Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were used to walking long distances, foraging, and hunting, which kept them physically active. In contrast, modern life often involves sitting for long periods (e.g., at desks at work or school, on the couch watching TV/playing video games), for which our bodies are not adapted. This can lead to numerous health issues like cardiovascular diseases.

3.    24/7 Work Culture: Our ancestors worked with the rhythms of the day and seasons, not answering emails at midnight. The non-stop grind takes a toll on our mental and physical health.

4.    Artificial Light: We evolved with the sun and moon cycles. Constant exposure to artificial light disrupts our circadian rhythms, contributing to chronic sleep loss.

5.    Sleep Deprivation: Our biological clock evolved long before electricity and 24/7 lifestyles. Chronic sleep loss can lead to cognitive impairments and serious health problems like Alzheimer’s disease.

6.    Loneliness Epidemic: Ironically, despite being so “connected” through the internet and social media, so many of us are feeling more disconnected than ever. Humans evolved to be social creatures, relying on tight-knit communities within our hunter-gatherer tribes. The hustle and bustle of modern life often lacks depth in interpersonal relationships. This can lead to feelings of isolation and associated health risks.

7.     Climate Change: Our ability to manipulate the environment has led to a detrimental impact on the planet at a scale our ancestors couldn’t envision. The effects of climate change on the planet are vast, far-reaching, costly, and sometimes deadly (e.g., more extreme weather events).

8.    Political Polarization: Tribal instincts once helped protect our small groups but now contribute to large-scale division and conflict. Modern media and technology might contribute to increased political polarization.

9.    Pandemics: High population densities and frequent travel allow viruses to spread more quickly. Close contact with livestock provides opportunities for diseases to jump to humans (e.g., swine flu, avian flu, Ebola, SARS, possibly even COVID-19).

10.        Technology Overuse: Our brains are wired for novelty, which is useful for survival in natural settings. Today’s technology, like smartphones, exploits this, which can contribute to an overuse of technology or using it unskillfully (e.g., wasting time, disconnecting from friends, not getting enough sleep or time outdoors/physical exercise).

11. Cognitive Overload Syndrome: Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in environments where information was vital but scarce. Whether it was tracking prey or identifying edible plants, their survival depended on their ability to focus on crucial details. Fast forward to today, and we’re swamped with a deluge of information from emails, social media, news, and more. Our brains weren’t designed to process this volume of data, leading to cognitive fatigue, decision paralysis, and increased stress. I am calling this Cognitive Overload Syndrome (or COS, pronounced “cause”). We could say that a cause of some of our suffering in this modern world is COS.

12.         Social Media and Dunbar’s Number: In primitive societies, humans evolved to live in tight-knit communities, typically not exceeding 150 individuals — Dunbar’s Number (named after anthropologist Robin Dunbar). This limit is thought to be the maximum number of stable relationships one person can maintain. In the age of social media, it’s not uncommon to have hundreds or even thousands of “friends” or followers, many of whom we’ve never met in person. This artificial expansion of our social circles can dilute the quality of our relationships and contribute to feelings of isolation and inadequacy.

13.         Mental Health Disorders: Modern stressors like job pressure, social comparison, and cognitive overload syndrome take a toll on our mental health. Our brains are less equipped to manage the chronic stress common in today’s world. Our brains and bodies evolved to deal with challenges in problems in an ancient world (e.g., food, water, shelter, safety from predators) not those found in modernity (e.g., choosing a career, saving for a house or retirement, dealing with climate change, inflation, work/life balance, political polarization).

Embracing the Paradox: Navigating Our Evolutionary Boundaries

In the dance between our evolutionary heritage and modernity, we stand at an inflection point. Our relentless pursuit of progress, increasingly driven by technological advances, magnifies the evolutionary mismatch we face. As we stand on the brink of significant changes brought about by artificial intelligence, the implications are profound and far-reaching.

There is an undeniable tension between our technological world of modernity and the ancient rhythms of life that are tethered to our biological heritage. Our basic survival needs — air, food, water, shelter, physical activity, safety, and social connection — form the foundation of our existence. While we are highly adaptive, which is how we survived and thrived throughout history, we do have our limits. In a sense, happiness, in the form of contentment, can be viewed as the evolutionary payoff for effectively meeting these primal needs.

We have terraformed, or “technoformed” our planet. Yet, this complex, dynamic hyper-connected world that we’ve created often leaves us feeling overloaded and overwhelmed. We are naturally inclined to try to find “kind,” simple solutions to the convoluted, intricate, “wicked” problems of modernity. Yet, trying to force kind solutions on wicked problems is fundamentally flawed. Clinging to the vestiges of Stone-Age logic in a digital age simply will not work. In turn, this flawed, mismatched approach creates suffering on both individual and collective levels.

Evolutionarily, we are compelled to learn, grow, improve, and connect. Yet, this drive, which is fundamental to our very existence, has resulted in us engineering a world of complexity that clashes with our evolutionary makeup. In this way, we have inadvertently created the world of modernity that is at the root of much of our individual and collective suffering. In this sense, our modern world is much like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster.

In today’s world, we often feel disconnected from each other, a feeling that’s grown from the mismatch between our ancient human needs and the fast-paced, technology-driven society in which we live. Interestingly, this sense of disconnection has a paradoxical effect. Our disconnection connects us. How so? We all experience this disconnection, and it affects us in similar ways, leading to feelings of isolation or like something is missing or is “off.” So, in a strange twist, our collective experience of disconnection — this common struggle with the challenges of modern life — brings us together. It’s as if by feeling apart from one another, we realize just how connected we truly are. This paradox of disconnection — where our shared sense of isolation becomes a point of unexpected unity — underscores the complex web of our shared human experience.

Many of us had this epiphany during Covid lockdowns. The Covid lockdowns served as a stark reminder of the value of our daily social interactions. They revealed how our “aloneness” in the digital age can paradoxically highlight our need for in-person connectedness. We didn’t realize how sacred and important our daily social connections were until they were taken from us. Now, too often, we are alone together as we try to navigate the complexities of this rapidly changing world. Our shared disconnectedness has become the “new normal,” but one to which we cannot adapt because of our evolutionary heritage.

Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” — Leonardo DaVinci

The head-spinning pace of change in our era of modernity far exceeds the slow crawl of biological evolution. While we definitely benefit from our progress in countless ways, evolutionary mismatch is an inherently negative externality of our progress. That is, our progress creates mismatch and mismatch creates suffering. The very pursuit of progress, with the hope that it can lead to greater happiness, can, paradoxically, cause us to suffer.

As we stand at the frontier of our science-fiction world that we are engineering, we encounter what I am calling the Progress-Happiness Paradox. That is, many of our advances, which we are driven to make, inadvertently amplify our existential woes instead of easing them. This idea, that our very progress could exacerbate our suffering, is a Big Effin’ Problem. We will take an even deeper dive into this paradox in the next installment of this series. The implications are profound and necessitate a deeper exploration.

My fellow Connectors, I will leave you with this. We are creating some wickedly complicated problems for ourselves through our progress. Thus, our feverish pursuit of progress (and profits) necessitates a paradigm shift in our thinking and goals. We must seek a greater harmony between our evolutionary heritage and the future we are shaping. Our greatest challenge, and our shared imperative, is to transcend the constraints of the evolutionary heritage that got us here. This, my friends, will be extremely difficult, but it is the most skillful way forward.

In navigating these wickedly complex problems, we must question the blind pursuit of progress. We must redefine our collective journey towards a future where technology serves not to disconnect, but to enhance our human experience. Needless to say, we have our work cut out for us. Yet, when we work together, there’s nothing we cannot accomplish. This our challenge. Humanity, let’s level up!

Please join me in the next installment of this series as we explore the Progress-Happiness Paradox. In this article, I will explain how screens are and are not causing an explosion in the mental health problems. Intrigued? Please join me as we go deeper down the rabbit hole as we seek to unravel the complexities of how our progress, especially our technologies, affects our well-being!


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