Source: billycm / Pixabay
“When the coronavirus pandemic arrived, the United States was already deeply unequal. Before the pandemic, 140 million Americans were poor…”1.
Fiscal and social inequality are foundational parts of the American experience. Markers of this fact1 include the following:
- The gap between corporate productivity and typical worker compensation has increased dramatically since 1979.
- Fiscal inequality has increased dramatically in the US between 1980 and 2020. In 1980, the share of US income going to the top 10% was about 30%. Today, it is nearly 50%.
- As fiscal inequality increases, the proportion of Americans who live below the poverty line barely budges.
I don’t know about you, but these facts don’t sit well with me. The closer you look at our world, the more you see that fiscal inequality sits near the core of so many problems that surround all of us.
While there are many ways to think about the roots of social and economic inequality in our world today, here, I argue that the concept of evolutionary mismatch2 goes a long way toward explaining this problem that permeates so much of the modern human experience.
Evolutionary mismatch exists when some feature of the modern environment of some organism is critically out of line with the environmental conditions that existed under the ancestral conditions that surrounded the evolutionary history of that organism. When it comes to humans, we can think of evolutionary mismatch as corresponding to the fact that, in so many ways, our modern world is mismatched from the nomadic conditions that characterized the human experience for the lion’s share of our existence. Under ancestral conditions, for instance, humans lived in small groups surrounded by kin and long-standing friends. Whereas now, so many of us live far from kin and deal largely with strangers each and every day.
The modern human experience is filled with evolutionary mismatches. And understanding these mismatches can help us see why social inequality is wreaking havoc on so many of us each and every day.
If you are privileged enough to live in a middle or upper-class environment, then you probably have various healthy food options available for you and your family. You might live near a Whole Foods with all kinds of healthy options. Or even just a Kroger’s that has a large produce section, offering a wide array of fresh fruits and vegetables. This may be surprising to you, but not everyone is fortunate enough to live near a Kroger’s. Let alone a Whole Foods.
Under ancestral conditions, natural foods were the only game in town. And this fact was true until the advent of agriculture, a mere 10,000 years ago. In evolutionary time, this is a blink of an eye.
Our food preferences evolved before we grew our own food, when famine was consistent and expected. Under such conditions, our ancestors evolved preferences for food that was relatively fattening, largely because then, such preferences were adaptive.
The modern food-production industry does not tend to take this evolutionary mismatch into account. This industry, like nearly all industries in the modern US, focuses on the bottom line of what sells. And because our ancestors evolved to prefer foods that were fattening, so many modern food companies produce fattening food in unprecedented volumes. Such processed food is now relatively inexpensive and is highly prevalent.
In fact, the poorest places in the US are often described as food deserts: Places where grocery stores that sell healthy, natural foods are relatively rare. Given this fact, it is no wonder that nutritional health issues are disproportionately found in the poorest regions of our nation.3
Perhaps just as fundamental as nutrition is education. The US has compulsory education, with extensive resources pumped into public education. Public education often leads to great outcomes. But not always. Wealthier school districts have more resources than do relatively poor districts. And all kinds of outcomes, such as graduation rates, follow along for the ride.
It turns out that standard public education practices are, in many respects, mismatched from ancestral kinds of learning environments that surrounded our evolutionary history.4 If ancestral educational conditions were anything like educational conditions found in nomadic groups around the world today, then our best guess is that they had very little resemblance to modern public school. Education in nomadic groups does not include a single educated adult providing technical information to a group of 22 seated young people for eight hours a day for five days a week. Let alone standardized tests… And attentional issues were certainly not treated with pharmaceutical solutions under ancestral conditions.
Some private forms of education, such as Montessori schools, provide alternatives to the factory format of public education. And many of these methods actually seem to mirror many features of nomadic (and likely ancestral) educational processes.
In a sense, this is great and all kinds of benefits seem to be associated with the Montessori method. But, of course, there’s a catch: Private schools cost a lot of money. And given the dramatic levels of fiscal inequality that exist in the US today, this fact translates very clearly as follows: Private schools are reserved for the wealthy.
Modern health problems, such as Type-II diabetes, which connects with obesity, are disproportionately found in poor areas.5 This fact is, unfortunately, not surprising. Under ancestral conditions, our nomadic ancestors exercised regularly—out of necessity. Nomads don’t have the luxury of sitting on a couch for three hours a day watching Netflix or driving to work in comfortable cars with leather seats.
Under ancestral conditions, humans moved and exercised regularly. This is largely why nomads today don’t have to join a gym to stay in shape.
But so many people living in “civilized” conditions do, in fact, need to join a gym to stay in shape. And that costs money. And it is, again, a problem that directly ties to evolutionary mismatch.
One of the most expensive forms of exercise, which also seems to be effective6, is found in CrossFit. CrossFit is actually based on the idea of evolutionary mismatch, offering clients a variety of exercise options that map onto the kinds of exercises that were typical under ancestral conditions.
The catch is this: CrossFit is famously expensive, with memberships generally costing over $1,000 a year.
Who can afford that? Here’s the answer: The haves... and NOT the have nots.
Social inequality is a large problem in our modern world. And various forms of data seem to point to an inconvenient fact surrounding social inequality: It is on the rise. And it has been for quite a while.1
While evolutionary mismatch affects all of us, in important ways, it seems to have particularly adverse effects for those who are poor. Those without means have less access to healthy foods, alternative forms of education, and natural forms of physical exercise. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Want to work toward reducing social inequality and leveling the playing field for the greater good? Keep evolutionary mismatch in mind. The adverse effects of evolutionary mismatch on the modern human experience are nothing short of profound.