How Evolution Holds Us Back

It’s cliché to talk about how evolution shapes human behavior.

But… I think there’s value in recognizing all the ways that evolution works against us in a modern world.

Food is a great example. Our bodies learned to store fat and enjoy high-energy foods (e.g. sugar) when food was scarce. But now that food is abundant those traits work against us.

What are other ways evolution works against us?

  • Avoiding talking to strangers
  • Being easily embarrassed for breaking social norms
  • Fearing rejection
  • Avoiding the discomfort of exercise
  • Staying in our comfort zone
  • Tribalism: defending your group for no reason other than they’re your group
  • Seeking status for its own sake
  • Generally avoiding risk

A lot of this boils down to staying in your comfort zone, which makes sense: doing what you’ve always done with the people you’ve always done it is a great way to avoid dying.

But it’s not really a great way to live.

What else? What other ways does evolution hold humans back?

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The World Has Never Been Worse

You open your phone in the grocery store line because you’re bored. You’re not counting, but if you did you’d know this was the 42nd time you’ve opened your phone today. This is perfectly normal.

You see the following headlines from the New York Times:

“Father of Commando Killed in Yemen Criticizes Trump”

“10 Police Officers Killed in Ambush by Militants in Afghanistan”

“The Murders of My Colleagues”

You get halfway through one of the articles before you realize it’s your turn at the checkout. You put the supercomputer back in your pocket and pay the bill.

Horror and evil have always existed in society. But to many people today *feels* worse than ever before.


1. Mobile Lets Everyone Broadcast their Worst Experiences

Imagine what we’d think of, say, World War II if the soldiers who invaded Normandy could tweet.

Or if a slave could post on Facebook.

History is generous. We do have some stories and a few pictures of people who endured those horrible things.

But think of all the lost and untold horrors that never found an audience.

Not because no one was interested in the story, but because the protaganist never had a way to tell anyone.

2. The Internet Excels at Finding the Worst (and doesn’t edit)

The wheels of the Internet are oiled by outrage. The Internet incentivizes sharing and voting, so the worst things filter their way to the top.

Before the Internet we got filtered on both sides: 1. Many stories were never found (see #1 above), but 2. even stories worth telling were edited and whitewashed before being published or broadcast.

3. All Day Exposure to the Worst

We used to see “The News” twice a day: the newspaper in the morning and TV news at night.

Instead now we see the worst stories of the day every time we pull out our phones, some 100+ times per day(!)

Every moment you’re bored is an opportunity to see horror and feel upset.

This means the events that capture our attention are not representative samples of reality.

In a world of pessimism there’s so many things to celebrate; I’ll pick just one.

Since 1970, 91,000 people have escaped extreme poverty every single day.[1]

For the past 45 years every single New York Times headline could have said:

“91,000 Of Our Fellow Humans Escape Poverty, Again”

Remember that the next time you pull out your phone and scroll through the current horrors.