Evolutionary Design

EVOLUTIONARY DESIGN: THE INTERSECTION OF FAITH + SCIENCE

For thousands of years, people have been trying to understand how the world works. They sought to explain what they saw and experienced, and they sought ways to intervene and change that experience: to determine the best choices for acting in the world to achieve their desired results.

Historically, the two guiding principles used in this pursuit have been faith and science. But, are either of these alone sufficient to help us steer the course of humanity toward a flourishing and sustainable future? Perhaps we need a model that allows us to go beyond what each of these individually can offer us.

FAITH

In the beginning, before human languages even existed, people did not have rational explanations for the things they witnessed happening outside their control. In the absence of any other interpretation, people often imagined supernatural, anthropomorphic entities whose presence explained otherwise inexplicable phenomena.

As language and culture allowed people to share their personal experiences and ideas with one another, many belief systems developed which attributed spirits and gods to various aspects of the natural world. These systems imbued otherwise inanimate objects and events with an inherent power of consciousness all their own.

Since these entities’ spheres of influence were usually limited to specific locations or domains and because each had their own personalities, quirks, powers, and whims, clever humans might attempt to appease them on an individual basis to gain favor for any particular purpose or goal.

Later, more power-monopolizing religions developed: these typically attributed omnipotence to one specific deity who provided strict, moralizing guidelines and a promise of eternal salvation or damnation depending on one’s adherence to his doctrine. For many people, this provided a satisfying way to explain the difficulties of life on earth: the justification for suffering came through the promises of what lay beyond.

Both polytheistic and monotheistic belief systems gave people guidance on how to behave to achieve what they perceived as the best possible results, either in the material world or beyond it. In both cases, these systems required faith: a belief in unseeable, unknowable powers with the agency to directly influence our lives.

SCIENCE

Later on, some astute philosophers realized that there were ways of observing and testing natural phenomena to gather information without requiring supernatural explanations. Instead, empirical data could be gathered through the scientific method.

This method involved identifying a hypothesis and testing that hypothesis by comparing outcomes between sample groups. One of these groups (the experimental group) would receive a specified intervention, and another group (the control group) would not. Data collected from subsequent observations showed the differences that arose between the two groups.

This was an amazing step forward, and we learned an incredible amount about the world through the scientific method. However, this method also has its own shortcomings. Well known amongst these shortcomings are the challenges of isolating a single variable within any given experiment and the preponderance of confounding factors that plague many investigations.

In addition to these, however, there is another problem with the scientific method as we know it. This lies in the assumption that our “control group,” the status quo so to speak, is a valid baseline for comparison in the first place.

THE WRONG BASELINE

When it comes to biological phenomena, it is critical to recognize that human physiology and psychology developed in a different context than our modern environment, through the crucible of evolution.

There is a flaw -- or at least a caveat -- to the idea that any currently existing control group provides an accurate reference point by which to judge the experimental group. One could, in fact, argue that we currently lack such a thing as a “control group” whatsoever because every human being now living outside of the environments for which we evolved is already in an “experimental group.”

To put this in simple mathematical terms, let’s suppose that we try to create a control group by observing humans in our current, modern environments. Let’s say we take a random sample of sufficient size from people we consider to be of normal health and we measure their scores on some imaginary criteria.

On the scale of the criteria we’re measuring, we find these people fall between a score of 5 and 10, so we call this the “normal” range. We then say that anyone scoring below 5 has a deficiency of our criteria and anyone over 10 has an excess.

However, if we were able to reach back into history and take a sample of hunter-gatherer populations who lived in environments matching the most formative periods of human development, we might find that the average scores on our specified criteria in a healthy population during those times were between 10 and 15.

If we had used this ancient group as our reference point, we would instead be considering anything less than 10 a deficiency, and 15 or greater an excess. If we compared our modern group to this one, our modern sample would be operating at an average deficit of -5 compared to this reference point.

In other words, trying to evaluate outcomes in human health with a modern control group as our reference point means our scale of measurement may be improperly calibrated. In part because of this, the extensive data we collect through modern science can create confusion as often as it creates clarity.

EVOLUTIONARY INSIGHTS

Beyond measurements simply being inaccurate, however, fundamental differences exist between our modern and ancient environments which also confound our observations. It is, therefore, not sufficient to simply observe how humans respond to stimuli under our current circumstances and expect this to be broadly applicable.

A truer reference point would be to consider how humans ought to function given the knowledge of how our physiology and psychology were shaped: not for the current environment, but, for maximal efficiency and reproductive fitness in our evolutionary context.

For example, ancient humans rose to the top of the food chain before developing countless technologies we take for granted nowadays: everything from shoes to soap to sophisticated language. We must assume that, given our species’ success prior to these developments, our bodies and brains were already optimized to function well under the conditions and stressors of the natural environment. If they hadn’t been, we could not have achieved the level of planetary dominance we have today.

At the same time, modern humans have had little potential to adapt to the many stimuli that have emerged in the ten thousand years since the development of agriculture.* Examples include: the presence of blue light at night, continuous food availability, and the distractions of digital connectedness. We should expect interference from these novel stimuli, and we should hold them suspect for how they might disrupt our otherwise well-honed system.

(*Note: It is important to recognize that we only “adapt” to stimuli when specific hereditary traits change the rate of reproduction between groups who do and do not possess that trait. Human evolution no longer occurs according to the same pressures it once did, now that our rate of reproduction is not limited by our access to food and is driven more by personal choice than by physical fitness.)

Unfortunately, we cannot look back and directly observe the process of human evolution. We will never be able to replay a video of history and watch how subtle changes accumulated over time to shape us into the species we are today. So, how do we go about usefully incorporating this idea into our understanding of the human condition?

GROUNDED IN FAITH, INFORMED BY SCIENCE

Even though we can’t observe it, it is necessary to believe in the evolutionary aspect of our history -- to have faith in it, as it were -- in order to develop an appropriate baseline by which to calibrate and measure the human experiments we are constantly partaking in. Only then can we develop useful hypotheses and effective interventions with respect to human physiology and psychology.

To this end, we must recognize that everything the body does was originally designed by the natural forces of evolution in service to the procurement and conservation of energy for purposes of reproductive success. Additionally, a great deal of adaptability is also wired in to allow us to maximize these drives under a wide range of suboptimal conditions.

This perspective allows us to give our bodies more credit than we often do for being well-designed to handle many of the requirements of life in the natural world. It also allows us to recognize that the reasons bodies fall short are typically due to lack of exposure to the right environmental stimuli, which gives us clues as to how we can apply those stimuli to help ourselves function better.

This perspective allows us to ask physiological questions such as: how can comparative anatomy help us understand nutrition (what are the distinctive features of our digestive tract and how do they compare to other animals?), and how can neurological input shape our development of physical fitness (how might the lack of sensory information from our environment, if we grow up wearing shoes, stunt our sensorimotor development?).

This perspective allows us to treat our minds with compassion for the challenges they experience and the mistakes they make when attempting to navigate modern, hyperstimulating environments. In addition, we can comprehend that our mental health is dependent on our relationships to a tribal environment that has been missing from the modern world.

Even our emotions, attractions, and ways of relating to one another can be seen in a new light as understandable, predictable, and navigable responses when we understand the nature of our basic instincts. Rather than try to overcome human nature, seeing it in an evolutionary perspective encourages us to embrace and work with it, rather than against it.

This evolutionary perspective is the key to allowing us to generate a useful baseline of the human condition. From there, we can begin to formulate more useful hypotheses and conduct experiments to help us determine the most effective ways to construct our modern environments to help us achieve health and flourishing. With this faith in how human beings came to be, science can finally work to help take us where we ought to go.

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