Luke Robert Mason: You’re listening to the Futures Podcast with me, Luke Robert Mason.
On this episode I speak to biologist and author, Adam Hart.
We are such a globally successful species in terms of our numbers and spread that we really do need to reassess our relationship with how we sit on the planet. I think we’ll get there, but we won’t get there quite as quickly as we might like.
Adam Hart, excerpt from interview
Adam shared his insights into the mismatch between our human biology and the modern world, why it’s important for us to re-engage with nature, and how evolutionary science might hold the key to our future survival.
This episode was recorded virtually, using Skype.
Mason: Your new book explores how modern life is incompatible with evolutionary processes—in fact—the evolutionary processes that gave rise to homosapiens. In what way has evolution made us incompatible with modern life? In other words, how has it made us unfit for purpose?
Adam Hart: Yeah, well I guess the first thing to say is that in some senses, we are spectacularly fit for purpose. Of course, we are a globally dominant species. We’ve arguably done pretty well for ourselves when you think about it, largely through the evolution of our social behaviour and our very large brains. We’ve managed to go into space, we can smash atoms apart and comprehend the fabric of the universe. So we’ve done pretty well for ourselves where we’re a globally dominant species, but at the same time we’ve created this modern world, which—when you think about it—we seem to have got quite a lot of woes and problems. We’re all quite fat; obesity is a really big problem, globally. We suffer from stress. We’ve created an online world that we can’t really deal with. We seem to be quite violent. We have an addiction-prone kind of behaviour. We don’t seem to have a very sensible relationship with other people in the future sometimes. So, perhaps it’s the case that what we’ve done is created this modern world which the evolutionary backdrop to that has created an animal that’s very, very well adapted for a world that, really, no longer exists. We’ve ruthlessly changed our environment to create this new world, and it’s that world that we find ourselves struggling with.
Mason: So as a quick refresher, what is this thing that’s got us here—this thing called evolution? How would you best describe that process?
Hart: At its root, evolution is a change in gene frequency over time. That’s really all it is. Genes can change—they can become more numerous, they can become less numerous, they can increase in frequency, decrease in frequency. Fundamentally, that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about evolution, But what we really mean most of the time—when we’re talking about evolution somewhat broadly—is adaptive evolution. We’re talking about natural selection; the process by which we can end up with adaptations—in plants, in animals, in fungi and bacteria—that fit that organism better to the environment they’re in. It’s a very simple, logical, mathematical process.
If you happen to do rather well in the environment you’re in, and have more offspring, and if the reason why you do rather well in that environment and have more offspring is, in some way, genetic, you will pass on that ability to at least some of your offspring, in some way. They may well do better in that environment, and if you’re doing better than anyone else in your lineage, you will increase in number as they decrease. You will end up with the evolution of these adaptations that we see. I’m simplifying it to a certain extent, but actually, that is the beauty of Darwin’s big idea. It is, in-fact, logically very, very beautiful. It’s a lovely mathematical certainty that if you’re doing better than anyone else and passing on the ability to do better to more offspring, you’re going to end up with more copies of that gene in subsequent generations. That’s fundamentally what we’re talking about.
Of course, there are other mechanisms. There’s sexual selection, kin selection, artificial selection, and genetic drift—so random changes in gene frequency. But generally, what we’re talking about is natural selection and adaptations. We can see that in the human hand, the shapes of our skulls, our brain. We can see it in the colour and shape of a flower for attracting pollinating insects. We can see that across the natural world.
Mason: Well it feels like evolution has done a pretty good job, because it’s got us to this point. But in the book, what you’re arguing is that scientists are beginning to realise that there are issues with the current environment that we live in. At what point did scientists start to realise that there might be this thing called a mismatch.
Hart: This kind of idea started particularly, I think, with the idea of obesity. That seemed to be one of the earliest things that was put about as being a mismatch. That was actually largely around an idea that was called the thrifty gene hypothesis. It’s a bit more complex than how it’s often presented. The idea behind the thrifty gene hypothesis is that we are famine adapted, and that we have genes that enable us to pack away fat in times of plenty—if you like—to prepare for a famine. The idea is that we’re living in a time of feast, but our bodies don’t know that. They’re just being good metabolic boy and girl scouts, packing away resources just in case; being prepared. In this modern world of plenty, we find ourselves getting fat. That’s a very seductive idea, and a very interesting idea, but actually it doesn’t hold a great deal of weight around the world.
There are some populations where we can find thrifty genes. South Pacific Islanders, for instance, and populations in New Zealand seem to have some genes that are supporting the thrifty gene idea, but actually we don’t find that across the world. It may well be that there’s a more subtle evolutionary argument, and it’s called the drifty gene hypothesis, in interplay of thrifty gene. The argument here is that about three million years ago or so, our predatory environment changed for whatever reason. It may be because some predators went extinct—we started developing more social behaviour and were able to defend ourselves better. That predation pressure that we’d been under just relaxed slightly. We were still prey animals, make no mistake about it. In fact, we still are in many parts of the world. But it just relaxed slightly to allow this upper weight limit to drift. That’s the idea. It was no longer really a big deal that this genetic upper limit became a little bit higher, a little bit higher. Now we find ourselves in the modern world where we can go around a street corner…I say in the book that within five minutes of leaving the office, for about one pound, I think I can buy about three days’ worth of calories. It’s not a great balanced diet, but vegetable oil and lard—and you’re there, right? We don’t have a problem getting hold of calories now, and that’s the sort of mismatch. Those ideas were going around quite popularly for quite a while. It’s quite a playful thesis at times, but we can certainly find echoes of evolutionary past, even in things like social networks. Dunbar’s number is a well known way of thinking about this, whereby we have a theoretical upper limit to the number of people we can keep track of in our immediate social network. It’s usually taken to be around 150. There are other numbers and other estimates, but they are usually at the lower end of around there. That affects the way that we interact, say, in the virtual world—where we have networks that far exceed that. Is that perhaps a mismatch? These are some of the ideas that I explore in the book.
Mason: Surely it was human beings that created this environment, this modern world in the first place? To some degree, could it be argued that it was our evolutionary imperative to design this sort of world, to create this sort of society?
Hart: We like to think of ourselves as not being part of the natural world, but of course, we are. Everything we do is natural, right? We have been part of the natural world for a very long time, and you can see that in Southern Africa, for instance, where we evolved. The influence that we’ve had on grasslands there, over millennia. So yes, it is all part of what is natural, and our very large brains are amazing at innovation. That’s really what we see in the modern world. We see a tremendous drive for innovation, linked, of course, with our amazing social behaviour. We’ve evolved language and emotional intelligence and all sorts of other mechanisms that allow us to work together and live together in cooperative ways that are quite remarkable.
Now, in the very modern world—particularly since about a third of the planet is sheltering behind closed doors at the moment because of COVID-19—you can see these things coming together quite spectacularly. Many of us live in incredibly dense urban environments, literally on top of each other, completely facilitated by technology that our innovative brains have produced. We’ve got this lovely drive towards highly social living, facilitated by technology and facilitated by the things that our brains have been able to come up with.
Now, of course, we can also travel globally at the drop of a hat, without really thinking about it too much. We take it as read that we can travel around the world—that innovation and that drive to see other places and things. Right now, that’s been our downfall hasn’t it, over the last few months. We’re actually protecting ourselves from COVID-19 across the world. The premier way to limit the spread is socially isolating. We are socially distancing. We are, if you like, going against our evolved tendencies to sociality. We’re not flying around the world anymore, we’re stopping doing that sort of behaviour because we can see that it’s caused harm. It is an interesting balance that we’re seeing at the moment, you’re right. There’s that imperative, that drive to produce these more ambitious and glorious technological advances, but of course at the moment that’s not come without problems, shall we say.
Mason: Do you think there’s a point at which we just went too far? You can argue that COVID-19 is really a byproduct of modern society—not just travel—but also the fact that we were allowing ourselves to be in such close proximity to animals, which is why it’s been argued that this disease jumped from animal species to the human species. Do you think there was a point in modern society where things just got a little out of hand?
Hart: I’m not sure if there’s a point where things got out of hand. I think what we really have is a situation where we don’t quite reflect enough, do we? We’re not necessarily good at collectively looking at ourselves and saying, You know what, this isn’t the right way to go. Possibly, we are going to get better at doing that, and it does feel like we might be on the cusp of change.
As a species, we haven’t been particularly good at coming together and working in that collective way. We’re clearly not very good at keeping up with our own technological advances. It’s really clear when you look at, for instance, some of the research that was done on social media. Within a very short period of time of Facebook, for example, being launched, there are studies about Facebook and whether it was harmful, and different types of personalities and things. Other social networks have also been studied—we know that for some people they can be extremely harmful, for instance. Yet we don’t really have very good rules of engagement. We have this weird thing with social networks where we tend to try and engage with online networks in the same way that we would engage with real world networks. Actually, they are very different ways of interacting. It’s only recently that I’ve started to mute, block and be able to ignore things, or move on or just mute those conversations—because that’s not what you’d do in the real world. But in the real world, you wouldn’t have people behaving in that way.
I think we tend to be a little bit slow at working out how to come to terms with some of the developments that we’ve made. We do, but often by the time we’ve done that, we’ve come up with a new change, and a new change to our environment. I suppose in a way we’re always playing catch up with our ambition and our achievements.
Mason: You talk about, in the book, this idea of being unfit for purpose,as if it was an issue. I just wonder where you stand on the ways in which we can overcome this? Do you think that these evolutionary echoes—as you’ve called them—these unfortunate echoes, do you think they’re biological limitations that eventually need to be overcome by humanity? Or, do you think we should actually look at society as the issue, and look at how we can not redesign the human, but redesign society and our technology to be more sympathetic to our biology?
Hart: Yeah, I think that’s what we need to realise a little bit. We can’t blame these echoes for our problems, because we can rise above these things. But if enough of us have enough of a tendency in the background there, and it’s kind of lurking around…in some cases it might be at the root of the problem, in some cases it might just literally be an echo. It might be a small signal. I think it’s helpful to have some understanding of that.
When I was looking at the issues of addiction, for instance, I was reading around about some of the treatments for problem gambling. What’s interesting there is that some people are using—they’re calling it evolutionary inspired compassionate therapy. They’re talking to problem gamblers and coaching their problems in broader evolutionary terms. They’re explaining, “Look, you have reward centres in your brain. This is what’s happening in your brain when you play a slot machine.” Talking to people about dopamine release, and getting people to understand that reward centre and why it evolved. It was there to cause us to eat more and have sex—those are the things it was there to reward—but we can overload it. All animals are gamblers, actually. If you’re a mouse in a hole, you either take a risk and go out to find mates or food, or you play it safe and starve to death in your hole. To a certain extent, you can really understand an awful lot of animal behaviour—to some extent, academically—you can understand a great deal of that through looking at the language of addiction and so on.
I’ve found it quite interesting that people were able to start encapsulating that in their treatment, and finding that people are responding to that. The idea that, well, evolution isn’t to blame. This isn’t something for you to arrogate your own responsibility from, but these are the reasons why you might be going down that path. Once you can rationalise something, sometimes you can find that easier. I don’t think they’re necessarily limitations—I think we can and do rise above it. It’s a ridiculous caricature to suggest we’re all frail people, stuck in our houses, glued to social media. Although let’s be honest, over the last few months, that’s not very far from the truth. Of course we’re an incredibly successful species. We’re thriving on planet Earth, almost to the extent that we’re in danger of dirtying our own nest a little bit. But yes, I think we can learn from some of those evolutionary insights. I think they do give us some sense of: Well hang on a minute, there are some potential problems here, and maybe we can look for solutions to overcome them.
Mason: I mean, some people look at it and go, “Well, there seems to be some potential problems here. In that case, why don’t we just leave human biology behind?” These individuals are often called transhumanists. The sorts of individuals who go, “You know what, evolution has got us this far, and the next step is going to be some sort of technological evolution.” Where we become more like machines, or we upload our minds into computers, or do these very, almost science fictional interventions—simply because we don’t believe that evolution can help us overcome some of these issues within modern society. That we have to look to the technological as the way to get out.
Hart: Well yeah, I mean evolution is not going to get us out of these problems, that’s for sure. That’s the conclusion of every…If you look back, one of the biggest changes—probably the biggest change in human evolution, really, was the development of agriculture 12,000 years ago. But that produced all kinds of problems, at the time, which we overcame with technology. Also, we overcame it with evolution. You can see that in people who are lactose persistent—who are able to digest raw milk, for instance, which is only about a third of the world. That is an evolutionary response to changes in the environment—specifically dairy cattle, goals at so on—that produce milk.
So we can and have, of course, evolved out of issues that we’ve created, which I suppose could give us some hope, except for the fact that it actually took thousands of years, and the human world was very different back then. Now, I don’t think any of us would consider a solution that might take several thousands of years to be particularly useful.
On top of that, we have, to a much larger extent, managed to subvert evolution now, because we have medicine that can intersect and intercede. We have technological solutions that can intercede, too. Things that would normally be selection events. The other issue of course is that you can’t have evolution without a genetic basis to something, and without some variants in that. Some of the problems we have don’t necessarily have any solution that would be genetically underpinned. We can’t look to evolution to get ourselves out of it, and we absolutely will be looking to technology. But some of these problems—most of the problems that I talk about in the book—they’re not problems that are necessarily going to be solved by technology. In many cases, they’re problems that are actually caused by technology. When we think of things like stress, the problems of online social networks, fake news—these are all problems that are enhanced, or caused by the technology around us.
I think as we move forward, I’m not sure we’re going to be evolving that much in the way most of us think about it. There may be changes in frequencies to do with immunity to certain diseases and so on. I think when people think about us evolving, we all like to sit slumped in chairs and we spend lots of time in cars for instance, so are we going to evolve more flexible spines? Or a different skeletal structure that doesn’t cause us backache? It seems unlikely because none of those things are actually stopping most people from having offspring. Fundamentally, when it comes down to it, evolution is about how many children you have. I don’t think we can look to evolution for solutions. I think we’re going to be absolutely looking to a technological evolution over the coming millenia—assuming of course that we’re still here in the coming millenia.
Mason: So in other words, it looks very unlikely that we’ll be able to evolve hyper-ambidexturous thumbs to help us to text?
Hart: Well, yeah. Here’s the thing, right: let’s say there was some genetic component to that. It seems reasonable to suggest that there might be. Certainly, some people have much more flexible joints and more prehensile fingers than others, and I’m sure there will be some sort of genetic basis to it. But will it influence your fitness, from a biological perspective? In other words, will it influence how many offspring you have? That’s the crucial thing. Will it do it across a meaningful chunk of society, and across enough time for it to go to fixation? So that we can look down the road, in 30 generations’ time, and see everyone with highly mobile thumbs? It seems unlikely, doesn’t it, because so many other things are going to be more important in terms of you leaving your mark in the next generation.
Mason: You mention stress, very briefly. Stress is an interesting one, because you would assume that modern society would make us less stressed. Why do you think it is that we’re more stressed now, rather than less?
Hart: You’re absolutely right. Very few of us face any existential threats on a regular basis. Although we may think about current situations and things existentially in that sense, compared to the sorts of the threats that we might have faced in our previous existences where life was less luxurious and safe, it does feel a little different. But the issue with stress in the modern world is really not one of magnitude. It’s one of constancy. So our flight and fight response—our adrenaline response—is a fabulous lifesaver. It’s certainly saved my life, and I’m sure it’s saved my parent’s lives and so on, all the way back to the evolution of flight and fight, which was well outside of our taxon. That type of stress—that is what we mean biologically by stress—is a lifesaver.
What we find in the modern world, what we find is a constant drip-drip of stress. It’s much more potent and concentrated now. There is the potential to feel quite stressed about an awful lot of things, because of the pace and the concentration; that potency of our modern lives. I think this is probably not just a modern phenomenon. Of course, back across even relatively recent history, there would have been the opportunities to get stressed, but we have more of it now, and we live longer. What we know is that when you’ve got these constant low-level micro-stresses, it can have medical implications. That’s what we’re starting to learn about—this notion of chronic stress. The more we learn about it, the more concerning it seems to need to be.
What I found quite interesting is when you go on the NHS websites, you find advice on there that feels—10 years ago—would have been more Glastonbury than Harley Street. The idea of taking spa breaks and looking out for yourself, and having some ‘you’ time. It’s all great advice, though I’m not sure how easy it is to follow when you’re hyper-stressed. But the idea that we’re actually starting to look at that in terms of our modern lives is really powerful. When you look at destressing breaks, it almost feels as though the more Spartan those breaks are, and the more that modern life is removed—the more expensive they are. It’s this sense that we have these layers of modern life upon us. Each one in itself—sure, it’s not as stressful as having to find food for your family by going out foraging or whatever—but it nonetheless adds this constant drip-drip of micro-stresses, that over the course of a lifetime does seem to be taking its toll.
Mason: Now, when evolutionary biologists talk about a lot of these ideas of evolution, they look back at the early homosapien with rose-tinted glasses. I wonder if there’s a desire to go back, to look at the indigenous, to look at hunter-gatherer cultures and go, “You know what, what if we could design society just like it was back then, when we were so perfectly involved for our environment.” Do you think that’s right?
Hart: Yeah, I think there is that desire. You can see it reflected in things like the paleo diet, for example. You can see it reflected in these highly Spartan retreats and so on, and people want to go and spend time in the woods. What’s been really interesting to me over the past few months of the lockdown era—if you like—is how much people are turning to nature. I don’t know whether that’s my echo-chamber on social media, because I’m interested in the natural world and wildlife, and I’m a biologist so I tend to follow people who enjoy that sort of thing. I’m seeing lots of narratives arising of how important the natural world is, how important people have found it to be able to go out for a walk and have some alone time, or go into the woods. Lots of people are sitting down in their gardens and watching bees or butterflies. The verb that everyone’s using is re-engaging. I think that’s really interesting because I hear a lot of people talking about how they’re re-engaging with the natural world, but fewer people talking about how they’re engaging. It’s almost this sense that we had this at one point, and now we’re re-engaging. It gets a little chin-strokey, but I suspect that lots of people that consider themselves to be re-engaging probably weren’t necessarily doing that much engagement for a very long time. There is this atavistic sense that at one point, we were much more engaged with the natural world, and we’re not now. I do find it really interesting that the current situation is making people look in that sort of way, because there is a lot to be said for it. I know I try and get out pretty much every day. The weather has been poor now, but when we had that lovely stretch I was spending two or three hours most days, taking the kids out for a walk, binoculars in hand, listening to the skylarks and cuckoos, realising I don’t normally do that, because normally I’m at work. I can do it during the day because of the change in our work-life balance now and the way that we work. I’ve found that very, very valuable, and I do think there is that sense of being with the natural world, making you feel a lot more whole, I guess. I’d be interested to see how we come out at the end of this and whether people take those lessons. But yes, I do think there’s a desire to do that.
I wouldn’t want to go back and live 12,000 years ago, at the beginning of agriculture. Our diet was extremely limited then, and there was a lot of malnutrition around. We’d gone from foraging, which was a very healthy way of living, to growing our own limited crops. We’ve gone from living reasonably spread out to suddenly living in more dense settlements, so we were having problems there. We couldn’t digest various things. So actually, at that stage, it wouldn’t have been that great. So you think: Well I’ll go back further. I’ll go back 20,000 years. Yes, but you had to go and find food all the time, the Ice Age was coming and so on. It feels like it would have been…I think I’d rather be living now, but with aspects of that relationship with the natural world and the environment that perhaps we had more of then. But, I don’t want those aspects to be dangerous or hazardous, right? I don’t want it to be that real.
Mason: I mean, it’s a form of evolutionary golden age thinking, in an odd sort of way—you know? It was always better in the past. I wonder if that’s just part of the fiction, of the idea of the perfect human? The idealised human. That on one end of the spectrum, we put this future human on a pedestal. This idea that one day we’re going to technologically enable ourselves to be perfect, but then there’s also the counter-argument that: Oh no no no, back in the past, at one amazing point, we were perfect in sympathy with our natural environment. In actual fact, where we are now is the thing that we should be focusing on.
Hart: Yes. Yeah, obviously we don’t know about the future, so we make predictions, which, generally, seem to go one way or the other. They’re usually one extreme or the other. It’s all either going to go to hell in a handcart, and we brought it on ourselves and we deserve it. Or, it’s going to be this utopian future with everything in a sci-fi sort of way. When we look back at the past, of course, we see that. In one of the chapters I talk about the paleo diet, and it’s a really interesting approach to nutrition. This idea that we can solve our problems of basically eating too much, by reverting to a diet that people had 20,000 years ago. When you look at what those diets are, first of all we don’t have a great notion of what a diet plan might have looked like 20,000 years ago, but also you read through and you think: Okay, well you’ve allowed yourself a few things which wouldn’t have been around 20,000 years ago, but I’ll accept that. But you know, where are you getting calcium from? You realise that a lot of these diets are quite depauperate in certain things, but you can make up for them with some unusual flaxseeds or some other thing. You start reading this through and you think: This isn’t a solution to anything. This is nonsense. If you want to live a Stone Age diet, then go out in the woods and forage for yourself. You’ll find that it’s pretty difficult without the technological know-how to actually get where you’re going and to do well. You can’t just throw yourself back and live like that.
There was a TV series not that long ago—a fair few years ago. They had people living a Stone Age existence, if you like, or a pre-agricultural existence in a wood somewhere, with a survival expert helping them. I think after a few weeks, they actually had to bring them food parcels and things, because they struggled so much. They weren’t adapted for that, intellectually. They didn’t know how to live like that. We can’t look to the past and we can’t look to the future—we have to live in the here and now. But I think having some understanding of how we got here, perhaps some of the problems and limitations of that does feel like it could be useful.
Mason: I mean, part of the reason they didn’t survive is because they were pulled out of this current environment and placed into this ‘natural environment’, and became a victim of those circumstances. If they were native—if they were born and indigenous to that environment—surely there’d be generational knowledge that would be passed down on how to deal with the land, where to forage for certain food, how to hunt. In a funny sort of way, it’s not so much that we can’t ever return there; the issue is that we won’t have the knowledge on how to authentically return there.
Hart: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. The thing is, it would be wonderful to live like that until you broke your leg, or until you got sick, or until you discovered a lump and had to have chemotherapy or something. The reality is that a lot of the modern world is an amazing place, and we’ve made it an amazing place. The achievements and the things that we’ve done are mind boggling, really, when you sit and think about them. Just the advances in medical science and technology alone over the last 50 years are staggering—the things that we can contemplate curing. At the moment, people are talking about a vaccine for this virus—which was only identified in December—potentially being available by the end of the year, or in 18 months. When you think about what’s actually involved in that, it’s staggering. We actually take this stuff for granted. We’ve very easily got to the stage where we have an expectation that if there’s something wrong with us, it can get fixed. I think that’s one of the things that’s possibly sat us down a bit, about COVID-19. It’s like: I thought we were on top of this kind of stuff, and suddenly this virus is laying the world low. It exposes the fact that we are fundamentally animals, and like any other animal, we’re vulnerable to a new disease. That’s really been highlighted by that.
I think this idea that we can live in the past or we would be happier then: I think we’d be happier for a few weeks, and we certainly would be less stressed, and it might give us some good insight. But overall, I think I’d rather have a nice dry, warm house, and access to medical technology, and be able to go and buy food, and talk to my family who live a distance away very easily, and all of that sort of thing, you know? I personally like the modern world, but I think there are aspects of it that just need tweaking or thinking through a little bit, in order to sit better with how I function as an animal. I guess that’s fundamentally at the heart of what the book is about.
Mason: Early humans—as you describe so well in the book—had this relationship with the natural world. They understood the cycles of nature. It’s the reason why there wasn’t the sort of climate crisis that we have today. It’s the reason why they didn’t have issues with sleep—because there was a circadian rhythm that was appreciated. What do you think has been lost in the name of progress, and how do we get back there, I guess?
Hart: We have so ruthlessly produced this modern world, where we are assiduously removing all traces of nature. I get lots of photos of house spiders, for example, or a fly that’s had the temerity to bite them, and there’s a sense of outrage—“Nature is in my house!“I’ve had people asking me, “I’ve got a wasp nest in my garden, what can I do to get rid of it?”… Well, hang on a minute. You’re right. Our current response to nature is that it is something to be conquered. I think that is something that we’re starting to realise and I guess we need a collective understanding, a collective awakening to the idea that nature is not something to be conquered. Nature is actually something that we need to live as a part of, not that we need to live alongside of—in other words: We live here and nature is over there. Actually, we are part of that natural world, and the natural world can be part of our world.
You look at some of those planting schemes and some of the ideas that are coming up with modern urban design to build in natural corridors and to have woodlands in towns and things. We still, really, build or live in settlements that have been around in Britain for a very long time, but were built around this idea of isolating ourselves from the countryside, or whatever. Actually, maybe we need to be looking real root and branchabout how we actually place ourselves in the world around us. Not just thinking about the natural world, but the world in general. We will get there—we’re very good at solving problems in the long run. It’s just, it feels like it takes too long because probably, evolution has come up with our mental heuristics that value right now over the future. We want things to happen now, now, now—and I guess with some of these things, we’re looking at slow change. But we do need to change, quite clearly.
We’ve reached a point where…it almost feels like as a species, we’ve kind of reached a point where we’re sort of older teenagers, that are kind of looking around at the mess we’ve made and thinking: Mmm, you know what? Actually it might be quite nice to live in a clean, tidy house. Actually, it might be quite nice to do the dishes every so often. I think that’s the point that we’re getting to, you know? Where we have to realise that we are such a globally successful species in terms of our numbers and spread, that we really do need to reassess our relationship with how we sit on the planet. I think we’ll get there, but we won’t get there quite as quickly as we might like.
Mason: Perhaps we’re not the ones to design our way out of this problem. There’s been a lot of talk about rewilding, whereas if we just gave nature 50% of the planet back, nature would just deal with the rest. It would go, “You know what, humans, we’ve got it from here. Thank you for that 50% of rewilding, now we’ll create the ideal circumstances under which we will survive this climate crisis.” Human beings…it’s such a human hubris to believe that they can also be the solution to the problems that they created in the first place.
Hart: Yes. We’re very good at what I might call a bush fix, right. Have a roll of tape and a ball of string and you can fix most things, especially if you throw cable ties into the mix…but it’s not really fixing it. You’re right—we have a tendency to think that we’re making progress here because we’ve got a sedum roof on some school buildings. Really, what we need to be doing is much more root and branch examination of how we’re living on the planet. It’s kind of a controversial idea to think about that. I think we’re almost in a position of privilege actually, sometimes, to think about the idea that we sort of turn the world over. Actually, humans live in huge areas of the world, and experience all kinds of issues with often the developed world’s relationship affecting people that haven’t really caused a problem.
I think a bigger problem is actually something that I touch on in the last chapter of the book, which is that we’re not very good at thinking about the future in a very mature way, anyway. When you think about it, evolution doesn’t care about the future. Evolution cares about the here and now. Evolution is a bush fix, right? Let’s get it done, and if it works well enough, then it works well enough. The most famous example of that being our own eye, which is essentially wired the wrong way around—but it works, and that’s what evolution works on. It’s a solution bingo, it doesn’t care if it’s the best solution or not. You need more offspring? Boom. It works. I think what we’ve ended up with is some sort of mental heuristic that means that we’re valuing now, the here and now, over the future. There are some really elegant experiments that people have done to show that actually, we devalue even future versions of us. Let ‘future us’ take the hit, whilst we value ‘present day us’. When you mix in other people as well, you end up with a hierarchy of ‘me here and now’, versus ‘future versions of me’, versus other people.
What we need to do to fix the problems of the world is to first of all value everyone and realise that we are literally all in the same boat. Globalisation should be a way of doing that, rather than just getting cheap goods from abroad and making sure that other environments get destroyed rather than ours. That’s not what that should be about. It should be about bringing people together, but then also you’ve got to have a much more mature viewpoint of the future. You have to understand that we’re going to have to take some fairly bad medicine, in some cases. We’re going to have to change the way that we live, and some of the luxuries that we’ve perhaps taken for granted; consume less, fly less, do things differently, so that future generations can benefit. That’s fundamentally not how we go about doing things. We certainly can do that, and we should, and we’re going to have to—but we’re going to need to frame those things in ways that just kind of side-step the fact that our natural tendency is to go for the here and now over the future. We just need to judo that a little bit, and perhaps use that to our advantage in some way. Some clever stuff—I guess it relates to ideas like nudge theory and things like that; how you can just push people into doing the right thing. That feels, to me, to be a particularly prominent and pertinent problem: making people stop and care enough about what’s happening to really take that forward. It’s happening. It does feel like we’re on the cusp at the moment.
Mason: It feels like what’s stopping us is, as human beings, our issue with how we deal with the very, very large, or the very, very long term. So it’s either a time issue or a scale issue. So, it’s very hard for us to think about managing our habitat on a global scale. As you say in the book, we’ve been used to living in social groups of around 150. Equally, it’s very, very hard for us to think long term, far out into the future when we have so many issues that we’re dealing with currently, in society today. How do you think we have a better relationship with our future selves and enable ourselves to think on a global scale?
Hart: Yeah you’re right. We are a here and now, immediate species, looking at the horizon rather than looking around the planet—it’s very true. How we overcome that, I don’t know. We have to, first of all, have a better political system. We have to have a political system that is longer term than we have. Many of the problems that emerge locally, regionally, globally and nationally emerge because we end up with political systems that are re-imagined every four years. People spend half their time trying to get back into office and the other half of their time trying to win their seat. It doesn’t feel like a very good system, and it seems to be a system that we find in many places across the world, so I guess there’s that. Capitalism overall isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, but it doesn’t seem to be working for a lot of people, and certainly at the moment. I saw someone Tweeted a while ago—it was a brilliant Tweet, it was like: Capitalism is a great system, it just needs bailing out massively every 10 years or so. We saw that in 2008. Suddenly everyone was like, “Ah well it works, but it just hasn’t worked now so we need to throw money and print money.” Now we’re in this situation here. After about two weeks of COVID-19, businesses were going under and it was all terrible. That doesn’t feel like a very robust system for us to be basing our lives around.
We’ve got these political systems and these economic systems that actually encourage short termism, and actually encourage us to think generally, quite selfishly. Certainly that’s the way that they end up. They’re not necessarily inherently like that, but they seem to end up that way. Also, they’re inherently short-termist, and value and really play to our evolutionary foibles, actually, because they lead us to value the short term over the long term. The idea of future generations: Well they’ll fix that problem, right? Someone in the future will fix this problem, so I’ll just carry on tanning it until it’s dead. That doesn’t feel like a good system. I think if we really want to get on top of these things, we are going to have to think much more maturely about that—both locally and globally. We need to get away from this fragmented way. We need to embrace globalisation, and understand that we are all in this together. I think lots of organisations and lots of individuals do, but overall, there is not that sense that we do. Possibly, the current situation is leading to a little bit more fragmentation in some ways. Hopefully when we come through the other side, we might find more unity, and more collective behaviour. We are going to have to behave that way. We can’t fix the world, sadly, by fixing our own back gardens. We need to step back and have a different way of doing it.
Mason: So you don’t believe that we can think locally but act globally?
Hart: I think we can, and I think there’s certain value to be had in that. But, I think the really big issues that we’re facing at the moment are going to have to be dealt with globally. They’re going to have to be sorted at a big level, because no matter what, for example, I do as an individual, it’s not exactly going to stop large corporations strip mining bits of the outback of whatever. We need to have more overview, I think, internationally. I think that shouldn’t stop us from acting locally. We shouldn’t give up doing what we do on our local scale, and of course our local environment is very important for us, as well. But we need that big world thinking, and those big viewpoints to really get us out of this.
Mason: I mean maybe you hit on it there with the word capitalism.Capitalism is this operating system that defines how we run society. It has this growth imperative, which demands that we continue to progress. In actual fact, what we need to realise is, if we are to go back to indiginous thinking, then maybe it’s not about linear progression—but it’s about thinking about things cyclically. Whether it’s circular economies, or it’s a circular relationship with nature whereby we don’t extract from the ground, but we actually work with soil to ensure that we are allowing for new nutrients to be replenished into the soil as we then use that soil to grow our crops. It feels like we’ve got to the point where we’re like: We’ve asset-stripped the planet, so what we’ll do is artificially place more assets back into the planet. You get Monsanto style agriculture whereby they’re just pumping chemicals into the ground to replace the chemicals they took out of the ground, that would naturally replenish themselves anyway if there was a better understanding of how these systems worked cyclically. It’s not a linear progression, it’s a cyclical relationship, surely.
Hart: Yes, it’s this kind of myth of infinite growth almost, isn’t it. If things are always supposed to grow, you have to say, “Well, hang on a minute. Where’s that going to go? Clearly that can’t operate forever.” I think you hit the nail on the head earlier, when you used the word value. I think we need to change how we value our lives, and at the moment that value is economic. In some cases, that can be a useful measure, of course. It’s a useful measure for all kinds of things, but it’s not a useful measure if that becomes the goal.
We really need to look at quality of life, and we need to have a much more mature understanding of what makes us happy, and about what makes us worthwhile, and about what makes us want to carry on living. If what makes you want to carry on living is the endless need to accumulate more wealth—well, OK. I guess there are always going to be some people in society that want that, but I don’t think that’s the case for most people, Actually, we know that when you get to a certain level of wealth, you actually don’t get any happier. All that happens is that you make the world a worse place for other people, because your pursuit of wealth is usually at the expense of someone else. I think we do need a reappraisal of how we value our lives, and how we assess that value. Once we start doing that, we might be making some progress.
It’s really nice and refreshing to see some countries including these types of measures, and looking at quality of life and wellbeing as being the important things, rather than gross domestic product and so on. But of course, having some level of ‘wealth’ is important. We want to live comfortable, nice lives, but we can’t continue to do that. You’re right—we can’t continue to asset-mine the planet in order to be able to chase ever-more grandiose ideas of what we think wealth and luxury and comfort and quality of life is. We don’t all need a private jet. It would be very nice sometimes, wouldn’t it—to be able to hop on it and go somewhere—but we really don’t need that. Actually, I bet if you had one, it would just give you something else to stress and worry about. We do need to reassess how we value ourselves, actually. How we value our experiences and our life experiences. What is important to us, and how that can translate into the way that we live. I suspect that once we start doing that in a more global fashion, we might make a few changes. I don’t know—that’s my feeling.
Mason: I mean, you hit on it earlier when you were talking about going for a walk with your family. What makes us happy? Well, sometimes as simple as going for a walk in nature, but we might reach a point whereby we want to go for a walk to make us happy, and then realise nature is all gone…whoops. I wonder if it is that simple, because intuitively—it maybe has no scientific basis—but intuitively we know there is something good about being under the sun, near water, in nature. If we have this intuitive notion that: Okay, there is something good about this nature thing, how do we, instead of commoditising it, where, “If you want to go to nature, you can jump on a plane and go and find nature”—it’s like: “Whoa, whoa, whoa—that doesn’t help!”
Hart: Something that I find quite interesting is the fact that: I grew up in South Devon. I grew up in a fairly rural place, and nature was around. I used to love going rock-pooling and all of that kind of stuff. I love being out in the natural world and I’m very comfortable. I thrive in that environment, and I enjoy it. But I realise a lot of people don’t; a lot of people don’t like being outside. A lot of people don’t enjoy being in nature, a lot of people have no connection with it at all. Birdsong isn’t something that registers. They don’t see these things. I’ve been out for walks with people in towns and a sparrowhawk that flies over. There’s a peregrine falcon that nested in Cheltenham a while ago. You can walk around with people and they don’t see it.
I think one of the issues that we have is that a lot of the people that talk about nature and that have these sorts of conversations that we’re having are the people that are engaged with nature, or re-engaged—to echo back to what we were saying earlier. People are attuned to it, they understand the value of it. My realisation is that an awful lot of people aren’t, actually. That’s something that I struggle to come to terms with, a little bit, because it’s like, “Hang on a minute, how can you not feel the same as I do about these natural spaces?” I think a lot of it’s down to how you grow up, what you’ve been exposed to in your environment, and not necessarily having the opportunity to have that engagement with nature. That’s something that’s really, really important. We need to make sure that people have the opportunity to develop that relationship and to understand that it’s something important. Until we understand it’s something that’s important, we’re not necessarily going to want to preserve it.
You’re absolutely right—maybe even people that aren’t that engaged with nature on their doorstep, or don’t sit out in their garden and think: Ooh, that’s a cinnabar moth, that’s a nice thing to see. Ooh, is that a great tit calling? They’re not going to think that way, but they might want to get on a plane and go on a safari, for example. They might want to go to Costa Rica, but they’ll see that as a once in a lifetime experience to engage with the natural world, and they’re missing that natural world engagement around them all the time that can bring them an enormous amount of happiness and wellbeing on a day to day basis. I think we’ve still got a lot of work to do there, to get people to understand that actually, the natural world is all around them, if they’d stop to look—even in cities and built up areas. Lots of cities—and particularly in the UK—lots of towns and cities have natural spaces and places for nature. Just getting people more engaged with that—working with children, particularly—but also adults can be educated too, right? Adults can suddenly have an epiphany: Hang on a minute, this is really quite cool. I think we probably need to do more of that. A lot of it’s done already. Lots of people do lots of really interesting outreach work on all of this stuff, but I think that maybe, perhaps we need to do more.
Mason: It might be the fact that evolution will just kill off all the people who don’t like nature. I mean that facetiously, but thinking about it, you have cases whereby children are brought up now without any relationship with the outside. They’re brought up in a bubble and they’re kept inside, in environments that are cleaned with products that report to kill 99.9% of germs, and those same children never develop immune systems. There’s a good argument to be had that the best thing you can do is to put a child out into nature, to roll them around in mud so that they actually build an immune system to survive into the future, not having to rely on artificial systems such as medical products to build their immunity.
Hart: Yes, that whole link with our immune system is really interesting, actually. It’s become known as the hygiene hypothesis—but it’s actually more complex than that. It’s more like relationships that we build up with our old friends—the old-friends hypothesis is how it’s become known. That we have these deep rooted evolutionary links and co-evolutionary associations with certain microorganisms that our immune system has to learn to identify as friend from foe. You’re right—we’re probably not keeping our houses any cleaner these days. It’s more down to the fact that—as you said—we have less engagement at a young age with the natural world. We have less engagement with animals now. We tend to have smaller families. So interestingly, when the hygiene hypothesis was put about, it wasn’t anything to do with home hygiene, particularly. It was actually linking family size and the number of siblings with the development of diseases like asthma, and showing that larger families—and particularly if you’re a younger sibling—you’ve got a more robust immune system, essentially. You’re less likely to have an inflammatory disease.
Those sorts of linkages and connections—we change the way that we’re living. We’ve changed from having creches of children all mixing together and being very much at one, being part of the natural world. You’re right—we now live inside much more. We have smaller families and we have less associations with lots of different people. We at a younger age, don’t have that type of natural experience. It is having knock-on effects in terms of our lives. You could argue that’s another good reason why an engagement with the natural world from a younger age is good for us. It’s not just our mental wellbeing—it does enable us to develop a more robust immune system.
Mason: After researching this book and after looking at all of the variety of mismatches that human beings have, do you feel hopeful? Do you think we’re actually going to survive as a human species? Do you think maybe our cognitive abilities will ensure our survival, or do you think we’re just doomed?
Hart: No, I think we’ll do alright. I think a lot of the problems that we’re in at the moment, our brains have got us into it. We have issues interacting with technology that we’ve invented. We’ve created a world that we’re getting to the stage where we’ve wiped our feet on it a few too many times, and we need to think carefully about that. That’s all down to our brain power. The most complex structure in the universe is inside our heads, and it’s allowed us to do some incredible things—but those incredible things have also got us into trouble, and it’ll be our brains that get us out of there. We can thank evolution for that. We can thank evolution for our brain, and it’ll be our brain power that gets us out of the various holes we’ve dug, whether it’s medical holes, whether it’s potentially existential holes to do with how we’re viewing and interacting with the earth. We’ll get out of it, I think—I’m quite hopeful about that. But we can’t sit back and pretend that everything is rosy, because clearly there are a few things that we need to sort out.
Mason: Well on that optimistic and hopeful note, Adam Hart, thank you for our time.
Hart: Thank you.
Mason: Thank you to Adam, for sharing his insights into how we can learn from our evolutionary past to better prepare us for the future.
You can find out more by purchasing his book, Unfit for Purpose: When Human Evolution Collides with the Modern World—available now.
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