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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Further Reference

Episode page, with intro­duc­to­ry text and pro­duc­tion notes. Transcript orig­i­nal­ly by Beth Colquhoun, repub­lished with per­mis­sion (mod­i­fied).

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