Evolution is one of the biggest ideas in the modern world. Part of the theory focuses on the tendency of genes to mutate and the key thing about gene mutation is that it takes time: a lot of it. It took us around 3,900 million years to go from the first cells to homo sapiens. So the one thing we can be pretty sure about is that genetic mutation will not be a significant feature of the human world now.
However, there’s a second, equally interesting bit to Darwin’s theory of Evolution, which focuses on what gets called Adaptation to the Environment. Darwin pointed out that when an environment changes, a characteristic can suddenly shift from being an advantage to a disadvantage – and vice versa.
In 1811, a famous survey of moths around the burgeoning town of Manchester recorded no melanic – or black-winged – moths. Thirty-seven years later, in 1848, another survey discovered huge number of these creatures and far fewer white winged moths. Darwin’s explanation was simple: Manchester’s rise as a major industrial city meant that huge quantities of soot had entered the atmosphere and darkened tree trunks. Thereafter, light-winged moths became highly conspicuous to their main predators – birds – while the dark winged ones were effectively camouflaged. Darwin concluded that changes to the environment can dramatically alter which members of a species will thrive within it.
For most of history, making your way in the world was hugely dependent on physical strength and and strong practical links to a family group. The weakling, the loner, the introvert was in a very disadvantageous position. Then, in the last quarter of the 20th century, the tech industry created an environment in which nerd characteristics turned out to be highly advantageous.
Human beings are not themselves now evolving (or too slowly to matter), but our environment is changing very fast, and this has hugely privileged certain traits while penalizing others.
We find it hard to:
- not to eat too much
- to distinguish real threats from baseless anxieties
- to spend all day in an office in front of a computer
- to look at porn in moderation
- to be monogamous
We should feel compassion for ourselves when we don’t quite fit our times. Our biology has saddled us with a range of cognitive habits which were sensible when they evolved (habits around sugar, sex, power, anxiety and excitement)… but which really hamper our effectiveness in the modern world.
Modern life has required things of us which are really very hard for us to pull off. We’re saddled with many inconvenient but maddeningly deep-rooted tendencies – which is another reason why we constantly need to be a little more forgiving of other people and of ourselves.