Most people have never heard the term “evolutionary mismatch.” If that’s you, then buckle up. This is quite possibly one of the most important concepts in human health and those who fail to understand it will fail to get and keep a body and life they love.
If you feel that leading a healthy lifestyle in today’s day and age isn’t easy, you’re not alone. And it’s true. I mean, if it were easy we wouldn’t have an obesity and preventable disease epidemic, would we?
But what if you could identify the ONE thing that’s standing in your way? What if you could simplify the problem to ONE single obstacle.
And what if you could shift your perspective to help you navigate that one obstacle with less stress? Without a feeling of futility?
Doing that gives you an advantage over everyone who feels like they’re drowning: drowning in information, drowning in circumstance, drowning in their genetics — all of it.
Here’s the number one obstacle to success that you face every single day you wake up: Evolutionary Mismatch.
You’ve kinda known about evolutionary mismatch for some time now, you just didn’t have a name for it. And you probably haven’t parsed out all the details yet.
But, understanding evolutionary mismatch is one of the keys to shifting perspective.
I kinda fibbed though. Evolutionary mismatch is really three obstacles in one. But it’s still one, clear, overarching problem.
What is Evolutionary Mismatch?
Evolutionary Mismatch (aka “Mismatch Theory” or “Evolutionary Trap”) is a concept that comes from the world of evolutionary biology.
It describes genetic and evolutionary traits that used to be really beneficial but are now destructive thanks to changes in the environment we live in.
[Evolutionary Mismatch] a state of affairs that often leads to physical and/or behavioral problems, such as when a rhesus monkey—with ancestry going back deep into the jungles of Asia—is forced to live in isolation in a cage in a lab in a large city in North America. Monkeys in such a situation show all kinds of “abnormal” behavior and markers of stress (see Harlowe & Suomi, 1971). The reason is simple: Their current environment is not matched to the environment that characterized their ancestral environment. – Psychology Today
Most of the evolutionary mismatches that pertain to humans are called “temporal” mismatches, which refers to a mismatch created by changes in our environment over time (not our literal physical environment but the sum total of where and how we live).
Evolutionary Mismatch can also be “spatial” which describes a mismatch created by relocating an organism to a new environment in the short term – that’s not really something that pertains to us.
Now that you know what the term generally means, let’s talk about real-world examples of how evolutionary mismatch creates huge obstacles to living a healthy lifestyle…
Evolutionary Mismatch #1: Abundance
Sometimes we forget how long humans — homo sapiens — have been around. Let’s call it 250,000 years. That’s a lot of years.
Modern agriculture and the beginning of food-supply-dominance is only about 10,000 to 15,000 years old. Modern agriculture and abundance-without-effort is only very recent.
So what happened before abundance? Well, things were very feast/famine. You hunted and you gathered. You’d eat a lot and then go days on very little. We did this for over 200,000 years. It’s the lifestyle our bodies became programmed to deal with.
The way the body deals with that type of lifestyle is to store fat for later access. If that doesn’t happen, you die quicker. Make sense?
The mismatch is that we still carry that programming with us today and it’s completely unnecessary. But there’s no way to tell our body to stop acting that way.
The story gets worse…
Rather than just abundance, we’re the first generation facing an abundance of food that’s not even real. 80% of the food available in grocery stores didn’t exist 100 years ago.
Our body doesn’t know how to metabolize this food. Most of it sends our hormones into a tailspin. On top of that, it destroys our gut and lights up the reward centers of our brain. It spells failure at every turn.
So we’re programmed to store fat to survive famine, yet we live in society where famine is nonexistent, the food isn’t real, and the combination of all that creates a death spiral of over-eating and preventable disease.
Evolutionary Mismatch #2: Pathological Sedentism
If a mass abundance of hormone-deranging food wasn’t bad enough, we’re also facing the evolutionary mismatch of pathological sedentism.
Historically, homo sapiens have needed to move to survive. You can’t hunt and gather without moving. You can’t travel and explore without moving. You can’t really do anything necessary for survival (except sleep), without moving.
The body programmed itself for movement. This is apparent in the fact that degradation of the muscular-skeletal system happens rapidly when the body is sedentary. Blood flow is poor when you’re not moving. Healing is delayed. The list goes on.
The mismatch we’re facing is that we’ve built a society where humans no longer have to move. You go from your bed to the chair in your kitchen. You go from the chair in your kitchen to the chair in your car. You use like 3 muscles to push down a pedal for an hour on your way to work. You go from your car chair to your office chair. You go from the office chair to the chair at the restaurant…you get the picture.
This isn’t just “being sedentary.” It’s sedentism to the point of pathology. It’s killing you (faster than if you were a smoker, by the way).
“But I exercise!” you say. Not good enough. The studies have shown that exercise doesn’t erase the effects of sedentism. It doesn’t help much at all (fitness isn’t even that effective for weight loss). The only thing that helps is to stop being sedentary.
And you know what that means: inconvenience. But, like I’ve talked about before on my podcast, convenience is killing you.
Evolutionary Mismatch #3: Systematic Domestication
Once upon a time (common theme here, isn’t it?) humans lived in the wild.
“The wild! The wild! How barbaric!”
Yes, humans lived in the wild. And today, if you do anything that remotely resembles living outside of the convenient little box society wants to put you in, you’re ridiculed and chastised.
Convenience has made it unnecessary to do many of the wild things we used to do: hunt, fish, gather, build, travel on foot, wear minimal clothing, etc. If that wasn’t bad enough, social pressure has driven us to avoid doing that stuff. We want to keep our skills sharp, but society can’t handle it.
This is not just something that’s happened to us, it’s a complete societal mindset shift. It’s not the absence of wildness, it’s the purposeful rejection of it. Do you know what the purposeful rejection of wildness is called? It’s called domestication.
Domestication takes autonomous, strong, self-sufficient, survival-prone animals and turns them into a helpless, dependent, weak subspecies.
Compare modern day dogs to wolves, for example. We used to be like the wolf (I’m trying to avoid saying “back in the day” or “once upon a time” again) in terms of survivability and independence. Slowly, we’re becoming little frail, helpless, ankle biting variations of that.
The more removed from nature we become, the more domesticated we get. And no, joining a CrossFit box won’t change that. Strength alone doesn’t make you wild, there’s way more to the story than that.
Now You Know Why Health is so Hard – Evolutionary Mismatch is Really Problematic
So, there you go. If you thought society was conspiring against your healthy lifestyle, you were right.
Knowing why it’s a struggle helps shift your perspective. Now you can reject certain things on principle. First, you can reject things like driving when walking is a possibility. That’s a socially safe and acceptable decision.
You can shun other modern conveniences and reduce sedentism. You can return to hunting and fishing now and then (and actually keep and cook what you kill/catch). You can spend more time outdoors with less clothes on. You can go barefoot.
You can be more accepting of people who do things that are socially taboo.
Yes, the deck is stacked against you. Yes, it’s inconvenient. But you’re not defeated yet. Not even close. Shift your perspective. See the underlying simplicity of the problem. And then expel it from your life step by step.
Perspective is powerful. Hopefully yours shifted a little bit just now. I’d love your comments below.
Kevin Geary is the founder of RebootedBody.com and a respected expert on cravings, eating psychology, and long-term habit change. He’s worked with thousands of men and women in over 35 countries around the world through his online academy and programs like Shut Down Your Sugar Cravings.