Darwin’s theory of evolution clarified many aspects of how humans came about. It is today, the most widely accepted theory of evolution too. Interestingly, this was not a completely new theory. The idea that a specific type of animal or man could descend from another type of species was a prevalent thought before the time of Socrates, the Greek philosopher. Plato, on the other hand, promoted ideas about essentialism.
Different cultures had their own understanding of how man evolved into what he is today. Romans believed that everything in the cosmos was created by ‘naturalistic mechanisms’ without the involvement of the supernatural. The Chinese culture believed that there was not permanence to the species as we see them today. Islamic philosophers argued that origins of man lay in non-living things and that we evolved from mineral to plant to animal to human!
Today the Darwinian Theory of Natural selection is but far the most accepted one. It states that all species occur due to a process of natural selection. This natural selection is based on the ability to survive in a changing environment. Small changes in genes allow the species to adapt increasing their chances of survival in the environment. Interestingly, these changes take place due to mutations that are ‘errors in the replication of DNA’ during the reproductive process.
Some examples of evolution are very potent to observe in the world today. The Peppered Moth that was light in color became darker during the industrial revolution because the environment became more polluted. This helped in escaping birds who were not able to spot them easily. All male peacocks are brightly colored today even though that was not always the case. This happened mainly because female peahens preferred the brighter one (no pun intended)!
While the process of evolution of man from ape has taken thousands of years, rapid evolution is being observed today! Changes in species are being observed within a matter of a few years. Because man has developed over many years, one would think that these adaptations would be, well, well-adapted!
That does not seem to be the case, especially when it pertains to the right balance between our bodies and our brains! Let’s have a look why!
Cravings for Sweet
Some people state that humans have a craving for sweets because it processed sugar gets assimilated in the blood quickly. This gives us what all mothers know all too well – the sugar high! Processed sugar also increases levels of endorphins in the blood, mood hormones that help you feel ‘happy’. This is why binge eating when you are feeling low or depressed is very common. But sugar cravings happen even when we are not feeling down.
Humans evolved to pick sweeter and riper fruits because the high sugar content provided more energy. High levels of sugar are converted into fat, something that could be called upon later. When food supply was low and there was scarcity of food, stored fat could be called upon to play its part in survival. This is what continued for thousands of years. And then things changed!
The agricultural revolution ensured that there was no need to go around hunting and gathering food. Hardly had the human body got used to such a stationary lifestyle when the industrial revolution happened and then there was no scarcity of food at all as it could be imported from areas that were abundant. So now, we have a situation where we have an abundance of food almost everywhere (notwithstanding some areas where famine still strikes, something I fail to understand). However, the insecure human brain that has been used to storing fat for times of scarcity, does not seem to understand that there is no chance of a famine happening in these times. It does not need to stock up for later.
Fight and Flight
Another remnant from stone age that we carry around all the time is the cause of stress in our lives. Our bodies produce a surge of hormones, particularly adrenaline, when there is a sign of danger. This prepared the body to either fight and survive the situation or run and save oneself from a likely onslaught. The heart beat becomes higher, blood surges into the extremities as the body prepares to fight or run, and the sight and hearing abilities are heightened. A great strategy for the body to adopt when we lived in the jungle.
However, humans are no longer in the jungle today and are not really faced with endangering monsters and predators today. These situations of stress have been replaced by other aspects like ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ or making it to the best Ivy League Schools.
The new stresses are prolonged and not short lived. They continue for days, weeks and even months. But the body reacts in the same manner as before and has not learnt that it needs to adapt and produce different kinds of hormones to manage stress. Extended periods of stress with high production of hormones that can be harmful in the long run results in crazy diseases like blood pressure, heart attacks and diabetes too!
House versus Hunt
We live in a world today where men and women are expected to do similar tasks. Women and men alike, go out and work and manage household chores too. Attack this belief and you may have a large hoard of feminists at your door arguing how men and women are equal. Evolution shows us that women tended the children and home for thousands of years while men went to hunt. Getting food on the table did not mean tapping at the computer for 8 working hours and required physical prowess that was more a genetic capability of males rather than females (at least in the human species).
So, men hunted for food and women tended to the house and children. Again, thousands of years of doing this gave either gender specific capabilities that they have today. Women are better at multi-tasking and tasks such as ‘finding things’. Men, on the other hand, are better at focusing on one task and getting it over with.
Our society today, expects men and women to function at the same level, irrespective of the domain under question. Men should be able to take care of the children and cooking and laundry. Women should be able to meet deadlines with the same one-track focus that men have. Does not always happen!
We, therefore, have a situation where men are shouted at for letting the children do what they want while they watch the football match on television or cook in the kitchen. Women often find themselves thinking about picking up their child from class or some household chore while in the midst of a strategy meeting.
The way we have evolved, biologically, mentally, and societally goes to show there are a lot of discrepancies. In some cases, the brain does not keep up with the body (aka sugar cravings). In another, the body has not kept pace with the mind (as in the example of the fight-flight response). And then in areas where the brain and the body are not at loggerheads with each other, society rears its ugly head and shakes things up a bit (male and female roles in society).
How natural selection will work in this world where we seem to defy all laws of nature, one does not know! Many people think that we are in control of what comes next. If we are, we surely do not seem to be going in the right direction and need to review our choices. If we are not in control and don’t know how our humankind will shape up, then it really does not matter, does it?