Human evolution and health

The Pulitzer prize-winning author and scientist Jared Diamond called the Agricultural Revolution “the worst mistake in human history”. Why?Consider that, with the onset of the Agricultural Revolution, which began about 10,000 years ago in what we now call the Middle East, but which didn’t reach some parts of the world until as recently as a few hundred years ago, human beings became less healthy. A good measure of overall population health is height. By comparison with their hunter gatherer predecessors, early agriculturalists shrank in height. According to one study on remains of early Europeans, prior to 16,000 BC, European males stood 179 cm tall, or 5’10.5″, and females stood 158 cm, or 5’2″. Between 8,000 to 6,600 BC, average heights had dropped to 166 cm for males. Heights fell even further in Neolithic populations, dropping down to 164 cm for males and 150 cm for females, only reaching and surpassing 170 cm at the end of the 19th century.

Hunter gatherers, in the Paleolithic era, and in the few isolated corners of the globe today where foragers still survive, lived on a varied diet consisting mostly of meat, fish, vegetables, fruits and nuts. This diet was nutrient-dense and helped them to stay lean, healthy, and free from the chronic diseases of civilisation such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and neurological diseases. By contrast, the Agricultural Revolution brought about dependence on a few calorie-dense staples; today, 80% of the world’s population gets most of their calories from only four staple plants: wheat, rice, corn and potatoes. This has led to a situation, greatly exacerbated by the Industrial Revolution, where many people are over-fed but under-nourished.

The dimension of the problem becomes easier to see when looked at through an evolutionary lens. Like all other organisms, human beings are genetically adapted to a certain environment. Humans have lived on this planet for about two million years. During that time, they adapted to survive and be healthy by living in a certain way. Compared to two million years, a few thousand years is just not long enough to adapt to our modern way of life. What this means is that for all its undeniable benefits, modern life is killing us. Most of us eat, move and live in ways that are so different from how we are genetically programmed that we struggle to cope. For example, a quarter of British people and half of Americans are overweight; a quarter of the British population and third of Americans are obese.

Modern life is sedentary for most of us, at least in the West. We sit in cars, at desks, at home. We rarely walk or lift heavy things any more, even compared to our ancestors of just a few generations ago. We also sleep less than our ancestors. According to data from one survey, a third of Americans sleep less than six hours a night. We work longer hours than even modern-day hunter gathers who have been squeezed into marginal lands; in average our working day is about twice as long as that of traditional foragers, to which we need to add our commuting time.

Of course, we cannot return to a hunter gatherer lifestyle. There are too many people, we don’t have the skills, and why would we want to lose all the benefits of modernity? However, what we can do is intelligently combine the best of modern life with what we have been genetically adapted to by millions of years of evolution.

This is the essence of practising an evolutionary-informed way of eating and living. This is not a prescriptive list of dos and don’ts, but a template that takes account of human genetics, as well as modern science, to be used as a basis for choosing what to eat and how to exercise. The fundamental argument is that if we act in ways that are aligned to our evolutionary heritage, we are likely to be healthier.

It’s interesting that modern science is now confirming that this is the case. For example, after years of demonising saturated fat, we are now being told by scientists that not only is it not a cause of heart disease but can in fact be healthy. This obviously fits with our genes; as far as we know most forager societies hunted or fished when possible and consumed saturated animal fat. They certainly wouldn’t have had access to Industrial Revolution oils like safflower or sunflower.

Contact me if you’d like to discover if adopting an ancestral health-informed way of eating, exercising or living might enhance your health.

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