Biology Magazine

The Myth of Maladaptation

Posted on the 09 January 2014 by Ccc1685 @ccc1685

A fairly common presumption among biologists and adherents of paleo-diets is that since humans evolved on the African Savannah hundreds of thousands of years ago, we are not well adapted to the modern world. For example, Harvard biologist Daniel Lieberman has a new book out called “The Story of the Human Body” explaining through evolution why our bodies are the way they are. You can hear him speak about the book on Quirks and Quarks here. He talks about how our maladaptation to the modern world has led to widespread myopia, back pains, an obesity epidemic, and so forth.

This may all be true but the irony is that we as a species have never been more fit and adapted from an evolutionary point of view. In evolutionary theory, fitness is measured by the number of children or grandchildren we have. Thus, the faster a population grows the more fit and hence adapted to its environment it is. Since our population is growing the fastest it’s ever been (technically, we may have been fitter a few decades ago since our growth rate may actually be slowing slightly), we are the most fit we have ever been. In the developed world we certainly live longer and are healthier than we have ever been even when you account for the steep decline in infant death rates. It is true that heart disease and cancer has increased substantially but that is only because we (meaning the well-off in the developed world) no longer die young from infectious diseases, parasites, accidents, and violence.

One could claim that we are perfectly adapted to our modern world because we invented it. Those that live in warm houses are in better health than those  sitting in a damp cave. Those that get food at the local supermarket live longer than hunter-gatherers.  The average life expectancy of a sedentary individual is not different from an active person. One reason we have an obesity epidemic is that obesity isn’t very effective at killing people. An overweight or even obese person can live a long life.  So even though I type this peering through corrective eye wear while nursing a sore back, I can confidently say I am better adapted to my environment than my ancestors were thousands of years ago.

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