Our Brains Are Stuck in the Stone Age
How ‘evolutionary mismatch’ affects our weight, behavior, and overall health
Next time you’re craving sugar and you reach for that candy bar thank your ancestors because their behaviors — like hoarding rare sugary foods like fruits during droughts or famines — are still wired in our brains. In the thousands of years since our world has changed (sugary food is abundantly available these days) but our brains remain the same.
This concept, called evolutionary mismatch, is one way for psychologists to study human behavior. “Our brains are wired for certain conditions, but our surroundings no longer match those conditions,” says Glenn Geher, professor of evolutionary psychology at the State University of New York, New Paltz. “In other words, we have stone-age brains in modern environments.”
While pursuing his PhD in social psychology, Geher realized how much evolution shows up in contemporary life. “A speaker presented in our class, and he was taking all these powerful evolutionary concepts and shedding light on issues of social psychology,” Geher says. “I really started seeing all human behavior from that point through the lens of evolutionary psychology.”
Geher now studies, teaches, and writes about evolutionary mismatch and its health implications.
I talked to Geher about how evolutionary mismatch comes up in modern society, how people can alter their behaviors for better health, and if our brains will ever catch up to the times.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Elemental: What is evolutionary mismatch for human beings?
Glenn Geher: Any organism evolves under certain conditions, and mismatch occurs when you have the organism outside of those conditions, especially for an extended period. When that’s the case, things don’t always work out well.
For example, zoos used to keep monkeys in little cages. But monkeys are primates like us — they’re social like we are, and they’ve evolved to have more space. When zookeepers realized monkeys don’t thrive in cages, they were thinking about the idea of evolutionary mismatch.