Image credit: James Hart, pickcomfort.com 

A critical moment in the life of a sea turtle is when it hatches from its egg, digs its way to the surface of the beach, and makes its way to the sea. How does it know which direction to head? Countless generations of natural selection have endowed it with an attraction toward light, since the sea surface reliably reflects more light than the interior of an island. Until the construction of beach houses and streetlights, which cause baby sea turtles to make the fatal decision of heading in the wrong direction.

This is an example of evolutionary mismatch—a disconnect between an organism’s adaptations to past environments and its current environment. Mismatches are an inevitable consequence of evolution in changing environments, but some mismatches call for preventative measures to preserve what we value. If we value sea turtles, for example, then it is up to us to solve the mismatch that we created; for example by organizing brigades of volunteers to pick up baby sea turtles and carry them to the sea, by observing blackouts during hatching season, and so on.

Evolutionary mismatches are all around us, once we know how to look for them. Our impact on the natural environment, which has recently been dubbed the Anthropocene, creates countless mismatches for other species. In addition, we have been creating mismatches for ourselves ever since we started to change our environments in an autocatalytic spiral from hunter-gatherer groups to the mega-societies of today.

TVOL is pleased to initiate an exploration of evolutionary mismatch with a collection of short commentaries by thought leaders on the subject. The instructions that we posed to them was: Describe an example of evolutionary mismatch that calls for preventative measures to preserve what we value, such as our personal health, the wellbeing of society, or the wellbeing of the natural world. Be sure to include a discussion of what can be done about your example of mismatch. Since mismatches result from any evolutionary process, feel free to choose an example of genetic or cultural mismatch, as you see fit.

The last sentence of our instructions is a bit subtle. As a rapid process of adaptation, cultural evolution provides solutions to genetic mismatches, such as warm clothing in cold climates. Nevertheless, cultural evolution can have its own mismatches, such as religions that preach dominion over the earth when more sustainable practices are called for. If there is more to evolution than genetic evolution, then there is more to mismatch than genetic mismatch.

The commentaries will be followed by articles and interviews that provide deeper dives into the many facets of evolutionary mismatch. It would be hard to imagine a more important topic for understanding and improving the human and planetary condition.

Read the full Evolutionary Mismatch series:

  1. Introduction: Evolutionary Mismatch and What To Do About It by David Sloan Wilson
  2. Functional Frivolity: The Evolution and Development of the Human Brain Through Play by Aaron Blaisdell
  3. A Mother’s Mismatch: Why Cancer Has Deep Evolutionary Roots by Amy M. Boddy
  4. It’s Time To See the Light (Another Example of Evolutionary Mismatch) by Dan Pardi
  5. Generating Testable Hypotheses of Evolutionary Mismatch by Sudhindra Rao
  6. (Mis-) Communication in Medicine: A Preventive Way for Doctors to Preserve Effective Communication in Technologically-Evolved Healthcare Environments by Brent C. Pottenger
  7. The Darwinian Causes of Mental Illness by Eirik Garnas
  8. Is Cancer a Disease of Civilization? by Athena Aktipis
  9. The Potential Evolutionary Mismatches of Germicidal Ambient Lighting by Marcel Harmon
  10. Do We Sleep Better Than Our Ancestors? How Natural Selection and Modern Life Have Shaped Human Sleep by Charles Nunn and David Samson
  11. The Future of the Ancestral Health Movement by Hamilton M. Stapell
  12. Humans: Smart Enough to Create Processed Foods, Daft Enough to Eat Them by Ian Spreadbury
  13. Mismatch Between Our Biologically Evolved Educative Instincts and Culturally Evolved Schools by Peter Gray
  14. How to Eliminate Going to the Dentist by John Sorrentino
  15. Public Health and Evolutionary Mismatch: The Tragedy of Unnecessary Suffering and Death by George Diggs
  16. Is Shame a Bug or a Feature? An Applied Evolutionary Approach by Nando Pelusi
  17. The “Benefits,” Risks, and Costs of Routine Infant Circumcision by Stephanie Welch
  18. An Evolutionary Perspective on the Real Problem with Increased Screen Time by Glenn Geher
  19. Did Paleolithic People Suffer From Kidney Disease? by Lynda Frassetto
  20. The Physical Activity Mismatch: Can Evolutionary Perspectives Inform Exercise Recommendations? by James Steele

Published On: February 22, 2019

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is president of Prosocial World and SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, through Prosocial World and in his own research and writing.  A complete archive of his work is available at www.David SloanWilson.world. His most recent books include his first novel, Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III, and a memoir, A Life Informed by Evolution.

Anthony J. Basile

Anthony J. Basile

Anthony J. Basile is a second-year graduate student in the Evolutionary Biology Ph.D. program at Arizona State University, where he currently studies evolutionary medicine. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics, Food, and Nutrition from City University of New York, Lehman College and a Master of Science in Human Nutrition from Columbia University Medical Center. He also holds a Nutrition and Dietetic Technician, Registered (NDTR) accreditation from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Anthony firmly believes that an evolutionary perspective can greatly benefit the field of nutrition and dietetics.

J. Brett Smith

J. Brett Smith

With degrees in biology and philosophy from the University of Alabama, Brett worked for a decade as an aquatic biologist with the Geological Survey of Alabama. While working long but enjoyable hours in the field, he maintained an interest in personal health and kept abreast of major developments in the nascent field of Darwinian medicine, longing for a career in this exciting new discipline.

In 2012, he reversed the beginnings of metabolic syndrome with the help of evolutionarily-informed diet and lifestyle modifications, and Darwinism leaped off the page and into his bloodstream. 

Brett is now a doctoral student at the State University of New York-Binghamton and studies under the well-known evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, where he hopes to continue work in collaboration with the pioneering evolutionary theorist and experimentalist of aging Michael Rose, linking evolutionary mismatch to the aging process itself.


  • Mark Shanks says:

    Seems like you guys need to come up with some improved terminology. An evolutionary mismatch can be either good or bad – so what to do about it depends very much on whether it is considered to be good or bad.

    • Peter Follett says:

      Perhaps “good or bad” depends on the perspective of those experiencing the phenomenon. One event may, at least in a short time frame, be more favourable for one species and less so for another species. The street light example above seems to be one of those. In the same way, an event may be highly favourable for one person, or segment of society, and very bad for another. Consider the effects of a forest fire on the livelihoods of, say, the owners of a burned-out factory and the effects on a local builder’s livelihood. At an economic scale, reflect on how GDP is just a measure of economic activity and the effects of natural disasters are to increase GDP, which is considered to be good.
      It strikes me that perspective is more important here than terminology.

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