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