It feels good, it must be good.
July 27, 2012 1:11 PM   Subscribe

Further science/philosophical reading about human evolution and the woes of our modern life. Looking for suggestions, please!

I popped into a random Facebook thread, basically dealing with how our smartphones and the hyper-connectivity to instant information and socialization, also seem to bring a deep insulation to the user of the phone and their immediate environment. Example being someone mindlessly texting/looking for directions on a phone, while walking around a busy city block: They have insulated themselves to their immediate environment, to get information perhaps about.. their immediate environment, without having to also make social contact.

I began to realize that you could theorize that this type of behavior could be explained in an evolutionary sense: in the history of our species, individuals that were social, seem to have an advantage with survival. Thus, we all feel a natural inclination to be social - and smart phones (social networking, etc) allow us to not only be social, but HYPER social, to the point that its detrimental - but since we're all humans, with human brains attuned to a specific type of environment, (things too small or too big are hard for us to mentally understand), we don't see the detremental consequences of over-using this type of technology. In other words: it feels good to do it - really good, as well as natural, but there's causes that when you do it TOO MUCH, it's not good at all, but in fact, bad - almost as if it's an addiction.

Another example is fatty sugary food - how it's very yummy to eat a big piece of chocolate cake and I'll admit that left alone to my own devices, I'll eat an entire choco cake, if one was available. Again, you can view this in an evolutionary frame: a surplus of fatty/sugary foods back in the day (say, before even agriculture got started and hunting/gathering was derigueur) was a scarcity, so we've been tempered to not only crave these, but also get a nice little tap in the pleasure centers of our brains when we actually do get these things, with nothing in our systems to say, "hey YO stop! You're full!", because - hey! you don't know when the next time you're going to get such a treat. That's great and all, but now there is a surplus of such things and overeating and bad nutrition is an everyday thing for a lot of people: What used to be a evolutionary advantage is now working against ourselves.

I could go on - say the idea of being able to move - to travel and to go fast - to catch a meal or to get away from being a meal has an evolutionary advantage. Say, car ownership taps into this desire and evolutionary urge that says, "yes! Cars are good! Go FAST! FAR! Yes! Own a car" and on paper, cars are pretty incredible contraptions - except when there's a billion+ of them on the planet and you realize on that type of scale they're an environmental disaster, their means of production undermine workers, people seem to be buy models they really can't afford and their current fuel has countries fighting wars over and is also perhaps reached its peak of production. Again, even though it seemed like a great idea, gave us an amazing advantage, it may be a big undoing, since we're (in my opinion) overusing it, even though it feels natural to utilize this invention.

So, as you can see, I'm jumping around different topics and I am neither a scientist, nor a student of philosophy - but first, what's this type of theory called, and what are some accessible books written about it? It could be as main stream as Malcolm Gladwell, or slightly a different topic, like Laurence Gonzalez's book about survival, where he postulates that humans evolve to speed up entropy in the Universe. I'm most interested in more examples of similar things I'd laid out and perhaps the psychology of how a once-useful evolutionary trait now seems to be (in some people's opinion) our undoing, even though it seems right and natural to do it.

And, am I making sense?
posted by alex_skazat to Education (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite talks about how modern foods have been engineered to appeal to our craving for fat, sugar and salt.
posted by NotPayingAttention at 1:37 PM on July 27, 2012

You are totally making sense. Too much of a good thing can have the opposite affect. To summarize, f I may:

Humans are hardwired to eat fat and sugar. It helps them survive. Our modern society provides an overabundance of fat and sugar, leading to (physical) health issues, such as obesity.

Humans are hardwired to be connect with others. It helps them survive. Our modern society provides an overabundance of ways to connect with others, leading to (mental) health issues, such as isolation and depression.

There really should be a term for this, but even after three years of an anthropology PhD, I am not aware of one. The closest I can think of is that this is maladaptive behavior. Meaning, just because we have access to sugar and fat doesn't mean it is beneficial to consume as much as possible, and just because we can be connected with other people at all times doesn't mean it is beneficial to be that connected.
posted by peacrow at 2:05 PM on July 27, 2012

Well there's evolutionary psychology which is basically the study of how some human behaviors may have an evolutionary basis (see also human behavioral ecology).

(Not everyone likes EP)
posted by Wretch729 at 2:14 PM on July 27, 2012

We have evolved from hunter/gather society to farming and to industrialized and to.....?We dstill carry our past but we change in many respects...take Thoreau, for example. He questioned the need for so much of the social way of life but was a part of it, at times...then too your seem to focus upon a Western tradition whereas in the East, there were views more nearly individual focused, ie, Buddhism, Tao...but then too the world,now global, we see all that you point to as worldwide whereas formerly this was not so.
You can of course program your eating but then note that your concerns are expressed via The Net.
posted by Postroad at 2:21 PM on July 27, 2012

The whole "paleo" movement tries (with varying levels of success, depending on who you listen to) to use our knowledge about our environment of evolutionary adaptedness to improve health and wellness.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 2:27 PM on July 27, 2012

Response by poster: You can of course program your eating but then note that your concerns are expressed via The Net.

I'm not too worried about seeming hypocritical - I'm seeing an over-use/perhaps an abuse of say a Social Network, to the point that a person cannot seemingly live without it, in almost an addiction to this social network/always-connective/iPhone glued to their hands and implants in their thumbs. There's no real gain to have 1,000 fake friends on a social network, if you never go out and, I dunno, interact with these people outside of a glowing screen (and that's my opinion)

And, the same way as I can enjoy cake without having a problem with my weight or drastic malnutrition. Everything in Moderation - if we want to go the Eastern Philosophy route :)

The, "rub" seems to be, since that we're evolutionarily geared to want/need/desire something, and get an over abundance of the resource, that this actually becomes detrimental to us as a culture (say), even though our brains still are wired to tell us, "no this is a GOOD thing! Continue!" And that's not something you can turn off by mere habit. I use the word addiction, only because I don't know how else to describe it: A drug addict knows that taking the chemical does them harm, but they don't stop, because something is telling them to keep going. In Ishmael, it's described (if I remember) as being in a plane that's plummeting to the ground and not trying to right it (or was it, it's too late to even try?)

It seems like a very interesting topic, I'd love to read more about it.
posted by alex_skazat at 2:31 PM on July 27, 2012

Unfortunately, I can't give you a concrete answer, but perhaps I can point you in an interesting direction of inquiry:

Evolution does not seem "set up" for organisms to live a long and enjoyable life. Rather the contrary, actually: get them fit, produce even fitter offspring, raise offspring, die.

Not to anthropomorphize evolution, but how would it "see" an advantage in having rapidly declining segment of the population continue to exist? Eating tons of fat and sugar might kill someone by time his/her kids are adults, but, in a way, that could be a good thing for the species' fitness.

Relying too much on evolutionary theory as a signpost for how individuals should live their lives is really quite the bastardization of an otherwise important science.
posted by GnomeChompsky at 2:33 PM on July 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Not to anthropomorphize evolution, but how would it "see" an advantage in having rapidly declining segment of the population continue to exist? Eating tons of fat and sugar might kill someone by time his/her kids are adults, but, in a way, that could be a good thing for the species' fitness.

Again, my apologies if I'm not clear - I really feel I rambled in my initial post. What I'm most interested is in the individual and what they feel is a correct response to their wants/needs/desires, perhaps those that are seen as traits brought upon by changes to advance as a species. Even though, these wants/needs/desires don't align perfectly with the Here and Now. It's almost as if we've far-outstripped them. We feel good about doing bad things, knowing they're bad, but, "'eh, wanna-gonna-do?!", uh, feeling.

Not to be too autobiographical - but as someone that doesn't drive a car, I find it, mad, (Mad! I tell you!) that anyone around me does, as the negatives of car ownership are fairly obvious, although I perfectly understand the desire of wanting a car, of wanting to by 60 miles away from where I am in an hour's time. My personal reasons may be because of environmental topics (pollution, etc), but living in Paris, lots of people thought car ownership was crazy, for more practical reasons (parking! navigating!) although people still bought cars in Paris. It all seems irrational to me.

To broaden this, I think people who, uh, think all have these types of well, opinions and you could frame a lot of people's beliefs in them. What a large part of the population does seems outlandishly crazy to say, a minority and that minority has really good reasons to believe so, even though it may go against so basic primal instincts. To use as an example that's far and away from myself: the topic of Sex before marriage, or just procreation beliefs in general.

Is there a good book on Evolutionary Science that a moron Art School grad (moi) could read, so as not to use its principles in a bastardized way? I mean, I can buuuuuullshit my way out of a prison cell, but when I develop a project, I want to have a good foundation and not be, you know, that Artist.
posted by alex_skazat at 3:12 PM on July 27, 2012

Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Dennett is an interesting examination of natural selection and its effect on human society. The Moral Animal by Wright also takes a nice look at evolutionary psychology. Both should be accessible to non-sciency types.
posted by GnomeChompsky at 3:26 PM on July 27, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, GnomeChompsky, I'll check those out,
posted by alex_skazat at 4:14 PM on July 27, 2012

David Abram and his essays at the Alliance for Wild Ethics website may interest you.
posted by bukvich at 6:04 PM on July 27, 2012

An oldy but a goody to help you avoid horribly abusing the science of evolutionary biology when applying it to human beings (as evolutionary psychology generally does) is Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:19 PM on July 27, 2012

Hi - I identify with what you are talking about ... maybe this not exactly the same subject but in the same ballpark - Isn't it interesting with the advance of technology, that companies now build stuff to break within a certain period of time? Like your cellphone will probably last 3 years at the longest. The flat screen tvs are breaking within 5 years. People are buying so much electronic stuff, they are manufacturing it all with cheap parts so it breaks faster and causes more toxic garbage. I've heard it is called Failure Mode Effect Analysis.

And what about the indecision of which electronic device to use? I want to listen to some music - should i listen on my phone, my computer, my ipad, my analog stereo (!), my tv?
posted by Taboose at 8:16 PM on July 27, 2012

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