Are we too smart for our genes? Have we used our brains to remove ourselves too far from variances in food supply and weather resulting in suboptimal gene expression?
asked byEric_12 (20378)
Get FREE instant access to our Paleo For Beginners Guide & 15 FREE Recipes!
on March 09, 2012
at 12:00 PM
Hey there Eric!
Well, it is true that we almost out-evolved nature - there is no species like us on Earth (well, that we know of - and I doubt they'll find human-level intelligent fish in the mariana trench anytime) - and even though we are not the top of the food chain and relatively vulnerable physically, our brains are way superior. The fact that we evolved to be, what one could call, 'civilised', seems to conflict with natural physiological survival advantage: our relatively big brains make the birthing process a lot more complex and difficult, to the extent that we need to employ the help of midwives; our relative hairlessness also leaves us more exposed to the elements; our brains, which allow us to reason in terms of not just survival and utility but also compassion and morality to a very large extent means that we are prone to putting ourselves at risk by overriding natural fight-or-flight responses (hence, we have martyrs who willingly died - gave up their ability to pass on genes - for a moral/philosophical cause).
However, these things are countered by the use of our brains: we acknowledge the risk of death on much more than just an instinctual level; we make clothes to compensate for our lack of hair; we build houses, we have education systems that make use of comparative advantages in human capabilities to create proffessionals, such as doctors, who can deal most efficiently with problems we face. Everything in nature strives to acquire homeostasis - a balance to make as much use of advantages and suffer minimal harm from negative aspects. The fact that we have evolved beyond other animals probably accounts for the fact that we live way past our reproductive and parenting age. Some animals (such as many types of fish,), die right after giving birth, since they did not evolve to care for their offspring (they typically also have a huge amount of offspring); some die after their offspring is mature enough to fend for itself. Humans have evolved to maximise life quality and duration regardless of reproductive cycles (though it can be noted that some cultures used to cast off the elderly and sick as burdens, similarly to animal groups such as lion prides - this is now stigmatised, but thats purely a result of moral and ethical values humans have, that have developed to become more dominant over time).
In a natural environment - if we had not evolved as much as we have - would we have been able to survive and live for as long as we can now? Life in the wild is a struggle for survival - life indeed, as Hobbes put it, could be "Nasty, Brutish and Short". And moving so far forward, so far away from this state of nature, we have become more complacent. As I mentioned before, we have utilised the theory of comparative advantage - primarily for efficiency - to the extent that we, each of us, are proficient in isolated spheres of knowledge and skill - some of us are doctors, some scientists - some proficient in things that could probably be of no use at all out in the wild.
So, unless you're an expert in survival, or have had a particular experience, or have grown up in a less urbanised environment, you wouldn't last long if you got dropped in the jungle. So for peoples who have grown accustomed to (I won't say evolved, since the industrial revolution is still too short a time away to call it so) urbanised environments, there really is no turning back. And because these manmade structures are so vulnerable - a human is less than a speck of dust compared to the forces of nature and the universe - you could argue that we have, to some extent, made ourselves more vulnerable.
Though this is probably as much a philosophical question as it is a scientific one. Our large brains allow us to feel invincible, and somewhat arrogant. A mass ecological catastrophe would probably be just as destructive to a people living in more traditional, natural conditions, as to us, living in a manmade world far removed from nature - but we will probably percieve it much more dramatic since it will destroy all the things we made, the things we put so much faith in. Through the use of our brains, we have constructed a 'world' outside of nature, and we have learned practices that are harmful to us (isolating ingredients, food processing, pollution, drugs, stimulants, etc...).
So, does that mean we are too smart for our genes? Not at all; on the contrary, we are less smart than we want to think we are, for the universe we live in (of which our little DNA helix is an inseparable part of). We are arrogant enough to think that what we have learnt in this short space of time through a virtuous cycle of progressive individuals (Newton, Einstein), technology and even our ability to use luck and chance - is enough to recklessly manipulate nature (a great example of this - this is paleohacks after all - is how we decided that saturated fat is the devil, and binged on artificially extracted sugar instead. We know where that got us.) This is despite the fact that those very progressive individuals continually stressed that there is much still undiscovered and that we are still as far from reaching reality as we ever were, and that it is probable that a teleological view of history is flawed, and that we will never hit an 'end' where we will experience an enlightenment and a God-like knowledge of absolutely everything. However, these words often fell on deaf ears, and 'laws' and 'facts' and conclusions of studies became things we saw as being set in stone.
You could also look at it from a counterfactual perspective. Say you could wind back time, and then restart it (2012. Good time to do it.) Would everything happen the same way? Would we evolve to use our brains the same way we do now, or would we end up with a different world structure? Or, would we evolve at all? I think chance and circumstance create a massive subset of alternative scenarios that could have happened. Quantum scientists have even looked into this as part of alternative universes/'tears in the space-time continuum' theories.
And here's a great example of arrogance. Here I am, trying to explain the world.
This is a very, very interesting, and deep question, and there definitely isn't a single definitive answer. But there's my opinion for you.
Lots of love
on March 09, 2012
at 07:50 AM
Pretty sure i'm not. I once tried to cook a lamb chop in the toaster.
on March 09, 2012
at 02:18 PM
On the individual scale? Yes. The abuse of brain pathways for sheer pleasure or indulgence rather than their original biological imperative has passed the tipping point to dysfunction. We're mostly concerned here with food, but it applies to other drugs, sex, indeed any number of risk-taking activities. Our brains drive us to do things which are no longer the best move for our species, but we justify it because it is what we understand being human to be. Of course, on another level you could argue that the problem is that we're not as smart as we think we are. In trying to manipulate our environment for flawed reasons without full understanding we have time and again been humbled by the animalistic nature of our brains and our place in the natural order. Our subconscious may be too smart for our own good in trying to create a safe land of plenty, but consciously we're far too dumb to claim credit for outgorwing our genes.
Genes are about more than individuals though, and in the fight for survival it may be that the obesity epidemic is just part of the price of progress as we seek to learn more. The rise and fall of civilizations is not really any different to any other cyclical population pattern. However I suspect the more important question is whether we will take a step back to live more in harmony with our bodily restraints or make the next step forward into the digital age and leave our genes behind entirely. After that, all bets are off.
on March 09, 2012
at 12:51 PM
There is more microbial genetic material in the human body than human genetic material. I maintain (somewhat in jest) that we are being crowdsourced by bacteria, and the question we should be asking ourselves is what's in it for them when we do ourselves harm like that? Collective intelligence is a tough thing for us humans to get our litle minds wrapped around. Maybe it's not all about us, after all. :)