Evolutionary Mismatch

On my son's first day of kindergarten, he was directed to a large carpet of colored squares where children squat, kneeled, sat crisscross, and wiggled while the teacher surveyed from above in her static chair. The teacher then taught their first lesson: stay in your square, sit on your bottom, and don't talk to your neighbor. She was preparing their bodies and minds for the 12 plus (60?) years ahead of desks and chairs. 

Although this may seem like a rational approach to manage a class of 26 wiggling 5 year olds, our ancient brains and bodies are not designed to sit for hours on end. As evolution scientists describe here, our genetic evolution has not caught up to our relatively rapid cultural evolution. For example, energy conservation, which was once genetically advantageous, is now deadly. Downstream effects of sitting include Type II diabetes, heart disease, and cancer

Biomechanist Katie Bowman argues that physical disorders are in part "diseases of captivity." In his most recent work, ACT co-founder Dr. Kelly Wilson builds upon this idea to assert that the "evolutionary mismatch" also applies to our psychological health. Drawing from evolution science, animal models of illness, genetics, and epigenetics, Dr. Wilson asserts that psychological disorders are in part due to our environment not matching our biological genome.

Katie Bowman's Diseases of Captivity

When species are constrained in environments that do not match their genetic adaptations, they get sick. For example:

-Orca whales in captivity have collapsed dorsal fins. Whale's fins need the water pressure from diving deep to stay erect.

-10% of parrots raised in captivity chew, bite and pluck their feathers in behavioral pattern that is similar to trichotillomania in humans.

-Cattle raised on corn (as opposed to grass fed) have disrupted digestive systems (rumen) that impair their immune systems and require antibiotics to sustain health.

Evolutionary Mismatch in Humans

Humans, like other species are suffering from the consequences of mismatch between our genome and our environment. For example:

FOOD MISMATCH: Our bodies are not designed to eat the standard Western diet. When we eat a McDonald's breakfast (a meal full of refined carbohydrates) our gut bacteria releases endotoxin, which triggers a cascade of inflammatory responses that contribute to the development of metabolic syndrome, obesity and diabetes.

SLEEP MISMATCH: Our bodies are also not designed to thrive on 5 hours sleep a night. Human brains sweep themselves clean of toxins during sleep. Not getting enough sleep is associated with higher mortality, obesity, ADHD, depression, and numerous other serious medical and mental health conditions.

SOCIAL NETWORK MISMATCH: Our brains are not designed to compare our lives to others 24 hours day. Amount of time spent on Facebook is associated with depression symptoms and social comparison mediates this relationship.

MOVEMENT MISMATCH: Finally, our bodies are not designed to lounge on soft couches (while not sleeping and comparing ourselves to others). Low physical activity during leasure time results in quicker cell aging as measured by telomer length.





Kelly Wilson believes that "8 Practices for a Life Well Lived" will align us better with our genome and in turn lead to greater psychological and physical health. As he stated in his workshop at the ACBS World Conference, "everything interacts with everything" and "small things matter."

  1. Eat Real food
  2. Move your body
  3. Get Real Sleep
  4. Practice Self Compassion
  5. Practice Meaningful Acts
  6. Cultivate Social Network
  7. Practice Mindfulness
  8. Reduce Toxins

Following Kelly Wilson's lead, I find myself asking, "Am I tending to my body and brain in a way that matches my genome?" What practices above need more cultivation? I'm going to start with squatting, ditching my chair, and talking a bit more to my neighbors.