Evolutionary history

For a long time it was conventional wisdom that the earth was flat. It was also accepted that we were put on earth by God. Along came this old chap and shook things up a little with one theory - the theory of evolution.

  Strong beard!

 

Strong beard!

Charles Darwin's theory, was that all species came from simple forms of life. Through natural selection and billions of years, simple organisms evolved into complex organisms like us. Thanks to the guys at Evoboek we can see what that looks like in one minute:

Individual species developed characteristics which gave them an advantage in specific environments. This advantage meant they were more likely to survive and reproduce. Successfully passing on their genes.

As homo sapiens we are thought to be the only species aware of our own destiny. Knowing that one day we will die gives us a sense of urgency to create in the world. We are a very young species in the grand history of our planet and our rise to glory has been swift. To give you an idea of how young we are, try the following:

Stretch out your arms horizontally. The finger tips of you left hand represents the beginning of earth. The finger tips of your right hand represents today.

Now imagine taking a nail file to your right index fingernail.

Figuratively, you have just wiped out the history of mankind! 

Here's another way of looking at it:

Click on me and I get bigger!

Homo sapiens are approximately 200,000 years old. Now take a quick look at the age of the Panthera genus - the big cat family (tiger, lion, jaguar, leopard), 2.0-3.8 millions years old. Now that's pretty old, but the Panthera  genus branched off from the subfamily Felinae between 6-10 million years ago!  Then take a look at the Crocodilia  genus, first appearing around 83.5 million years ago! Our planetary domination seems a little rude when you look at it this way.

3.8 billion years ago biology and the emergence of the first organisms began. The homo genus first appeared around 2.5 million years ago. 500,000 years later early hominids began to spread from Africa to Eurasia.  300,000 years ago humans started using fire on a daily basis. And only 12,000 years ago saw the start of the agricultural revolution. 

Agricultural revolution

A tipping point

Since the advent of the agricultural revolution, our lives have changed beyond recognition. The surface of the earth has changed dramatically in recent years. I've been lucky enough to fly around the world a few times. It's hard not to notice the patchwork appearance that agriculture has left on the planet. 

Farming crops and animals meant we no longer needed to chase after our dinner. As soon as we stopped living a nomadic life we began to build settlements. Here larger societies developed as did our cognitive abilities. We developed language, music, literature, money, empires, and technology.

In the last 50 years our technological advances have made our lives very comfortable. Food scientists have created food that light up the reward centres in our brain. Whilst at the same time causing inflammation, allergies and disease. 

Unfortunately, we are now paying the price of all this development. Our evolution has made us excellent survivors. Living the good life, separate from nature, has caused our survivor genes to switch off. We are becoming a little too soft, in more ways than one! Our lifestyles are making a lot of us fat, sick and very tired. To make things somewhat worse, our medical developments are keeping us alive for longer, without good health. 

Some thought leaders say that humans have become domesticated and this is the cause of our problems. So do we all need to return to nature? I don't think so, but we do need to focus our intelligence on better health.

The way to turn this around is to focus on four distinct areas:

  1. We need to eat more nutrient dense food
  2. We need to move our bodies more
  3. We need to be happier with our lives and
  4. We need to sleep more, rest more and enjoy sex more!

I have narrowed these four areas into thinking, eating and moving. Thinking comes first because it's the lead domino. If we get our thinking right, I know the rest will fall into place. Attitude is everything so scroll down to learn about evolutionary thinking.

Evolution of our brain

Our brains are made up of three distinct parts:

  1. The brain stem, or reptilian brain - it keeps us alive.
  2. The limbic system, or mammalian brain - governs our emotions as well as our freeze, fight or flight mechanism.
  3. And the neocortex, or thinking brain - thinks logically, solves problems and plans for the future. 

The reptilian brain is the oldest and over millennia the mammalian and human brain have developed. The older the brain the more power it has to dominate our behaviour. For example breathing and keeping our hearts beating is so important to our survival we cannot switch them off! 

Our brain is hard wired to make sure we stay alive long enough to mate and pass on our genes. That is it. Everything we do is done to keep us alive. This can often appear as unwanted and illogical behaviour.

The development of our Mind

The mind is shaped by our genes and our environment. Events that take place in our childhood can dominate our view of reality in a powerful way. I am the first to recognise the power of genes to influence our life but I also want to believe that all babies are born innocent. Life's experiences shape people into bad decision makers.

If you grow up in a family of wrong doers, all their behaviours can be normalised. It's easy to cast judgement on other humans for their actions but impossible to understand from our contrasting upbringing.

Social conditioning also has great power over our behaviour. It 's a romantic thought to think we would do something different in another's shoes but scientific studies say otherwise. We have deep seated herding instincts. For thousands of years religion was used excellently to give us a moral backbone but also to justify war and persecution!

Humans do not like to rock the boat, we like to go along with the crowd. When we lived in small tribes, we all relied on each other for our survival. Rocking the boat risked being cast out of your tribe. Not the best way to way to ensure survival.

so what?

I will forgive you for thinking what the hell has this got to do with health? But our drive to survive often undermines our desire to be healthy. The part of our brain that plans a new diet is the thinking brain (neocortex). The youngest and therefore the weakest brain. We all want to look good on the beach this summer but if we cut our calories too much our reptilian and mammalian brains step in. They take control of the vehicle, driving you straight to the fridge and the ice cream tub!

Keep scrolling down to understand why we are driven to the ice cream tub!

Evolutionary eating

Take a moment to picture a clock face, this clock represents our history - the history of homo sapiens. Starting at 12, is the birth of homo sapiens, approximately 200,000 years ago. As the hour hand moves round, it eventually arrives at 11 o'clock. This is the beginning of the agriculture revolution, 10- 12,000 years ago. If we now focus on the second hand, a mere five seconds before twelve, we see the beginning of the sugar industry!

  Thanks to Professor Tim Noakes for the clock face analogy.

 

Thanks to Professor Tim Noakes for the clock face analogy.

“Our physiology is not adapted to handle highly processed, sugar laden food. Especially when we are inactive.”

It took millions of years to evolve from apes to humans. It is has taken less than 50 years to turn us into a species dominated by sickness and disease. Our diet is a major driver of disease. Our standard diets are high in calories, low in nutrients. And the way the majority of us, eat is nothing like our ancestors.

We have spent almost all of our evolutionary history as hunter gatherers, scavengers and foragers. Not supermarket sweepers! We evolved to survive when food was scarce but today food is never more than an arms length away.

Our long lost cousins!

Our long lost cousins!

Don't get me wrong I love food, but we are all eating too much of the wrong food, me included! We also don't have to work for a meal anymore. There's no need to expend calories to gain calories which adds to our dilemma.

We no longer eat seasonally thanks to international trade and greenhouses. We eat fruit all year round instead of once a year. And the fruit and vegetables have changed just as much.

The fruits and vegetables of today, have gone through thousands of years of artificial selection. Farmers have selected strains that yield bigger, juicier and sweeter varieties. In nature fruit and vegetables contain a lot more fibre to sugar. Eating fruit and vegetables with higher sugar to fibre ratios has an impact on our physiology.

Don't worry, it's not all that bad, we are still in control of our own destiny. Even though sweet temptations are around every corner, we still in charge. If we make the right food choices and eat in accordance with our biology, it is possible to live longer, healthier lives.

Continue the story below and learn why exercise is the final part of the trilogy.

exercising

Our bodies evolved over millions of years with daily activity. Walking long distances, hard manual labour and strenuous hunting were the norm. Today, if we want to get the best from our body and mind then we need to make sure we are moving, not sitting.

At university I studied exercise physiology and epidemiology - the science that studies the patterns, causes and effects of health and disease conditions. Daily walking and weight bearing exercise positively impacts all major diseases. There is no mistaking the evidence - exercise helps to prevent and treat disease.

So why are we not exercising more?

During times of hardship, lack of food and difficult winters, we evolved to conserve energy. Wasting energy could cost us our lives, so learning to preserve it became an advantage. Especially for homo sapiens living in colder climates. Sitting around and 'chill-axing' became an evolutionary skill. Once again our drive to survive is no longer serving to keep us healthy.

  The seven deadly sins: wrath, greed, SLOTH, pride, lust, envy and gluttony.

 

The seven deadly sins: wrath, greed, SLOTH, pride, lust, envy and gluttony.

Our tendency to preserve energy and our enjoyment of comfort is why we are addicted to our labour saving devices. But there is another reason why we aren't moving enough. Unfortunately you will have to permit me a little rant. A rant at the current state of our society.

I think it's cruel to lock up animals in cages. Animals are also designed to roam large distances, interacting in complex ecosystems. I look at the meat industry and shudder at the thought of factory farming techniques. Keeping animals locked up in cramped cages all their lives, not once seeing the light of day, seems a little shitty.  

Then I think of our schooling system. Children are born supple and full of potential. Yet from a young age, our children are forced to sit down all day in small classrooms.

The thought of ever having another desk job makes me recoil. I worked in an office once, it didn't last long.

Our society has evolved to encourage inactivity not activity and by association, disease and not health!

 

A MUSCLE

A MUSCLE

A SPONGE

A SPONGE

Why does moving your body keep you healthy?

When our body is exercised our muscles are like a sponge to energy. Remember the priority is always survival. For millions of years, humans weren't top dog! We roamed the savannas, trying to avoid big cats and other predators. In order to survive we developed an ability to always be primed for 10 seconds of furious fight or flight.  

When muscles are exercised they take priority over any energy the body consumes. Storing energy as fat is a secondary thought when it comes to survival. Our first priority is topping up our muscles with energy so if we need to run a marathon to avoid becoming someone's dinner - we can.

Our sedentary lifestyles and fondness for energy rich foods, make our muscles saturated with energy. This leaves energy to float around the body looking for a place to stay. When there's no room in the 'muscle inn' the fat cells always have a room. If food is plentiful and we are well rested, our body stores energy for another day when food might not be so available.


We are primed to adapt

The good news is that the human body is primed to adapt to its environment. We have collected over 20,000 different genes over millions of years. These genes came from a time when life wasn't so comfortable. 

Our genes don't dictate our destiny. They can be switched on and off by environmental triggers. A relatively new scientific phenomenon called epigenetics.

Nobody is born fat or destined to be fat. Some of us might have genes that make getting fat easy (an evolutionary advantage). But we all have genes that will favour strength and health if we manipulate our environment in the right way. But if our lives are too comfortable our hardy genes that keep us healthy are switched off. 

We were born to perform incredible feats of strength and endurance. But only if there is a need to. Necessity is the mother of all invention!

We can think of ourselves as a plant. We will grow within the limits of our pot. If we want to grow bigger we have to plant ourselves in a bigger pot. We have to create some healthy stress so our bodies grow strong and vibrant.


Evolutionary Thinking Eating and Exercising

This is just the beginning of the trilogy. Each month I will curate more and more content to help you understand how to be healthy in the 21st century. The only way to achieve health and happiness is to understand our biology and psychology or as Harvard professor and New York Times best selling author, Daniel Lieberman put it:

Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

 

And now what... 

From here, you have a few options...

  • You can use the links below to explore my latest content on my blog
  • You can watch some of my videos on my YouTube channel
  • Or you can read the EVO•TEE blueprints; three articles that summarise almost everything I know about how to be healthy and happy.