Adapted To Fail
How our evolutionary hardwiring cripples us in the modern world
There’s an interesting tension all nations face today. This tension exists whether or not a nation utilizes a system of representative democracy or is a totalitarian regime like those of China and Russia. This tension arises due to the mismatch between our evolved instincts and the modern world we’ve accidentally created.
Our brains are as much a product of evolution as our bodies. Just as physiology alters to deal with environmental pressures, so too does behavior. Although we adore all manner of fantasies ranging from invisible magical pixy gods to the logically incoherent notion of free will, the reality is that our beliefs regarding our own behaviors are equally ill-founded. Just as there are no invisible magical pixy gods and no free will, we have very limited ability to manage our behaviors. This is because during 99.99% of our evolutionary history there was no need to do so. Our behaviors worked, at least well enough on average, because they were adapted to the environments in which we spent our lives.
These environments — the African savanna and the primordial forests of Eurasia — were relatively static and presented relatively simply challenges. Most challenges our ancestors faced arose from the actions of other human beings, all of whom lived in small hunter-gatherer groups numbering no more than one hundred and fifty individuals, and often much less. There are two reasons we can be fairly confident about this group size. The first is that this is the size we have found when encountering formerly uncontacted tribes in remote rainforests (the Amazon, and in Borneo).
The second is that there’s a narrow range in which group size is stable relative to territory occupied. When there are very few group members (say 10) it is not possible to defend any territory against more numerous aggressors. There is a mathematical equation that plots population size to the circumference of area within which food is available. Too few people and the territory is indefensible; too many and there’s insufficient food for everyone and too large a perimeter to defend adequately.
So a minimum group size of around fifty adults is necessary to be able to hold one’s own against neighbors looking to poach some…