cavemenEvolutionary health and fitness is a science-based methodology for increasing wellness using evidence derived from the study of human evolution.

Despite the fact that only around 16% of Americans believe that humans evolved over the course of a million years into their present state, the theory of evolution remains the cornerstone of modern biological science. [1] Much like how the Big Bang theory or the Continental Drift model are unifying ideas for the fields of cosmology and geology respectively, evolution is the central thesis through which all other biological concepts are compared against.

The renowned Russian geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Why is evolution important for understanding the health of modern humans?

One of the basic tenets of evolutionary theory is that organisms inherit various traits, each of which may be beneficial or detrimental to the survival of the organism depending on prevailing conditions of its environment. If the traits are useful, the organism is more likely to reproduce and pass on those traits to its offspring. Assuming that the organism remains in the same environment, over time its offspring will become increasingly better adapted to surviving and attaining optimal health within that habitat.

Over several hundred thousand years, Homo sapiens became adapted to achieving optimal health in the various habitats that they lived in during the paleolithic era. While there was some variability due to different climates and food resources available, the robust and adaptive nature of the species allowed humans to spread over much of the world.

Despite this adaptability, there was still nutritional and physical preconditions which the paleolithic human body expected of its environment. These would be things like the prevalence of unprocessed food, abundance of complete proteins from meat, sporadic yet intense physical exertion, and generally active daytime lives.

One does not need to look very hard at the lives that most modern humans live to discover that we have strayed far from the expectations that our genome has of our environment. Indeed, many people might fail to achieve any of the items found in the list I just provided. In not doing so, one could say that modern humans experience something described as “phylogenetic maladjustment”. [2]

According to this principle, if the conditions of life of an animal deviate from those which prevailed in the environment in which the species evolved, the likelihood is that the animal will be less well suited to the new conditions than to those to which it has become genetically adapted through natural selection and consequently some signs of maladjustment may be anticipated.

Haven’t humans adapted to living in agriculture-based societies by now?

It is likely that some level of adaptation to agriculture has been happening since it’s inception, though the prevalence of “diseases of civilization” would suggest that humans have not fully adapted to this changed environment. Although some scientists like John Hawks contend that human evolution has accelerated following the conclusion of the paleolithic era [3], in general adaptation is a very long term process spanning hundreds of thousands of years, far more than the 10,000 years since humans changed to an agricultural lifestyle.

We can form this conclusion by examining the health of indigenous populations of hunter-gatherers which still persist, and observing that they exhibit remarkably high levels of health and adaptation to their environments. Further, as westernization continues, these same populations start to contract the same types of diseases which plague more developed societies, like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

How can we use this information to increase our health and wellness?

Using the information we know of our paleolithic ancestors and other various traditional cultures, we can reshape our modern lifestyle so that it mimics or facilitates the nutritional and physical expectations of our bodies. We can do this by experimenting with dietary models like the paleo diet, or with a natural movement oriented exercise program.

While it would be ludicrous to expect modern civilization to revert to a hunter-gatherer existence for the sake of good health, we can hope that advances in technology will afford us the ability to devote more time and effort towards recapturing some of our human evolutionary heritage.

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4 Responses to What is Evolutionary Health and Fitness?

  1. Cheryl White says:

    You know whenever I discuss the down-trend in health after the advent of agriculture I hear that argument all the time that “we’ve adapted in the last 10,000 years” and yet I have seen no evidence to support that statement. If anything every statistic concerning CVD, diabetes, obesity, auto-immune diseases, etc. seems to be screaming that we most certainly have NOT adapted. Between man eating foods that he didn’t evolve eating and man meddling with the nature of food via genetic modification (which should scare the hell out of anyone) it’s a wonder we’re not all sicker than we are.

    This was another wonderful post, David. You’re always very clear and concise. One of these days I’m going to learn how to do that. Ok, I couldn’t even finish that sentence without laughing. Like I could ever NOT ramble! LOL

  2. Joseph Dabon says:

    This makes things even more confusing. Prehistoric men ate raw while modern man eat processed food. If the former is better than the latter, why do modern men live longer than prehistoric men?

    • Cheryl White says:

      I’d hazard a guess that it has something to do with the fact that hunting and gathering in the paleolithic was far more dangerous than driving to the grocery store or the farmer’s market. Add modern medicine to the mix and of course we’re going to live longer. The big difference is we are generally not as strong, healthy, or as vibrant as our paleolithic ancestors. We can live to be 100 but if we are eating processed crap those last couple of decades are going to be hell. And for those of us with a genetic predisposition for having a more severe reaction to those refined foods, our lives are going to be much shorter and much more painful regardless of medical intervention.

      • David Csonka says:

        Excellent points Cheryl, and to further add to your examples – it is a common misconception that hunter-gatherers lived short brutish lives.

        This misconception is born out of the practicing of taking the known ages for various individuals of hunter-gatherer populations and calculating the mean life span – coming to something around 40 years.

        This however is not an accurate representation of the normal life expectancy of hunter-gatherers since you aren’t taking into account the higher rate of infant mortality. If you have a population of 10 people where half die at age 1 and half live to be 60, the average life span would be 30 years. Not very representative of what people actually experienced in that sample, is it?