The Evolutionary Health Principle

Stephen Boyden wrote about the evolutionary health principle in his seminal 1973 article Evolution and Health. Back in 1973 he called it the principle of phylogenetic maladjustment and he has drawn on it more recently as a foundation for his proposals for a biosensitive society. His definition of the principle is:

The principle that if an animal or plant is removed from its natural habitat, or if the environment changes in some significant way, it is likely that it will be less well adapted to the new conditions, and will consequently show some signs of physiological or behavioural maladjustment. This principle applies to all species including Homo sapiens. [6]

Boyden goes on to say that:

Humans today are biologically the same animal as their ancestors who lived long before the advent of farming – that is, an animal genetically adapted through natural selection to the life of hunter-gatherers. This fact has important implications for our understanding of ourselves and the challenges that face us in the modern world. [1]

The principle illustrated with non-human animals

As children, most of us captured insects, amphibians or small reptiles from the wild and attempted to keep them as pets. They rarely lived long in the glass jar or other container we used. They had been transplanted from their natural habitat and were unable to adapt to the new conditions we imposed upon them. Larger mammals in zoos such as bears or the big cats are renowned for their impatient, ceaseless pacing behaviour and for other signs of maladjustment to their new artificial environment. Whenever certain species give birth in captivity, the event is reported around the world because of its novelty (for example an elephant, a panda). The animals' captive environment fails to replicate adequately their life in the wild and the animals cannot adapt to their artificial environment to the extent that they often fail to undertake their most basic function: reproduction. This failure is the equivalent of a slow, quiet suicide.

The principle applied to human animals

We turn now to humans. We can see why Erwan le Torre has deprecated 'zoo humans' and the culture that is producing them (and that they produce). What Erwan does not tell us is that zoo humans are willing captives; they kiss the chains of their debilitating environment, becoming more fearful as the years pass of making the changes needed to regain their natural selves the selves they were when they were born. Many affect to despise their hunter-gatherer inheritance, but this appears to be an exercise in cognitive dissonance (a) to protect their self esteem by rationalizing their present situations and the decisions and choices that brought them there, and (b) to confirm their faith in what they see as progress and their participation in civilization, marking themselves off from nature [16] and the primitive. After all, many have deliberately sacrificed leisure, family time, and opportunities to engage directly with the rest of the natural world in order to afford the lifestyle and possessions which, many find, bring with them clutter, stress, depression, obesity, and other lifestyle ailments. Erwan's training helps people throw off the fear of living naturally and to grasp the opportunities for all-round health and wellness that we still have deep within us within our individual genomes.

To understand how much we have forfeited of our hunter-gather genome's adaptedness to the Pleistocene environment, it helps to run through the main disjunctures. Then we can assess the scope and magnitude of the changes required if we choose to adjust our lifestyle and behaviours sufficiently to match them to our physiology and psychology and, therefore, to enable the recovery of some of the wellness of hunter-gatherer Homo sapiens. [13]

How has our life experience diverged even broken from our ineradicable hunter-gatherer genetic inheritance?

We have clearly removed ourselves [7] from our natural habitat and this removal challenges our genome, in some cases sending our bodies or minds (or both) into a spin. We may be affected directly or through the disruptive effects of the consequences of their manifestation in other people. Generally these disruptions have direct or indirect metabolic effects and feedbacks, and may, in some cases, have epigenetic consequences and so affect gene expression possibly for the long term, possibly irrevocably and into subsequent generations:

• food intake [5] content, quality, quantity, frequency, regularity/intermittency, intolerances and allergies, fresh/ stale/ decaying/ mouldy, seasonality, variety, raw/cooked, GM, non-food items consumed (e.g., preservatives [12], colourings), pesticide residues, pharmaceuticals, manufactured through sophisticated technological processes, eating disorders, microwave cooking [14]

• thirst previously quenched only with unheated water, usually fresh and running; drinking water additives and other polluting agents and organisms

• breast feeding and weaning

• exercise/non-exercise intensity, frequency, duration, regularity/intermittency [4]

• posture sitting/squatting, screen time

• cosmetic surgery, bariatric surgery [11]

• sun exposure, artificial UV exposure (in tanning and manicure salons)

• diseases influenza and the common cold were rarely – if ever – encountered in the Palaeolithic when humans were not cohabiting with domestic animals or mixing in crowds

• sleep/sleep deprivation, insomnia, timing, artificial light/artificial dark

• hormone stimuli and the aggregate effects when the body's production of different hormones rises and falls due to different stimuli; age of puberty [17]

• hormone disrupting chemicals, including those in plastics that leach into food from packaging

• novel mind-altering substances (like crystal methamphetamine, MDMA [3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine – aka ecstasy]); traditional drugs: alcohol, tobacco

• stress patterns acute/chronic, societal stability/societal change, solastalgia [10] , human interaction with artefacts based in digital logic

• out-sourcing the provision of basics (food, water, clothing, shelter, music-making, entertainment) to others

• face-to-face conviviality/isolation, extended family, crowds, lonliness

• memory: hunter-gatherers memorized law, legends, rituals, epic poetry and histories; in the 21st century, we go straight to a search engine

• comfort/discomfort, both mental and physical

• exposure to outdoor temperature variations, sleeping temperature

• pollution, indoor air quality, indoor ventilation, chemicals absorbed from cosmetics [15], toiletries, teflon [18]

• noise, content, volume, frequncy and duration [3]

• IVF, caesarian sections and similar interventions which overcome natural obstacles to conception, pregnancy and birth

• hygiene

• pharmaceuticals, antibiotics, vaccines and cosmetics (all broadly defined)

• for all of the above, how the sequences and cycles of one dimension affect one or more others often through hormones [9]

• the many other insufficiently explored factors for example:

If there is something you feel is missing from this list, please let us know

Consider the feature common to all of the above: we have chosen comfort and short-term convenience over the option presented to us by our genome and the Pleistocene environment in which our genome (and so our phenotype) evolved. These more comfortable, pleasurable and convenient options have been laid before us by the abundance of cheap energy, which has also underwritten the complexity of our society. As a species, we are so easily seduced by for example cheap takeaway pizza in front of the television in a centrally heated house, that we are unlikely to chose to grow our own food (planting months in advance), gather and cut our own firewood (again, months in advance of its intended use) and prepare and cook our own meal and wash up afterwards. Our choices appear to be "no-brainers", but consider the avoidance of physical activity, the avoidance of disciplined planning and sustained execution, our brushing aside the environmental consequences of our choices and our avoidance of engagement with the natural world. What a price!

We can see the complexity of the problem. This complexity is also its attraction and its beauty.

I am reminded of a discussion late 2008 by Richard Nikoley and Robb Wolf about Loren Cordain's case for the Darwinian/evolutionary paradigm.

I feel very privileged to be able to appreciate this from the inside.


1. This quotation is from Boyden's 2010 paper Biological Background, part of his biosensitivity series. Back to text

2. Our brains are hardwired with a propensity to avoid critical thinking by the individual, probably the result of optimized survival in a world that was either natural (biophysical) or one where well-understood supernatural/legal beliefs occupied gaps in understanding of the natural world and where uncritical compliance with these beliefs ensured the integrity and survival of the tribe. The modern world is unlike our species’ natural habitat (a Palaeolithic life in a Pleistocene world), so it is that, to nature’s complexity (with its underlying consistency and general predictability), we are now confronted with more random, less predictable factors including novel and changing cultural artefacts which have no underlying consistency or relation to the familiar causes and effects of the natural world (artefacts such as: mass society, money, media, individualism, fashion, consumerism, organized religion, political ideologies, technology (particularly digital electronic artefacts), manufactured food, belief in human exceptionalism etc.) Back to text

3. See the April 2010 article in the New York Times. It gave a rundown of the novel sound environments we experience and create today, but failed to look at the positive features of the Pleistocene sound environment and to consider what we may have lost, over and above mere quietness and silence. Back to text

4. We also have medicines, technologies, hospitals, ambulances, medical professionals and other care arrangements which enable Homo sapiens to avoid, buffer or delay the natural consequences of their imprudent behaviour. The natural feedbacks have been blunted. Back to text

5. The inspiration for this page came from Art DeVany's post on nutrigenomics, in his private blog (behind a paywall) Back to text

6. This definition is taken from the glossary to Boyden's Our Place in Nature. Back to text

7. We have removed ourselves and our food, and almost everything else we can remove. Think for a moment of the feedbacks from these changes and the interactions between them. A lonely, depressed couch potato person eating couch potato beef (that is, feedlot beef from cattle that never exercise) and GM soy snacks with their prescribed pharmaceuticals (and building up to a heart attack [8]), for example. Can this be other than a recipe for a continued downward spiral? Back to text

8. "I find it hard to understand why the American Heart Association and doctors in general seem not to know that the disease now called myocardial infarction, which is the cause of over 500,000 deaths in the US each year, is a new disease of the heart discovered in 1926. They seem not to know that, prior to 1900, there were only a very few deaths a year from this disease, they might care to tell us to live as people lived prior to 1900, and this change in diet might prevent heart attacks." From The Townsend Letter, June 2006. Back to text

9. For example, intense weight bearing exercise stimulates testosterone and HGH production (though for different durations and intensities). Yet HGH production is reduced by eating immediately after a workout. Back to text

10. Solastalgia is a concept being developed by the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht. Solastalgia (a) (b) is the desolation and distress people feel when their loved home environment is undergoing significant change that is experienced negatively. Examples include farming families affected by climate change and residents affected by encroaching open-cut mines. These are gradual transformations of the loved home environment, transformations that can be tolerated during the early stages but when tipping points are reached they can cause the solastalgia to manifest itself. Albrecht has found that when people recognize their solastalgia they can become motivated to halt and then reverse the environmental damage being caused. When people take direct action (such as farmers becoming active in the Landcare movement), their mental health improves.

There is a possible application here of the idea of solastalgia to the loss from contemporary human experience of the Palaeolithic environment and lifeway. This loss, too, can enter our awareness gradually and lead to distress and depression, often after a tipping point has been passed. And physical and mental recovery can occur when people take direct action to restore Pleistocene and Palaeolithic qualities, both biophysical and social, to their lives and experience. Solastalgia is a useful idea as it illuminates the loss people feel once they understand how broadly their own lives have departed from some general idea of what they may call natural, authentic, genuine or deep. An understanding of the Evolutionary Health Principle enables us to see most clearly what these departures are and, thus, what our loss is. Some will dismiss this proposition as fanciful romanticism on the grounds that we, as individuals, did not personally experience the Palaeolithic. Yet this ignores the fact that we were born as Palaeolithic babies. It also ignores a second fact that follows from the first: that our genome remains Palaeolithic throughout our lives. Is it not possible that solastalgia overcomes us as we experience the accumulating effects of the loss of the Palaeolithic world? Albrecht appears to make the common errors of assuming all problems have solutions and that “action” will be successful in the eyes of the actor; he also confines his suggested action to reverse the solastalgia-causing damage to actions that are not radical and that do not threaten the non-Palaeolithic civilization which we suggest drives the damage. So we would like to see Albrecht develop his notion in a more radical way and in a way that goes beyond being 'issue-based'. And we would also like to see Boyden draw on solastalgia to explain, justify and direct action to enable individuals and societies to if they choose direct their lives more in accord with the Evolutionary Health Principle. Back to text

11. Research from the Panteion University in Athens shows that 45 per cent of women who undergo breast cancer treatments suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Many breast removals are demonstrated to have been unnecessary. It is my own speculation that other major surgery could have similar physiological effects. For middle-class middle-income families, elective surgery has become the main source of trauma today. Back to text

12. Preservatives can include anti-oxidants which sounds good to many half-informed consumers. But, like all preservatives, they have generally been added to the food without the intention of improving or even maintaining the nutritional quality of food for humans. Once the product has been sold, the manufacturer loses all interest in its further use, yet the preservatives that have been added (so it stays fresh in factories, warehouses and supermarkets) remain in the food we eat. Our digestive systems operate beyond the end of an industrial process that is designed to optimize profitability in all the steps between harvest (or slaughter) and retail sale. The vital prior and subsequent processes are regarded as external to the manufacturers. Other additives are designed to enhance the taste, colour, acidity, viscosity, mouth feel, texture and aroma in terms of market appeal to Homo sapiens - rarely are they designed solely with nutritional value in mind. There is no consistent or necessary correlation between sweetness, for example, and nutritional benefit. Homo sapiens have a genetic propensity to value sweetness and saltiness (which were rare in the Palaeolithic), but these dopamine-stimulating qualities are available in abundance today and so most people, by default, often use them as criteria for food choice (along with marketing spin and price - two more un-Palaeolithic characteristics).    Back to text

13. Barry Groves, in his Natural Health and Weight Loss, writes "Many previously rare diseases suddenly 'took off' in the twentieth century and new ones also appeared during that period. These tended to increase dramatically in the last quarter of the last century after we were introduced to the concept of 'healthy eating'. There is a huge body of evidence that this modern carbohydrate-based, low-fat diet may be either a cause of these conditions or a factor in increasing the risk of contracting one or more of them. ... around 70 diseases have been shown to be prevented or successfully treated with the diet recommended in this book. I have listed these below together with the dietary causal component. Note, however, that there may be causal factors other than diet." Groves' list runs alphabetically and begins with acne, allergies, Alzheimer's disease, ankylosing spondylitis, arthritis (osteo- and rheumatoid-), asthma, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, cancers, cataract, chronic fatigue syndrome ...    Back to text

14. For more on the damage done by microwave cooking see articles by Karl Kruszelnicki and Arthur Firstenberg.   Back to text

15. Many cosmetics designed for 'skin care' contain chemicals which, in the place of their manufacture, are labeled as hazardous    Back to text

16. How often do we hear people refer to 'humans and animals' rather than to 'humans and other animals"?    Back to text

17. Girls in the US are starting puberty younger than just a decade ago, with larger proportions developing breasts and pubic hair as early as seven according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics. In 1997 5% of 7 year-old white girls and 15% of 7 year-old black girls were developing breasts; this 2010 study of 1239 girls claims the proportions are now 10.4% of white girls and 23.4% of black girls. Early puberty is associated with increased risk of breast or endometrial cancer, depression, eating disorders and suicide later in life. Back to text

18. Dupont, manufacturer of Teflon, agreed to pay $US 345m in damages to 60,000 inhabitants of West Virginia and Ohio to compensate for the pollution of tap water with PFOA, a chemical compound used in the production of Teflon. For more about the science, see here. Back to text

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