Dysevolution explained in exactly 500 words

It's not a word, but you need to know about it.

  • Dysevolution
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Dysevolution hasn’t yet found a home in the dictionary, but I bet it soon will. It’s a term coined by Daniel Lieberman and refers to a phenomenon you’re experiencing right now.

As opposed to evolution – which optimizes a species for survival and reproduction in an ever-changing environment, dysevolution is the process by which a species changes its environment to become less suited to its own survival and lets those changes persist from one generation to the next.

And no, I’m not referring to climate change.

As humans, our capabilities have advanced so quickly that innovation and cultural norms have altered our environments faster than anything else.

  • Diets have gone from being balanced to being filled with processed food, resulting in problems ranging from cavities to diabetes.

  • Sterile environments at an early age have reduced our exposure to germs. Our immune systems have been taken by surprise, resulting in them overreacting to harmless substances causing allergic reactions.

  • Automobiles combined with the internet have made us more sedentary than we’re supposed to be. The result? Brittle bones, higher body fat percentages, Osteoporosis, and heart attacks.

We might have normalized these problems today, but in the history of our species, they were rare. 

As the most intelligent species on planet earth, why haven’t we figured out how to eliminate these diseases of our own making?

It turns out we’re not as smart as we think.

Our ignorance of delayed feedback loops contributes heavily to the persistence of these diseases. Why stress about cavities ten years from now when you can enjoy chocolate today? To compound this effect, we’ve gotten better at treating symptoms of these diseases. For example, as dental care becomes more sophisticated and less painful, sugary processed food becomes more appealing. 

Another reason these diseases persist is that the problems they cause don’t seriously threaten reproduction, even though they diminish our quality of life. 

They occur after we’ve crossed our reproductive prime (Osteoporosis or diabetes), or, like cavities - they are mild enough in their early stages to not seriously impact our reproductive success rate. If a disease prevented us from reproducing, those susceptible to it wouldn’t have heirs.

Misaligned incentives in our existing medical and governance systems also contribute to dysevolution. Hospitals and Pharmaceutical companies are incentivized to keep developing more convenient cures for symptoms because it makes them more money. Governments get more brownie points for looking after the sick than they would if they advised the healthy.

And so, the spiral continues.

While these diseases might not seem very problematic, there is another set of diseases of dysevolution that is fast approaching our species – mental health diseases.

Our brains are not wired to live in a world where information is abundant, but connection is scarce. Like cavities, diabetes, or hypertension, we will pass on the conditions of these diseases to our children. While they’re unlikely to seriously affect our reproductive success, if we’re not careful, they will make life a lot less pleasant.

That’s it for this issue!

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