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Evolutionary Health

by Edwin Alan Salter(more info)

listed in movement, originally published in issue 243 - January 2018

 

We have arrived at an understanding of our biological origins that is truly inspiring. The argument set out briefly here aims to sketch a vision of how our evolution can guide both the pursuit of personal health and a wider appreciation of our common human nature and its future potential. A good scientific theory (compare arbitrary and supernatural accounts) explains apparently disparate phenomena and can accommodate further evidence.

If we feel without control over our personal fate in a problematic world, we now have many ways to exert power over our body instead, sometimes harmfully. We can modify and decorate, doing whatever makes us feel special, that we think brings status. The greater our frustration, the lower our true appraisal of our achievements, the more we may similarly assert as righteous props the givens of birth, our rank, race and religion (the denigration, even hatred, of others is, like the subordination of women in some cultures, a dreadful consequence).

To reach a better acceptance of nature, personally and globally, is also to share a sense of being 'ordinary' (not so far from the now problematic 'normal') as a value.

Man's Place in Nature

Modification of Image: Huxley - Mans Place in Nature.jpg Gibbon now shown at natural size.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ape_skeletons.png

This work is in the public domain

Origins

The evolution of the primates provides some illuminating comparisons particularly with bonobos and chimpanzees (genus Pan sharing over 95% of our DNA). The further evolution of our genus is revealed not as a straight line to conclude in us alone, but as a ramifying tapestry distributed in its characteristics over time and place. The names we have assigned to Homo fossils indicate how we perceive progress – H. habilis, ergaster and erectus could be paraphrased as 'was handy, kept busy, stood and walked'. Our genes suggest that we have had very narrow escapes, even perhaps sustained by single male and, later, female individuals. Also, those called Neanderthals and Denisovans interbred with us, incorporating their genes within the current human pool.

If we estimate modern humans existent for about 200,000 years then we have survived the glaciation of much of the world, finally entering a warm phase that facilitated the development of civilisation. That is roughly 10,000 generations, only the last 200 or so during the establishment of towns for some and less than 20 in the industrial age. Medicine has now begun to change our gene pool slightly by enabling survivals (and future genetic engineering may do much), but we are biologically as suited to a life vastly different from that typical of the Western trend.

So let us note the basics of human life as it was for so long. Imagine a small, largely homogeneous group of people, hunter gatherers, their activities based in tradition. These families are immersed in nature, in diurnal and seasonal rhythms, the risks and hardships imposed by weather, food supply, injuries, other animals from parasites to predators. Their lives, relatively short, require much practical action and increasing cooperation and communication with mutual face-to-face awareness and empathy.

Now

First note how our bodies and appearance are managed amidst competitive images of success, fame and sexuality. Clean, clothed well and housed, we control our immediate environment and are relatively indifferent to nature. Our physicality is much reduced by devices mechanical and electronic: we sit indoors and communicate, act and are entertained via screens. Even natural chat with social interest gets lost, and the young are particularly affected by substitution of the artificial.  Food arrives with little trace of origin, and ready-made meals are designed to promote appetite. Behaviours change as we are packed together in great numbers, coming and going, but often we feel isolated among strangers and by the social harms of multiple differences and inequalities.

Not all is well with us. We experience many forms of stress, typically persistent and remote in origin, unalterable by simple responses (fight/flight) to the here and now. Infections (the closeness and travel) threaten resistance and allergies (altered foods and novel chemicals) increase. We seem more vulnerable (the cleanliness that also excludes beneficial mild exposures) and add new disorders of lifestyle. Our bodies and our movements, uncoupled from practicality, are free to become less robust, even odd. If unwell we incline to the passivity of treatment rather than to self-help. The menaces of global news overwhelm and it is easier to ignore others even if close by.

The unmissable catastrophe is that of weight gain, and over an incredibly short period obesity sweeps the world, an easily avoided folly of society that brings much harm (correlations from diabetes to dementia). And for less obvious examples consider myopia and compulsive behaviours.

Here are four aspects of everyday life for practical action.

Patterning

A relatively steady rhythm allows the body to anticipate and settle its functions, especially those that are outside direct conscious control. Evolution in Africa provided a fairly even day/night cycle, occupations relatively unchanging between generations. Dispersing communities established their own patterns for seasonal variations of weather and work.

Now we are too much indoors to be guided by daylight, and winter dark needs compensation. Our sleep period is shortening amidst distractions and tasks. A general blurring is created by the physical indifference to time alongside multi-tasking and arbitrary appointments and deadlines. We pursue long term goals amidst a jumble of past, present and future concerns. In extended lifespans, useful activity becomes sandwiched between prolonged periods of youth and retirement.

Physically we would do better with simpler rhythms on time scales that physiology can match with. The parallel is with daily habits that save thinking and allow optimisation.

Eating

To begin simply, the basic drink is water and a demand for strong coffee and whisky is problematic. We have available many substances, even the familiar sugar and nicotine, previously rare or non-existent in diet. These bring a risk of harm especially when, like cream cakes and 'recreational' drugs, they have the effect of cheating us into feeling well and happy. The body's inclination for safety storage as fat becomes a trap when we have plenty. Our strange and ancient gut world has its own biological wants and relevance to our health.

A reasonable dietary compromise (for personal health and for our sustainability struggle) may accept that we are omnivores but give far greater weight to the wide range of plant foods (a few staples – wheat, rice, maize - excessively dominate). We can add fibre and avoid over-processing. Regular mealtimes, ending not too late, are probably better than browsing. We should prefer simplicity with variety (thus covering such evolutionary quirks as our inability to make vitamins).

Doing

Suppose you recorded fifty time samples of a typical day. What would your body be doing, what parts active, and with what purpose, movement shape and quality? For most of us the evidence is of a limited and ill-balanced movement life, and that in turn impresses itself on our personality.

Humans are capable of a very wide range of actions that done with efficiency underpin our ideas of what is graceful and attractive. Considering how thoughtlessly we misuse them, our bodies hold up amazingly well. Once we identify our activity bias it becomes possible to provide a prescription for compensation (consider the movement elements that adding swimming or badminton, carpentry or embroidery, would bring). A technique for physical relaxation is valuable.

We can also compensate for the residual problems of evolution (the iffy backs of becoming upright, odd anatomical compromises such as those leading to choking and inguinal hernia) by care with posture and preventive exercise. Almost all of us should do more physically, but repetitive machine controlled movement warrants caution. Best and simplest is to bypass aids, and to prefer diverse and useful activity (interrupt sitting by whole body movement, walk and choose stairs, wash-up and garden, d-i-y and dance) with an air of vigour.

Challenging

Less protected life in nature threw up urgencies and hardships that sporadically made demands, dramatic intrusions. It was once supposed that, rather like a coasting engine, we would benefit by undemanding sameness. But the active response to exceptional circumstances is part of the body's natural repertoire that generates health. Passively stressed we suffer anxiety and depression. Instead we can revive our resources by sensible challenges, matching them to our initial condition.

Some physical examples to consider that would probably suit most people in good health (even if robust, new activities should always be tried first in a milder version) will illustrate the point. Once a week choose a safe energetic exercise that, lasting a minute or so, leaves you aware of diminishing performance and shortening breath. Go for a brisk walk (jog a little if body and terrain permit) long enough to tire somewhat, and look about alertly. During a month take a cold shower, eat less for 24 hours, rise or retire a couple of hours different. Occasionally swap a habit for better, or improve your immediate environment.

Through the year find interludes from the highly artificial and include novelty. An endeavour that allows for a range of expression and energy, commitment and hope, enlivens both mind and body: think beyond yourself.

Humanity

The above, a skimpy overview, has focussed on physical aspects, but the complementary social and psychological accounts have similar relevance. Machines have long since superseded us in power and endurance, and now computers and artificial intelligence seem to diminish our remarkable intellect which nevertheless continues to need appropriate stimulus. Once familiar structures of work and family life dissolve. But culturally we have achieved much through the arts and sciences, and medicine brings longevity.

Around the world are splendid instances of practical wisdom. We would do well to apply the model of evolution to cultural progress, deliberately seeking improvement based on objective evidence, not accepting mere authority as of the self-interested and powerful. There are, for example, school systems with excellent outcomes for competence in life and continuing learning, financial structures for income and taxation that promote general prosperity, laws and rehabilitations that reduce crime and maintain a decent society. Indeed there are reliable scales of human happiness that effectively compare nations as a whole (prefer the Nordic!) and reveal the correlations that generate merit or awfulness. In science the analogy is obvious: new circumstances (changed environments) prompt fresh hypotheses (mutations) to be tested by experiment and application (natural selection), errors gradually exposed and truths established.

It is appropriate to revalue what is distinctively human, to identify and pursue the values we hold dear, for the alternatives are failure and alienation. Biological evolution could never look forward to the best route ahead, could scarcely retrace a mistaken path. But we, of course, can and should consider our future as individuals and cultures. An over-populated and over-exploited world now requires this for our survival.

We humans (if undamaged) care for others, are pleased by doing well, appreciate beauty, laugh at jokes, are not wholly rational, inquire with curiosity, create and invent. Within our life span we try to leave the world with small achievements, perhaps with loved children who will make it a better place. An evolutionary view requires compromise with our present circumstances - we are not there then – and it is certainly no invitation to a supposed brutality and stupidity. Recognising the modesty of our origins, we may proceed with more harmony toward personal fulfilment and well-being, and with hope for humankind.

Dr. Edwin Alan Salter, based in King's Lynn, has a very diverse background of experience and interests.

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About Edwin Alan Salter

Dr Edwin Alan Salter MA MSc PhD is based in King’s Lynn, Norfolk. After working in theatre he taught performance skills at Goldsmiths and is an authority on Laban movement. His psychotherapy writings develop a multi-aspect approach, and interests in the practicalities of life extend from education to sustainability in our changing world. He may be contacted via kl.humanfactors@talktalk.net.

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