WAYS EVOLUTION HAS AFFECTED OUR HEALTH
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Evolution does not always “get it right” and in fact, a lot of problems that humanity faces are the net result of the way in which we have evolved. Unknowingly, many of the evolutionary pitfalls we have encountered as a species still plague our population today.
The following discussion takes a look at some of these biological hang-ups and addresses what we can do to best make use of them!
What is Evolution?
There are two main meanings to the word ‘evolution.’ The first refers to a process of biological development that spans over millions of years, whereby an organism changes, mutates or adapts from an earlier ancestor, eventually becoming a different species. This change is thought to be a response to environmental factors that promotes functional adaptations.
The second meaning of evolution refers to the way in which something develops, grows, or changes, with an emphasis on progress.
In both meanings of the word, evolution tends to arise from an adaptation that somehow improves an object, organism or process. In line with the theory of “survival of the fittest,” adaptations that undermine the ability of an organism to survive are likely not to be carried forward and imparted unto future generations. Likewise, the adaptations that improve the survivability of a species are more likely to remain throughout the course of history until the organism’s living conditions change.
This is a little bit of a linear view to take as nature does not always promote evolution in a way that is beneficial to the organism in the long run. There are several evolutionary adaptations that appear to serve no purpose and may even be redundant, while others may pose a trade-off, providing drawbacks in exchange for the benefits they offer.
Examples of ways evolution has affected us
The below human evolutionary pitfalls highlight just how some of our traits have placed our species at a disadvantage.
1. Bipedalism and Lower Back Problems
In the distant past, humans walked on four legs. Through the course of evolution, we became bipedal – able, and most comfortable, walking on two legs. With this evolutionary change, the structure of our spines became different to our four-legged ancestors. The spine of modern man is closer to the shape of a gentle ‘S’ while that of primitive man was closer to the shape of a gentle ‘U.’
Studying fossil remains as well as the skeletal structure of humans (with and without back problems) and other primates, scientists have managed to prove that this new adaptation of spine shape (shared with other primates capable of bipedalism) may actually increase our susceptibility to lower back pain. Stress fractures (spondylolysis) and slipped discs are examples of painful back conditions that faulty bipedal adaptations predisposed humans towards acquiring.
However, unlike previously hypothesized, it seems that not all humans are at an increased risk due to being bipedal. The latest research has shown that those who have these severe spinal problems tend to have vertebra that embody exaggerated traits of bipedalism ; traits that perhaps should not have remained with us through the course of our evolution from the time that the initial adaptations took place. For example, evidence suggests that those with spines that are more likely to experience disc herniation have a spinal structure closer to that of chimpanzees as opposed to humans without herniation and other primates like orangutans.
Tips for Preventing Back Pain
- The best ways to prevent back pain apply to everyone, regardless of whether evolution has affected one’s spine or not. These include techniques and habits that serve to promote a healthy posture and to develop strong back muscles, such as:
- Exercise and stretch regularly, with an emphasis on building the back muscles as well as improving suppleness. A combination of weight-bearing exercise and cardio is required to maintain optimal bone and muscle strength.
- Avoid abrupt and strenuous movements that stand the risk of putting your back out. It’s important to warm up and cool down before and after exercise respectively to avoid injuring any part of the body, the back included.
- Practice keeping a good posture as much as possible. This extends towards wearing flat, comfortable shoes and sitting in furniture that is conducive to keeping the back straight.
- Consume an alkalizing diet rich in green, fibrous foods that are relatively high in magnesium, such as spinach and cabbage. Magnesium helps to regulate calcium in the body, which when out of balance may contribute towards increasing body pain .
- Take the time to reduce physical tension, as tension is known to elevate pain and stiffness in general.
2. The Evolutionary Trade-Off of Technology and Biology
Unnatural radiation emitted from electronic devices has now become a large component of modern living for the vast majority of humans on the planet. Everything from artificial light to man-made electro-magnetic frequencies (e.g. WiFi, cellphone reception, radio waves, satellite signals, microwaves, etc) are relatively new inserts into mankind’s evolutionary history.
There are multiple ways in which these technologies have affected us biologically. The wealth of collective information is now just a few taps away for the majority of humans who own a phone or computing device with a viable internet connection. This in and of itself has caused a change in the way humans think, orient themselves and perceive the world around them, with an emphasis on materialism, consumerism and comfort. People are more distracted, less focused, less patient and expect near-immediate results. The more we rely on electronic devices to tell us the answer, the less likely we are to use our own brains and think for ourselves.
If this were applied to our ancestors in the wild, it would very much reduce their survival and have been a faulty adaptation. However, in modern society, it is currently unfathomable for many to live without this change and we have evolved to farm out most resources, including the ability for critical thinking. Technology may also limit one’s development if one spends all their time entertaining themselves with electronic devices, which also detracts from our ability to adapt, think and be creative.
It is becoming increasingly clearer through the course of time that these technologies, while having imparted major social benefits, have also imposed consequences to human health. The radiation emitted by cell phones and other devices is now being shown in some studies to be potentially carcinogenic over the course of a lifetime . Furthermore, the posture and physical activity levels of many individuals has been eroded through office jobs that demand long hours in front of an electronic device. Where people may have chosen to be physically active in the past, they now adopt watching television or surfing the internet as their new past time.
Over and above these points, electronic devices have incorporated new light sources into our lives that have been shown to have an impact on the circadian cycle and the quality of sleep in both animals and humans . This is particularly alarming for younger generations that are still developing physically but extends to all age groups. In this way, fatigue and many other sleep-related health conditions have been on the rise in tandem with technology.
Working Constructively with Modern Technology
No one can deny the way in which technology has dramatically improved our ability to communicate instantly as well as translate our ideas more effectively. However, these benefits pose threats to our health in the long term and may undermine our capacity to think.
In order to best work with technology and minimize any potential negative impacts it may have, the following pointers may prove useful:
- Disengage from electronic devices an hour or two before bed time.
- Spend some time each day immersing oneself in nature, away from technology, in order to give the body a break.
- Engage in hobbies that promote the development of skills that improve one’s biologic autonomy, neuroplasticity, capacity and intelligence. These ought to be any activities that build either physical, logical, or creative competence, including exercise, dance, puzzle-solving activities, sports, making music or art, reading, gardening, and learning new skills such as cooking, building, or anything pertaining to one’s interests.
3. Resource Availability and the Evolution of Nutrition
Nutrition used to be restricted with regard to the resources that were available to our ancestors as hunter-gatherer societies. Nowadays, our options are far more diverse. This is especially true of those living in developed countries in which one has access to all kinds of cuisine that originated from all over the globe.
In spite of this increased selection, our preferences are largely shaped by our origins from a genetic standpoint. There are two main genetic factors that shape this, one being the genes found in our gut microbiome and the other being our inherited genes. These two factors were shaped through the course of time and evolution by what was available to our ancestors over the span of thousands of years. While the bacteria in the gut may change in one’s life, the initial microbiome is passed down from mother to child at birth, much like our genes from both parents. This already sets the tone for how the body develops and what enzymes it can produce in order to process nutrients from select foods.
For example, in cultures where starchy foods were consumed in larger proportions to other types of foods, higher levels of amylase (starch-degrading enzymes) are produced by members of these populations and therefore it is easier for them to digest starches. A prime example of this is displayed in people of Asian descent.
In other cultures, fats may have been consumed more often, or dairy products, alcohol, fruit sugars, meat, etc, allowing for members of these populations to better tolerate particular foods. The foods that best helped them to adapt to their environments also tended to be what was available and thus also shaped their biologic preference and capacity to consume such.
While food options are more diverse on average in terms of the type of cuisine we can choose to eat, certain options have been limited due to modern agriculture. Modern farming methods tend to offer a few types of foods from all food groups, with limited farming methods and environmental factors. Everything from fertilizer to water use tends to be standardized, producing food that is similar in its chemical makeup. Our ancestors had access to a larger variety of heirloom produce with many variations in these factors, resulting in a much larger diversity of foods, in spite of being limited to cultural practices of cuisine preparation. This shows in research pertaining to the microbiome of indigenous or tribal people who have a much higher degree of microbial diversity – microbes able to digest a larger variety of foods.
Furthermore, industrialization has given rise to a plethora of new synthetic compounds that have replaced many elements of natural food, such as flavoring, colorants, and nutrients. The ramifications of such interventions have yet to be fully explored.
Science has also given rise to many dietary trends, such as avoiding one or another major food group in support of human health. In light of genetic diversity, such trends tend to be and have been disproven as more data is collected, as they do not typically apply to everyone. Examples include re-arranging the classical concept of the food pyramid to consume more carbs or more fats or more proteins. What works for any one person cannot be dictated by an idea of human health but has to be taken on a case by case basis.
Nutrition in the Context of Genetics
All this information is interesting, yet currently has limited application in the modern context. This is due to the traveling nature of humans (both past and present), as it is rare that any person currently alive is an entirely accurate genetic representation of any given ancient culture.
The majority of us are a blend of genetic lineages, with a mix of traits passed down from our ancestors. In this sense, one cannot make assumptions on their ideal diet based off what they perceive their genetic lineage and microbial composition to be.
Scientists are still working hard at collecting enough data that microbial and genetic testing can be of use to us in this regard. This research is working towards a future in which individualized medicine and nutrition will take precedence over what we currently adopt.
4. How Does Pulling Wisdom Teeth Factor Into Our Evolution?
The fact that we even have wisdom teeth that appear later on in our developmental years is another seemingly illogical adaptation of our evolution. What makes this matter even more mind-boggling is that many people do not have enough space in their jaws to accommodate these teeth. This has resulted in lots with crooked and/or excessively elongated teeth as the wisdom teeth supposedly push them out of their natural alignment and force excessive growth of other teeth to compensate. The wisdom teeth in some do not fully grow or emerge from the gums, causing unnecessary pain and oral irritation. All of these reasons have promoted a trend amongst some dentists to pull out these redundant teeth.
Not all people suffer from this pitfall of evolution, as some have a jaw big enough to house all teeth, including the wisdom teeth. However, for those that it affects, the results of having crooked or elongated teeth can actually result in health problems. Examples include migraines, an increase in cavities, bruxism, airway constriction, sleep apnea, and other sleeping problems as a result of minimal respiration. A very recent paper has highlighted how sleep disruption contributes to increasing the risk and severity of many chronic lifestyle diseases that seem unrelated to our wisdom teeth but may actually be connected in this regard!
From an evolutionary standpoint, there are several theories as to why this is the case for many. Scientists have speculated that when we developed larger brains, changes to our skulls forced the jawline to recede in size in order to make way for a larger brain. Other theories revolve around fundamental changes in societal structures throughout history that are thought to have caused the size of human jaws to shrink. Skeletal evidence reveals noticeable changes in this regard, both at the dawn of agriculture and at the start of the industrial revolution.
Both of the above mentioned societal changes coincided with a few factors that may have affected the shape of our jaws, thus causing problems with wisdom tooth growth. These include a lack of nutrition, a higher degree of chemical exposure, reduced physical activity, a decrease in facial muscle posturing and a lesser degree of respiratory efficiency connected to a more sedentary lifestyle. Facial muscle posturing, leaving the mouth open while resting, shallow breathing and reduced respiratory efficiency have been proven to have a long-lasting impact from childhood. Over the last few centuries, children have had more problems in these areas, which has caused the facial muscles to become weaker and the size of the jaw to recede. These factors greatly contrast the lifestyle of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. 
Increasing the Size of Your Jawline
According to the above theories, having improved nutrition, physical health, breathing better and using our facial muscles correctly helps to preserve the size of the jaw and promote enough room for wisdom teeth. Unfortunately for most reading this, this potential solution can only really manifest in the long-term by being applied to future generations.
5. The Pros and Cons of Hairlessness in Human Evolution
Could it be that the reason we may catch a cold in the rain is because we lost all our hair as a species?
As it turns out, scientists are still a little bit confused as to why we lost more than 90% of our body hair during the course of our evolution as compared with our ape-like ancestors. The initial theory was that it helped humans to better regulate temperature when walking on two legs and living in hot, dry, open expanses.
Upon closer inspection, this argument fell flat when altitude, temperature and bipedalism were compensated for in terms of heat loss (or gain). Primitive humans appeared to have lost hair when expanding their habitats from higher altitudes to lower altitudes. The hair helped to keep temperature more stable and protected against the effects of radiation at higher altitudes. Losing the hair created much bigger temperature fluctuations across the day, resulting in far less efficiency in terms of regulating temperature, especially during the heat of midday and the cooler temperatures experienced at night.
Furthermore, this hairless adaptation co-arose with an increased tendency for sweating to cool the body down, resulting in an increase in bodily water loss. This increased the need to consume more water and likely food, due to a quicker cycling of nutrients and toxins viz sweat. Thus, trading body hair for sweat is seen to be an accidental adaptation that actually reduced our capacity to deal with extraneous heat, cold, extreme shifts in temperature and radiation. Aside from developing the ability to sweat, skin pigmentation also developed in order to protect skin from radiation in tropical climates.
In spite of this, data indicates that modern humans are still more vulnerable than their ancestors to shifts in temperature and radiation – particularly around dawn and dusk.
One potential benefit of losing our hair was that it likely propelled the human need for clothing, civilization and socialization in order to adapt. People built dwellings, made fires and huddled together to keep warm, as well as starting to make and wear clothing to help keep a constant temperature. Some have argued that wearing clothing has diminished these skin adaptations and made us more dependent on clothing in order to adapt than our ancestors.
In this sense, these evolutionary adaptations were not the greatest for human health in that it left us and our immune systems vulnerable to environmental changes. Nonetheless, the body is capable of adapting, albeit likely less effectively than our human ancestors.
Making the Most of Our Hairlessness
As mentioned, the transitions of day and night are the times when we are at our most vulnerable as temperature and radiation tend to shift the most at these times. If you are very sensitive to these kinds of shifts or if you are running a fever, it is very important to ensure that you remain at a constant temperature, particularly at these times of day and night. If you live in an area that is exposed to extreme weather conditions in this regard, then this also applies as it is worse for the body to experience large shifts in temperature than it is for it to experience a stable temperature, even if it is extreme.
Improving circulation through regular exercise helps to regulate bodily temperature, however in extreme cold scenarios, sweating as a result of exercise can cause a rapid shift in temperature from cold to hot to even colder than you started off! In this sense, heating one’s environment coupled with exercising during the day when temperatures “peak” may help.
In an extreme heat scenario, sweating is an excellent way to regulate temperature, however dehydration can be an issue. In this case, drinking plenty of water and exercising at cooler parts of the day is a better tactic in order to remain at a more stable temperature throughout the day.
7. We May Be More Susceptible to Lower Respiratory Distress than other organisms
Another maladaptation would be the orientation of the trachea (leading to the lungs) and esophagus (leading to the respiratory tract) in humans. In the majority of other animal species, the esophagus is much lower than the trachea and runs horizontally parallel. Evolution changed the throats of humans to allow for both an upright posture and for speech. As such these two tubes are closer together and parallel in a vertical orientation. This design predisposes us to a higher risk of choking than that of other animals, where gravity is inclined to aid the process of digestion and prevent respiratory distress.
A flap of cartilage covers the esophagus to allow for air to easily flow in and out of the lungs. When we swallow food or drink, this flap moves back to cover the respiratory tract and prevent the edibles from moving into the wrong tube. However, due to this bad evolutionary design, we almost always choke when the epiglottis does not do its job properly. In many people, the epiglottis does not completely close, which allows for micro particles to enter the trachea when they really should not! The symptoms of many respiratory diseases and gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) are exacerbated by this very phenomenon, which is known as micro-aspiration (aka “micro choking”).
Ways to Improve Respiratory Functionality
Here are a few pointers that may help one to lessen the risk of choking and micro-aspiration:
- Regular exercise  and deep breathing techniques that serve to empty and fill the entire lungs with fresh, cleansing air can help to move any problems out of the lower respiratory tract.
- Clearing the sinuses can go a long way towards improving air flow and ensuring that unwarranted particles do not get stuck in the wrong place.
- When eating or drinking, make sure to do so with care and in a patient manner, so as to avoid the risk of either choking or microaspiration. Making sure one is not tense, seated and is focused on the task at hand can go a long way towards keeping the lungs clear. Talking, doing something else while eating or consuming before one is finished with a previous mouthful all increase the risk of swallowing down the wrong tube.
- Cutting down on smoking, reducing dietary acidity that may promote gastroesophageal reflux and living in an area with minimal air pollution may also help.
Evolutionary Outcomes Are Largely Unpredictable
In many ways, mankind no longer truly abides by the laws of natural selection and has often attempted to use evolutionary theory to take control of evolution. These attempts have not always been successful and may even be detrimental to the species, depending on the position one takes.
For example, the technology of man has lengthened lifespan, however it has also created a scenario in which many people now live long lives even while suffering from severe chronic illnesses that would have surely hampered survival in the wild. Not only does this increase and perpetuate suffering of people on the planet, it goes against natural principles of biological control and keeps our numbers at an all-time high.
Some have argued that all diseases are the result of evolutionary adaptations that may have promoted survival in certain situations. However, in the long run, they have clearly proven to be of detriment to the human population, highlighting how evolution is not always on our side.  This further highlights how evolution always presents with both benefits and drawbacks.
Evolution is and always will be a theory that best describes adaptation; a theory that is often conflated with progress towards an unrealized destination.
One of the main problems with taking evolution into our own hands as a species is that not everything works out as intended. Just think of the amount of surgical treatments and medications that ended up being unnecessary and ineffective after more research surfaced about our biology!
In spite of what one might assume, evolution is not predictable and thus claiming to know what the outcome of it might be is fraught with problems. The moment anything in the environment changes, evolution follows suit with that change and therefore what may have been conducive for the species yesterday, may not apply today and may yet again apply tomorrow. There is also almost always more than one way to adapt to demanding situations, which is a principle that nature continues to repeatedly embody.
Numerous scientific studies have revealed that evolutionary adaptations are unpredictable and plenteous. In laboratory experiments that attempted to outline the direction that evolution might take, it was shown to be an impossible task for many elements of an organism’s biology. Any potential cause for adaptation tended to produce multiple adaptations, which then proceeded to give rise to new genetics, new species or strains and new evolutionary problems for nature to solve .
Many would argue that problems such as world hunger are causes enough to “guide the course of our evolution” in such a way as to eradicate them and promote increased survivability. If we solved world hunger, it would likely give rise to future problems for which we would have to make adaptations, such as over-population.
Thus, the concept of evolution cannot truly be applied in a way that would knowingly shape the future of humanity. Doing so implies a favored direction with logical evolutionary outcomes, both of which cannot be ascertained without knowing what the future may bring.
Evolution is certainly not all humanity has made it out to be! Many concepts of evolution appear to be the subject of mere speculation and may cause more harm than good when applied to our daily lives. On the other hand, many of the health challenges we face as a species are the result of maladaptive changes that occurred through the course of our biologic history and learning more may help us to better adapt to the modern circumstance in which we now find ourselves.
As discussed above, many solutions to the problems evolution has posed to our success as a species revolve around maintaining a healthy human lifestyle, similar to that of our ancestors. This demands balancing technology with time in nature, exercising regularly in order to promote strong muscles, a good posture and better respiration, as well as consuming a nutritious diet that promotes our well-being in line with our unique genetics.
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