Bottom Line Up Front: Many westerners in advanced civilizations are highly disconnected from our evolutionary environment. Our modern problems would be completely foreign to our ancestors or to any indigenous people. This has profoundly unhealthy outcomes and is the root of most modern ailments.
I recently read two great books entitled “Sapiens” and “Tribe” that reinforced some ideas I have been thinking over for a few years – the idea that modern humans are like animals in a zoo. Both books discussed the origins of homo sapiens and highlighted explicitly or implicitly the disconnect between our biology and our modern environment.
The Stark Contrast
Imagine you are from 20,000 years ago. You are a hunter gatherer. You live in a small tribe. You have never seen a farm. There is no agriculture. There are no goat or cows. You probably have never seen a horse, certainly not a domesticated one. You have most definitely never even contemplated a car, a gun, or a city let alone television or cell phones. This is the reality of your daily existence:
- You are rarely comfortable. Only a few months of the year is it nice all day outside. In the spring and fall, it’s beautiful during the day but cold at night and in the morning. Then in the winter, it’s inhospitable all day. Summer, it’s hot all day. You are wet a lot. Obviously this is adjusted where you live, so the people in modern day Mexico have different concerns than those in Sweden. You sleep and sit on natural items like grass, logs or rocks.
- You are always dirty/sweaty/smelly.
- You are always checking your surroundings and environment for safety. You are not concerned about being attacked by other groups people at all times but sometimes you may have to fight them. You are worried about much more than a tribal conflict. You may have to protect yourself or family from people in your own tribe. A cold could kill you. A bad fall leading to a broken thigh could end your life through dying of an infection or from simply being disabled. Animal attack. Freeze to death. Die of dehydration.
- You have long periods of time with nothing to do. Hunter gatherers are believed to have had a lot of free time.
- You are concerned with finding your next meal. This is a daily practice. Many days you wouldn’t eat at all. You are finding all your food and water. No matter the weather.
- You rarely if ever eat sweet things. Fruit is only available at certain times and in certain places. Most of your meals are bland obviously.
- You are athletic, mobile, agile, and in good physical condition. You know no fat people or physically incapable people. That idea doesn’t even make sense to you. Everyone contributes.
- You move a lot each day. Sedentary isn’t possible. You walk a lot and occasionally lift something heavy or run really fast.
- The men and women in the tribe are unattractive. Everyone is dirty, unshaven, weathered. Procreation happens because it’s hardwired into us anyway.
- You have a strong sense of belonging and community with your group.
Think about how this is just about the opposite of how you live now (assuming you are sitting in a modern western society since you are reading blogs on electronic devices). This is the reality of your existence:
- You are rarely uncomfortable. You sit on only comfortable things and you sit or lie down almost every second of the day. You live in a temperature controlled world. You have tons of clothing options to ensure you always remain in the band of excellence.
- You are only dirty/sweaty/smelly when you choose to be. Those of us who do physically demanding jobs may get dirty and smell, sure. But you wash your hands and shower every day. Most of us don’t even require physical exertion at any point in the day. Most of us won’t touch dirt all day. On top of it we use soaps and lotions which are scented.
- You are almost never concerned with safety. You could live a complete life with no weapons or hand-to-hand fighting training at all. Most American middle or upper class men have probably never even been hit in the face.
- You never have nothing to do. There are work or life obligations taking up all your time. The rest you fill with recreational activities – outdoors, sports, video games or web surfing. You definitely can easily find something to entertain you even if you had free time.
- You are never without food. It is all around you, all the time. The idea of true hunger is completely foreign to you. You may have never gone more than 18 hours without eating in your entire life.
- Most of the food you eat is sweet/carbohydrate-based. Modern agriculture has put corn, sugar, and wheat everywhere, so it’s in almost everything.
- You are overweight and inactive. About two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. Some countries are worse too, some are better. None of the westernized industrial ones are without this problem. The rich everywhere are fat, even in the countries with utter squalor. We have people who do zero physically challenging things getting hips and knees replaced. These aren’t pro football players, just lazy people whose joints have atrophied.
- You barely move at all during the day. You move from bed, to a chair, to a car, to a chair, to a car, to a bed.
- You see physically attractive people all the time (in person or through media). You see men and women all around you in make-up, styled hair, fancy clothes, high-heeled shoes, posed in sexually arousing positions. Do you think our ancestors could have conceived of a Kim Kardashian magazine layout? Their heads would explode.
- You have very little sense of community and contribution to the larger society. It is believed to be a main cause of depression.
We have it so good we have to go out of our way to do things that would cause shock to our ancestors such as:
- We voluntarily physically challenge ourselves. Exercise is a completely foreign concept. They would be floored that we have to choose to do physical labor because it is absent in our life. It would be like having to burn money because you had so much you couldn’t deal with it all to us.
- We have to strive to spend time outdoors.
- We hunt for fun and pay people to take us hunting – with high-powered rifles and archery equipment!
- A sun tan is prized. We actively pursue sitting in direct sunlight because of how little we are outdoors.
- We have a obesity problem. This would flabbergast them, sure. There is so much food, it is a problem for us. But want to know the craziest part? Read on.
- Our poor are our most obese! This is one that would shock just about everyone on earth and at any time in history. In the modern US, the poorer you are the more likely you are to be obese. This one is my favorite Americanism ever. It is truly appalling. Poor people have less healthy food options in the environment and cheap food is much more fattening (wheat, corn, sugar again).
- We voluntarily choose to do dangerous things and pay for the privilege to do so. Bungee jumping, sky diving, snowboarding down a mountain, etc.
The significant contrast between our ancestral life and our modern life is exactly the difference between a wild animal and an animal in a zoo.
Zoo animals don’t hunt for food. They live on fake landscapes protected from other animals. They are given females to mate with or castrated to remove the desire. They are fat and lazy. They have no survival skills. They are also probably profoundly unhappy.
We are zoo animals. We are about as ready to survive outside the zoo as that rhinoceros or lion born in captivity.
Why Are You Telling Me This?
I had never thought about any of this truly until well into my 30s. If you haven’t, just think about it for a minute. It has changed how I look at life.
A few reasons why I am highlighting this to you (this article has a lot of lists…)
- To simply make you aware of it.
- To recognize the sheer insanity of it.
- To encourage you to pursue anti-zoo behavior at all costs.
- To highlight to you how we are walking around every day with the body and mind from 20,000 years ago but living in today’s modern world.
- To demonstrate that living the way we do is unhealthy (mentally and physically) and unnatural.
- To offer an explanation for why we are often unfulfilled and seek behaviors that seem destructive.
You certainly can’t escape society easily, although it’s possible. I saw some people on television who abandoned modern society to live in a remote part of Alaska. They are still using many modern conveniences, sure, but they are definitely much closer to satisfying their primal urges. But if you have a family, mortgage, kids, and a job, here are some ideas for a healthier mind and body:
- Be uncomfortable. It’s OK to be cold or hot, really. You can sit on the floor too. How many of you would be physically devastated sitting in “Indian style” for an hour? (My kids call this “criss-cross applesauce” now so as to be culturally sensitive, but I didn’t think everyone would know what that was.)
- Don’t eat. Try one day per week where you eat nothing. Coffee, tea, and water are OK.
- Move a lot. Sprint sometimes. Lift something heavy occasionally. Sit less.
- Spend time in nature.
- Get dirty.
- Hunt for your food (or at least try).
- Learn how to defend yourself.
- Learn survival skills.
- Develop relationships and a sense of community.
QUESTIONS: What else can you do to unzoo yourself? What do you do? Have you thought about this concept before? What are the ramifications of a modern society on our minds and bodies? Post thoughts to comments.