It is difficult for us to truly wrap our heads around how long the process of our evolution has taken. One of the most interesting methods of demonstrating this visually is to take a page out of Carl Sagan’s book and compare it to a calendar year.
If we say that the earliest hominids (who would eventually become humans) left the forest on January 1st at 12:00 am, the first Homo sapiens (that’s us!) didn’t arrive until December 23rd—almost a full year later. And we didn’t develop agriculture until 1:03 pm on December 31st.
Our modern society accounts for approximately the last 30 seconds of this evolutionary calendar—yet so much of our current culture has been created during this time. The way we live is, in many ways, in stark contrast to the way we evolved to live, which has introduced numerous problems.
In this article, we’ll go over two of the ways we’ve changed over this last brief period of our timeline, and how to return to our evolutionary norms.
Diurnal Sleep Schedule vs. 24-hour Lifestyle
Humans are diurnal creatures. For thousands of years, we existed by sleeping at night and conducting whatever business needed conducting during the day. The vast majority of the reasons behind this, however, are no longer things we need concern ourselves with.
Whether a species evolves to be nocturnal or diurnal is usually forced upon it by environmental factors. Humans fared better in the light of the day; we’re large creatures, so hiding from predators during the day was more difficult, and our eyes were well suited for seeing in the light.
While technology has eliminated many of the environmental reasons for us being diurnal, we existed that way for long enough that our bodies evolved to need nighttime sleep. Because we’ve been diurnal for the vast majority of our evolutionary history, our brains have evolved to begin releasing a hormone called melatonin when light levels dip.
Today, we surround ourselves with artificial light up until the moment we go to sleep. As a result, our bodies may not generate the melatonin necessary for fulfilling sleep. Even when we do turn down the lights, we often stare into our brightly lit phone screens, ironically waiting for sleep’s tender embrace while scaring it away.
But there are ways to correct this. Let’s start with the simplest way to hack your biology and get a better night’s sleep—turn off ALL of the lights.
Once we understand that our bodies respond to reduced light we can make the logical choice to reduce the lighting. Start by putting down your phone. Staring at a phone or computer screen in an otherwise dark room is especially disruptive to your sleep cycle, so give yourself a rule that if the lights are off, your screens are off too.
If you have a TV in your bedroom, take it out. Charge your phone in another room, or at the other end of the bedroom, so you’re not tempted to look at it. Small changes like this can make a big difference in how we feel when it’s time to wake up in the morning.
Take things further by embracing a no-screens rule for at least an 90 minutes before bedtime. Instead of watching TV or scrolling through your phone, try working on a (screen-free) hobby, meditating, or reading a book (good old-fashioned books are best, but we’ll allow an exception for front-lit e-readers since they don’t affect your eyes and brain the way a backlit screen does).
This will give your body time to ramp up its melatonin production without the disruption of a glowing screen, and you’ll find yourself naturally more ready for sleep when the time comes.
Hunter Gatherer vs. The Corporate Feeding Trough
Much like our sleep cycle, the diet our bodies expect has evolved over millions of years. For the vast majority of our species’ existence, we sustained ourselves on foraged roots and berries, and meats we were able to hunt. Our bodies evolved to process and make use of these types of food.
In the past century, however, the foods made available have changed drastically. Corporations, whose sole purpose is to turn a profit, now provide our foods. Foods are pumped full of preservatives in order to lengthen shelf life, and filled with sugars and salt to make them downright addictive to a large portion of the population.
As a result, our bodies are unable to process a lot of the ingredients in these new foods, which causes us to lose out on necessary nutrients. We fill up on high calorie, low nutritional value foods, and out bodies are forced to figure out what to do with all of the excess calories while still feeling like it’s deprived of the nutrients it needs.
This dietary chaos has brought on a huge rise in food-related medical conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease. As a comparison, studies of the few remaining hunter/gatherer tribes discovered that these people don’t traditionally develop these increasingly common ailments.
The Next Evolution: Where to Go from Here
Again, the solution is deceptively simple. Go back to eating what we were designed to eat.
That’s not saying you should start eating only what you can scavenge from the local park, though that methodology has seen some success. Rather, we should start preparing our foods from the simplest ingredients possible. Start slow, beginning with a couple of meals each week prepared with whole cuts of meat and fresh, seasonal produce.
Keep the ingredients varied. In our past, we’d migrate with the seasons, and have a wide variety of foods as we moved. Before long, you’ll be ready to expand to having these types of meals more often than not, and your body will thank you.
Nobody’s advocating that we abandon all of the benefits of modern living and go back to living in the forests. But we should all respect our history as a species, and make a conscious effort to stay connected to those roots despite the modern cultural norms surrounding us.
Making small changes around your sleep and eating habits, based upon a deeper understanding of where we came from as a species, can help us regain some of the energy and healthfulness that we’ve lost.