In 2012, after being home to various classes of primates for some 100+ years, the renowned Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo closed down – and the current primate residents at the Zoo reside in habitats that are designed to match the natural habitats of the various species. This event is part of a broader movement in zoos across the world – based on the highly reasonable idea that all species have evolved to fit particular environmental conditions. Such features that typify the ancestral conditions of an organism characterize the organism’s Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness or EEA (Bowlby, 1969). Housing a monkey, whose ancestors go millions of years deep into specific African jungle environments, in a small cage in the zoo of a large city is simply evolutionarily misguided – and arguably, as a result, cruel. Animals essentially need to have many key features of their ancestral environments in their current conditions – as their bodies and minds are the result of evolutionary processes that took place under these specific conditions. In an evolutionarily novel and unnatural environment, solid research shows that various primates will demonstrate signs of physiological and psychological stress (see Harlow & Suomi, 1971).
And this idea critically relates to the nature of being human in modern times. If you live in a modern, Westernized part of the world (as is almost necessarily true if you’re reading this on the web – or reading this at all right now …), then you are, in many ways (metaphorically), living in a cage in a zoo.
A key principle of evolutionary psychology (see Geher, 2014) is the notion that modern humans in Westernized societies experience important instances of evolutionary mismatch. From the evolutionary perspective, understanding the topic of evolutionary mismatch is essential in allowing us to understand so much of what it means to be human.
Here is a list of 10 ways that modern, Westernized humans, like you (and me), are, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, living “in the Monkey House” …
10. You are surrounded in your day-to-day life by a higher proportion of strangers than would have ever been true of our pre-agrarian hominid ancestors.
9. You run into a higher total number of people than would have ever been true of our pre-agrarian hominid ancestors.
8. You have the option of spending 90% of your waking hours sitting at a desk – and you often exercise this option.
7. Your extended family includes people who are dispersed across hundreds or thousands of miles (think New York and Florida …).
6. You have been exposed to more images of violence (via movies, etc.) than would have ever been possible for pre-agrarian hominids.
5. You were likely educated in an age-stratified system – spending each of several years in a group comprised of about 25 others who matched you in age – and being taught in a classroom environment by a few specially designated “teachers.” You likely spent a lot of time sitting behind desks in the process.
4. You are exposed regularly to politics at a global scale – often discussing or being involved in issues that potentially pertain to thousands, millions, or even billions of other humans.
3. You were raised in some variant of a nuclear family – with less assistance from aunts, uncles, older cousins, and grandparents, than would have been typical of our nomadic ancestors.
2. You spend a great deal of time interacting with “screens” and “devices” – having the evolutionarily unprecedented possibility of almost never having to be bored at all.
1. You can eat an entire diet of processed foods – and you live in a world where processed foods (think McDonald’s …) are cheaper and more accessible than natural foods.
Note that this list is, certainly, incomplete and preliminary at best – there are clearly and undoubtedly other worthy contenders for this list! That said, I’m hopeful that this list can help open the eyes of those interested in human psychology to the importance of evolutionary mismatch in understanding all aspects of who we are.
As Kurt Vonnegut wrote: Welcome to the Monkey House.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss. Vol. 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Harlow, H.F., & Suomi, S. J. (1971). Social Recovery by Isolation-Reared Monkeys, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America, 68, 1534-1538.
Vonnegut, K. (1968). Welcome to the Monkey House. New York: Delacorte Press.