Our appearance and the way we move, rest, sleep, think, eat, gather and communicate have all changed dramatically since Homo sapiens first walked the planet probably well over 300,000 years ago. We have not evolved all that much since then, but as we have been extremely busy farming, irrigating, planning, building, mining, drilling, testing and dumping waste in those surroundings, those very surroundings have been changing us. And we are arriving at a moment in our history that is about to be named for the tremendous impact our activities as a species have had on our environment.
Which geological epoch are living in? The first and more traditional answer is that since the end of the last Ice Age about 11,700 years ago we have been in the Holocene. It is characterized as a relatively stable and warm phase of Earth history. The preceding epoch, the Pleistocene (during which humans evolved) was a staggering 2.5 million years in length.
The second answer is that we are living in the Anthropocene (from the Greek words anthropos, meaning “human” and kainos, meaning “recent” or “new”).
The name is teetering on the brink of official designation. Evidence for its renaming is being gathered all over the world: from sudden spikes in mineral novelty to the radioactive isotopes from numerous nuclear tests. Dangerously high levels of phosphate and nitrogen in soils, plastic pollution, the globally pervasive spread of concrete particles and even chicken bones can be included as evidence—the remains of the billions and billions of chickens that have been produced for human consumption are fast becoming a permanent part of the fossil record. The modern chicken that is industrially reared for human consumption is also larger and meatier than it was just a few decades ago. Thanks to our endeavours, we now boast Anthropocene chickens as well as humans.
The bodies of humans evolved during the Pleistocene between two and three million years ago and have moved through several phases to become what they are today.
One of the key moments in our evolutionary history was when, in different parts of the world, we stopped collecting food and began growing it instead, roughly ten to twenty thousand years ago. As humans significantly changed their relationship with their immediate environment by farming instead of hunting and growing instead of gathering, their bodies began to change, too. Their new diet didn’t just change the shape of their stomachs, but also their faces.
The number of teeth they had (and we still have) became surplus to requirements. With their softer and mealier diet their jaws failed to mature and expand properly, so they developed malocclusions, or misalignments. Their teeth didn’t fit in their head any more. The shift to a carbohydrate-heavy diet also brought with it more tooth decay. Our genes respond to some of these changes where and when they can, but they are doing so inconsistently and very slowly; in other cases, evolution plays no role whatsoever. Evolution does not take into account health and well-being—or pain or morbidity if these strike beyond the age at which humans normally reproduce. And 10,000 years is a tiny span of time when compared to the history of the species.
If you were to compress the entire lifespan of the human-like species into the 9-5 of a working day, then we wouldn’t start growing food until about 4.58 pm. To get to the Industrial Revolution, you’d need to wait until about 4.59 and 58 seconds. But in that short window of time we have been busily changing the world; altering its lithosphere, messing with its species, polluting its oceans and drilling holes in its strata—Kola, a 12-km (7.5-mile) deep borehole was built out of curiosity by the Russians. We have also been experimenting with all the responsibility of a toddler brandishing its parents’ loaded gun.
The Anthropocene human is one whose body has changed—not as a result of evolution, but in response to the environment we have created. And the list of associated pathologies and illnesses connected to modern life is not only long, it is also full of recognizable diseases.
The number one cause of disability in nearly every country of the world is back pain. But our backs are one of the oldest parts of us. They link us to the earliest vertebrates of half a billion years ago, why are they suddenly causing us so much pain? While it is important to stress that there are no easy answers, the most likely cause is inactivity.
Sedentary work did not exist 10,000 years ago, and until about 100 years ago it was extremely uncommon.
Diminished levels of activity are also in the frame for a whole host of other illnesses, too. Research is showing that Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and many cancers are all strongly linked to it. Then there are gateway pathologies, more minor conditions that make movement a little less enticing, like osteoarthritis, which in turn are also linked to a diminution of movement and prepare the way for the big three.
Then there are the ‘indoor’ pathologies, ones which have come about because we don’t spend enough time out in nature. Asthma kills tens of thousands each year and is part of a suite of disorders and diseases (like hay fever, food allergy, even type 1 diabetes and irritable bowel syndrome) that have been connected to the fact that our immune systems fail to get fully educated in the urban environment, because most people that live in them have so little access to nature.
Shortsightedness is a related disease. It can lead to blindness in older age, has weak genetic determination, yet it is spreading at such speed it is anticipated that by 2050, half the world’s population will be myopic. Children are born longsighted, and as they grow, their eyes need good quality (outdoor) light to develop properly. There is no such thing as good quality domestic light, and without it, their eyes can’t develop.
If this all sounds rather grim and hopeless, help is coming. While there is no “solution” to the Anthropocene, there are sackfuls of them for the Anthropocene body. If much of our morbidity derives from our lifestyle, then in many cases it is a matter of making simple changes that will have a big impact on the way we live. The solutions usually focus on giving our bodies a little more of what they were expecting to find in the environment they were born into, rather than the weird concrete land they encountered. These solutions are not to eat raw meat or drink from a river, but more about finding ways of making the benefits of modern life work better for us. The basic facts, though, are that our bodies expect us to move and to be in natural environments. Most importantly, if we are to change a little of the Anthropocene body, it’s imperative that we encourage our children to do these things, too.
Adapted from Primate Change: How the World We Made is Remaking Us by Vybarr Cregan-Reid, published by Cassell, an imprint of Octopus Publishing Group. Copyright © 2018 by Vybarr Cregan-Reid.