Human Nature now





“When the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen visited Easter Island in 1772, he found a barren landscape inhabited by a society on the verge of ecological collapse. Yet only a few hundred years earlier, the island had been covered in lush forests with a thriving culture. Disaster struck – and it was entirely human-made. The islanders were competing for status by erecting huge stone statues, and so many trees had been needed to transport the monuments that by 1722 the island was almost completely deforested. So much for the environmentalists’ cliché of the “noble savage”.”

“Natural selection has endowed humans with a psychology best suited to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which means that a large portion of human-inflicted ecological damage may well be caused, or seriously exacerbated, by innate tendencies to value self-interest, short-termism, relative status and social imitation, and by our ability to ignore novel threats.”

“The desire to attain a higher rank fuels the consumption of luxury goods, thereby contributing to the depletion of natural resources and to pollution and waste. Yet such consumption does not seem to make people happier. The average US income has increased by 140 per cent since 1946 but, as far as the best metrics can tell, average happiness has not.”

Their research has shown that when the evolved nature of humans is used to inform changes in the way things are run, people can then naturally become more environmental in their behaviour. Working against our nature’s will not save Nature.

(Mark van Vugt and Vladas Griskevicius ‘Let’s use evolution to turn us green’ p26-27 New Sci 15 Sep 2012)



The medical definition of stress used to be about the body’s reaction to strains put upon it by the external world. The link with poverty is being ignored and “In the scramble for drugs and therapy, the social and developmental context of stress and stress-related disease is conveniently ignored.” Becker says that this pushes the “burden of responsibility on to vulnerable people to change themselves – to solve their own problems – and it condones the external conditions that lead to their suffering.” “Her enduring point is this is not a level playing field since those whose living conditions make them more susceptible to stress have the least access to tools that would help.”

Schoen looks at how “The modern world puts us on edge, which triggers maladaptive behaviours that then become entrenched. He suggests ways to correct this distorted response to stress. Some make good sense, though are easier said than done: wind down before trying to sleep, stop procrastinating, delay your need for gratification, use a breathing meditation, learn to experience discomfort without reacting to it.” [Mindfulness meditation.]

(Michael Bond ‘Get off my back!’ p46-47 New Sci 6 Apr 2013. Review of “One Nation Under Stress: the trouble with stress as an idea” by Dana Baker Oxford University Press 2013 and “Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You: Retrain your brain to conquer fear, and make better decisions , and thrive in the 21st century” by Marc Schoen. Hudson Street Press 2013)



Why do we so avidly watch disasters on the news, and what effect does it have on us?

“Dr Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Centre in the US, studies its impact on our psyche. “We do it because the human brain is hardwired to notice potential problems,” she explains. “Evolutionary speaking, it was more important for our survival to be aware of danger, or things that seem to change, or things that are unusual. Trees and flowers are lovely, but noticing tigers is way more important. Understanding things that seem like threats can create a sense of certainty. But if the amount of bad news is overwhelming, if we continue to think the world is chaotic, it will increase [our] sense of helplessness. It’s frightening to feel we cannot control our own destiny.”

Cary Cooper, Lancaster of University. “The media makes people more negative. It makes people insecure and frustrated. People don’t perceive they have control over their jobs or finances and you take that frustration out on people around you.”

Gossip “Dishing the dirt shores up social norms by clarifying all those unwritten rules and spreading useful information about potential harmful people and behaviour. According to a 2009 study from the University of Michigan, sharing gossip reduces stress by boosting levels of progesterone in the brain. Backbiting also confers status and strengthens bonds – research shows strangers connect more quickly through sharing thoughts about things they dislike than things they feel positively about.”

“Evolutionary psychologists talk of ‘supranormal stimuli’ to explain how primal urges go awry.” “But rational creatures need not be slaves to instincts gone berserk.”

(Adam Forest ‘Does the news make you sick?’ p19-21 Big Issue 16-22 Jan 2011)





‘Inactivity research’ has revealed that sitting or other forms of inactivity damage your health even if you exercise as well. “Just as you cannot compensate for smoking 20 a day by running 10 kilometres at the weekend, a bout of high intensity exercise does not cancel out the effect of watching TV for hours on end [reading or office work].” A team at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta, Georgia lead by Alpa Patel did a study which “found that people who spent hours sitting had a higher morality rate even if they worked out for 45 to 60 minutes a day. The researchers call these people “active couch potatoes”.” In our ordinary days, most of us are inactive 55 to 75 per cent of the time with exercise only taking up 5 per cent or less!

“From an evolutionary point of view, we are built to be active,” says Audrey Bergouignan of the University of Colorado, Denver.

Between sixty and forty minutes exercise a day has health benefits, but “we should think of extensive sitting as another risk factor that should be addressed separately.”

(Richard A. Lovett ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Well don’t’ p44-47 New Sci 29 June 2013)



“Throughout evolution, humans have been active. Our ancestors chased prey as hunter-gatherers and fled from predators. More recently, they laboured on farms and in factories. But the decline of agricultural and industrial labour, plus the invention of the car, a multitude of labour saving devices and – most perniciously – TV, computers and video games, mean we’ve all ground to a sudden and catastrophic standstill. “We were built to be active, but the way our environment has changed and the way we live our lives has led us to become inactive,” says Christopher Hughes, senior lecturer in sport and exercise medicine at Queen Mary, University of London.”

Hughes “If physical inactivity was packaged and sold as a product, it would need to carry a health warning label,”

The US Government advice “prescribes 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, ballroom dancing or gardening, or 75 minutes of more vigorous activity such as cycling, running or swimming.”

Steven Blair, South Carolina in Columbia.  “The most common excuse people give in polls is that they don’t have time,” says Blair. Perhaps this is not surprising when US citizens spend, on average, almost 8 hours a day watching TV, according to a 2008 study.”

“Blair sites a study in which researchers asked half of a group of couch potatoes to walk round their sofa during each TV commercial break. “They burned 65 calories more per hour, and that is 260 calories more in 4 hours,” he says. Over a week, their exertions met the US government recommendations for exercise.”

“One of his studies has shown that for fit fat people, the risk of dying prematurely is half that for unfit lean people.”

“Figures published in The Lancet last month back up his assertion that no action, other than abstaining from smoking, is as good for health as being physically active.”

(Andy Coghlan ‘The best medicine’ p39-41 25 Aug 2012 New Sci)



Stress makes you lose weight but everyday stress can have the opposite effect.

Rajita Sinha director of the Yale Stress Centre at Yale University (Neuropsychopharmacology, vol 36, p627) suggest that “instead on counting calories, she recommends mindfulness, stress reduction and meditation techniques to cultivate awareness of how your thoughts and behaviours can undermine your health.”

You will not burn off brown fat unless regularly exposed to cold.

A high protein diet with low GI allow most people to get full without putting on weight. (New England Journal of Medicine, vol 363, p2102).

(Emma Young “You may scoff….” p62-64 New Sci 24/31 Dec 2011)



Currently of all the supplements and vitamins out there, only Zinc and Echinacea have solid evidence to show that they have an effect. This effect is only to aid recovery, it does not prevent inflection.

(Jessica Hamzelou ‘Retune your immune system’ p34 New Sci 7 Apr 2012)


“I think it will become clear that cancer prevention is the main benefit of aspirin in healthy middle-aged people,” says Rothwell.” (Peter Rothwell, Oxford University).

(Linda Giddes ‘Cancer no match for humble Aspirin’ p6 New Sci 3 Nov 2011)



“Mice exposed to light at night weighed 10 per cent more at the end of the eight study than mice that had experienced a standard light / dark cycle, even though they ate the same total number of calories and did the same amount of exercise (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 107, p18664). Several other studies have found that shift work makes people fatter.”

Recommended to keep to same pattern all week, and avoid LEDs with blue light at night.

Also polluted air in a city can lead to weight accumulation.

(Emma Young ‘You may scoff….’ p62-64 New Sci 24/31 Dec 2011)



“Vision evolved because of the need to know if it was day or night, says Steven Lockley, a sleep researcher at Harvard Medical School in Boston. To differentiate night from day, light-sensitive melanopsin receptors in our eyes tune our sleep-wake cycle to match the 24-hour day. These receptors respond to all visible light, but they’re most sensitive to blue, which peaks in natural sunlight at midday.  When it detects this blue tinged light, the body responds by suppressing production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, and that make us feel alert. We are highly sensitive to blue, and although these receptors are in the eyes, they respond even if you can’t actually “see” blue. From midday to dusk, the blue in natural light fades, to be replaced by a reddish tint that stops the suppression of melatonin, reduces our alertness and allows us to get ready for sleep.”

“Constant, unchanging light – including blue light at night – prevents the melatonin system from sensing the darkness it needs to promote sleep.” Serious health effects.

Women on night shift have a 50% increase in breast cancer rates.

Blue light can be used during the day to suppress melatonin to avoid depression. It is consequently bad to use at night.

(Jeff Hecht ‘Better than sunshine’ p42-45 New Sci 30 June 2012)



There is plenty of evidence that a lack of sleep causes mental illness and depression, but has long been mistaken for a symptom of mental illness. Many who have been diagnosed may only actually be having sleep abnormalities.

(Emma Young ‘Sleep well, stay sane’ p34 New Sci 21 February 2009)