A critical moment in the life of a sea turtle is when it hatches from its egg, digs its way to the surface of the beach, and makes its way to the sea. How does it know which direction to head? Countless generations of natural selection have endowed it with an attraction toward light, since the sea surface reliably reflects more light than the interior of an island. Until the construction of beach houses and streetlights, which cause baby sea turtles to make the fatal decision of heading in the wrong direction.
This is an example of evolutionary mismatch—a disconnect between an organism’s adaptations to past environments and its current environment. Mismatches are an inevitable consequence of evolution in changing environments, but some mismatches call for preventative measures to preserve what we value. If we value sea turtles, for example, then it is up to us to solve the mismatch that we created; for example by organizing brigades of volunteers to pick up baby sea turtles and carry them to the sea, by observing blackouts during hatching season, and so on.
Evolutionary mismatches are all around us, once we know how to look for them. Our impact on the natural environment, which has recently been dubbed the Anthropocene, creates countless mismatches for other species. In addition, we have been creating mismatches for ourselves ever since we started to change our environments in an autocatalytic spiral from hunter-gatherer groups to the mega-societies of today.
TVOL is pleased to initiate an exploration of evolutionary mismatch with a collection of short commentaries by thought leaders on the subject. The instructions that we posed to them was: Describe an example of evolutionary mismatch that calls for preventative measures to preserve what we value, such as our personal health, the wellbeing of society, or the wellbeing of the natural world. Be sure to include a discussion of what can be done about your example of mismatch. Since mismatches result from any evolutionary process, feel free to choose an example of genetic or cultural mismatch, as you see fit.
The last sentence of our instructions is a bit subtle. As a rapid process of adaptation, cultural evolution provides solutions to genetic mismatches, such as warm clothing in cold climates. Nevertheless, cultural evolution can have its own mismatches, such as religions that preach dominion over the earth when more sustainable practices are called for. If there is more to evolution than genetic evolution, then there is more to mismatch than genetic mismatch.
The commentaries will be followed by articles and interviews that provide deeper dives into the many facets of evolutionary mismatch. It would be hard to imagine a more important topic for understanding and improving the human and planetary condition.
Read the full Evolutionary Mismatch series:
- Introduction: Evolutionary Mismatch and What To Do About It by David Sloan Wilson
- Functional Frivolity: The Evolution and Development of the Human Brain Through Play by Aaron Blaisdell
- A Mother’s Mismatch: Why Cancer Has Deep Evolutionary Roots by Amy M. Boddy
- It’s Time To See the Light (Another Example of Evolutionary Mismatch) by Dan Pardi
- Generating Testable Hypotheses of Evolutionary Mismatch by Sudhindra Rao
- (Mis-) Communication in Medicine: A Preventive Way for Doctors to Preserve Effective Communication in Technologically-Evolved Healthcare Environments by Brent C. Pottenger