Human Paleopsychology


Mismatch Theory

Study these pages and become a paleopsychologist!
Bailey, Kent G.  MISMATCH THEORY 1: BASIC PRINCIPLES.  ASCAP Newsletter,9:2, 1996.
     In Santa Barbara this past June, I had the opportunity to discuss mismatch theory on a panel assembled by Charles Crawford of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia.  Along with Professor Crawford and myself, S. Boyd Eaton and Randy Nesse presented papers.  Several ASCAP members asked for copies of my paper following the program, and I told them to look for something in the Newsletter.  This is the first of the series.
      Mismatch theory is based on five fundamental assumptions:
1.  human morphology and behavior originally evolved in zones of time called EEAs (environments of evolutionary adaptation);
2. the human species ceased to evolve, to any great degree, beyond late Homo sapiens 40,000 years ago;
3.  massive cultural and environmental change has occurred in the past 40,000 years;
4. current human beings often find their naturally evolved selves mismatched or at odds with current physical, social, and                 cultural environments; and
5. the frequency and magnitude of mismatch for a given individual is positively correlate with levels of both physical and                   psychological pathology. 
     Following this logic, we modern human beings may occasionally find ourselves in circumstances that are similar to the EEAs of our ancestors in phylogeny, but, more often we are likely to experience situations highly dissimilar to ancestral ones.  When our circumstances closely match ancestral ones, it is probable that the perceptual/motivational/behavioral intercoordinations will be much like ancestral ones, and, moreover, "adaptive" outcomes are likely.  Thus, when in environments that resemble ancestral environments, and when we allow our human nature to express itself without significant interference by way of will power or moral prohibition, then adaptable proximal processes will naturally lead to ultimately adaptive consequences. 
     Said yet another way, when we either seek out or accidently encounter EEA-like situations, and when our evolved hardware (structural undrpinnings of our adaptations, mechanisms, design characteristics, etc.) and software (analogous functional underpinnings) are within normal limits, and when our learned dispositions and conscious choices do not significantly interfere with the "natural" process, then evolutionarily adaptive outcomes are likely
     Thus, even when our current environmental circumstances are highly similar to ancestal EEAs, behavioral outputs will not necessarily be "matched" with ancestral ones, nor will the outcomes be necessarily adaptive.  But we probably will choose to behave naturally much of the time when in EEA-like situations, and adaptive outcomes will be more likely than when circumstances are dissimilar to original ones.  My approach here is highly cognitive, and rests on the assumption that human beings are wired to behave naturally in natural circumstances, but that wiring can be cognitively overridden on occasion.
    We humans are designed to easily resort to evolutionary default values, but one of the truly distinctive traits of Homo sapiens is the potential to "transcend" natural preogatives.
     We see that a full "match" between EEA-like circumstances is not inevitable even when the current/ancestral environmental match is nigh-perfect, for there is still the problem of whether the individual's internal environment (viz., human nature) is allowed to "match" the hypothetical modal behavior of our ancestors during evolution.  All of this implies that a full match is somewhat rare even in the most favorable external environments. 
     Thus, I argue that human nature rarely expresses itself as it did in the EEA, at least at the level of complex social behavior.  Of course, our coronary, hepatic, pulmonary, metabolic, and many other vital functions of the body must effect a constant flow of body-environment "matches" and failure to do so will qucikly lead to a shut down of body processes and a quick death.  At the vital level, there is little freedom or optionality, but there is a great amount of "freedom" at the social and psychological levels.
     Given this freedom, and given that modern humans live in environments drastically different from ancestral EEAs, we see that human nature-environment matches are quite unlikely at the social and psychological levels- we humans are simply highly mismatched creatures.  Try monitoring your behavior for a single day, and then estimate how many of your social and psychological outputs were "adaptive"- that is, reasonally well matched both environmentally and behaviorally.  It will be quickly evident that the modern human being is anything but a robot running off evolved programs irespective of current context or current frame of mind.
      I suggest that most human behavior is non-adapted, contra-adapted, or maladapted to most of the situations encountered in a given day; it is not a question of whether the modern human is mismatched or not, but one of whether or not a sufficient number of healthy matches are achieved and pathological mismatches are avoided.  Its all relative, and I suspect that a person who is highly mismatched statistically (e. g., an overweight, type-A smoker who works 15 hours a a day in a loud, contentious newsroom) might be quite healthy and happy due to a relatively few, high quality "matches" (has a loving and supportive mate, goes fishing every weekend, and sleeps a good eight hours every night).  Indeed, one of the great challenges of mismatch theory is to specify the quality and quantity of "matches" that are necessary for the good life.  
The widening nature-culture mismatch
       "Neoculture" is erected upon relatively recent technological advances in human history.  It is associated with the brightest nonconformists and often transcends traditional culture.  Neoculture is global and offers benefits to particular cultures (scientific knowledge, medical advances, air travel, etc.), ambiguous "advances" such as automobiles, TV, and the microwave oven, and liabilities in the form of environmental pollution and degradation.  Also, neoculture tends to be exclusionary and the province of the very bright few. 
     Throughout 99% of human evolution, human ancestors were hunter-gatherers, and during that time biological and cultural evolution were fairly closely matched.  Culture  was presumably little more than the natural extension of social and tribal functions, with minimal emphasis on transgeneration storage, formalization, and symbolization of rituals, concepts, and  ideologies for their own sake. 
     In early human phylogeny, neoculture was based on technological innovation in natural matters of hunting, gathering, food processing and storage, shelter construction,
and weapons development and refinement.  Such innovations were probably instituted by a small minority of the brightest, most curious, and luckiest members of the band, but a substantial segment of those in the regular cultural mainstream could learn to master the new technology.    
     Throughout the 3 to 4 million years of hunting and gathering, our biological natures, culture, and neoculture probably evolved along together in mutual sympathy and balance, but with the apparent leveling off of biological evolution 40,000 thousand or so years ago the processes of nature-culture separation were set into motion.  Culture and neoculture began to take on lives of their own apart from their originators, and the vast accumulation of knowledge and technological know-how became a powerful end in itself.
     Basic culture was characterized by a fairly modest plane of ascent over the course of pre-modern to modern Homo sapiens, whereas technology-based  neoculture tended to ascend very sharply following the argricultural, industrial, information and cybernetic revolutions.  Rapid technological advance is the defining characteristic of our age, and it is probable that more neocultural growth has occurred in the past century than in all prior human history.  And it is probable that the next 50 years of technological progress will vastly overshadow anything we have seen so far.  The concept of mismatch will prove to be an increasingly important means of understanding these momentous changes.
Note- this version is a slightly edited version of the original.
Kent G. Bailey