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Our Old Genes Have Collided with the Modern World

July 27, 2013, 7:00 AM

Biologists refer to humans as a “weed species.”  And this is not meant as an insult.  When we say, “weed species,” the idea is that there are species that can thrive in a wide variety of environments. 

And we are a weed species in the sense that we are adaptable, we can live in Africa, in Europe, and the tundra, wherever it might be, we can adapt to those circumstances.  And one of the ways in which we adapt is the fact that we have these very adaptive plastic brains that allow us to learn from whatever environment we are exposed to.  And what that’s led to is great success, so that we started out of Africa and we invaded the entire globe and we can pretty much live almost anywhere on the globe with perhaps a few exceptions.  

But that also comes with the consequence that since we are so adaptive, we are constantly adapting to our new environments.  And so we have these old genes that are well adapted to living in some previous environment that are constantly encountering new environments. 

Whether it be urban living, suburban living, encountering new technologies like Facebook or whatever that might be, we’re constantly encountering these new environments.  And what that means is that these old genes that have served us so well have now encountered this new world of media, of television, of internet access, of whatever it might be.  And what that means is that there’s this collision of our old genes with the modern world.  

There’s some consequences that are good and there’s some other consequences that are perhaps neutral and some other consequences yet that are perhaps not so good.  So as we encounter electronic media, multi-media, all of these things in our lives, we start having some changes that occur in our brains as we adapt to these new environments that we’re constantly being presented with.  

So one example of this is electronic entertainment and the availability for children.  So small children in the United States, the average age of first exposure to television is five months.  And it is well-known that electronic media, such as television and other kinds of entertainment are either neutral or adverse for children’s development before the three. 

And what that means is that from infancy, children are exposed to these videos with quick cuts, with colorful scenes, with lots of interesting things happening on the screen. And since infants are wired to learn by active engagement, it’s probably, almost certainly negative for their development to be exposed to electronic media before the age of three.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


Our Old Genes Have Collided...

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