Human Nature Review  2003 Volume 3: 17-20 ( 17 January )
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Book Review

When culture and biology collide: Why we are stressed, depressed, and
By Euclid O. Smith
New Jersey: Rutgers University Press (2002)

Reviewed by Keith S. Harris, Ph.D., Research Director, Department of Behavioral
Health, San Bernardino County, CA, USA.

We are arguably the most plastic and prolific of creatures. We have adapted to
life in the frozen north and at the steamy equator, on the tops of mountains,
in barren deserts, along stormy coastlines and perched atop volcanic islands.
We multiply equally well in small, quiet, family-size groups and crowded,
cramped, noisy cities. We're living longer, healthier, and more comfortably by
far than ever before in human history.

Yet despite our ever-growing life span, the miraculous advances in medical
knowledge and science, and the everyday conveniences made possible by
technological advances, psychologists have turned up no evidence to suggest
that we are happier or more satisfied now than we were a hundred years ago, or
a thousand years ago, or even fifty thousand years ago.

So what's the problem? Human beings have simply shaped an everyday world for
which we were not designed.

Our species evolved with a strong preference for a particular physical and
social environment. Evolutionary psychologists call this elusive Eden the
 "EEA," or environment of evolutionary adaptedness. The terrain, weather, flora
and fauna were all perfectly suited to Homo sapiens, and we were suited to it.
We lived in smallish bands of extended families, with minimal but optimal
levels of inter-group exchange of genes and cultures.

According to E. O. Smith, "the vast majority of our evolutionary history took
place in the context of a nomadic lifestyle, with hunting of wild game and
gathering of vegetable foods.... we functioned in small groups and with a
simple technology until very recently. Survival of the fittest in that archaic
environment profoundly shaped our biology-our dietary, health, emotional, and
also our psychological needs." (p. 7)

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When Culture and Biology Collide: Why We Are Stressed, Depressed, and
by Euclid O. Smith
Hardcover: 266 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.94 x 9.34 x 6.24
Publisher: Rutgers University Press; ; (July 1, 2002

An examination of the ways in which our evolved biology interacts with our
cultural environment.

Why do we do things that we know are bad for us? Why do we line up to buy
greasy fast food that is terrible for our bodies? Why do we take the
potentially lethal risk of cosmetic surgery to have a smaller nose, bigger
lips, or a less wrinkled face? Why do we risk life and limb in a fit of road
rage to seek revenge against someone who merely cut us off in traffic? If these
life choices are simply responses to cultural norms and pressures, then why did
these particularly self-destructive patterns evolve in place of more sensible

In When Culture and Biology Collide, E. O. Smith explores behaviors that are
endemic to contemporary Western society, and proposes new ways of understanding
and addressing these problems. Our physiology and behavior are the products of
thousands of generations of evolutionary history. Every day we play out
behaviors that have been part of the human experience for a very long time, yet
these behaviors are enacted in an arena that is far different from that in
which they evolved. Smith argues that this discordance between behavior and
environment sets up conditions in which there can be real conflict between our
evolved psychological predispositions and the dictates of culture.

Topics such as drug abuse, depression, beauty and self-image, obesity and
dieting, stress and violence, ethnic diversity, and welfare are all used as
sample case studies. In all of his case studies, Smith emphasizes the
importance of not using an evolutionary explanation as an excuse for a
particular pattern of behavior. Instead, he seeks to offer a perspective that
will help us see ourselves more clearly and that may be useful in developing
intelligent solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Smith provides ways of
developing strategies for minimizing our self-destructive tendencies.

E. O. Smith is an associate professor of anthropology at Emory University and
the coeditor of Evolutionary Medicine. He is also the editor of Social Play in
Primates and Primate Ecology and Human Origins.

Excerpted from When Culture and Biology Collide

"My goal is not to suggest an evolutionary explanation for all of our personal
and societal ills but to offer a perspective that may be useful in developing
intelligent solutions to what seem to be intractable problems. In addition, I
am not suggesting that an evolutionary explanation should be taken as an excuse
to engage in certain undesirable behaviors. To say that we are predisposed to
be aggressive, so dangerous driving practices are justified, is nonsense.
Understanding something about how we have evolved to express and manage our
aggressive behavior may allow for the development of alternative methods to
modify behavior. One of the risks that a book like this runs is that people
will use it to rationalize dangerous and antisocial behavior. I hope that
instead it will allow us to see ourselves more clearly and develop strategies
for minimizing those destructive tendencies."