One of Darwin’s principles of evolution became popularized in the phrase “survival of the fittest.” The problem with memorable slogans like this is that they simplify complex phenomena. In this instance, Darwin’s observations were correct, but his interpretation missed the mark. Scientists now understand that “fitness” does not necessarily mean physical or mental robustness as the slogan suggests. Species survive because they have successfully adapted to changes in their physical and social environment.
Anne Gibson of the Max Planck Institute recently wrote that “Our species’ ability to occupy diverse and ‘extreme’ settings around the world stands in stark contrast to the ecological adaptations of other hominin taxa, and may explain how our species became the last surviving hominin on the planet.” (1) Her statement is echoed by many evolutionary scientists, suggesting that Darwin’s “fitness” is principally the ability to adapt to extreme and changing conditions. A perfect example of this today is the wearing of a mask and following the recommendations of the Center For Disease Control to limit the spread of the Coronavirus. The evolutionary trajectory predicts that, over time, those who follow healthy guidelines are more likely to survive and produce healthy—well-balanced and capable—offspring. Against this, the white supremacist movement is an example of individuals swimming against the evolutionary current, which favors species variety. Rather than adapt to the changing racial “climate”—biologically and socially—around the world, they are responding with violence, which excludes them from viability in society and participation in the leading edge of evolution. To align with evolution, a better strategy would be to encourage white people to have more children.
A principle in the field of evolutionary psychology posits that ancestors who had psychological advantages, passed down “adaptive behaviors” to future generations. Among these abilities, characteristic of “complex, deeply rooted neural circuits in the brain” (2), are gaining trust, building relationships and reading others’ intentions, behaviors that are known to help a person throughout life. In the following, I identify key factors that contribute to adaptation—qualities that contribute to health and well-being, those that can be passed down.
Outlook / Worldview
The perception of self, others and the world top the list of adaptive thinking because, if one’s gestalt or worldview is skewed in the direction of self-gratification, all the lessons in life will be a struggle to learn that, in the end, it’s dysfunctional, limits personal growth, promotes dissatisfaction and a life bereft of meaning. On the other hand, a positive outlook can be the engine that drives us to create health and well-being. “In one study of 30,000 Americans, those who had the highest levels of stress were 43 percent more likely to die only if they also believed that stress was bad for their health. In contrast, those who experienced high stress but didn’t view it as harmful were the least likely to die compared to any other group in the study—including people who experienced very little stress.” (3)
We know this. The perception that we’re all connected promotes empathy and caring. Separation less so, or not at all. For example, there are those who minimize their use of plastics, pesticides and fossil fuels and those who don’t, those who take electricity, hot and cold clean water coming from a tap and stocked grocery shelves for granted, and those who see them as a privilege for which they are grateful. How we see everyone and everything, including ideas, is a primary adaptive complex because it determines the reality we create for ourselves and the world.
A people’s outlook on the world is the expression of its profoundest spiritual essence.
How well people do what they do reflects their outlook, making competence an adaptive behavior capable of being passed on through parenting, modeling and teaching. Does the package delivery person read and follow the instructions on each package? Does the restaurant carryout attendant get the order wrong or include a sandwich or piece of pie that has been smashed? Is the salesperson knowledgable about his or her products, beyond operating a cash register to complete a sale? Does the store manager do something about a customer’s feedback, or will it be ignored? Does the teacher teach his or her interests and philosophy, or what the curriculum requires? What skill and attitude do workers bring to the situation? Competence is—or should be—a continuing conversation between parents and their children, one that’s reinforced at every level of schooling. And employers should consider competence high on the list of hiring criteria. Competent employees, and by extension their companies, are able to adapt to change far better than those who are not.
To be aware is to be present, mentally engaged at the moment rather than elsewhere, whether daydreaming, planning, multi-tasking or otherwise distracted. Lack of awareness promotes mistakes, missteps and accidents. When attention shifts from what’s going on to end results, alternatives or an attitude, competence diminishes. On the other hand, quality is enhanced by focusing the mind on the situation or task at hand. We can do one thing exceedingly well, two things less so. Each time we add something, mentally or physically, the quality of each is diminished. The elimination of distracting thoughts and actions reduces anxiety, thereby promoting relaxation and peace. And because these promote clarity of vision and quality of work, they greatly enhance the ability to respond to change appropriately.
Expressions of kindness are adaptive because they encourage the creation, maintenance and deepening of relationships—and more. Dartmouth College posted a site entitled Kindness Health Facts, that summarized the findings of several studies—Kindness builds compassion, the desire to care and respond to others by helping. Witnessing “acts of kindness produces oxytocin, occasionally referred to as the ‘love hormone’ which aids in lowering blood pressure and improving our overall heart-health. Oxytocin also increases our self-esteem and optimism, which is extra helpful when we’re in anxious or shy in a social situation.” And kind acts promote increased energy. Subjects in a study reported “feeling calmer and less depressed, with increased feelings of self-worth.”
Acts of kindness also increase one’s lifespan. “People who volunteer tend to experience fewer aches and pains. Giving help to others protects overall health twice as much as aspirin protects against heart disease. People 55 and older who volunteer for two or more organizations have an impressive 44% lower likelihood of dying early, and that’s after sifting out every other contributing factor, including physical health, exercise, gender, habits like smoking, marital status and many more. This is a stronger effect than exercising four times a week or going to church.” What’s more, acts of kindness produces serotonin, “the feel-good chemical that heals your wounds, calms you down, and makes you happy! According to research from Emory University, when you are kind to another person, your brain’s pleasure and reward centers light up, as if you were the recipient of the good deed—not the giver. This phenomenon is called the “helper’s high.” More generally, “performing kind behaviors decrease pain, stress, anxiety, depression and blood pressure.”
My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.
His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama
In his recent book (4), Trust: America’s Best Chance, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg writes that in a “Century warped by terrorism, financial collapse, Trumpist populism, systemic racism, and now a global pandemic, trust has been squandered, sacrificed, abused, stolen, or never properly built in the first place.” His book calls for Americans to adapt, to work together to respond appropriately to the challenges of the present moment. “Our success, or failure, at confronting the greatest challenges of the decade―racial and economic justice, pandemic resilience, and climate action―will rest on whether we can effectively cultivate, deepen, and, where necessary, repair the networks of trust that are now endangered, or for so many, have never even existed.” Because trust can only occur in an atmosphere of truth, it facilitates adaptation to actual rather than imagined or perceived circumstances. New York’s Governor Cuomo was effective as a leader in reducing his state’s virus infectious rate because he told his constituents the truth about what was happening.
Attitudes toward situations, each other and work are infectious. The energy we put out spreads. Compounded with the expressed energies of others, attitudes come back to us in the form of positive or negative social perceptions. In every situation, whatever the context, the attitude we present shapes relationships, how people see us, life and the world. We’ve all experienced how a stranger’s attitude can put a smile on our face. Many young people don’t realize the power they have to affect others by the attitude they express. However lowly a job may seem, it can be seen as an opportunity to please someone—and help to heal the world.
Over a decade of research by Kari Leibowitz, an American psychologist, demonstrated that we have the power to change how we view stress, even use it to improve our health and well-being. Her article in the New York Times (5) tells how.
Step 1. Acknowledge Your Stress. “Labeling your stress consciously and deliberately moves neural activity from the amygdala—the center of emotion and fear—to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive control and planning… it moves us from operating from a fearful, reactive place to a position where we can be thoughtful and deliberate.”
Step 2. Own Your Stress. We only stress about things that we care about. By owning our stress, we connect to the positive motivation or personal value behind our stress. If we deny or avoid our stress, we may actually be denying or disconnecting ourselves from the things we value and treasure most… Complete this sentence about whatever was specifically stressing you out in step one: “I’m stressed about [whatever] because I deeply care about …”
Step 3. Use Your Stress.
“Ask yourself: Are your typical responses in alignment with the values behind your stress? If you’re worried about your family getting sick because you care about their health, is snapping at them for not washing their hands for long enough the best way to protect your family? If you’re worried about the impact of coronavirus on society, is seeking out constant news coverage the best way to help support your community during this time? Think about how you might change your response to this stress to better facilitate your goals and your purpose… Some psychologists argue that truly transformative change can occur only during stress or crises. The trick is to channel your coronavirus stress as energy to make the most of this time. Later, we’ll ask ourselves how we adapted to this crisis. “Did we live in accordance with our values? Did we make the most of this opportunity to learn and grow personally, to connect with loved ones, and to prepare for the next time we face a crisis?”
Under circumstances of dramatic change, individuals and institutions are forced to respond. In the long run, evolution favors those who have become well-adapted to the new reality. The Coronavirus has and continues to challenge governments and businesses at every level to find safe and effective ways to survive and operate. School systems, teachers, parents and students are experimenting with new ways to communicate, educate and learn. Entertainers, sport teams and religious leaders are all being forced to change. For individuals, governments and all social systems worldwide, in a matter of months, the imperative to “grow or die” has morfed into “adapt or die.” Flexibility favors adaptation. Resistance only generates further anxiety, stress and breakdown. Adaptation may be painful, but it promotes hope and in the long run, brings peace.
Evolution actually works by a process of lifting, through adaptation to selective challenges, and then gifting the resulting innovations to the next generation. Individuals’ efforts (and sacrifices) enable the community to progress.
Every new situation—changes in families, work, recreation, education, government and the environment—requires adaptation. Coronavirus is a global disaster. But it’s also an opportunity for humanity to learn that we are one, interdependent and interconnected family, living and sustained by “Spaceship Earth.” And in this we’re better prepared to adapt as we confront the rapidly changing climate. The question is—Will we adapt? And how?
If you can’t do what you do, do what you can.
John Bon Jovi (Album: Bon Jovi 2020)
1. Gibson, Anne (2020). Scientists Reveal Homo Sapien’s Secret of Success. SciTechDaily ,(August 3, 2020).
2. Fritscher, Lisa (2020). How Evolutionary Psychology Explains Human Behavior. Very Well Mind, Medically Reviewed. May 13, 2020.
3. Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5), 677–684.
4. Buttigieg, P. (2020). Trust: America’s Best Chance. New York, NY: Liveright/ W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
5. Leibowitz, Kari and Crum, A. (2020). In Stressful Times, Make Stress Work For you. The New York Times, April 1, 2020.
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