Explaining human over-consumption: admiration of living like a king, not evolutionary adaptation for hoarding

This is a brief criticism on this opinion piece that examines the downsides of over accumulation of stuff and the benefits of living with less stuff by focusing more on experiences.   Personally, I subscribe to the ideals of minimizing possessions and focusing on experiences.   I don’t disagree with the recommendation and I’m always pleased to encounter a new presentation of the goals.

I disagree that evolution is an explanation for over-consumption.  The story goes that in evolutionary past, the species endured long periods of lack of resources so that when resources became available it was adaptive to hoard as much resources as possible in order to access them later.   In term of food, this storage is in the form of fat that the body can access later.   Accumulation of stuff is apparently an cognitive analogy of storing fat.   We buy things when we can and then store them for later use in case we ever need them again.

I am writing a longer post about what I call the confounding variable of Truth.   In my last post, I argued that Truths we hold dear can get in the way of learning about reality.   Another example of this confounding Truth is the Truth of evolution.   Evolution can explain any behavior by imagining a past when such a benefit offered a survival advantage.  In the case of over-consumption, it is not hard to imagine a time when resources were hard to obtain and generally low quality when found.   This leads to the adaptive advantage of consuming everything when the opportunity comes.

We are fatter today because high-calorie food is readily available and naturally we’re going to eat it all because that is what was necessary for our ancestors to survive.

The problem with Truths is that if our most cherished truths explains something, we lose interest in finding an alternative explanation.  One problem with the evolutionary explanation is that it invents a story about experiences of our genetic ancestors without any direct observations.   The invented story is reasonable, but for all I know, my ancestors living 100,000 years ago may have been living in bountiful gardens without any concern of running out of food.   In nature today we observe animal communities (including the apes) where they do not consume every possible foodstuff available.   Once they have their fill, animals in nature will direct their attention to play or relaxation.

Our prehistoric ancestors, if magically transported to the modern era probably would not become obese with the easy access to rich foods.   They’d probably eat just a small portion of a modern serving on a plate and leave the rest alone while they run off to engage in other activities.   Even we don’t have a desire to consume a week’s worth of groceries the moment we get home.

The above linked opinion piece connects obesity with excess accumulation of stuff.   By doing so, he suggests that the two phenomena may have a single explanation.  That explanation need not be genetic evolution.  Instead that explanation may a cognitive story-telling that is part of our cultural heritage.   In particular, the cultural heritage of envying the status of royalty or emperors whose role in maintaining governing coincidentally involved large feasts and accumulation of tribute.   Although I do not not doubt that the ancient examples enjoyed their wealth, they had little choice but to hold large feasts and to demand tribute or gifts as part of their role in maintaining order in the kingdom.

Our obsession with food (quantity and quality) and with accumulation of stuff is a culture inheritance passed down from story telling, not genes.   The popular notion of a good life is to live the life of a historic king.   The house becomes a castle.  Every room must be filled with treasure.   Every meal must be a feast.   This is not a result of determination from evolution.  This is a result of living a fantasy.

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