Introduction to Do Human Things

Perhaps we are miserable simply because we have gotten out of the habit of doing human things.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted November 30, 2017 in Human Things (Last Updated November 30, 2017)


1Uniquely Human Traits
2Agricultural Revolution
3Industrial Revolution
4Do Human Things

Despite living in the largest, most affluent civilization in the history of the human race, modern humans are angry, depressed, anxious and sick from an epidemic of chronic diseases. There are a number of theories to explain this, which point the finger variously at shifting cultural values, technological alienation, widespread personal moral failure, and so on. However, these elaborate theories might be overthinking things.

Perhaps we are miserable simply because we have gotten out of the habit of doing human things. It may really be that simple.

1 Uniquely Human Traits

All modern humans are members of Homo sapiens, a species of primate that emerged around 150,000 years ago and underwent a transformation in cognitive ability some 50,000 years ago. Humans share many traits with other primates, including being highly social, but there are several specific characteristics that, taken as a whole, are uniquely human.

Humans stand upright on our hind legs and are very well-adapted to both long distance walking and endurance running. Humans consume a very wide omnivorous diet that includes plant leaves, stems, flowers, nuts, seeds, fruits, grasses, roots and tubers, as well as various edible mushrooms and fungi, insects, and the muscles and organs of animals.

Humans have large brains that allow for abstract thought, complex communication and sophisticated, large-scale cooperation. Humans have hands with finger positioning and fine motor control that allows us to make and use various tools. Humans have an extraordinary capacity to create culture - a body of concepts, knowledge, techniques, artifacts and expressions that is shareable, combinable and extensible.

Above all, humans are adaptable. In various combinations, our physical, cognitive, linguistic, cultural and social abilities have enabled us to live and even thrive in an extremely wide variety of different environments. In the past 50,000 years, _Homo sapiens _have spread out from a small region in sub-Saharan Africa to colonize and dominate every continent on earth: from sun-scorched deserts to arctic tundras, from grassy fields to forbidding mountains, from rain forests to oceanic islands, from river deltas to seashores.

But all adaptations involve trade-offs. For example, bigger brains allow humans more cooperation and problem-solving, but they also require more energy to operate and make childbirth more difficult. On the cultural side, our inventions both give and take away. For example, shoes protect human feet from some kinds of injury but increase the risk of weak stabilizing muscles, collapsed arches and fungal infections.

2 Agricultural Revolution

For most of its existence, Homo sapiens were hunter-gatherers living in small, tight-knit nomadic communities. Starting around 12,000 years ago, an epochal cultural revolution took place: various groups of humans began to establish permanent settlements and to grow and tend their food supply, instead of foraging for it.

This agricultural revolution brought about enormous changes in quality of life - and like all adaptations, it involved significant trade-offs. The humans who invented and adopted farming had a more reliable source of calories and were able to have more children, but the trade-off was much more physically demanding work and a much less varied diet.

Within a few generations, humans who had adopted farming grew shorter, with smaller bones and clear signs of malnutrition. The shift to a diet heavy in starch from cereal grains resulted in an increase in cardiovascular and metabolic disorders. And the new ecological systems that farm life established fostered a tight feedback loop between humans and livestock animals that produced the ideal conditions for microbes to mutate rapidly, creating devastating new deadly infectious diseases that plagued agricultural settlements.

Life expectancy declined dramatically, from 60-70 years among hunter-gatherers down to just half that for farmers. With permanent settlements, power hierarchies within human societies became vastly larger and more entrenched. Inequality, oppression, persecution and atrocities grew in scale with the size of the human social organizations. For literally thousands of years, most humans lived miserable lives of unending drudgery, illness, misery and mortality.

3 Industrial Revolution

In the past few hundred years, another cultural revolution has swept across global human organizations: new intellectual frameworks for creating and exchanging culture have emerged in science, technology and philosophy that have once again radically changed how humans live.

Today, most humans live within a highly industrialized cultural system defined by complex, large-scale economic, political and social structures that shape our living arrangements and day-to-day activities. Humans exchange various forms of labour - skilled physical work, unskilled physical work, and cognitive work - for credits that we use to purchase food, shelter and other cultural artifacts from the same system.

Again, this contemporary cultural revolution has produced enormous changes in quality of life, including some major trade-offs. On the one hand, the industrial economy has mostly eliminated starvation, hunger and malnutrition globally, and average human life expectancy has finally returned to the levels of pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers. Likewise, advances in the scientific understanding of infectious diseases have produced a truly phenomenal decline in the rate of infections and fatalities.

On the other hand, we are experiencing a public health epidemic of non-infectious diseases that ought to be mostly preventable: depression and other mood disorders, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease including diabetes and neurodegeneration, and various cancers. The problem, as it has increasingly become clear, is that our bodies are not well adapted to the lifestyle our modern culture imposes on us. We may be living in a modern industrial society, but we do so with hunter-gatherer bodies.

Our industrial economy has rationalized and subdivided the steps involved in inventing and making things, limiting opportunities to exercise creativity. Our living and transportation arrangements strongly emphasize privacy, physical separation and convenience when we are hard-wired for mobility and social connections. Most humans walk barely a few kilometres a day and do not run at all. Instead of walking or running, we spend most of our days sitting - even while travelling from one place to another. Our industrialized diet is much heavier in highly-processed substances - refined starches, sugar and meat - than our bodies are adapted to handle.

4 Do Human Things

On and on it goes. In area after area of human experience, we find ourselves living within a cultural system that actively obstructs and undermines the behaviours that make us uniquely human. It is no wonder so many people are unhappy! We are human, but our culture systematically prevents us from doing human things.

The thesis I invite you to consider is that we could go a long way toward addressing the epidemic of physical and mental distress by finding ways to restore these essential human behaviours into our lives again. In a series of posts to follow, I will explore and meditate on the various uniquely human traits to review how modern culture deters us from engaging in them and, most important, consider ways to re-integrate them into our modern lives:

This is a work in progress and will almost certainly change and evolve over time. I am eager for feedback and suggestions on areas in which I have erred or am missing important knowledge.

You can always reach me via email at, or on Twitter or Facebook.