Why (almost) everything born from civilization is irrelevant to thrive—a thought experiment

One of the core tenets of the Bowlby Conjecture is that we are essentially unchanged genetically and physiologically from our modern ancestors 50,000 years ago.

Anyone who says that something we’ve invented in the intervening 50,000 is essential for living a full life is necessarily implying that it was impossible for any of our ancestors—all the way back to the beginning—to live a full life. They had everything they needed, except this one thing that as luck would have it was only just invented.

But that flies in the fact of what we know about evolution. Evolution tells us that organisms are designed to be an optimal fit for their environment. It also makes no logical sense for evolution to create an organism who is imperfectly suited to the environment, and that imperfection must survive 3,000 generations before the need is satisfied throughhy good luck and ingenuity of some hypothetical force in the future.

I admit there are some things in modern civilization that make life easier and let us lead healthier lives (modern medicine being a notable area). But anything we deem a “necessity” that was not also a necessity 50,000 years ago is solving a problem that we created with our civilization.

So what does matter? By elimination, those things that were prevalent in our ancestors’ environment 50,000 years ago. Tribe; sunlight and nature; moving the body naturally during hunting and gathering; whole, natural, cooked foods; shared stories to strengthen social bonds; and deeply dark and deeply quiet nights for truly restful sleep. Any individual who has all of these things in their life has everything they need to thrive.

SIDS in infants reduced by sharing room with parents, despite what alleged pediatric sleep expert at Yale opines

Last week, I attended an online talk by Dr. Bruce Perry—psychiatrist and child trauma expert—hosted by CASEL entitled Return to School during COVID 19: Helping Children and Families Manage Stress and Build Resilience. (If you haven’t read The Boy Who Was Raised a Dog, I highly recommend it. The stories are so moving, you will cry at least once. And the last chapter is an absolutely brilliant summary of the solutions and impediments we face in our society.) It was an excellent talk, and if I can find a link to the archive, I will post it here.

At one point when he was mentioning the effects of childhood trauma on the ability for school kids to focus and learn, my mind wandered to infancy and the sorts of trauma an infant might encounter. I realized that being separated from their parents—with all the appearances of abandonment—could be one of the most stressful things an infant could experience. And this is exactly what many of us do in the industrialized world by giving kids their own room/nursery and putting them down to sleep for the night there, even when they are quite young.

I want to be clear that I do not blame anyone who is doing (or has done) this. It is the socially acceptable way to raise children in our society. But it is in many ways completely counter to the way that our ancestors—even those not many generations removed from us—raised their babies. The concept of having private rooms for every member of the family is quite new, and was certainly not available to the vast majority of people until very recently. It makes complete sense that our genes which have been honed over tens of millions of years and hundreds of thousands of generations have been honed to crave connection with parents and alloparents. And individuals that were denied that connection—even in what we rational adults would recognize as completely safe environments—could be easily interpreted by the child as abandonment thus triggering anxiety and fear and elevating stress levels which negatively impacts the ability to not only sleep but to do other things that a stress-free state would require: digestion, growth, ongoing maintenance and repair…

I decided to do a bit of research to see if the connection between separation anxiety and adverse health responses had been documented in research. Lo and behold I found a 2016 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found a 50% reduction in SIDS for infants who room shared—that is, slept in the same room as the parents, but importantly not in the parents’ bed (because that can lead to suffocation).

Disturbingly the second search result for SIDS room sharing was a blog post penned by Dr. Craig Canapari, ostensibly a pediatric sleep expert at Yale University and Director of the Pediatric Sleep Center. (I will not link to the post as I do not want to give any additional weight to it in search results.) The title of this 2017 blog post is “Why Room Sharing in Infancy Isn't Necessary for Safe Sleep.” This was quite eye-opening as the research paper’s conclusion ran counter to this assertion.

Reading the post, it’s pretty clear Dr. Canapari is unimpressed with the research. He has a few paragraphs of intro, but then gets right into sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt: “…[T]he new recommendation [is] that parents room share—but not bed share—for AT LEAST six months, and ideally up to one year of age, claiming that this could reduce the risk of babies dying in their sleep by ‘up to 50%’. Let that sink in for a minute. The American Academy of Pediatrics said that if you have your baby in his own room, he is twice as likely to die. Does that freak you out? It would freak me out.” So the good doctor has an emotional reaction to the results of a scientific paper and feels the need to regurgitate that onto his readers.

It doesn’t get any better. The entire piece is 1,376 words long. 9% (122 words) is devoted to the intro. 5% (68 words) is devoted to “What’s good about room sharing”—and that includes those five words which are the title of that brief section. The conclusion section comprises 19% (260 words), and it is also cast in the language of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt—I’m worried…, I’m concerned…, I believe that sleeping in separate rooms is safe…). The remaining 67% is dedicated to three sections poking holes in the study results: The Problems with Room Sharing, The Problems with the Room Sharing Recommendation, Room sharing may be associated with decreased sleep and increased risk to babies. That last section is about another paper on a similar topic that looked at different things. You are excused if you might have been led to believe that these data all come from one study; the author seems to have no problem conflating the findings from these two studies, slipping the second one in close to the end, pointing out the incongruences and throwing up his hands and saying, I can't figure this out.¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

In that second study, you know where that “increased risk to babies” comes from? an independent variable that just so happened to be correlated with room sharing: “Room sharing infants were twice as likely to have an unapproved soft object on their sleep surface.” All that tells me is that there is more education that needs to be done for all parents—whether or not they room share—about things not to put in with their sleeping baby. It really seems as if Dr. Canapari is eager to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

I won’t let the authors of the second paper off the hook here. Their conclusion is overly conservative, but I can understand why—for liability reasons—they would err on the side of caution. Still, their concerns are for the 6–12 month range, and cite “poorer sleep-related outcomes and more unsafe sleep practices”. But these factors are not tied together. Clearly there needs to be a study done, but my hypothesis is that if parents who engage in room sharing also are taught and comply with all other safe sleep best practices, I strongly suspect room sharing with be shown to be at worst neutral and more likely a positive regarding SIDS.

 A few more entries down on those search results is this post from Wise Mommies, which I find to be a much more fair and balanced view of the room sharing/SIDS connection.

So why am I writing this? Because I believe Dr. Canapari’s blog post quite literally endangers infants. Harried new parents—who are no doubt struggling to do everything they need to while trying to figure out parenting best practices—are wont to Google something like SIDS room sharing, see Room Sharing in Infancy Isn't Necessary for Safe Sleep as advice from a Yale pediatric sleep expert and move on with their life. Even if they do click through and read, they are going to be overwhelmed by so much FUD and a view from nowhere, that most will again just conclude that it’s not a clear win. It will dissuade them from even doing any further exploration on the subject. And that is a travesty.

We humans and all of our primate ancestors have been sleeping in the same space as our infants for tens if not hundreds of millions of years. Yes, they had alloparents to help them out to minimize sleep deprivation. And they didn’t have access to all of this plastic and cloth from China which can do more harm than good for infants, especially during sleep. But let’s not conflate these issues. If we really had been designed to sleep separated from our offspring, you would see primates in nature and indigenous tribes doing it. I for one am siding with a hundred million years of evolution on this one.

SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) cut in half by simply letting your baby sleep with you

Aligned with the Bowlby Conjecture, new parents should absolutely be sharing a room with their newborns and infants. That is what humans and other primates have been doing for tens of millions of years, and that is what our genetic programming expects. Infants who know that their parents aren't in the immediate vicinity can very easily interpret that as abandonment, which elevates stress levels and leads to increased risk of… well every bad health outcome, especially when the stress is chronic.

Room Sharing Prevents SIDS by 50%

The antimatter rule: Never judge anyone.

The antimatter rule: Never judge anyone.

And anyone includes yourself.

Laziness Does Not Exist is a simply brilliant article that truly embodies the antimatter rule.

A more universal statement of this rule is simply: Minimize judgements.



The golden rule: Treat others as you would like others to treat you.

The platinum rule: Treat others as they would like to be treated.



Why antimatter? Because it is the most valuable substance in the universe. Gold costs ~$100/gram. Platinum is about ⅓–⅔ that (~$30–70/gram). Antimatter is estimated to cost ~$25 billion/gram. The next most expensive substance is a thousand times cheaper: Californium at $27 million/gram.

What the Dunbar Number means for your healthy social interactions

The Dunbar Number states that we can really only maintain up to 150 people in our personal network. But there are other just as important implications of Dunbar’s work. I think this infographic from Boston University illustrates it nicely. A person with healthy relationships necessarily has them at various levels of intimacy. There can only ever be a handful (up to 5) in their closest circle (the support clique).

When we talk about accepting and embracing your emotions and connecting with a compassionate person about them in order to process them and let them go, it is primarily with the support clique (and to a lesser extent the support group) that this is done. Being open emotionally doesn't mean that you are open equally with everyone. It's not an all or nothing situation (pro tip: It so very rarely ever is).

[Also see my post on the Dunbar Donut]

image from web.archive.org

Fostering 4AM Friends

What is the essence of what’s most important in life? Of all the ideas and resources I’ve encountered, I think the Harvard Study of Adult Development  has the best distillation. One of the study’s directors—George Vaillant—summarized the findings by saying “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” The current director of the study—Robert Waldinger—said “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

The study found there was a single yes/no question that could predict whether someone would be alive and happy at age 80: “Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at four in the morning to tell your troubles to?”

I call these people “4am friends”. And the key to having a 4am friend is knowing how to be a 4am friend.

The sad fact is that the number of these types of friends that we report having has been gradually declining. The most common answer to the question “how many close friend do you have?” is now 0. And there is a gender divide on this, with men faring much worse than women. Susan Pinker makes a compelling case that the discrepancy in life expectancy between men and women is this very fact. And the Roseto Effect  shows the healing power of a healthy, close-knit community.

So how do we fix the problem? My current idea is to foster “moais”—modeled after the Okinawan social group—for groups of 4–5 same-sex peers. Then teach the groups how to be open and vulnerable and non-judgemental, and all of the things that our society isn’t teaching them (or worse, is teaching them not to do).

(If anyone finds this compelling, let me know. I’d love to collaborate on a trial. Thanks!)

I will leave you with a simple call to action: reach out to one (or more!) of your close friends—or perhaps one you’d like to be closer to—share this link  with them, and tell them explicitly that they can call you at 4am or anytime to talk to you about anything. It will strengthen your friendship, and increase the health and happiness for you both. ❤️

The elephant in the room: ACEs, trauma, relationship dysfunction and how to overcome it

Anyone on this forum believes in the importance of community. Underlying a strong community is the fundamental need make relationships a priority and to know how to have healthy ones.

The problem is that there are a lot of people out there that just don’t have the skills to do so. Social dysfunction begets social dysfunction. If someone grow up in an environment where people don’t know how to manage their emotions and deal with conflict in a healthy way, they will learn the wrong way to do it and perpetuate those behaviors into future relationships.

One of the most eye-opening studies that illustrates this is the ACEs study from Kaiser in the mid-90s . This 7-minute video by the study’s director Dr Vincent Felitti is a great overview of it. Nearly ⅔ of people in the study grew up with at least one adverse childhood experience (I personally had 5 of the 10 in my childhood). And this was of a population of primarily middle-class, college educated people!

If we are going to make progress on people connecting in a community, we need to start by address the root cause of the disconnection: we need to help these people confront and process their trauma and teach them the skills to build and maintain healthy relationships going forward.

This  is a great series of illustrations that sums this up well. We need to create more “warriors of love” in the world.

The Bowlby Conjecture—how we humans were designed to thrive and why we struggle in modern civilization

John Bowlby developed the concept of the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA). It is the set of environmental factors that constrained and directed the evolution of a particular species. For example one aspect of the the EEA for polar bears is a cold environment of snow and ice. That led to polar bears having thicker fur and fat for insulation, and a white coat for blending in with their surroundings to better stalk their prey.

We humans had our own EEA: the area in South and East Africa during the Pleistocene epoch. The environment wasn’t just the landscape, climate, and biosphere. It also included the social structure of pre-human primates and humans. Our ancestors lived in nomadic hunter/gatherer bands of 30–45 individuals, comprising a multi-generational extended family primarily. They spent the vast majority of their time outside in nature, moving their bodies (walking, running, grasping, squatting… and using their hands for fine motor activities). They ate a diet of both raw and cooked whole foods, primarily fruits, vegetables, nuts, roots, and some meat. They had shared stories and experiences that they told and retold which helped maintain group cohesion.

Genetically modern humans appeared at the latest 50,000 years ago. This was when our DNA—which is the source code to Human OS version 1—had its last major update (which was very likely the ability to speak). The environment that our modern ancestors lived in between 50k–12k years ago was the one for which our DNA has been optimized.

From the agricultural revolution through the industrial revolution into the information revolution today, slowly but surely some of our ancestors started making decisions to live in ways that they felt were more convenient. But that whole time our genes stayed essentially the same. There were some minor variants—skin, hair and eyes to be better suited to different climates, lactose tolerance, and even sickle cell anemia (to protect against malaria). But on the whole the core Human OS was—and is—still running, optimized for a much different environment than we have today.

In modern civilization today (at least for the people who are likely to be reading this), most of us spend a large portion of our days inside, sedentary, staring at screens, eating processed foods, and spending far more time alone more often than any point in history. We now have a society that is orders of magnitude bigger than the 150 or so individual relationships Dunbar determined we were optimized to have. We have created a world in which it is possible to satisfy our Physiological and Safely needs (the bottom two levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy) without needing to truly invest in Love and Belonging. Anyone without that foundation is also left deficient on the two levels above (Esteem and Self-Actualization). This has led to increasing rates of depression, anxiety and suicide, which were already high to begin with.

I’m not saying we need to go back to bands of hunter/gatherers in order to have healthy and fulfilling lives. But we do need to look at the core daily aspects of that lifestyle and make a point of incorporating them into the foundations of our lives. Yes diet, yes exercise, yes being out in nature. But of critical importance are good relationships and social connections. The closer we can live our lives adhering to those aspects of our ancestors, the happier and healthier we will be.

There many diverse data sources that support the consilience of this conjecture:

I would appreciate any other references that either support or refute this conjecture. 🙏🏼

Tangential but also key to this conjecture is the fact that we humans have excellent deception skills. In fact we are so good at it, the only way we can really deceive others is to also deceive ourselves. Why else would we—individually and as a collective—continue to make choices that are not ultimately in our long-term best interest?