Good Times, Bad Times and Genes

by Roger Bourke White Jr., started March 07


In life, there are good times and bad times, but for civilized humans, there is something different. The difference is that for civilized humans, most of the times are good times.

Most organisms spend most of their time enduring the bad times. They are waiting until one of the short-lived good-time periods comes around. Then the organism dramatically changes its lifestyle to "make hay while the sun shines”.

The change from bad times to good times changes which genes are active and controlling what the organism is doing. There are, in effect, different sets of genes for good times and bad times. The “good-times genes” are charged with the task of growing rapidly, and the “bad-times genes” are charged with the task of enduring until the good times come again. All organisms live with this pattern of mostly bad times, punctuated with a few brief good times, so this is what the genes of all organisms are best adapted to.

One of the uniquenesses of modern civilized mankind's environment is allowing mankind to live in never-ending good times. This is not normal for life on Earth, and this is why humans suffer from several disorders related to too much good-time living.

Good Times and Bad Times

There are good times and bad times, and most organisms living on Earth spend most of their lives living in bad times. Most organisms spend most of their lives living in a "too" environment -- too hot, too cold, too crowded, too little food, and so on. Once in a while, things all come together just right, and the organism finds itself in good times. During the good times, the organism must grow and thrive as fast as it can.

The one given about good times is that they never last. They are quickly replaced by some version of bad times again. As a result of this, no organism's good-time genes have to worry about what happens if they stay turned on for a really long time. No organism until modern man, that is.

Modern Civilization = Never ending Good Times

Ever since mankind developed strong language skills, and people of human communities started to cooperate, mankind has worked steadily to make its communities’ good times last longer. One of the major steps in this effort was developing agriculture. Another step, recorded in Genesis in the Bible, was when Egypt's Pharaoh describes his dream to Joseph about the seven fat cows and the seven lean, and Joseph recommends setting up a system of granaries to tide the community over the lean years.

Another large step happened during the 20th century when refrigeration systems became economical and widespread. Refrigeration, plus improved agriculture and transportation, has allowed 21st century people in developed nations to live in good times all the time. We are never too hot, never too cold, and we can eat strawberries all year round.

The surprise result of this is that human good-time genes are turned on all the time – our genes figure we are ready to grow and thrive and make hay in the shining sun for decades on end. This is a uniquely modern human condition. It is uniquely human in the same way as the concepts of expecting all fetuses to survive pregnancy, all youngsters to survive youth, and all adults to live to ripe old age, are uniquely human. No other organism expects to live in good times all the time, or expects all of its conceived children to die of old age.

Historically, the good-times genes are never turned on all the time, so they have never been tested for their long-term effects. Now that mankind is testing the long-term effects of good-times genes, we are discovering that some cause problems. For example, one place that good-times genes seem to have long-term weakness is in weight control, and this leads to obesity. Obesity, and the health problems relating to it, is an example of a disorder that is related to prolonged good-time gene usage. Obesity is not an issue when the good times always end long before an organism can get overweight, but that's not the condition civilized mankind faces: The good times never end for civilized mankind.

New kinds of pushes on the Gene Pool

The result of mankind's odd environment is an odd push on the gene pool. For most organisms, long-term problems with the good-times genes are never discovered because the good-times genes are never turned on for long terms. But modern humans are routinely discovering the flaws in long-term good-time gene use. And now that these problems are revealed, they can be selected for.

This is an example of a new selection force on the gene pool. It's an example of how civilization doesn't stop pushing hard on the gene selection process; instead, it simply changes what is selected for. As long as mankind is living in civilized conditions, there will be a selection pressure to weed out good-times genes that cause bad health when they are turned on for too long.


Never-ending good times are a uniquely civilized human condition; no other organism on Earth lives in this kind of environment. As a result, mankind pushes his good-time genes to do something no other organism does: Stay turned on all the time. This has revealed some weaknesses in the good-time genes. Those weaknesses cause disease in humans. Now that those weaknesses have been revealed, they can be selected against.

This is an example of how distinct civilized man's environment is, and it is an example of a surprise that has come from mankind's strong language use.

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