By now you’ve probably heard about a new class of drugs called semaglutides. They were recently approved by the FDA for weight loss. In clinical trials, participants lost astonishing amounts of weight. And so long as they continued taking the drug, they kept it off. Additionally, people taking semaglutides dramatically lowered their risk for heart disease, diabetes, and numerous types of cancer.
Whether or not these drugs remain cost prohibitive for many people (they currently run $15,000 per year) is yet to be seen. The same goes for long-term side effects, though similar drugs have been used safely for over a decade.
My interest here is not in weight loss, per se, but rather in the dramatic impact these medications have and the mechanism by which they work: decreasing appetite and food cravings in the brain.
On a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show, the obesity neuroscientist Stephan Guyenet spoke eloquently about the evolutionary mismatch. In short, for well over ninety-nine percent of our species’ history we lived amidst scarcity. Abundance is a recent phenomenon, and even newer is a science that allows people to engineer the most enticing foods — along with a billion dollar industry that profits from it. As a result, the majority of people in America find themselves overweight or obese.
(Are there other factors? Yes. But nobody serious denies the central importance of the evolutionary mismatch and food engineering.)
Consider another major social ill that is also driven by an evolutionary mismatch, one that we at The Growth Equation have been writing and podcasting about extensively: the attention economy.
It’s the same story as food. Our brains did not evolve to contend with the behavioral engineering that drives the entire internet, news media, entertainment industry, and beyond. Just like our bodies are being overwhelmed by scientifically processed foods, our brains are being overwhelmed by scientifically processed content and platforms — which have perhaps an even bigger profit incentive than big food. (After all, attention is a 24–7 opportunity. Don’t just take it from me. The executive chairman of Netflix recently said their biggest competitor is sleep.)