Evolutionary Determinants of Health inaugural event

23 January 2014

EDEN Protocol: Evolutionary Determinants of Health and Urban Wellbeing

An inaugural conference organised by the Evolutionary Determinants of Health and Urban Wellbeing group will be held at the Institute in February 2014.

The conference Urban Paradox: human Evolution and the 21st century town will look at issues relating to human evolution and the 21st-century town including: the Social Determinants of Health; the Healthy Cities movement; planning for human locomotion in cities; planning for urban greenspace; containing urban crime through sport. The event is supported by the Ove Arup Foundation and UCL Grand Challenges.


The town is not our natural habitat. For most of the last three million years, we evolved as hunter-gatherers, living off the land in small kin-groups and tribal societies, developing a complex working relationship with nature. Culturally, we are still adapting to urbanized living: our technologies, towns, economies and societies have developed at a remarkable speed. Anatomically, however, we have not evolved at the same electric pace: genetically, we remain much as we were before towns developed, or even before large-scale farming was adopted 5,000-10,000 years ago.

Today’s cities accommodate a global population of some 3.4 billion: there is therefore a profound dichotomy between the world we currently live in, and the one we were genetically, metabolically, physiologically and psychologically designed for. We can’t uninvent towns, nor do we wish to, but city life is, superficially, the very antithesis of the hunter-gatherers’ world.

There is a possible solution, however. It could lie in the adoption of proxy behaviours, environments and townscapes that mimic key elements of the nutrition, daily activity, social interaction and engagement with the environment that best fit the evolutionary demands of our minds and bodies. Through applied studies, such proxy behaviours could be brought together to form a coherent protocol applied to 21st-century townscapes and urban life-styles.

UCL Grand Challenges

This approach is called the Eden Protocol, a short-hand term for the Evolutionary Determinants of health, social interaction and urban wellbeing.  By facilitating the associated behavourial changes, urban wellbeing and social cohesion might be quantifiably improved, and the cost of the National Health Service diminished.

Looking back into our past could therefore provides positive answers for our future. The better our urban and societal surroundings simulate our “natural habitat”, and the better our behaviours match our biology, the healthier we urban creatures will be.

The Ove Arup Foundation