“The human species is too intelligent for its own future well-being.”
Whether it is climate change or pollution, humanity has created many threats for itself. Researchers have identified 14 key evolutionary traps that humans are at risk of falling into. His own creativity threatens to become his undoing.
dA Swedish research group is convinced that humanity is in danger of heading down evolutionary dead ends. The team identified a total of 14 such dead ends, including climate and pollution tipping points, misaligned artificial intelligence, and the acceleration of infectious diseases. Researchers also write about possible exits.
Moths orient themselves in the dark thanks to the bright moon, an ability they have developed throughout their evolution. But since the invention of the light bulb, they have been attracted to street lights and are therefore in danger of becoming easy prey for predators or simply being burned to death. When traits that were once beneficial suddenly become detrimental due to environmental changes, it is called an evolutionary trap or mismatch.
The Swedish research team also sees similar evolutionary pitfalls for humanity. Overall, its cultural evolution is an extraordinary success story, the result of which represents the Anthropocene, that is, the geological era of man, according to the study published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. But the Anthropocene is showing cracks: Global crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, food insecurity, financial crises and conflicts have begun to occur simultaneously, a phenomenon some call polycrisis.
Agriculture as a potential trap
“Humans as a species are incredibly creative. “We are able to innovate and adapt to many circumstances, and we can collaborate on an astonishing scale,” said lead author Peter Søgaard Jørgensen. But these positive qualities have unintended consequences: “The human species is too successful and, in some ways, too intelligent for its own future well-being.”
The work involved conducting workshops and surveys at the Stockholm Resilience Center between 2020 and 2022, identifying Anthropocene processes, creating a shared understanding of evolutionary dynamics and identifying potential dead ends. In total, 14 possible evolutionary traps were identified in an initial inventory and classified as global, technological or structural.
These include, among other things, the simplification of agriculture, economic growth without benefits for people and the environment, the instability of global cooperation, climate tipping points and artificial intelligence.
The authors consider, for example, the simplification of agriculture as a trap: it is actually a success for humanity, since in a short period of time it was possible to increase the yield of herbaceous crops such as wheat or corn, which significantly increased global calorie production. But the concentration on individual, highly productive plants makes the food system increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather conditions or new plant diseases.
Scientists highlight that 12 of the 14 traps are already in an advanced stage, which means that it is increasingly difficult to free yourself from them. The two least advanced dead ends are therefore the autonomy of technology (artificial intelligence and robotics) and the loss of social capital through digitalization.
“The evolutionary forces that created the Anthropocene are not working well on a global scale,” explained co-author Lan Wang-Erlandsson. In today’s global systems, social and environmental problems arise in places that seem distant to societies that could avoid them. “Furthermore, managing them often requires global cooperation at a level that many evolutionary forces cannot cope well with.”
Despite the gloomy assessment, researchers do not see humanity as necessarily doomed to failure, but active changes are necessary. “It is time for humans to become aware of the new reality and move together as a species towards where we want to go,” explained Søgaard Jørgensen.
There are already initial signs of this, not least because humanity has the necessary skills: “Our creativity, our innovative strength and our ability to work together give us the perfect tools to actively shape our future. We can get out of dead ends and business as usual, but to do so we must foster the capacity for collective human action and create an environment in which it can flourish.”