Is humanity in a death trap?

Has humanity maneuvered towards a dead end? Is there still a way out of the numerous crises we are currently going through? Or is it already too late to change things? A new study has examined these existential questions.

Humanity runs the risk of leading its own development into dead ends from which there will be little escape. Swedish researchers have identified a total of 14 such evolutionary traps in a new study. These include climate tipping points and pollution, as well as misaligned artificial intelligence and the acceleration of infectious diseases.

Trapped humanity

When traits that were once beneficial to the evolution of a species suddenly become detrimental due to environmental changes, it is called an evolutionary trap or evolutionary mismatch. This evolutionary biology concept is also known as mismatch theory (see info).

The study is published in the journal “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B” under the title “Evolution of the polycrisis: traps of the Anthropocene that challenge global sustainability.”

Will the polycrisis become a death trap?

Ecosystem pollution: metallurgical industry in Russia. Photo: Imago/Zoonar
Nature’s open wounds: the Samotlor oil field near Nizhnevartovsk in Western Siberia. Photo: Imago/Pemax

The research team led by ecologist Peter Søgaard Jørgensen also sees similar evolutionary traps for humanity. In general, its sociocultural and civilizational evolution is an “extraordinary success story”, the result of which is the Anthropocene, that is, the geological era of man, as the study states.

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. This phenomenon is also known as polycrisis.

“Humans as a species are incredibly creative. We are able to innovate and adapt to many circumstances, and we can cooperate on a surprisingly large scale,” writes Peter Søgaard Jørgensen. But these positive qualities would have unintended consequences. “Simply put, one could say that the human species is too successful and, in some respects, too intelligent for its own future well-being.”

Load limits exceeded, tipping points reached

Poisoned water: polluted river in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh. Photo: Imago/aal.Photo
Polluted air: Morning rush hour traffic on the Delhi-Gurugram Expressway in the Indian capital, New Delhi. Photo: Imago/Hindustan Times

For the study, seminars, workshops and surveys were held at the Stockholm Resilience Center between 2020 and 2022, during which Anthropocene processes were identified, a common understanding of evolutionary dynamics was created and potential dead ends were identified. .

In total, 14 evolutionary traps were identified in the 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.

Green revolution: a dead end

Poor growth: without the humus of life, the soil, no plants would thrive, neither animals nor humans would find food and life would not be possible. Photo: dpa
Contaminated soil: massive use of pesticides in Indian Punjab. Photo: Imago/Jörg Böthling

As an example, the Stockholm authors address the simplification of agriculture as a trap, actually a success for humanity. Thanks to the so-called Green Revolution, global food production increased by about 60 percent between 1965 and 1997. This was the result of the development of modern high-yielding, high-yielding agricultural varieties, which were successfully spread to developing countries. .

The researchers write that focusing on individual, highly productive plants makes the food system increasingly vulnerable to environmental changes such as extreme weather conditions or new plant diseases. It is also likely that genetic engineering is only part of the solution to defusing the crisis.

Evolutionary traps reinforce each other

Extreme drought: Dry Rio Negro near the Brazilian city of Manaus in the Amazon. Photo: Imago/Fotoarena
A boy stands on the bank of an oil-polluted stream near Goi, Nigeria. Photo: ANP/EPA/dpa/Marten Van Dijl

Another result of the study: the influence of climate tipping points also shows, using the example of food production, how evolutionary traps can reinforce each other, that is, they are reciprocal. When societies get stuck in one dead end, they are more likely to follow suit in other dead ends.

Scientists highlight that 12 of the 14 traps are already in an advanced stage. This means: it is increasingly difficult to free yourself from it. 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,” explains 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.”

Choice between failure and change

New life: Grass sprouts grow on scorched earth between charred tree trunks after a wildfire in Jasper National Park (Alberta, Canada). Photo: Imago//Imagebroker
Is this the future? Earth globe on dry land with the words climate change: Photo: Imago/Christian Ohde

Despite the gloomy assessment, researchers do not believe humanity is necessarily doomed to failure. However, active and serious 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,” explains Søgaard Jørgensen.

“Our creativity, our innovative strength and our ability to work together give us the perfect tools to actively shape our future,” says the environmentalist. 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.”

Information: mismatch theory

The term evolutionary trap or evolutionary discrepancy is also known as mismatch theory in evolutionary biology. This means the following: Characteristics that have developed during evolution and proven to be advantageous for the development of a species may turn out to be negative due to changing and rapidly changing environmental conditions and hinder the development process of the species – and in cases extremes, finish it. This can occur in humans and animals and is often attributed to rapid environmental changes. Misfit theory therefore addresses the idea that traits that evolved in an organism in one environment may be detrimental in another environment.

“Eight Deadly Sins”
One of the main representatives of this theory is the Austrian zoologist and Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1973, Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989). In his 1973 book “The Eight Deadly Sins of Civilized Mankind,” the behavioral biologist examines the processes that he believes contribute to the “dehumanization of humanity.” These eight processes are: (1) overpopulation, (2) devastation of the natural habitat, (3) excessive acceleration of all social processes, (4) urgency for the immediate satisfaction of all needs (hedonism), (5) genetic decline due to loss of natural selection, (6) loss of proven traditions, (7) increased indoctrinability, (8) nuclear weapons.

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