“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 major evolutionary traps that humans are at risk of falling into. His own creativity threatens to become his downfall
DA Swedish research team is convinced that humanity is in danger of ending up in an evolutionary dead end. The team identified a total of 14 of these dead ends, including climate and pollution tipping points, misaligned artificial intelligence, and accelerating infectious diseases. Researchers also write about possible ways out.
Moths orient themselves in the dark using moonlight – an ability they have developed over the course of evolution. But since they invented the light bulb, they have been attracted to street lamps 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 harmful due to environmental changes, it is called an evolutionary trap or maladaptation.
The Swedish research team also sees these evolutionary traps for humanity. Overall, their cultural evolution represents an extraordinary success story, the result of which represents the Anthropocene, i.e. 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 polycrises.
Agriculture as a potential trap
“Humans as a species are incredibly creative. We can 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 future well-being.”
The work involved carrying out 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, classified as global, technological or structural.
These include, among other things, the simplification of agriculture, economic growth without benefits for people and the environment, instability of global cooperation, climate tipping points and artificial intelligence.
For example, the authors see the simplification of agriculture as a trap: in reality it is a success for humanity, since in a short period of time it was possible to increase the yield of arable crops such as wheat or corn, which increased significantly global calorie production. But the focus on single, highly productive plants makes the food system increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather or new plant diseases.
The scientists point out that 12 of the 14 traps are already at an advanced stage, meaning they are becoming increasingly difficult to get rid of. The two least advanced dead ends are therefore the autonomy of technology (artificial intelligence and robotics) and the loss of social capital through digitalisation.
“The evolutionary forces that created the Anthropocene do not work 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 from the societies that could prevent them. “Moreover, managing them often requires global cooperation on a level that many evolutionary forces cannot manage well.”
Despite the gloomy assessment, researchers do not see humanity as necessarily doomed to failure, but active changes are needed. “It is time for us 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 the first signs of this, especially since humanity possesses 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 break out of dead ends and business as usual, but to do so we must foster collective human agency and create an environment in which it can thrive.”