Possible ways out shown
Researcher: Humanity could end up in a dead end
November 17, 2023, 6.33pm
Listen to the article
This audio version was artificially generated. More information | Send feedback
According to a Swedish research group, humanity is on the verge of abolishing itself. In total, the researchers identified 14 “evolutionary traps.” Despite the grim assessment, there is hope.
A 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 evolutionary traps, 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, also known as maladaptation theory.
Beginning of the polycrisis
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.
“Humans as a species are incredibly creative. We can innovate and adapt to many circumstances, and we can cooperate on an astonishing scale,” said lead author Peter Søgaard Jørgensen. But these positive qualities have unintended consequences: “Put simply, the human species could be said to be too successful and in some ways too intelligent for its own future well-being.”
14 possible traps detected
The work involved holding seminars, workshops and surveys at the Stockholm Resilience Center between 2020 and 2022, during which Anthropocene processes were identified, a shared understanding of evolutionary dynamics was created and research 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 a success for humanity, since in a short period of time it was possible to increase the yield of arable crops such as wheat, rice, corn and soybeans, which at the same time at the same time global calorie production has increased significantly. But the focus on single, highly productive plants makes the food system increasingly vulnerable to environmental changes such as extreme weather or new plant diseases.
The influence of climate tipping points also shows how evolutionary traps can reinforce each other – another finding of the study: when societies get stuck in one dead end, they are more likely to do the same in other dead ends.
Almost no option to go back
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, addressing them often requires global cooperation at a level that many evolutionary forces cannot manage well.”
Skills for change are present
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 go out It’s business as usual from dead ends and out, but to do that we need to foster collective human agency and create an environment in which it can thrive.”