DOOMSDAYEvolution Might Stop Humans from Solving Climate Change

Published 3 January 2024

Central features of human evolution may stop our species from resolving global environmental problems like climate change, says a new study. Can humans continue to survive on a limited planet? “We don’t have any solutions for this idea of a long-term evolutionary trap, as we barely understand the problem,” says one expert.

Central features of human evolution may stop our species from resolving global environmental problems like climate change, says a new study led by the University of Maine.

Humans have come to dominate the planet with tools and systems to exploit natural resources that were refined over thousands of years through the process of cultural adaptation to the environment. University of Maine evolutionary biologist Tim Waring wanted to know how this process of cultural adaptation to the environment might influence the goal of solving global environmental problems. What he found was counterintuitive.

The project sought to understand three core questions: how human evolution has operated in the context of environmental resources, how human evolution has contributed to the multiple global environmental crises and how global environmental limits might change the outcomes of human evolution in the future.

Waring’s team outlined their findings in a new paper published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. Other authors of the study include Zach Wood, UMaine alumni, and Eörs Szathmáry, a professor at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary.

Human Expansion
The study explored how human societies’ use of the environment changed over our evolutionary history. The research team investigated changes in the ecological niche of human populations, including factors such as the natural resources they used, how intensively they were used, what systems and methods emerged to use those resources and the environmental impacts that resulted from their usage.

This effort revealed a set of common patterns. Over the last 100,000 years, human groups have progressively used more types of resources, with more intensity, at greater scales and with greater environmental impacts. Those groups often then spread to new environments with new resources. 

The global human expansion was facilitated by the process of cultural adaptation to the environment. This leads to the accumulation of adaptive cultural traits — social systems and technology to help exploit and control environmental resources such as agricultural practices, fishing methods, irrigation infrastructure, energy technology and social systems for managing each of these.

“Human evolution is mostly driven by cultural change, which is faster than genetic evolution. That greater speed of adaptation has made it possible for humans to colonize all habitable land worldwide,” says Waring, associate professor with the UMaine Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions and the School of Economics.