“The human species is too intelligent for its own future well-being.”
Whether it’s 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. Your own creativity threatens to become your undoing
DA Swedish research group is convinced that humanity is at risk of heading towards evolutionary dead ends. The team identified a total of 14 of these dead ends, including climate tipping points and pollution, misaligned artificial intelligence, and the acceleration of infectious diseases. The researchers also write about possible ways out.
Moths orient themselves in the dark by the bright moon – an ability they have developed through evolution. But since the invention of the light bulb, they have been attracted to street lights and are therefore at risk of becoming easy prey for predators or simply burning to death. When traits that were once beneficial suddenly become harmful due to environmental changes, it is called an evolutionary trap or incompatibility.
The Swedish research team also sees these 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 humans, according to the study published in the journal “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B”. But the Anthropocene has fissures: global crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, food insecurity, financial crises and conflicts have begun to occur simultaneously – a phenomenon that 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 can collaborate on a surprising scale,” said lead author Peter Søgaard Jørgensen. But these positive qualities have unintended consequences: “The human species is too successful and, in some respects, too intelligent for its own future well-being.”
The work involved running workshops and research 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 categorized 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.
As an example, the authors see the simplification of agriculture as a trap: It is actually a success for humanity, as in a short space of time it was possible to increase the yield of arable 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 or new plant diseases.
Scientists emphasize that 12 of the 14 traps are already at an advanced stage, which means that it is increasingly difficult to free themselves 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 far from the societies that could prevent them. “Furthermore, managing them often requires global cooperation at a level that many evolutionary forces cannot handle well.”
Despite the grim 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 forward together as a species to where we want to go”, explained Søgaard Jørgensen.
There are already early signs of this, especially as 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 move beyond the dead ends and business as usual, but to do so we must promote the capacity for collective human action and create an environment in which it can flourish.”