Is humanity in a death trap?

Is humanity in a death trap?

Has humanity maneuvered into a dead end? Is there still a way to escape the many crises we are currently experiencing? Or is it already too late to change things? A new study examined these existential questions.

Humanity runs the risk of steering its own development into dead ends from which it is difficult to escape. Swedish researchers have identified a total of 14 such evolutionary pitfalls 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 harmful due to environmental changes, it is called an evolutionary trap or evolutionary incompatibility. This concept from evolutionary biology is also known as incompatibility theory (see information).

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

Will the polycrisis become a death trap?

Ecosystem Contamination: Metallurgical Industry in Russia. Photo: Imago/Zonar
Open wounds of nature: Samotlor oil field near Nizhnevartovsk in Western Siberia. Photo: Imago/Pemax

The research team led by environmental ecologist Peter Søgaard Jørgensen also sees these evolutionary pitfalls for humanity. Overall, its sociocultural and civilizational evolution is an “extraordinary success story”, the result of which is the Anthropocene – that is, the geological era of humans – as the study states.

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. 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 can cooperate on a surprisingly large scale”, writes Peter Søgaard Jørgensen. But these positive qualities would have unintended consequences. “Simply put, it can be said 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.Foto
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 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.

Green Revolution – a dead end

Impaired growth: Without the humus of life, soil, no plants would thrive, neither animals nor humans would find food, and no life would be possible. Photo: dpa
Contaminated soil: massive use of pesticides in Indian Punjab. Photo: Imago/Jörg Böthling

As an example, the Stockholm authors approach the simplification of agriculture as a trap – in fact, a success for humanity. Thanks to the so-called Green Revolution, global food production increased by around 60% between 1965 and 1997. This was the result of the development of modern high-performance, high-yield agricultural varieties, which were successfully spread across developing countries.

The focus on individual, highly productive plants makes the food system increasingly vulnerable to environmental changes, such as extreme weather or new plant diseases, the researchers write. Genetic engineering will also likely be only part of the solution to defuse the crisis.

Evolutionary traps reinforce each other

Extreme drought: Rio Negro dry 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 a dead end, they are more likely to do the same in other dead ends.

Scientists highlight that 12 of the 14 traps are already at an advanced stage. This means: It is becoming 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 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.”

Choose between failure and change

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

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

Information: incompatibility theory

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

“Eight Deadly Sins”
One of the main representatives of this theory is the Austrian zoologist and winner of the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1973, Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989). In his 1973 book “The Eight Deadly Sins of Civilized Humanity”, the behavioral biologist examines the processes that, in his opinion, 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) desire for immediate satisfaction of all needs (hedonism), (5) genetic decline due to aa loss of natural selection, (6) loss of proven traditions, (7) increased indoctrinability, (8) nuclear weapons.

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