New research maps 14 potential evolutionary dead ends for humanity and ways to avoid them

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For the first time, scientists have applied the concept of evolutionary traps to human societies as a whole. They find that humanity is at risk of becoming stuck in fourteen evolutionary impasses, ranging from tipping points in the global climate to misaligned artificial intelligence, chemical pollution and accelerating infectious diseases.

The evolution of humanity has been an extraordinary success story. But the Anthropocene – the proposed geological epoch shaped by us humans – is increasingly showing cracks. Multiple global crises, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, food insecurity, financial crises and conflicts, are beginning to occur simultaneously in something scientists call a polycrisis.

“Humans as a species are incredibly creative. We are able to innovate and adapt to many circumstances and collaborate on a surprisingly large scale. But these abilities appear to have unintended consequences. Simply put, you could say that the human species has been too much. successful and in some ways too smart for his own future well-being,” says Peter Søgaard Jørgensen, researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Center of Stockholm University and at the Global Economic Dynamics and the Biosphere program and the Anthropocene laboratory of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

He is the lead author of a new groundbreaking study published today as part of a larger study in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. The assessment draws together insights from a wide range of different scientific disciplines from the natural, social and humanities, to understand how the Anthropocene has evolved and how global sustainability may continue to evolve in the future.

The new study shows how humanity can get stuck in ‘evolutionary traps’ – dead ends created by initially successful innovations. In an initial exploratory effort, they identify fourteen of them, including the simplification of agriculture, economic growth that does not benefit people or the environment, the instability of global cooperation, climate tipping points and artificial intelligence (for a full list of traps, see table below ).

“Evolutionary traps are a well-known concept in the animal world. Just as many insects are attracted to light, an evolutionary reflex that can get them killed in the modern world, humanity is at risk of responding to new phenomena in harmful ways, ” explains Peter Søgaard Jørgensen.

The simplification of agricultural systems is an example of such a pitfall. Reliance on a few highly productive crops such as wheat, rice, corn and soy has caused calories produced to skyrocket over the past century. But it also meant that the food system has become very vulnerable to environmental changes, such as extreme weather events or new diseases. Of the fourteen evolutionary traps, twelve are in advanced stages, meaning that humanity is on the verge of getting stuck to a degree where it will be very difficult to get out. Moreover, in ten of these fourteen, societies continue to move in the wrong direction. Worryingly, these evolutionary traps often reinforce each other. If societies become stuck in one impasse, they are more likely to get stuck in others as well. The two dead ends that are currently less advanced are the autonomy of technology – AI and robotics – and a loss of social capital due to digitalization.

The new assessment also examines why societies struggle so hard to escape these pitfalls.

“The evolutionary forces that created the Anthropocene are not working well on a global level. In today’s global systems, social and environmental problems grow in places that seem far removed from the societies that could prevent them. Moreover, tackling them often requires global cooperation at a scale that many evolutionary forces are often at odds with,” said co-author Lan Wang-Erlandsson, a researcher at Stockholm University’s Stockholm Resilience Center and the Royal Swedish Academy’s Anthropocene Laboratory of Sciences.

This does not mean that humanity is doomed to failure, the researchers argue. But we must actively transform our societies. So far, the Anthropocene has been largely an unconscious byproduct of other evolutionary processes. “It is time for people to become aware of the new reality and collectively move where we want to go as a species. We have the ability to do that and are already seeing signs of such moves. Our creativity and ability to innovate and collaborate equips us with the perfect tools to actively shape our future. We can break the gridlock and return to ‘business as usual’, but to do so we must nurture the capacity for collective human agency and design environments where it can flourish,” Peter explains. Søgaard Jørgensen.

He continues: “Everyone can easily become more involved with nature and society while learning about the positive and negative global impacts of our own local actions. There is nothing better than exposing yourself to what needs to be protected.”

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