Cultural Evolution and Human Survival

We are poorly adapted to the world we have made for ourselves. Outstriping evolutionary timescales, rapid cultural evolution is the path for human survival

Asahi Glass Foundation

For the past several years, the Asahi Glass Foundation has extended an invitation to participate in their annual Environmental Problems and the Survival of Humankind survey. A weighted average of survey answers calculates what time it is on the “doomsday clock,” similar to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ doomsday clock (which is now at 2 minutes to midnight).

2 minutes to midnight
It's two minutes to midnightBulletin of Atomic Scientists

Last year, my answers elicited a time of 10:40. This year, my time is 10:34. Apparently, I am 6 minutes more optimistic than this time last year. I confess I don’t feel any more optimistic. On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, I see a glimmer of hope through increased awareness about climate change and biosphere integrity. Once-a-century floods coming every year or so and beached whales with 40 pounds of plastic in its gut help serve as wake-up calls. We begin to stir, but remain much too drowsy to fully comprehend what is happening.

At the end of each survey, respondents are encouraged to leave comments based on their “personal and professional” perspective.

In last year's survey, I focused on lifestyle and consumption patterns from the perspective of an American citizen. In the year since, I see little change in the growing trend of unsustainable consumption and resource depletion. This remains for me a principle concern. Giving this issue more thought, I try to better understand how lifestyle and overconsumption plays out at all levels of human existence - environmentally, economically, psychologically, morally, and philosophically.

Our inability to reign in our tendencies and face the situation before us reflects the fundamental challenge of adequately responding to an industrialized, crowded, and capitalistic world. The modern world to which our evolution is poorly adapted.

Shutting out the sky
Shutting out the skyDenis Ng

There is no “going back” to another time, to a “state of nature,” or to any imagined kinder, gentler human society. Barring a complete collapse of civilization, returning to a hunter-gatherer species, natural selection’s original “intent,” is not an option. The only path forward is systemic and profound cultural evolution.

The problem is one of timescales. Natural climate change vs. anthropogenic climate forcing activities; cosmically-sourced extinction (so long, dinosaurs) vs. humanity paving over any habitat that gets in the way of progress; accepting the mess we’ve made vs. blindly walking off the evolutionary cliff.

This is where we find ourselves today.

There is, I believe, some progress in awareness, particularly of climate change, biosphere integrity, and specific issues like ocean plastic pollution. The empirical evidence is before us, waiting to be seen. But we are prone to delusion and short term satiation.

Whether it be 10 years or 100 years - and there’s every reason to believe it is much closer to 10 years than 100 - we are due for a reckoning. Existing on a very fine edge, we teeter in the sagging middle of a tightrope, full or fear and loathing, struggling to maintain our balance. The destination looks far away, indistinct, and all but impossible to reach.

But this is the choice: regain our balance and rapidly evolve our way to our role for survival in the Anthropocene, or fall off the tightrope.

And the years tick by.