Article image

Human evolution may be the biggest roadblock to solving climate change

A recent study led by the University of Maine presents a surprising new theory. The experts propose that the very aspects of human evolution which led to our dominance on Earth might now be the obstacles preventing us from addressing global environmental challenges like climate change. 

“We propose that the global environmental crises of the Anthropocene are the outcome of a ratcheting process in long-term human evolution which has favored groups of increased size and greater environmental exploitation,” wrote the study authors. 

Cultural adaptation to the environment

Over the last 100,000 years, human societies have significantly expanded their ecological footprint. 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, noted the researchers.

Study lead author and evolutionary biologist Professor Tim Waring wanted to know how this process of cultural adaptation to the environment might influence the goal of solving global environmental problems.

Human expansion and cultural evolution 

The team examined how humans have increasingly exploited various natural resources with greater intensity, leading to profound environmental impacts. 

“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,” said Waring.

Cultural evolution, characterized by the development of sophisticated social systems and technologies like agricultural practices and energy technology, has facilitated human expansion across the globe. However, this expansion has come at a cost, particularly with the industrial use of fossil fuels contributing to severe environmental issues.

Dangerous environmental problems 

The experts pointed out that humans have reached the physical limits of the biosphere and laid claim to most of the resources it has to offer, and this is catching up with us. 

Our cultural adaptations, particularly the industrial use of fossil fuels, have created dangerous global environmental problems that jeopardize our safety and access to future resources, noted the researchers.

Global limits and sustainability

The team investigated historical instances of sustainable practices, revealing two patterns. First, sustainable systems often emerge only after significant resource depletion or environmental degradation, as seen with the regulation of industrial emissions in the U.S. post-acid rain crisis. 

Second, effective environmental protection typically occurs within, not between, societies. This presents a significant challenge in addressing global issues like climate change, which require unprecedented levels of international cooperation and systemic change.

Solving the wrong problems 

“One problem is that we don’t have a coordinated global society which could implement these systems,” said Waring, “We only have sub-global groups, which probably won’t suffice. But you can imagine cooperative treaties to address these shared challenges. So, that’s the easy problem.”

The other problem is much worse, said Waring. In a world filled with sub-global groups, cultural evolution among these groups will tend to solve the wrong problems, benefitting the interests of nations and corporations and delaying action on shared priorities.

Global environmental crises 

A concerning finding of the study is the potential for human evolution to exacerbate global environmental crises. According to Waring, cultural evolution among groups would tend to exacerbate resource competition and could lead to direct conflict between groups and even global human dieback. 

“This means global challenges like climate change are much harder to solve than previously considered,” said Waring. “It’s not just that they are the hardest thing our species has ever done. They absolutely are. The bigger problem is that central features in human evolution are likely working against our ability to solve them. To solve global collective challenges we have to swim upstream.”

International cooperation 

Despite the daunting implications, the study also offers avenues for hope and further research. Waring suggests that understanding the drivers of cultural evolution could be key in developing strategies to mitigate global environmental competition. 

Examples like the Montreal Protocol and the global moratorium on commercial whaling demonstrate the potential for international cooperation in environmental policy.

Study implications 

However, Waring cautions that the scale and urgency required for addressing climate change are unprecedented. “There is hope, of course, that humans may solve climate change. We have built cooperative governance before, although never like this: in a rush at a global scale.”

As for whether humans can continue to survive on a limited planet, Waring said we don’t have any solutions for this idea of a long-term evolutionary trap, as we barely understand the problem. “If our conclusions are even close to being correct, we need to study this much more carefully.”

The study is published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences.

Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day