Can We Evolve Fast Enough to Survive?

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 12, 2016.)

In response to my post, “Yes, America Is Descending Into Totalitarianism,” the computer game designer Chris Crawford, shared some good news in yesterday’s post—Trump may be impeached. Later he shared his bad news:

The species Homo Sapiens was shaped as a hunter-gatherer creature in the savannah and mixed forest of Eastern Africa. We are optimized to perform well in such circumstances. We have not an iota of civilization in our genes; that’s a cultural overlay.

One of the important factors in the establishment of human dominance over other creatures is its cultural plasticity. Culture can be adapted to the specific needs of a particular environment, permitting humans to live in places radically different from the grasslands and open forests of Eastern Africa. Too cold? No problem — let’s wrap ourselves in furs!

Now, genes are capable of adapting to new environments, but generally they take about 10,000 generations to pull off a significant change. That would be about a quarter of a million years for Homo Sapiens. Our reliance on culture permitted much faster adaptation, but even culture can’t turn on a dime. It typically takes a few generations before a culture can adapt to new circumstances. Any serious environmental change that takes place in less that 50 years is probably too fast for human culture to handle.

Now let’s throw in the idea of progress. We didn’t even notice that civilization was progressing until a few centuries ago, and by the 19th century progress was all the rage, an infatuation that only grew in strength with time.

Progress changes our environment. If our environment changes, our culture needs to change to adapt to the new circumstances. But culture can’t turn on a dime; it takes a few generations to work out an appropriate change.

Our base of scientific knowledge is growing faster every year. The technology that this scientific knowledge inspires is also progressing faster every year. And that means that we change our environment faster every year.

Unless we stop this process, we will inevitably reach a point at which the environment is changing faster than we can adapt to it. At that point, we will no longer be adequately adapted to our environment. And Darwin is unforgiving: any species that cannot adapt to its environment always goes extinct.

Here’s a small bright note: I don’t think that we’ll actually go extinct. I think that we’ll only destroy our civilization and then regress to our hunter-gatherer roots. But we’ll never be able to repeat the success of current civilization, because it has already consumed all the easily reached resources such as fossil fuels.

Getting back to Gloom and Doom, I think it safe to say that civilization must collapse. Indeed, there’s a solid argument that we are already seeing the first seeds of an inability to adapt in the matter of anthropogenic climate change. Here’s a very real threat to our civilization, and we’ve got a president-elect who denies the very existence of the threat. The March to Doom may well have already begun.

2 thoughts on “Can We Evolve Fast Enough to Survive?

  1. Technological change outstrips cultural adaptation, leading to absolute collapse to pre-industrial (nay, pre-AGRICULTURAL levels)??? Not a very transhumanist outlook! 🙂
    “Deus ex machina” is another option. Quite possibly unintentionally (or perhaps in response to our growing troubles), we might build a machine that can out think us, and which turns us into pets.
    I, for one, would greatly prefer a perfumed prison to a lousy grass hut.

  2. You are right its not a transhumanist view, and of course it isn’t my view. The singularity could serve as the Deus ex machina. And I too would give up what little freedom we might have for paradise.

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