The Poisoned Chalice: Genetic Heritage, Future Demise

May 21, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedSome 150 years ago Charles Darwin enunciated the fundamental truth that underpins our understanding of the evolution of life on earth. Those individuals with the most appropriate genetic adaptations for a particular environment survive at the expense of the less well adapted, and furthermore, reproductive success is just as important as survival, since it is the number of offspring that determine which species flourish and which disappear into oblivion. [1] His theory seems self-evident in hindsight, but in 18th century England it was revolutionary, particularly in its implications for human evolution. Perhaps it was even more revolutionary than his detractors recognised: encapsulated in his theory are the seeds of our possible destruction, something we have chosen to ignore. Darwin could well have anticipated our present predicament…

For the first time in human history we are facing existential threats relating to sustainability, climate change, population growth and economic stability. Whilst many are busy looking at proximate causes and technological solutions, we must look to evolutionary biology for insights into the underlying causes.

Darwin understood that in the natural world, evolution works within an ecological framework. In most environments, thousands of species exist in a tenuous equilibrium – the web of life. Their levels rise and fall according to resource availability, climate change and predation. However, 99 per cent of all species that have ever existed are no longer with us. [2]  Many were victims of catastrophes of global magnitude, others were out-competed by a species that shared the same ecological niche, or fell victim to an emerging predator or a new disease. Some reproduced exponentially while times were good, only to suffer a subsequent devastating population crash. Whatever the catastrophe, it was the end of the line unless a genetic variant existed that was better able to survive.

Humans, of course, are relative newcomers, evolving over the last four or five million years.[3] While we are part of the ecological landscape, we have introduced a new dimension. Our bipedalism, increased dexterity, and increased intelligence, language and culture have allowed us to become supremely successful by better exploiting our environment. Humankind flourished, particularly during the recent past, with the last 10,000 years being a period of benign climatic conditions that saw the development of agriculture.[4] However, in time this led to centres of increased population, the overuse of resources and ultimately, to the collapse of many civilisations. And collapse they most certainly did – from the early Sumerian civilisation in Mesopotamia to the cities of the Maya; from ancient Greece to Easter Island.[5] But how could intelligent humans have failed to foresee the consequences of their actions? Or as Jared Diamond asked in Collapse, ‘What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?’

We happily celebrate the Industrial Revolution as a triumph of the human intellect. Certainly, it led to the harnessing of the physical laws governing the natural world to increase food production, improve living conditions and to provide new modes of travel, entertainment and communication. However, the resultant burgeoning human population, increased use of resources and fossil fuels, and production of pollution, have been responsible for the global problems that threaten our way of life and have the potential to bring about the end of modern civilisation.

So it appears that we haven’t learned. In spite of our intelligence, we have failed to behave in accordance with the fact that the Earth is a closed system with finite resources and capacity to absorb pollution. We currently use more of the Earth’s resources each year than can be regenerated.[6] More than thirty years ago scientists told us that our treatment of the Earth was unsustainable[7], and put forward the prospect of global warming [8]. Books were written and summits were organised, but there was little action. Even now, little has changed in our behaviour. Why aren’t we dealing with these issues with the urgency they deserve?’

It would seem that we are victims of our genetic and cultural heritage, a failure that flows logically from Darwin’s theory of evolution. How do we make decisions? What determines the way we behave? We are guided by two very different processes. The first is largely automatic and can loosely be termed ‘emotional’. It is dependent upon instinct or ‘gut-feeling’ and upon cultural beliefs we have accepted as children. The second process is ‘rational’; it depends upon reasoning and intelligence, and is informed by what we have learned.[9] Both processes are underpinned by the ‘big five personality traits’, openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism, all of which have a significant heritable component of around 50 per cent.[10]

Darwin believed that evolution applied as much to our psychological adaptations as to our physical attributes. Evolution selected our personality traits and instincts in the distant past, many of our genetic traits pre-dating the evolution of primitive man; almost all of the others evolved during the 99 per cent of human history when we were still hunters and gatherers. Evolutionary Psychology proposes that many of our innate behavioural traits emerged in this Pleistocene environment.[11] Hence we instinctively fear snakes and spiders, whilst we lack innate fear of modern contrivances like cars, even though they represent a far greater hazard in the modern world. These instinctive responses originating in the limbic system or primitive part of the brain are generally rapid, are very powerful and may result in good decision-making in many situations that have changed little since we evolved. They help us to make many of the important and complex decisions in life, like mate choice and where to live. They provide us with innate capacities for skills like language acquisition. Significantly, the heritable component of human personality traits would also have emerged or become better refined as adaptations in this Stone Age environment.

In the Pleistocene world we lived very much in the present and were rarely constrained by issues of sustainability. When resources became depleted in a particular area, bands or tribes were often able to move to new areas or to expand their home range, a behaviour that did, in many cases, cause the extinction of large game, and promote extensive migration. As is the case in most other mammals, males were the dominant sex. This was reflected in the strength and hunting prowess of men, together with competition for women, the limiting resource for procreation. In contrast, women were generally smaller and weaker than men, and it seems likely that they were often either pregnant or lactating, so were better suited to foraging and keeping the home fires burning. As societies became more settled, women would have been attracted to partners with material wealth and influence, as these traits contributed to reproductive success.[12] Our instincts therefore encourage us to procreate, to be competitive and to be materialistic, using resources with little thought for the future.

Our ability to use language, to learn, and to pass on cultural traditions evolved between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago. These advances in the ability to communicate and share culture, which mark the beginning of modern Homo sapiens, were selected because they improved survival or reproductive success. Ideas and techniques for doing things subsequently underwent cultural evolution, where the more successful ones were passed on more frequently, and different ideas were brought together to create new artefacts or techniques.[13] Culture and genetic evolution progressed hand in hand, the flowering of these faculties and the ability to transfer skills underpinning mankind’s incredible progress.

Human obsession with fairness may well spring from the evolutionary origins of altruism. We recognise altruism toward kin as an adaptation that favours those who share our genes[14]; altruism toward others may have evolved as a consequence of the invention of weapons, the communal hunting of large game and the subsequent sharing of food. It may also have been a means of gaining prestige, a valuable commodity for reproductive success. The development of specialisation and trade were probably also underpinned by cooperation.[15] However, a pre-occupation with ‘fairness’ would be a necessary corollary to cooperation since, in its absence, there would be nothing to discourage freeloaders. This has become evident in the many studies applying game theory, particularly the Prisoner’s Dilemma, to the emergence of altruism as an evolutionarily stable strategy.

It is clear that much modern behaviour is heavily influenced by both genetic and cultural adaptations. So, for example, the desire of many people to have a large family, and the drive to achieve an excessively high standard of living, are traits that were selected in our past, and reinforced by culture and religion. The adaptation to defer to people in positions of power means that our behaviour is further influenced by authoritative people, most obviously in politics, religion and even advertising. Gender differences in behaviour are part inherited, part cultural.[16] Our innate concern for ‘fairness’ is reinforced culturally and by the legal system, such that many of us avoid being the first to act, or doing more than our share. So our genetic instincts and cultural beliefs may work against our long-term interests and the values we need in a sustainable society. Indeed, many of them also work against our short-term happiness: the drive to work long hours and earn a high salary is often at odds with a happy and fulfilling life. We have evolved to seek happiness, but its pursuit is rarely successful in the longer term.[17]

With the adaptations of intelligence, culture and language came our improved ability for advanced reasoning. Yet even reasoning can let us down. Our general capacity for foresight is limited and we tend to discount future consequences[18], we often ignore evidence that conflicts with our view of a just world, and we lack the ability to grasp large numbers and to intuitively understand the implications of exponential growth. All of these underpin the concepts of sustainability and population growth. The ability to reason logically depends not only upon intelligence, but also upon the extent to which individuals are influenced by instinct, cultural heritage and their other personality traits. Darwin believed that the conscious mind is rarely successful in analysing its motives, which are often largely instinctive.[19] Decisions about complex, long-term issues are particularly influenced by instinct and emotion, which may be at odds with rational analysis, frequently resulting in cognitive dissonance. We could well be described as “the conflicted ape’’.

Since our genetic make-up was selected by survival of the fittest in a world that no longer exists, we are not well equipped to deal with the long-term global issues that we now face. Our fate could well be to exploit and pollute our world until the natural systems fail and can no longer support us in our current numbers and level of prosperity.

Clearly we must find a way around this. If we harness our collective intellect surely we can find strategies to over-ride our instinctive biases, and reshape our destiny. Climate change is the most urgent issue facing us, since we are fast approaching a number of critical ‘tipping points’ beyond which it may be almost impossible to turn things around. A successful solution might then become a template for tackling other global issues.

In relation to human nature, there are two basic requirements for the successful implementation of action against climate change. First, a majority of the public must accept the science, or at least believe that it is advantageous to take action; and second, they must believe the scheme is fair, nationally and internationally.

Many countries have already taken action in the expectation that others will follow, often in the belief that benefits will flow to those who lead. Other governments support measures to limit global warming to 2°C but the translation of intentions into concrete action at the national level continues to be the sticking point. This underscores the fact that many people are either unconvinced by the science or are concerned about fairness.  This is where some understanding of our genetic and cultural heritage might help.

The first imperative is to encourage rational analysis. The general public and politicians must be helped to understand not only the overwhelming evidence for climate change and sustainability, but also our innate psychology. We might ‘feel’ that everything’s all right simply as a consequence of our genetic and cultural inheritance, which encourages us to believe that our world is immutable and that we are omniscient. Meanwhile we seek an ever-higher standard of living, we might have four children when we know the sustainable number is two, and we temper our altruism with self-interest, taking no action before our neighbours. Unless we understand the implications of climate change and our own psychological limitations, we are unlikely to elect politicians with vision, to accept progressive policy to make the necessary changes in our lives.

The media must play a pivotal role by presenting facts and data couched in language we readily understand, by interviewing climate scientists, ecologists, behavioural psychologists and politicians, and by encouraging debate. The public must be reassured that scientists are working for the common good and that scientific research is evidence-based and subject to peer review. We must be encouraged to consider future consequences, and to be mindful of the ‘precautionary principle’: even if there is a small but finite chance that serious climate change won’t eventuate, we must take action urgently since it could become a runaway phenomenon with dire consequences.

There are also important roles here for evolutionary psychologists and sociologists, and those in education and advertising, as well as those in climate science, journalism, and politics. It may well be necessary to employ rhetoric that appeals to emotions as well as to reason, since inspired language and clever advertising might resonate with a wider audience. We therefore must choose politicians with the vision and commitment to make the hard decisions and with the charisma and oratory skills to sway the public. Since evolution has not endowed us with the ability to weigh up future consequences reliably, political candidates should present a clear vision for the long-term future. Advertising might help promote sustainable products, behaviours and attitudes. Philanthropy could also play a role in both advertising and education. Teaching children environmental science and critical thinking in schools is important if democracy is to become an effective system for dealing with these new challenges. 

With respect to implementation of policy, the tragedy of the commons is the issue: all nations are contributing to a common problem that must be solved by cooperative action.[20] So why should we act first? Why should we do more than someone else? This innate instinct for “fairness” can only be resolved by ensuring that everybody feels that they are making an equitable contribution. This will require a strategy that engenders trust within and between countries, for example by making incremental changes.  

To have the confidence of the public it will also be necessary to have a coordinated global strategy with an umpire who is above politics, and whose decisions are based on reason. Rational decision-making might best be achieved by an over-arching commission comprising expert climate scientists, economic advisors, ethicists and a range of political representatives, insulated from non-rational and parochial influences. It could determine long-term national targets that would allow comparable per capita emissions, by advocating curtailed emissions in the developed world while allowing the developing world to move toward an acceptable standard of living. Short-term targets could also take into account current national emissions, standard of living, and dependence upon carbon-intensive industries.

So how might such a plan be implemented? It could certainly incorporate incremental changes, and it could even be voluntary but coupled to incentives and disincentives to discourage freeloading. Such a commission could encourage fairness by monitoring performance and publishing outcomes. These might then inform trade agreements, countries choosing other complying countries as trading partners, or introducing tariffs on goods from nonconforming countries.

This may sound a little like world government, something that is anathema to many, but such a global commission need not have absolute power of enforcement, working instead as an honest broker. In the area of global sustainability we surely need a global plan.

At the national level similar strategies could promote rational decision-making, even within an adversarial democracy. Bipartisan think tanks would encourage rational discourse, driven less by emotion and party-political considerations. Such a body could include, or be advised by, the relevant ministers and shadow ministers, our top scientists, economists, sociologists and ethicists, with the opportunity to call upon other experts as required. The Climate Commission was formulated, in principle, along non-partisan lines, and demonstrated that such shared decision-making can indeed be a useful strategy.

The Climate Change Authority will be an independent body of experts that will put recommendations to government on future targets. This body might be considered analogous to the Reserve Bank of Australia, which is responsible for the administration of monetary policy, but is not beholden to any political party. Other independent bodies could pursue research and innovation. It is only through research that green energy will become sufficiently cheap and plentiful to enable us to avoid climate change, and also to deal with the consequences of diminishing oil supplies.

In each country, people need some assurance that any burden is shared, to satisfy the desire for fairness. An emissions trading scheme (ETS) and a carbon tax both seek to modify the behaviour of the emitters so that they choose the cleanest way to conduct their business. Economists resoundingly endorse the ETS as the cheapest way to achieve this goal. To the extent that businesses have to pay for some emissions, this cost will generally be passed on to the customer who therefore has a price incentive to choose the cleanest product. The Labor Government has proposed tax changes and increases in social security payments that will ensure that all but the wealthy are fully compensated for any such increases in prices.  By combining the introduction of the Carbon Tax with recommendations of the Henry Taxation Review, the Government has ensured that we will all be able to pay the cost of carbon emissions when we buy goods and services, thereby overcoming perceptions of self-interest and impotence. Some people will choose to reduce energy consumption in response to increased prices. The use of further incentives and disincentives could also lead to energy savings, for example by gradually moderating the excessive heating and cooling of many buildings.

To achieve long-term sustainability, the Government should also consider policies that would decrease population growth and moderate consumption. Perhaps in future the taxpayer-funded baby bonus, paid parental leave and child support should only be extended to first and second children.

An effective strategy to decrease consumption would be to introduce cradle-to-grave costing of products, thereby encouraging quality and durability instead of planned obsolescence. Conspicuous consumption might be reduced by regulating advertising, by forgoing some future wage increase in return for shorter working hours, and by recognising status with something other than obscene salary packages. Governments, professional societies and community service clubs could confer status by making more awards recognising excellence, philanthropy and public service.

A reduction in consumption would require a paradigm shift in economic theory, such that we no longer equate prosperity with an ever-expanding GDP, underpinned by a growing population and increasing consumption.[21] We must recognise the value of natural and social capital, in addition to the traditional financial measures of prosperity. We should redefine prosperity to include quality of life, increased leisure, shorter working hours, lower unemployment, a healthy environment and a secure future.

Developed countries must moderate their standard of living, something that may well be achieved by taxes on carbon pollution and on resource use, and by changing attitudes to employment, leisure and community engagement. Meanwhile, developing countries must have the opportunity to lift their standard of living, with international assistance in renewable technology, adaptation to climate change, health, education and access to contraception. Such changes are not only equitable; they are also the only way to increase our chances of survival and avoid world conflict. The time has come to develop a new economic model, one that is not dependent upon an ever-expanding GDP, but is centred upon sustainability, fairness and quality of life. [22]

It is fast becoming a case of ‘It’s now or never’. It is time for a new vision, a new cultural ethos; time to recognize that our genetic and cultural make-up is out of step with our current reality. Evolution may have allowed us to become the dominant animal on earth, but it gives us no guarantee that we will be survivors. It’s now up to us to ensure that there is a sustainable future for our children and grandchildren. And the odds are stacked against us; evolution has not selected us to deal with a finite world. That is what Darwin didn’t tell us.


[1] C. Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Harvard University Press, Boston, 1964 [1859]; C. Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Princeton University Press, 1981 [1871].

[2] D. Jablonski, ‘Extinction: Past and Present’, Nature, no. 427 (2004), p. 589.

[3] 3. R. Winston, Human Instinct, Bantam Press, London, 2002.

[4] J. Diamond, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, Vintage Books, London, 2002.

[5] J. Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Viking Press, New York, 2005; R. Wright, A Short History of Progress, House of Anansi Press, Toronto, 2004; J. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988.

[6] M. Wackernagel, N. Schulz, D. Deumling et al., ‘Tracking the Ecological Overshoot of the Human Economy’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US), no. 99 (2002) p. 9266.

[7] D. Meadows in D. Meadows, J. Randers and W. Behrens III, The Limits to Growth, The Club of Rome, and Universe Books, New York, 1972.

[8] J. Hansen, D.Johnson et al.,‘Climate Impact of Increasing Carbon Dioxide’, Science, no. 213 (1981) p. 957.

[9] R. Wright, The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life, Pantheon Books, New York, 1994.

[10] K. Jang, W. J. Livesley and P. A. Vernon, ‘Heritability of the Big Five Personality Dimensions and Their Facets: A Twin Study’, Journal of Personality, no. 64 (1996), p. 577.

[11] J. Barkow, L. Cosmides and J. Tooby, The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, Oxford University Press, 1992; D. Buss, Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of Mind, Allyn & Bacon, New York, 1999.

[12] G. Miller, The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, Doubleday, New York, 2000.

[13] R. Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1976.

[14] W. Hamilton, ‘The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour I and II’, Journal of Theoretical Biology, no. 7 (1964), p. 1.

[15] M. Ridley, The Origins of Virtue, Viking, London, 1996.

[16] P. Costa Jr., A. Terracciano and R. McCrae, ‘Gender Differences in Personality Traits across Cultures: Robust and Surprising Findings’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, no. 81 (2001), p. 322.

[17] D. Nettle, Happiness: The Science behind Your Smile, Oxford University Press, 2005.

[18] J. Rehmeyer, ‘“Discounting” the Future Cost of Climate Change’, ScienceNews web edition, 21 May 2010.

[19] Wright, The Moral Animal; P. Barrett, ‘Early writings of Charles Darwin’, in H. E. Gruber (ed.), Darwin on man. A psychological study of scientific creativity; together with Darwin’s early and unpublished notebooks, Wildwood House, London, 1974 and available online at

[20] G. Hardin, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Science, no. 162 (1968), p. 1243.

[21] T. Jackson, Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, Earthscan, London, 2009.

[22] Jackson, Prosperity without Growth.


Helen Camakaris

Helen was born in Melbourne, Australia, and obtained her Ph.D. in the Department of Microbiology, University of Melbourne, studying how bacteria regulate gene expression in response to their environment. She stayed in the same Department for her entire research career, working part-time whilst bringing up two children with her husband James, a Professor in Human Genetics. She retired from active research in 2008 and became an Honorary Fellow, and has since pursued her interests in evolutionary psychology, sustainability and climate change. Since 2009 she has been writing popular science, motivated by the desire to help address climate change. She is currently working on a manuscript dealing in more detail with the causes of our intransigence with respect to sustainability, and strategies we might use to face what she sees as the greatest threat to humanity.

Tags: climate change, Evolutionary Psychology, Green Politics, human evolution, prosperity, psychology, Sustainability