Recent research has uncovered that 14 “evolutionary traps” are posing serious risks to humanity’s future, spanning from climate change to the misalignment of artificial intelligence. This study, centered on the Anthropocene epoch, emphasizes the urgency of worldwide collaboration and proactive societal change to evade these perils.
Artificial Intelligence Misalignment: Not the Most Immediate Concern
This groundbreaking research applies the concept of evolutionary traps to the broad spectrum of human societies, identifying 14 potential dead ends. These include imminent threats like climate change tipping points, misaligned AI, chemical pollution, and rapidly spreading infectious diseases.
The Anthropocene Epoch: Triumphs and Hurdles
Human evolution has been remarkably successful. However, the Anthropocene, a proposed new geological epoch defined by human influence, is exhibiting increasing vulnerabilities. A convergence of crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, food scarcity, economic downturns, and conflicts are emerging concurrently, a phenomenon researchers term a polycrisis.
(a) The study outlines three main categories of Anthropocene traps: global, technological, and structural (including temporal and connectivity issues). It identifies two self-reinforcing feedback loops (marked with “R”) and highlights interactions across these trap categories through color-coded superscript letters and dashed-line arrows.
(b) The research presents a heatmap showing the interplay among the outcomes of these 14 Anthropocene traps.
Credit: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B
The Double-Edged Sword of Human Ingenuity
Peter Søgaard Jørgensen, a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ Global Economic Dynamics and the Biosphere program, notes the paradox of human creativity. Our capacity for innovation and large-scale cooperation, while remarkable, has led to unintended consequences. Jørgensen suggests that our species’ success and intelligence might be counterproductive for our future welfare.
Landmark Research on Evolutionary Traps
Jørgensen, the study’s lead author, has contributed to a significant new report published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. This publication is part of a broader assessment incorporating insights from various scientific fields, aiming to understand the development of the Anthropocene and the future trajectory of global sustainability.
Deciphering Evolutionary Traps
The study explores how humanity could become ensnared in “evolutionary traps,” which are dead ends resulting from initially beneficial innovations. It identifies 14 such traps, including the oversimplification of agriculture, economic growth failing to benefit humans or the environment, unstable global cooperation, climate change tipping points, and artificial intelligence.
Evolutionary Traps in Animals and Humans
As Jørgensen explains, evolutionary traps are well-documented in the animal kingdom. Similarly, humans may react detrimentally to new phenomena. For instance, agricultural simplification, focusing on a few high-yield crops, has increased food production but also heightened vulnerability to environmental changes and diseases.
The Gravity and Interconnectedness of These Traps
Out of the 14 identified traps, 12 have reached an advanced stage, dangerously close to points of no return. Alarmingly, human societies are moving further into 10 of these traps. These traps often reinforce each other, increasing the likelihood of simultaneous entrapment in multiple areas. The two less critical traps currently are the autonomy of technology (AI and robotics) and the decline in social capital due to digitalization.
Lan Wang Erlandsson, a co-author and researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ Anthropocene laboratory, emphasizes the difficulty societies face in escaping these traps.
Addressing Global Challenges and the Imperative of Cooperation
Wang-Erlandsson notes that the evolutionary forces that shaped the Anthropocene are less effective on a global scale. Global problems often arise in areas detached from the societies capable of preventing them, requiring unprecedented levels of global cooperation.
A Call for Proactive Human Action
However, the researchers assert that humanity is not destined for failure. They advocate for an active transformation of our societies. To date, the Anthropocene has largely been an inadvertent result of other evolutionary processes. Jørgensen urges humans to become conscious of this new reality and collectively steer our future. He advocates for greater engagement with nature and society, and awareness of the global implications of our local actions.
Reference: “Evolution of the polycrisis: Anthropocene traps that challenge global sustainability” by Peter Søgaard Jørgensen et al., 1 January 2024, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Evolutionary Traps
What are the main findings of the new study on evolutionary traps?
The study identifies 14 “evolutionary traps” that pose significant risks to humanity’s future, including climate change, misaligned artificial intelligence, chemical pollution, and accelerating infectious diseases. It emphasizes the need for global cooperation and societal transformation to avoid these dead ends.
How do evolutionary traps relate to human societies?
Evolutionary traps, traditionally observed in the animal world, are situations where species’ instinctual responses become maladaptive due to rapid environmental changes. In human societies, these traps manifest as detrimental consequences of initially successful innovations, like the oversimplification of agriculture or reliance on harmful technologies.
What are some examples of these evolutionary traps?
Examples include the simplification of agriculture focusing on a few high-yield crops, economic growth that doesn’t benefit the environment or humanity, unstable global cooperation, and the tipping points of climate change.
How severe are these evolutionary traps?
Out of the 14 identified traps, 12 are in an advanced state, suggesting that humanity is close to reaching points where escape will be extremely difficult. These traps tend to reinforce each other, increasing the risk of simultaneous entrapment in multiple areas.
What does the study suggest for overcoming these evolutionary traps?
The study suggests that humanity is not doomed to fail but needs to actively transform societies. This includes becoming more aware of the global consequences of local actions, engaging more with nature and society, and fostering collective human agency to design a sustainable future.
More about Evolutionary Traps
- Evolutionary Traps and the Anthropocene
- Human Evolutionary Challenges in the Anthropocene
- Global Sustainability and Evolutionary Dead Ends
- Addressing Climate Change and AI Risks
- Understanding and Mitigating Evolutionary Traps