Why We Stink at Tackling Climate Change


Image: NAUTILUS
Global threats result from human culture outrunning human biology.

By David P. Barash | NAUTILUS

What’s wrong with us? Not us Democrats, Republicans, or Americans. Rather, what’s wrong with our species, Homo sapiens? If human beings are as Hamlet suggested, “noble in reason, infinite in faculty,” then why are we facing so many problems?

In many ways, people are better off than ever before: reduced infant mortality, longer lifespans, less poverty, fewer epidemic diseases, even fewer deaths per capita due to violence. And yet global threats abound and by nearly all measures they are getting worse: environmental destruction and wildlife extinction, ethnic and religious hatred, the specter of nuclear war, and above all, the disaster of global climate change.

For some religious believers, the primary culprit is original sin. For ideologues of left, right, and otherwise, it’s ill-functioning political structures. From my biological perspective, it’s the deep-seated disconnect between our slow-moving, inexorable biological evolution and its fast-moving cultural counterpart—and the troublesome fact we are subject to both, simultaneously.

Imagine this. An infant born on the Pleistocene savannah is switched at birth with another born in 21st-century America.

Biological evolution is an organic process that can never proceed more rapidly than one generation at a time, and many generations are nearly always required for any appreciable change to occur. By contrast, cultural evolution is extraordinary in its speed. Biological evolution is Darwinian, moving by the gradual substitution and accumulation of genes. Cultural evolution is Lamarckian, powered by the nongenetic “inheritance” of acquired characteristics. During a single generation, people have selectively picked up, discarded, manipulated, and transmitted cultural, social, and technological innovations that have become largely independent of any biological moorings.

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