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Background: Climate & Evolution

Our Evolutionary Destiny

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                                            The nucleosome - a core element of human DNA

The world may pass a tipping point soon, beyond which it will be impossible to avoid massive future impacts on humans and other life on the planet. Who bears legal or moral responsibility? Scientists? Media? Special Interests? Politicians? Today’s public? Our children and grandchildren? Who pays? [1]

Human choices are fundamentally influenced by our sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. Some of our instinctual behaviors such as selfishness, aggression, deception and status hierarchy constitute the main internal factors driving the unfolding crisis.

The interdependent nature of the external environment and peoples’ inward nature--described in tantras, works on medicine and astronomy—has truly been vindicated by our present experience. [2]

In fact, contrary to reassuring commentary and distractions of the mass media, man-made climate change could become our evolutionary endgame.

Humans are one among many social animal species on Earth, closely related to other primates. Our unique social behaviour evolved about 200,000 years ago, when our ancestors consisted of sparse populations of hunter-gatherers. Evolutionary psychology [3] has established the powerful influence of instinct and genetics on human behavior.  It also shows that we are not automatons driven by ‘genetic determinism’. The most important human evolutionary adaptation is our ‘phenotypic plasticity’. We have evolved the ability to vary responses according to circumstances, to learn from experience, and to recognize and exploit opportunities as they arise. Although we are innately aggressive, the trait can be modified. For example, hyper-aggressive Mongol tribes changed to a non-violent Buddhist society in a few generations. The capacity for rapid learning and transformation is, more than ever, essential for the survival of our species.

If people begin to act with genuine compassion for every one, we can still protect each other and the natural environment.  This is much easier than having to adapt to the severe and incomprehensible environmental conditions projected for the future. [4]

Altruism and religion are also instinctual human behaviours [5]. Our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees, hunt cooperatively, share food and practice adoption. In humans, reciprocal altruism is a genetically-encoded cooperative instinct. It makes our complex social systems possible. The mirror neuron system in the brain creates ‘virtual understanding’ of others actions or intentions, providing the basis for imitation, language acquisition, empathy and altruism.  From a biological viewpoint, the function of ethical behaviour is to protect the human species and its genetic material. We experience deep emotion around this transpersonal human instinct: 

Generosity without hope of reciprocation is the rarest and most cherished of human behaviours, subtle and difficult to define, distributed in a highly selective pattern, surrounded by ritual and circumstance, and honored by medallions and emotional orations. [6]

In the 18th century, Descartes ‘proved the existence of God’ by emphasizing the gulf between animals and humans. His logic strongly influenced industrial culture.  It legitimized mistreatment of the rest of Nature and created an inflated view of ourselves. The features that distinguish humans from other animals—language, culture, religion and science—are extraordinary.  But they don’t exist in a vacuum.  They evolved from biological and psychological traits we share with other primates. [5] The evolutionary destiny of the human species depends on how soon we can awaken from Cartesian assumptions that misplace us in ‘splendid’ isolation. We have very little time to do so.


1. Hansen J. Keynote Report to Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 2006  
2. Dalai Lama XIV The Sheltering Tree of Interdependence 
3. Barrett L., Dunbar R. & Lycett J. Human Evolutionary Psychology 
4. Dalai Lama XIV [2007] Collected Statements on Environment
5. Robin Dunbar The Human Story 
6. Edward Wilson On Human Nature





 

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