Image for Can human greed and denial ever end? The climate crisis as a transformational opportunity (1)

Image caption:  Ice made us who we are; now we are destroying it.  Just as the challenges of survival through the last ice age played a large role in driving the evolution of those cognitive qualities and skills that have made humans so successful, so too the climate change crisis we have wrought could be the trigger for the next major leap in the evolution of our consciousness.  In response to climate change, the Ilulissat Ice Fjord in west Greenland has exhibited one of the fastest rates of iceberg break-up and glacier retreat in recent decades of any Arctic glaciers. Photo by C. Sharples (2013).

First published April 4

… it was the rigors and challenges of survival through the last Ice Age that drove the evolution of those new cognitive abilities such as foresight and the ability to plan, innovation, enhanced communication skills and enhanced co-operation, which transformed our distant ancestors into fully modern humans…These qualities, and the evolution of self-aware consciousness that underpins them, are the very things that make humanity distinctive from all other living things. In this light, the historically-recent rise of right-wing ideologies which attempt to justify neoliberalism and consumerism (read: selfishness and greed) as a preferred basis for society – and which are so strongly characterised by the use of denial as a means to ignore their self-evident contradictions - are truly regressive ideologies since they represent a resurgence of our most primitive selfish evolutionary traits, and undermine the more recent tendencies towards co-operation and altruism that are actually what made humanity so successful …

Thoughtful people have long recognised that excessive self-interest and greed beyond need are debilitating limitations on humanity’s capacity to flourish as a society, as are other associated behaviours such as out-group prejudice and aggression.  Indeed the ending of these has arguably been one of the aspirations of many religions, and of philosophies such as Buddhism. However it is starkly obvious that none of these religions or philosophies have actually succeeded in achieving this aspiration, at least not on a sufficiently widespread scale as to have prevented the planetary-scale existential crisis of anthropogenic climate change that our collective greed and our denial of its consequences has led us to.  In part, this has been because those religions are themselves befuddled by fantasy worldviews that deny reality, which inhibits their ability to recognise the real sources of our problems and thus gives them little capacity to actually transform our behaviour.

Yet over the last two centuries we have started to move beyond these confusions and have finally begun to understand some of the evolutionary sources of our behaviour. Moreover, as we have learnt more about the evolution of life, it has become apparent that some of the most profound leaps in life’s evolution over geological time have been driven by some of the greatest planetary crises (many resulting in mass extinctions) in the history of life on Earth.  We are now in the middle of another planetary crisis – a perfect storm of deepening social inequality, species extinctions and habitat destruction, global climate change and a host of associated environmental ills caused by our own actions – and it’s arguable that the crisis we have created for ourselves has been inevitable ever since we first evolved self-aware consciousness and a high level of technical capacity. Perhaps this is the crisis we have had to have in order to finally teach ourselves how to deal with and move beyond the limitations of excessive self-interest and denial that our evolutionary pathways have bred into us.  In other words, perhaps this self-inflicted crisis will be the trigger than can propel us to the next level in the evolution of our consciousness?

The limitations of human nature

Excessive self-interest and greed beyond need have long been recognised as fundamental problems of human nature, to the extent that I doubt there is any need for me to argue the case. The problem of course is not that self-interest is intrinsically a bad thing – on the contrary some degree of self-interest is obviously necessary for survival, not to mention ensuring one’s own ability to live a reasonably satisfactory life.  The problem is that all too often justifiable self-interest grades into a level of un-necessary “greed beyond need” that unjustifiably dis-advantages others yet is rationalised by a self-serving refusal to acknowledge that this is the case, or that it matters. In other words, denial is used to legitimate greed.  However not only is denial an important aspect of the ways in which we allow greed to flourish, but in historically recent times it has become starkly obvious that denial is in itself another pervasive and debilitating human limitation for many reasons additional to the role it plays in justifying greed.

Whilst these limitations have always caused discord & localised crises in human society, it is only now – because of the globally integrated scale our civilisation has reached – that they have become an existential threat.  The social responses to the reality and implications of anthropogenic global climate change has put the phenomenon of denial itself in the spotlight.

Back in the 1970s a lot of thoughtful people assumed that humanity was ultimately rational; that if you logically identified a problem (like the limits to growth on a finite planet) then people would respond appropriately, and work to solve the problem. I think the logic at the time was something along the lines of “if we can get to the moon (with 1960s technology!), then surely we can solve this one too!”  That was before we discovered how strong the power of self-interest could be; that it could drive a person (and corporations and governments) to sincerely convince themselves that an inconvenient problem that interferes with their aspirations (or greed) is just not real (because they don’t want it to be). 

Indeed, a slightly more subtle level of denial is evident in how easy it is for people who actually say that they accept the reality of something like the limits to growth, but then find that it’s just too inconvenient to really do anything about it, that there are other more pressing matters like career and family and financial security to consider so they set it aside “for now”.  This is basically just another level of denial – accepting that a problem is real, but still managing to deny that there’s any immediate need to do anything about it.

Denial is a pervasive element of human nature, and much more fundamental to us than has generally been realised until recently.  Religion is perhaps the most pervasive form of denial – it is in essence ‘reality denial’ – which has similar underlying motives, in this case a desire to believe that we really can literally transcend death, and a refusal to accept that maybe the real world isn’t the way we think we would like it to be.

Why do we have such deeply-ingrained negative behaviours as greed, aggression and denial?  At least in the history of western thought, three basic explanations have been influential (1). The first and historically the most influential has been the cruel and ignorance-based religious doctrine of “Original Sin”, St. Augustine’s notion that humans were created good by God, but sinned in the Garden of Eden and as a result all humans have inherited this Original Sin and are intrinsically bad; a condition which can only be remedied by God’s grace through acceptance of Jesus. In reaction against this mythological nonsense, some philosophers such as John Locke (2) have held a second view that human minds begin life as a “tabula rasa”, a blank slate which is neither good nor bad but is usually corrupted and perverted by life’s experiences and social environment to produce regrettable behaviours, yet which can instead be moulded into something much better given the right environment. Although this sort of view continued to be held into the Twentieth Century by some influential behavioural theorists such as B.F. Skinner, the discoveries of evolutionary psychology have made clear that this is too simplistic a view of human nature. Other enlightenment theorists such as Thomas Hobbes and David Hume also rejected the religious doctrine of Original Sin, but agreed that bad behaviours were innate, a natural and ineradicable part of human nature which could be managed but not eliminated. With the growth in scientific understanding of human behaviour over the Twentieth Century, evolutionary psychology has underpinned this third view with a growing understanding of how ‘innate’ behaviours have actually arisen through our evolutionary history (3).

The study of evolutionary psychology yields two clear insights of particular importance, firstly that key elements of our basic behaviour patterns – our ‘human nature’ - arose though our evolutionary history as successful adaptations which enhanced our capacity to survive in the pre-civilisation environments in which virtually all our evolution took place; and secondly, that in the highly complex social and technological environments called ‘civilisation’ that we have consciously, deliberately and rather rapidly developed over the last 10,000 years or so, some of those evolved natural behaviours are no longer appropriate, but are in fact now dysfunctional.

It is not difficult to understand that self-interest, dominance hierarchies and altruism towards in-group members combined with aggression towards out-group members, would all be necessary traits for small groups of social animals facing daily challenges to their survival in natural environments where other groups and other species were also struggling to survive on the same limited environmental resources. If our distant evolutionary predecessors did not have such evolved traits deeply ingrained in their behaviour they no doubt simply could not have survived, and their descendants would not have been around to create civilisation. 

However during the more recent stages of our evolution into Homo sapiens, we also evolved some distinctive traits that no other species possess, or at least not in the same degree.  We evolved a self-conscious awareness, language and a capacity for tool-making to a degree that allowed us to visualise and plan different futures for ourselves, and to deliberately build (not just unconsciously evolve) those futures in the form of agriculture, settlements and a division of labour which allowed us to co-operatively make the world a better and more secure place for at least some of us. Such deliberately planned and constructed societies are a unique innovation and a totally new level of organised and co-operative behaviour in the history of life on this planet.  Unfortunately, a corollary of this is that many of our pre-existing behaviours – which did not evolve in the context of such a radically new form of organisation – are not so well suited to the ideal of civilisation but rather have become obstacles to its smooth functioning.

In a natural environment where resources such as food are limited and survival is always a challenge, self-interested accumulation of resources is obviously essential for survival and some level of security, and it would hardly ever have even been possible to accumulate more than you or your group needed.  Today however, the same innate urge to acquire and consume as many resources as possible has led to a dysfunctional level of selfish greed, materialism and consumerism which has stretched our consumption of the world’s resources beyond a sustainable level, as well as allowing economic and social inequalities to grow to truly dangerous levels.

Similarly, a level of distrust and aggression between different social groups was undoubtedly the most efficient mechanism that could arise through unguided evolution to allow those groups to survive in a natural world where other species or groups were in competition for a very limited supply of resources, especially food. Today, however, that same tendency to use aggression as a means to exert your own group’s interests at the expense of other groups has allowed a level of racism, discrimination and warfare to develop which threatens the integrity and security of civilisation itself.

Arguably one of the keys to our unprecedented evolutionary success has been our ability to consciously and deliberately learn to mitigate our tendency towards selfish behaviour so as to co-operate and share resources to the increased benefit of others as well as ourselves, at a level of sophistication that has allowed us to build complex technological societies (more on this below). However this success remains compromised by a tension within us, between our older more fundamental evolutionary tendencies towards selfish behaviour, and our newer tendencies towards productive co-operation and sharing. Unfortunately, this tension is masked by our ability to deny inconvenient realities, an ability whose pervasiveness is so great that it too appears to be so deeply embedded in our ‘human nature’ that its origins must be sought in our evolutionary past

However, our tendency to deny whatever we wish to avoid acknowledging and having to deal with is not as obviously simple to understand in evolutionary terms as selfishness and out-group aggression. Indeed, as Eviatar Zerubavel (4) points out, denial and “social silence” about troublesome issues is so pervasive in human culture that the phenomenon of denial itself has in the past been widely ignored. As Kari Norgaard (5) shows, denial is not merely a matter of individuals refusing to acknowledge troubling realities, it is also a ‘socially-organised’ phenomenon whereby societies use a variety of cultural norms and practices to avoid allowing overwhelming and seemingly intractable problems to disturb the social order.  It has become clear that denial – the refusal to talk or even think about troubling issues that are not obviously immediately life-threatening to ourselves – is a pervasive strategy we use for avoiding the effort, pain, stress or embarrassment of dealing with difficult or even overwhelming issues by simply pretending they do not exist (4). The well-known metaphors of the ‘Elephant in the Room’ (the overwhelming issue everybody steadfastly tries to ignore) and the Three Wise Monkeys who ‘hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil’ are symbols of a widespread desire to keep life simpler and less emotionally fraught by simply ignoring things such as incest, family violence and clerical paedophilia, because the emotional stress in actually dealing with such issues is felt to be too great to contemplate.

The pervasiveness of human denial and social silences as a means of dealing with ‘too-difficult’ issues is such that it seems very likely it too must have its origins in our evolutionary development. Perhaps it evolved as a way of optimising our formerly very limited capacity to control events in our environment, by ignoring those things that were in any case beyond our control (like the threat of extreme weather disasters and earthquakes) and focussing our efforts and worries only on things we could do something about. As useful as such a strategy might have been in the long-ago past of our species when life was much simpler, it is clearly a disastrous impulse today, when our normal everyday activities in the complex civilisation we have built are in fact changing such things as the Earth’s climate system itself.

Some climate change deniers have tried to downplay the significance of denial by asserting that the very notion is no more than a strategy by environmentalists to mislead and misdirect attention from their own ‘virtuous corruption’(6) through which they supposedly seek to impose their green ideologies on human society by misrepresenting science in such a way as to support their own supposed desire for a world government and for limitations on freedom to exploit the world’s resources without hindrance (etc, etc).  Whilst the phenomenon of ‘virtuous corruption’ (“cooking” evidence to support an argument seen as being ethically good) certainly occurs amongst environmentalists (and every other sort of advocacy group), the important point that climate change deniers evidently fail to grasp is that such behaviour is regularly exposed and discounted by the normal energetic and competitive process of critical peer review amongst the scientific community itself.  The notion that the entire global community of thousands of professional climate scientists is complicit in what would necessarily be an enormous and deliberate global conspiracy of virtuous corruption is frankly ludicrous to anybody who has actually worked professionally with climate scientists (as I have and do), and simply betrays an outsider’s failure to understand the mutually competitive and critical ways in which scientific communities work and interact. In making such claims deniers are attempting to deny denial itself, yet now more than ever we need to be see it for what it is.

As Zerubavel points out, the price of denial and silence can only be that it allows the “Elephant in the Room” that is being ignored to flourish and get worse.  Just as family violence and clerical paedophilia only persist and get worse if they are ignored, so too it is obvious that continued denial of a problem such as anthropogenic climate change can only result in it getting worse. The real world does not go away because we deny it. If there are aspects of reality that will ultimately threaten us, in the end we have to face them and deal with them because the only alternative is that they will determine our destiny for us.

Broadly speaking, the modern scientific perspective on human behaviour is that much of our behaviour is “innate” in the sense of being an inheritance from our evolutionary history, but that as conscious self-aware beings we have the capacity to manage and modify our behaviour, and all the more so if we actually perceive and understand the nature of those ultimately evolutionary impulses that sometimes drive us toward behaviours that are inappropriate and damaging in the modern social and physical environments our evolved bodies now find themselves in. As the evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright put it, whereas most people are the ‘string puppets’ of their genes, it is by seeing and understanding the actions of the puppeteer that we can free themselves from that control (7).

The need to confront our evolutionary limitations

Despite the fact that our case is thus not necessarily hopeless, it seems that most people assume greed and self-interest (not to mention denial) to be as intrinsically ingrained in human nature as to be essentially ineradicable. Certainly this seems to be the case under any scenario in which our civilisation continues in a ‘business as usual’ fashion.  A long tradition of political realism dating back at least to Thucydides (8), more recently expressed by Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and David Hume (9), and in the modern era by Morgenthau and others (10), teaches that it is futile to expect to be able to create a better world by changing human nature; rather our best hope for improving the world lies in working with human nature as it is, not against it. This tradition accepts human imperfection as inevitable and thus aims at achieving the “least bad” outcomes, rather than any state of perfection.  This is undoubtedly a sensible perspective on the relatively short time frames of normal human politics. But over the longer trajectory of human biological and cultural evolution, we can now see that this sort of realism is no longer sufficient.  The imperfections in our nature – most notably self-interest leading to greed beyond need, and our pervasive denial of the consequences of this – have brought us to the brink of a great existential crisis. The imperfections in our nature that were tolerable in the past have become terminal errors, with the result that the “least bad” outcomes consistent with our imperfections are now likely to be very bad indeed.

Robert Kaplan has noted (11) that while much of politics is at least rhetorically motivated by noble values and high ideals, it is always the realism of our underlying and imperfect motives such as fear and self-interest that dictate actual outcomes. And so the course of human history has followed its “politically-realistic” business-as-usual trajectory to lead us to our present crisis.  However, the global environmental crisis we have now created – that diabolical combination of excessive population growth, depletion of soil and water (and thus food) resources, habitat destruction, species extinction and global climate change – is beyond doubt unprecedented in human history.  That is why its reality is so vehemently denied by so many, because its implications really are so shockingly unprecedented.  Yet for that very reason, it is conceivable that this – ironically the worst thing that we could have done – could become a singular pivot in human history, one that could overturn the assumptions of political realism and result in a very different world to the one we have become used to, with a very different set of constraints and potentials to those which have shaped the last 10,000 or so years of human history since our ancestors began settling down to grow crops, build cities and expand our reach.

Of course, in saying this I am well aware that there has been a long and rich tradition of false prophets predicting the imminent apocalyptic end of society as we know it, and the birth of a new world.  That was after all the cultural context for the origin of the Christian religion itself, to give one amongst many examples. However it would be rash to just assume that because numerous predicted apocalyptic ends have not eventuated before, therefore they will not happen this time either. That would be rash because the implicit assumption that such catastrophes do not really happen is actually wrong; on evolutionary and geological timescales planetary-scale catastrophes have indeed occurred repeatedly and on dramatic scales (see further below).  Moreover, even within the shorter history of humanity itself, locally- and regionally-integrated human societies have actually and repeatedly suffered catastrophic collapses, as Jared Diamond (12) reminds us.  Given this, the fact that we have only quite recently in historical terms created a globally-integrated society simply means that the possibility of a global scale of social collapse has also only now become a very real possibility for the first time in history. Moreover this time it is not just a few religious nutcases predicting an apocalypse; for the first time in history it is the considered and overwhelming consensus (13) of the relevant scientific disciplines that we really have got ourselves into serious trouble.

We need to transcend our poor (but innate) behaviours if we wish to flourish any further. Judging by our own case (which is still the only one available for us to study) it appears to be a much simpler matter for newly-evolved conscious intelligences to develop a high level of technical and engineering skills than it does to develop the level of wisdom and moral restraint needed to use those technologies without catastrophic results. We need to develop that wisdom and moral restraint if our incredible technical skills are to flourish into the future. In the past, none of the local and regional catastrophes that human societies have suffered have been of sufficient scale as to threaten human civilisation as a whole. Now we do face a crisis of not merely regional but of global scale, and for that very reason if we can in some way or other work through it, the climate crisis may in the end prove not terminal, but rather transformational. As suggested by Gwynne Dyer (14), the global climate crisis may be in effect the “final exam” that we need to pass in order to graduate from the childhood to the adulthood of humanity.

Crisis and transformation in the evolutionary history of life and humanity

Clearly, transcending these innate problems which the baggage of our evolutionary past has left us with is the next fundamental evolutionary leap we need to make if our species is to reach beyond our current crisis and flourish. But as noted above, most of the more sensible and level-headed traditions of Western political and social thought seem agreed that the flaws in human nature are here to stay, and we must simply do the best we can with what we have to work with.

However there is a longer perspective available to us than that of the classical historian or political theorist, and that is the perspective of the evolutionary changes that have occurred over geological time scales.  Our ability to appreciate this perspective has mainly developed in only the last 200 years as we have learnt to read the record of life’s evolution in the rocks and geography of our planet.  The result is that we now know that profound and deep environmental changes have repeatedly driven life on this planet in new directions on time scales ranging from thousands to millions of years.  The evolution of human consciousness and our related development of language and technology – arguably propelled by the environmental challenges of the last ice age - are simply the most recent of these, yet our rapid flourishing into a global civilisation over just a few thousand years since the last ice age ended has already transformed the Earth beyond any precedent. Moreover, the geological record clearly shows that some of the greatest transformations in life’s evolutionary history have similarly occurred in the wake of planetary-scale catastrophes that are recorded in the rocks as mass extinctions. And perhaps most notably, as the complexity of living things and ecosystems has increased, so too has the pace of evolutionary change quickened (because of the greater diversity in the system to drive change).  Since we have set ourselves up for another such planetary-scale crisis, the possibility now arises that we have unintentionally created the conditions under which some fundamental changes in our consciousness – our “human nature” – have at last become conceivable. 

One of the most interesting of the crises in life’s history is the now widely-accepted evidence for a period of repeated globally-extensive glaciations around 650 million years ago, known as the ‘Snowball Earth’ phases of the Cryogenian Period of Late Precambrian times (15). The last of these global glaciations was followed by one of the most important turning points in the evolution of life, namely the first appearance in the fossil record around 580 million years ago of large soft-bodied multicellular life forms which diversified over the next 40 million years during the Ediacaran Period of Late Precambrian times (16) (this was subsequently followed in turn by the better-known “Cambrian explosion” of multi-cellular organisms with more easily fossilised hard skeletal parts). There are good reasons to infer that the rigours of survival for the pre-existing single-celled organisms during the Snowball Earth phase drove the evolution of multicellular life forms better able to survive under such difficult conditions, whose inherent advantages allowed them to then rapidly evolve and diversify when conditions more amenable to life returned following the end of the final Snowball Earth phase (17).

Better understood are a series of mass extinction events that have punctuated the history of life since the Cambrian Period circa 550 million years ago. The greatest of these was the end-Permian extinction (circa 250 million years ago) when around 90% to 95% of all known marine and terrestrial species in the fossil record disappeared as a result of what the geological evidence indicates was the most intense episode of explosive volcanism in the last 600 million years. The ‘Siberian Traps’ volcanic event pumped unprecedented amounts of dust, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, leading to acid rains, an enhanced Greenhouse Effect causing global warming, and turning much of the ocean into anoxic sludge (18). Nonetheless some species survived in what scattered refugia persisted, and the extinction event was followed during the Triassic Period by the diversification of new and highly sophisticated reptile species including the first dinosaurs. Yet another major extinction event followed at the end of the Triassic (circa 205 million years ago), following which those dinosaur species which survived were subsequently able to take advantage of the changed ecological conditions of the early Jurassic Period to rapidly flourish and diversify so that the Jurassic is the period of geological history often called “The Age of the Dinosaurs”  (19).

Just as the dinosaurs had begun to evolve during the Triassic Period but only really flourished after the end-Triassic extinction event ‘cleared the decks’ for them, so too early mammals had evolved as small cryptic furry creatures while the dinosaurs still dominated. At the end of the Cretaceous Period (circa 65 million years ago) the dinosaurs in their turn disappeared when what is now considered to be a perfect storm of volcanism (the ‘Deccan Traps’ of India) exacerbated by a massive asteroid impact resulted in the best known mass extinction event in Earth’s history. By famously removing the dinosaurs from the ecosystem this event ‘cleared the decks’ for the mammals (along with birds and flowering plants) to flourish and rapidly diversify in their turn (20).

Freed from the tyranny of the formerly-dominant dinosaurs, the rapid diversification of mammals over the last 65 million years led during the last few million years to the evolution of our own geologically-recent ancestors, the hominids. Whilst hominids were not the only group of animals to use rudimentary tools, our ancestors focus on this powerful specialisation was arguably fundamental in transforming our capacity to cope with environmental challenges and, by a positive feedback, enhancing our mental capacity to solve survival problems by developing new tool-oriented skills for doing so.

The increasing capacity to survive and flourish that better tool use gave our ancestors is likely to have been a major driver of improved communication and language skills, which not only improved their ability to learn and pass on better tool-making skills but also allowed them to more effectively use tools in a co-operative fashion to further enhance their survival capacities (21). Although many other species use rudimentary sounds and calls to communicate basic information such as warnings of danger, the full-blown development of effective language and symbolic thinking as a means of communicating complex ideas and strategies, and its payoff in terms of better co-operative survival skills (22), appears to have been triggered by yet another of those global environmental stresses that have influenced our evolution, namely the cold glacial climatic phases that challenged our survival both before and after the relatively benign conditions of the last warm Interglacial Phase around 125,000 years ago.

Archaeological work since the early 1990s suggests that during the cold arid conditions of the penultimate glacial phase preceding the last interglacial phase, the Homo sapiens population may have been reduced to a small number of humans inhabiting one of the few refugia available at that time, on the southern coast of Africa, and that the challenges of survival under those harsh conditions led to an early flourishing of tool-making and cognitive development (23). Human populations again spread with the return of briefly warmer interglacial conditions around 125,000 years ago, but with the subsequent return of colder and more arid conditions during the last glacial phase those nearly-modern humans (often called “Cro-Magnon” people) who had by then spread beyond their African cradle to areas such as Europe were again challenged by environmental conditions (24).  In a dramatic burst of cognitive development which many anthropologists have called by names such as “The Great Leap Forward” (25), between about 80,000 and 40,000 years ago humans developed full-blown language capabilities, and associated cognitive abilities including foresight and the ability to plan ahead, a capacity for technical (tool-making) innovation and enhanced co-operative behaviour.  As anthropologists such as Brian Fagan describe, significant changes in Cro-Magnon tools and artworks (especially cave-paintings) over this period imply that there was a very rapid development of these enhanced cognitive abilities as a successful response to the challenges created by the onset and intensification of ice age conditions (26).  The development of these enhanced cognitive and behavioural skills enabled anatomically-modern humans to continue to occupy very cold regions of Europe, and to expand into the new regions they reached around that time, notably including the arrival of humans in Australia around 50,000 years ago which necessarily required the capacity to use watercraft to cross deep permanent narrow seas in the Indonesian archipelago that were never dry land even at the maximum intensity of the Last Glacial phase.

The development of language was accompanied by and most probably directly related to the development of full-blown self-consciousness, with the ability to use the “inner voice” that language and symbolic thought made available leading to concepts of “self”, and thus to self-consciousness via the feed-back process referred to as “strange loops” by Douglas Hofstadter (27).  Indeed, the most telling archaeological indicator of our ancestors’ evolution of self-consciousness can be found in Cro-Magnon archaeological sites preserving indications of early religious beliefs, notably ritual burial sites with tools, weapons and food placed with the dead as clear indicators of belief in an after-life (28).  Religion is one behavioural pattern that no species other than humans is known to show any indications of, yet it is not difficult to see that religious behaviour would be an almost inevitable consequence of the evolution of sufficient self-awareness as to be aware that one’s own self will inevitably die. Even today, mortality is difficult for most of us to think about, and for our earlier ancestors becoming newly aware of their own mortality this must have produced an existential horror which could only be dealt with by inventing religion as a cultural coping strategy (29). In this light, the lack of religious behaviour in other species is strongly suggestive that humans have a more highly developed self-aware consciousness than any other species, to the extent that we are probably the only species with a clear and direct insight that we ourselves will die (as opposed to simply being aware that others die).

Arguably the most fundamental key to our unprecedented evolutionary success in developing advanced cognitive and technological capacities in response to the rigorous survival challenges of the ice ages was our ability to consciously and deliberately mitigate our tendency towards selfish behaviour so as to co-operate and share resources to the increased benefit of others as well as ourselves.  However as the most recent (post-1980s) phase of our history shows, this success remains compromised by a tension within us, between our older more fundamental evolutionary tendencies towards selfish behaviour and our newer and therefore less ingrained tendencies towards productive co-operation and sharing. 

At least two more pivotal stages of conceptual development have occurred since our evolution of self-conscious awareness in “The Great Leap Forward”. The first of these has been called “The Axial Age” (30), and occurred around 2500 years ago when there was – at least amongst some of us - a profound change in human intellectual outlook, comprising a movement away from the old intuitive habits of simply accepting received mythologies and stories as explanations of the world, and towards the radical new idea of using evidence, critical inquiry and rational argument as ways to learn about the nature of the world and to order societies (31).  A transition from mythos to logos (32).  Although the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are perhaps the most celebrated exemplars of this pivotal revolution in human thought, parallel changes in thinking emerged in the Middle East and Asia around the same time, including the ideas of Confucius in China and Buddha in India. Although the main focus of Axial Age philosophers was on trying to move from a mythological to a rational basis for religious ideas, their discovery of the power of rational and critical ways of thinking effectively laid the groundwork for a further deep revolution in human thought during “The Enlightenment” of the last few centuries. The essence of this second deep revolution in ways of thinking is that we finally began to move beyond religion itself, and realised that rationality and a secular outlook free of transcendental thinking could provide a much more satisfactory understanding of the world, and a better basis for social organisation, than the ultimately subjective and irrational confusions of religious thinking.

Björn Wittrock (33) has referred to periods of deep-seated cultural transformation such as the Axial Age as “cultural crystallizations”, and argues that they are driven by periods of technological innovation which bring enormous new opportunities but also new threats, and so are accompanied by a widespread perception of a crisis in civilised life; these factors drive a fundamental rethinking amongst those concerned about the evident crisis.  In the case of the Axial Age the key factors were the introduction of iron tools and weapons which not only drove great economic expansion but also new forms of warfare with much greater social consequences than previously.  In a similar way our present crisis has been driven by our colossal expansion of fossil fuel use, which has not only profoundly accelerated our cultural and technological development over the last two centuries, but has also simultaneously created the existential crisis of global climate change. We are in the throes of another deep “cultural crystallization” driven by this latest and most extensive crisis.

The global climate change crisis as a trigger for transformation

The planetary crisis we now face is not caused by impersonal geological forces as were the mass extinctions and planetary crises of the past, but by our own conscious actions – which in effect have become forces of geological scale (hence recent suggestions that the term “Anthropocene” be adopted for the new geological period that began with the industrial revolution about 200 years ago).  However the effect will be the same – not only the mass extinctions of numerous species that are already underway, but ultimately also the subsequent flourishing of new and changed ecosystems. And just as nascent forms of some better adapted organisms survived previous extinctions to flourish subsequently, I don’t think humans will become extinct anytime soon (although our present numbers are clearly unsustainable). Our adaptability and resourcefulness will ensure that some of us will survive. We are good at coping with crisis when it happens, our problem is that greed and denial all too often prevent us from clearly foreseeing it and acting to prevent it occurring in the first place. Which is a critical failing given that our evolved consciousness and intelligence actually does give us the capacity to foresee new and even unprecedented problems to a far greater extent than any other species on this planet.

The question that interests me is whether this crisis will prove transformational for humanity, and result in something better emerging from the chaos, as many of the great crises in life’s past have done?  The challenge for us is to be able to use this crisis as the opportunity to transcend the evolutionary limitations that have brought us to this point – most particularly greed-beyond-need and denial - resulting in a literally more evolved consciousness better adapted to real world we now find ourselves in than the powerful yet flawed consciousness that triggered the crisis.

Nor are millions or even thousands of years necessary for the next transformational evolutionary changes to occur in our consciousness. Whereas there is a common perception that evolutionary changes to living things during the Earth’s history have always proceeded at a gradual and glacially-slow incremental pace, palaeontologists and evolutionary biologists now understand that at least some evolutionary changes have actually been very rapid, with much of the evolution of life having occurred in a fashion known as “punctuated equilibrium”.  The palaeontologists Niles Eldredge and Steven Jay Gould argued (34) that the fossil record supports the idea that many species show no evolutionary change over long periods of stasis, but that when evolutionary changes occur in response to environmental changes, they commonly take place in geologically-very rapid bursts. Indeed, it is now known that significant evolutionary changes can occur within a matter of years rather than millions of years when species are faced with environmental changes and challenges, and numerous such examples have been observed in recent times, in many species including humans (35). Studies of DNA recovered from human skeletons dating from more recently than the agricultural revolution (about 11,000 years ago) have shown that such pervasive modern human characteristics as fair skin, blonde and red hair, blue eyes and adult lactose (milk) tolerance all evolved rapidly within just the last few thousand years (36). For example, DNA analysed from Ötzi the Iceman, who was mummified in ice in northern Italy 5,500 years ago, shows that unlike nearly all modern Europeans, he was lactose intolerant and could not have digested milk as an adult.

As organisms and ecosystems have become more complex and diverse over time, the increased variability available for evolution to work on has dramatically quickened the pace of both biological and cultural evolution. While it took billions of years for multicellular life forms to evolve from single-celled forms, and hundreds of millions of years for those to evolve into vertebrates including hominids, it then took only a few million years for some of those hominids to evolve consciousness and language. From that point the cultural evolution of agriculture and city-building has been measured in mere thousands of years, and subsequent cultural crystallisations such as the Axial Age and the Enlightenment have occurred in just hundreds of years.  The pace of change quickens as the complexity and diversity of the materials available for evolution to work on increases.  Ironically in fact, humanity’s potential for evolutionary change has recently been increased significantly by the very fact that our population has exploded to unsustainable numbers in just the last few hundred years. Whilst those inflated numbers cannot last, they have resulted in many new mutations being randomly added to the human gene pool, which actually increases the likelihood of more beneficial mutations being available amongst us for natural selection to work with (37).

Given the accelerating pace of change that has driven human development over the last few millennia, it is now entirely conceivable that fundamental evolutionary changes in human nature itself could occur far more rapidly than the common but incorrect perception of evolutionary change as always being slow might suggest.

There are two ways that a transformational step-change in the quality of our consciousness could occur, namely by:

1. Cultural evolution: a deliberate conscious effort to set aside greed and denial, which of course already happens for some (but unfortunately not enough) people. It is a key insight of evolutionary psychology that being consciously aware of genetically-determined drivers of our behaviour – such as selfishness – gives us the capacity to consciously decide to behave otherwise; we do not need to be puppets of our genes, if we can see the puppeteers strings we can decide to cut them (38). But this is hard work and it is all too obvious that few people manage to do so most of the time. It requires rational thinking, but unfortunately the capacity for rational thinking remains a learned skill, not an intrinsic or inherited one, and so many of us never really learn it.

Or by:

2.  Biological evolution: an actual change at a genetic level. Whereas it often seems to be assumed that our biological (genetic) evolution all happened in the past and that today it is only cultural evolution that drives further human change, there is no fundamental reason to think that human genetic evolution must be at an end. Small evolutionary changes in the human genome are known to be ongoing (39), and all it needs for major evolutionary changes to occur is a crisis big enough to overwhelm the capacity of our culture to cope with.  It’s looking ever more likely that is just what we have gone and done to ourselves.

Of course, these two ways of changing are not mutually exclusive, and the ideal scenario is that there may be a positive feedback interaction between changing learned behaviour and evolutionary changes:  if those of us with a greater innate (genetic) tendency towards co-operative and less greedy behaviour actually flourish better under the challenges facing us, then the evolutionary process may end up selecting for those whose evolved (genetic) capacity to learn more co-operative behaviour is stronger.

For an actual biological or genetic step change to evolve, at least two conditions need to be fulfilled, namely:

1) Evolutionary change depends on the right genes (for the intelligence to avoid denial and for less selfish or greedy behaviour) being already present in the human gene pool.
This condition does indeed appear to be met – at least in respect of selfishness -  since it is now widely accepted amongst evolutionary psychologists that humanity does include individuals who are intrinsically (i.e., genetically) either more or less selfish or altruistic than others, and that the origins of co-operative social behaviour can be traced to natural selection of groups containing higher proportions of more altruistic individuals, since more altruistic and thus co-operative groups are more likely to outcompete more selfish and divided groups (40). 


2) The ability to behave rationally and set aside denial needs to yield selective advantages in coping with and surviving the perfect storm of global crises we have created. 
Whilst quite recent trends in cultural evolution have tended to weaken the value of cooperative human behaviour, most notably with the very recent (since the 1980s) rise to political dominance of right-wing ideologies which can be characterised as the attempt to find a moral justification for greed and selfishness, the very fact that these trends have led us to a global crisis is arguably nothing less that natural selection in action once again.  With the catastrophic failure to rein in our selfishness that the currently building global climate crisis embodies, it is not in principle unreasonable to expect that selection pressures might again favour survival of those groups with higher proportions of less selfish individuals, and of those with greater capacity to avoid denial and deal with reality as it is, not just how they would like it to be.

The risk of course, is that the results of the continued climate change denial which is resulting in too little action being taken will be too pervasive and widespread for those who are not in denial to escape its consequences.  The failure of most societies to make the real effort needed to transform human civilisation into something sustainable is already resulting in increasingly frequent and powerful extreme weather events disrupting infrastructure and services. There will be a point at which repeated full recovery of infrastructure and services becomes impossible, and the resulting social and political chaos could eventually make even partial recovery impossible for large parts of humanity. In this scenario the climate crisis could run out of control to a point whose consequences will overwhelm us all, including any societies or groups that are more rational, co-operative and actually making a real effort to build genuinely sustainable societies.  Such a result would not necessarily extinguish human life, but would set us back to a point at which it would potentially take any survivors millennia to rebuild civilisation – and although we might hope, there would be no guarantee that the survivors would emerge transformed and ready to avoid the selfish and greedy mistakes we have made; on the contrary it might be only the most selfish who survive to make the same mistakes again.

However there is another more optimistic scenario, one in which we do indeed take decisive action to resolve the anthropogenic climate change crisis before it is too late to save civilisation itself. This is the scenario proposed by Paul Gilding (41) and called by him the “Great Disruption”: a transformative disruption in which we reach a point at which the likelihood of civilisation being destroyed by climate change becomes so obvious that we (collectively) actually do finally make the monumental effort to transform our civilisation – including our values and ways of doing things - so as to actually build a properly ecological sustainable civilisation.  This is the most optimistic scenario now before us, but it is one which will require mobilisation and co-operation within and between societies on a scale previously only seen in the global crisis of World War II. This of course will require unprecedented altruism and co-operation between governments and people – the very thing that ideologically-driven right-wing climate change deniers wish to avoid lest it interfere with free-market fundamentalism, and ironically the very thing their own denial and inaction on climate change has made into our best hope.

Gilding sees in this scenario of the Great Disruption the potential for humanity to learn transformative changes in our values and behaviours; but I wonder whether the challenges and rigors of the Great Disruption might in fact be so unprecedented as to actually permit evolutionary changes to occur at a genetic level as well?

As anthropologists such as Brian Fagan have powerfully described (42), it was the rigors and challenges of survival through the last Ice Age that drove the evolution of those new cognitive abilities such as foresight and the ability to plan, innovation, enhanced communication skills and enhanced co-operation, which transformed our distant ancestors into fully modern humans (often called “Cro-Magnon” people) at the time of “The Great Leap Forward” between 80,000 to 40,000 years BP.  These qualities, and the evolution of self-aware consciousness that underpins them, are the very things that make humanity distinctive from all other living things. In this light, the historically-recent rise of right-wing ideologies which attempt to justify neoliberalism and consumerism (read: selfishness and greed) as a preferred basis for society – and which are so strongly characterised by the use of denial as a means to ignore their self-evident contradictions - are truly regressive ideologies since they represent a resurgence of our most primitive selfish evolutionary traits, and undermine the more recent tendencies towards co-operation and altruism that were actually what made humanity so successful.  As Wendell Berry (43) notes in regard to right wing economics, “The great fault of this approach to things is that it is so drastically reductive; it does not permit us to live and work as human beings, as the best of our inheritance defines us. Rats and roaches live by competition under the law of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.”

Whereas greed, selfishness and denial probably do indeed have their roots in our most ancient evolved behaviours, it was the ability of our Cro-Magnon ancestors to over-ride these with co-operative, foresighted and innovative behaviours that allowed them to cope with the challenges of the last Ice Age and to become fully modern humanity. Now more than ever we need to overcome the regressive tendencies that right-wing ideology promotes, and make full use of the capacity for foresight, innovation and co-operation that are the real essence of human success, in order to cope with the great challenges that now beset us. The resurgence of our older reptilian brain is clearly having disastrous consequences. We need to finish the job of evolving to the next level that was started by our Cro-Magnon ancestors during “The Great Leap Forward”.

The next great evolutionary leap that we need to make is quite simply the ability to put aside instinctive greed and denial and actually behave rationally as a matter of course. In other words we need a change in the quality of our consciousness itself, away from ‘fossil’ behaviours that no longer serve us well, towards the more rational and less selfish behaviours that allowed us to respond so successfully to the challenges of the ice ages, and which we now need more than ever.  Rationality, or the skill of critical thinking, is a marvellous capacity that our evolved cognitive capacities allowed us to develop through cultural rather than biological evolution. It is our greatest invention or discovery, which underlies the most recent successes of our technological civilisation. Yet too many of us continue to reject and deny it in favour of magical thinking: believing that if rational inquiry tells us something we don’t want to hear (such as that too much consumption will destroy our world), then we can just deny it and it will not bother us. That is how our immature use of rational skills have led us into crisis; we have used rationality with great success to develop technologies that we can see a direct and immediate benefit from, but continue to ignore and deny the insights that rationality also gives us when it warns of consequences we don’t want to think about.

The possibility that the scale and scope of the existential crisis we now face will not be terminal - but nevertheless will be sufficient to trigger the transformational evolutionary leap we now need to make - could be the proverbial silver lining in the dark cloud of crisis that our collectively blind actions have created.

Chris Sharples is a geomorphologist at the University of Tasmania where he dabbles in researching the effects of sea-level rise on coasts. He is also interested in trying to spot elephants in rooms and state the bleeding obvious about them.

Refs ...

(1)  See: James Boyce, 2014: “Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World”; Black Inc., 260pp.

(2)  John Locke, 1689: “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”.

(3)  A useful online primer on the science of evolutionary psychology by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby (University of California Center for Evolutionary Psychology) can be found at (Jan 13th 1997; accessed 26th December 2016). See also their book: Barkow, J., Cosmides, L. and Tooby, J, 1992: “The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the generation of culture”, NY: Oxford University Press; and other works in the extensive literature on evolutionary psychology.

(4)  Eviatar Zerubavel, 2006: “The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life”; Oxford University Press, 162 pp.

(5)  Kari Marie Norgaard, 2011: “Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life; The MIT Press, Massachusetts, USA, 279pp.

(6)  As is implicit in Aynsley Kellow’s 2007 book “Science and Public Policy: The Virtuous Corruption of Virtual Environmental Science” (Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd, Cheltenham UK, 218 pp.);  In common with many critics of science, Kellow – a political theorist, not a scientist himself – appears to fail to grasp the degree to which energetic peer criticism is an absolutely fundamental driver of the scientific method and is the underpinning reason for the considerable success of science generally over the last several centuries.  In particular, it is interesting that most of the examples of “virtuous corruption” of science which Kellow can cite are only known to him because the scientific community itself exposed them.  However his apparent misunderstanding of the scientific method permits him to conveniently decide – citing the arguments of a “usual suspect” range of non-climate-scientist deniers - that widely accepted research findings in climate science are further examples of “virtuous corruption”.  Actually that’s not real peer review and criticism, its ideologically-driven denial by people with little knowledge or experience in actual climate science. If such corruption was as widespread as many climate deniers try to imply, then the history of science strongly suggests that there would be a significant number of real climate scientists exposing the fact (as opposed to ideologically driven non-climate-scientists trying to claim corruption in a field they are not expert in).

(7)  Robert Wright, 1994: “The Moral Animal”; Vintage Books, New York, p. 34.

(8)  Thucydides “The Peloponnesian War” (431-404 BCE).

(9)  See: James Boyce, 2014: “Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World”; Black Inc., p. 104-105.

(10)  Hans J. Morgenthau, 1948: “Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace”; cited in: Robert D. Kaplan, 2012: “The Revenge of Geography”; Random House, New York, p.24-29.

(11)  Robert D. Kaplan, 2012: “The Revenge of Geography”; Random House, New York, p.24-29.

(12)  Jared Diamond, 2005: Collapse: “How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive”; Penguin Books, 575 pp. Whereas the collapse of some past societies such as that of Easter Island were a result of thoughtless over-exploitation of limited resources (timber in the Easter Island case), others such as the abandonment of the Mayan and Anasazi cities of Central America were the result of stresses – especially droughts – bought on by climatic changes that were relatively small compared to those we now face.  Diamond argues that a frequent cause of societies collapsing in the past was a failure to question core values or methods that had worked previously but were no longer appropriate when conditions changed. The failure of our global civilisation to question its core value of unending growth in resource consumption now that planetary limits have been reached is clearly a case in point.

(13)  An important recent peer-reviewed study used a comprehensive and systematic analysis of the scientific literature on climate change to demonstrate that of practicing, professional scientists actively working in climate-related disciplines (as opposed to journalists and other commentators with no credible understanding of the science), fully 97% agree that climate change is not only happening, but also that it is dominantly caused by human activities.  The study was reported in the academic journal ‘Environmental Research Letters’ by:
Cook, J., Nuccitelli, D., Green, S.A., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Painting, R., Way, R., Jacobs, P. & Skuce, A., 2013: “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature”, Environmental Research Letters, Vol. 8, 7 pp., 024024, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/2/024024.  (This study is available as a free download from the journal’s website)

(14)  Gwynne Dyer, 2008: “Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats”; Scribe Publications, Victoria Australia, p. 274-276.

(15)  Hoffman, P. F., Kaufman, A. J., Halverson, G. P. and Schrag, D. P., 1998: “A Neoproterozoic Snowball Earth”; Science, Vol. 281 (5381), p. 1342-1346 (doi: 10.1126/science.281.5381.1342).

(16)  James O’Donoghue, 2016: “Lifes Long Fuse”, in: “Origin, Evolution, Extinction – The Epic Story of Life on Earth”, New Scientist: The Collection, Vol. 3, Issue 2, pages 36 – 40 provides a useful outline of current understanding of the Ediacaran fossils and their origins in the immediate aftermath of the last global ‘Snowball-Earth’ glacial phase.

(17)  Boyle, R.A., Lenton, T.M. and Williams, H.T.P., 2007: “Neoproterozoic ‘snowball Earth’ glaciations and the evolution of altruism”; Geobiology, Vol. 5(4), p. 337-349 (doi: 10.1111/j.1472-4669.2007.00115.x); See also Hoffman et al. (1998) above.

(18)  Two recent books by palaeontologists whose professional work has focussed on mass extinctions in Earth’s history provide enlightening up-to-date accounts of the current scientific understanding of the end-Permian and end-Cretaceous mass extinctions: P.D. Ward, 2007: “Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and what they can tell us about our Future”; HarperCollins, 242 pp.; and: M.J. Benton, 2015: “When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of all time”; Thames & Hudson, 352 pp.

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