We Are Not Not Evolved to Respond to Climate Change

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One reason given for the inaction on climate change is that we humans are not evolved to handle this kind of problem. In a 2006 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert argued that the human brain evolved to respond to threats like terrorism, not climate change.[1] In his 2014 book on climate change titled Reason in a Dark Time, New York University philosopher (and colleague) Dale Jamieson noted, “Evolution built us to respond to rapid movements of middle-sized objects, not to the slow buildup of insensible gases in the atmosphere.”[2]

True, we were not built to solve climate change. We were also not built to read (the visual stress of reading and computer work has exacerbated nearsightedness). We are not evolved for democracy or scuba diving or high-sugar diets. Feathered animals were not, in fact, built to fly (feathers evolved first for insulation).[3]

We are not built to solve climate change, but we were also not not built to solve it. This is apparent from the high variability of climate-related action by both individuals and groups. Some people live off the grid, others drive Hummers. Bristol, England plans to reduce the city’s carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2020 (from a 2005 baseline). Hamburg, Germany plans to remodel the city, including taking most cars off the road by 2034. Meanwhile, Miami, Florida remains one of the world’s most vulnerable cities to climate-related threats but continues to irresponsibly develop its coast.

Miami Beach at night, city lights in background Genetics cannot explain why some people and places are engaging seriously with climate change and others are not. We should resist the temptation to explain inaction with the force of biology or anything deeper than systems of belief, culture, power, and economic forces (which are quite deep enough). It’s not just climate change where such temptations occur. The gender gap in mathematics performance led to biological arguments for its existence (i.e., that boys are innately better spatial thinkers). Yet, more recent work showed the gender gap between girls and boys on math tests disappears in more gender-equal societies (and has been closing in the U.S. over time), suggesting culture, rather than biology, is at work.[4]

When we ask how evolution influences our moral instincts, we must be cognizant of another important question: does our perception that evolution affects our moral instincts affect our moral instincts? Evoking evolutionary explanations for inaction on climate change might actually exacerbate inertia on the issue. A study of undergraduates found that when they were primed with a text about determinism—that free will is an illusion because the combination of genes and environment dictate our behavior—the undergraduates cheated significantly more in subsequent experiments compared to undergraduates who had read a neutral text.[5] That’s because what we learn about ourselves affects how we behave, which is the basis of the placebo effect—when an inert pill provides a real cure.

I worry how our perception of ourselves might affect our environmental behavior. I am even concerned about the name of the newest epoch, the Anthropocene, which begins with the Industrial Revolution and implicates humanity as a geologic force. The ‘Anthropocene’ provides a framing that suggests that humans (rather than certain humans armed with certain economic systems and technologies) are destined to continue to overexploit environmental resources. The ‘anthropocebo effect’ describes the pessimism that might lead us to accept humans as a geologic force and destruction as inevitable, therefore exacerbating human-induced damage.[6] A similar problem could result from the argument that our incapacity to solve climate change is genetic.

The problem of anthropogenic climate change is as impaired by human genetics as the problem of the human-caused hole in the ozone layer, which we solved. Not that these problems are easy to compare, namely because energy is at the foundation of industry and standard of living, which was not true of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). But, that humans succeeded in implementing a ban on CFCs nonetheless shows that factors other than evolution are at work in the proliferation of greenhouse gases.

Even without genetics, climate change remains a difficult problem to comprehend and to address. Dale Jamieson points to the difficulties of conceptualizing the issue of climate change as a moral problem, including the challenges of understanding who (or what) is most responsible for the harm (in terms of both the producers and consumers of fossil fuels), whether it is intentional, and how closely the action and the harm are related in space and time. New research is beginning to illuminate some of these points. A recent study showed that just ninety corporations (some of them state-owned) are responsible for supplying nearly two-thirds of historic carbon dioxide and methane emissions.[7] So we should ask whether our economic systems are arranged to forgo profits for the sake of solving climate change. Cities around the world are responsible for 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. We should wonder what makes some cities higher or lower emitters. What makes some more active toward reducing emissions than others?

Cultures have flattened heads, bound feet, and mutilated genitals. Others have lowered birth rates, traveled into space, fostered delayed gratification, and instituted civil rights and laws to protect children. An argument that we were evolved to do any of these things would be as difficult to make as the argument that we were evolved not to.

Morality is plastic. For better and worse, both women’s rights and a tradition of genital mutilation persist on the basis of ingenuity rather than hardwiring. Rather than focusing on which problems we were built to solve, we should instead ask which problems we need to solve, whether we want to solve them, and how.

[1] Gilbert, D. (2006). “If only gay sex caused global warming” Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2006. [http://articles.latimes.com/2006/jul/02/opinion/op-gilbert2]

[2] Jamieson, D. (2014). Reason in a Dark Time: Why The Struggle Against Climate Change Failed – and What It Means for Our Future. Oxford University Press: London.

[3] Gould, S.J. and Vrba, E.S. (1982). Exaptation – A missing term in the science of form. Paleobiology, 8, 4-15.

[4] Guiso, L., Monte, F., Sapienza, P., & Zingales, L. (2008). Culture, gender, and math. Science, 320, 1164-1165.

[5] Vohls, K. D., and J. W. Schooler. (2008). The value of believing in free will. Psychological Science, 19, 49–54.

[6] Jacquet, J. (2013). The anthropocebo effect. Conservation Biology, 27, 898-901.

[7] Heede, R. (2014). Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010. Climatic Change, 122, 229-241.

Image Credit

“Miami Beach” by Ricardo’s Photography. (CC BY 2.0)

  • Jennifer Jacquet

    Jennifer Jacquet is an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at New York University. She is the author of Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool.

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