Scientists have revealed 14 evolutionary traps that threaten the future of humanity

From climate change to artificial intelligence, a new study reveals that humanity is at risk of falling into 14 evolutionary dead ends known as “evolutionary traps”. The study, which focuses on the Anthropocene era, highlights the need for global cooperation and active societal transformation to avoid these pitfalls.

A misaligned AI is not something you should worry about (yet).

For the first time, scientists applied the concept of evolutionary traps to human societies in general. They find that humanity is at risk of becoming stuck in 14 evolutionary impasses, ranging from global climate tipping points to inadequate artificial intelligence, chemical pollution and accelerating infectious diseases.

The Anthropocene Era: Successes and Challenges

Human evolution has been an extraordinary success story. But the Anthropocene—the proposed geological epoch shaped by us humans—is showing more and more cracks. Several global crises, e.g COVID 19 Pandemics, climate change, food shortages, financial crises and conflicts began to occur simultaneously in what scientists call a polycrisis.

System dynamics and trap interactions

(a) System dynamics related to the three main groups of Anthropocene traps, global traps, technological traps and
structural traps (including time and connectivity traps). The two reinforcing feedback loops are denoted by R, and the interactions between the dynamics of trap clusters are indicated by colored superscript letters (causal node color) and dashed linear arrows.
(b) Interaction heatmap of 14 proposed Anthropocene trap results.
Credit: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B

Human creativity and unintended consequences

“People are incredibly creative as a species. We are able to innovate and adapt to many circumstances, and we can collaborate on a surprisingly large scale. However, these options turn out to have unintended consequences. “Simply put, the human species has been too successful and in some ways too intelligent for its own future,” says Peter Søgaard Jørgensen, a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Center at Stockholm University and the Royal Swedish Academy. Dynamics of the global economy and the biosphere program of the sciences and the Anthropocene laboratory.

Peter Søgaard Jørgensen

Peter Søgaard Jørgensen is the lead author of the study. He is a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Center at Stockholm University and the Global Economic Dynamics and Biosphere Program and the Anthropocene Laboratory at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Credit: Stockholm Resilience Center

An important study of evolutionary traps

He is the lead author of an important new study published today as part of a larger journal review Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. The assessment gathers insights from various disciplines in the natural and social sciences and humanities to understand how the Anthropocene has evolved and how global sustainability may evolve in the future.

Identifying and understanding evolutionary traps

The new study shows how humanity can get stuck in “evolutionary traps,” dead ends that result from initially successful innovations. In their first scoping, they identify 14 of them, including agricultural simplification, economic growth that does not benefit people or the environment, the instability of global cooperation, climate tipping points, and artificial intelligence (see the table below for a full list of pitfalls).

Evolutionary traps in the animal world and human societies

“Evolutionary traps are a well-known concept in the animal world. Just as many insects are attracted to light, an evolutionary reflex that can kill them in the modern world, humanity risks reacting to new phenomena in a harmful way,” explains Peter Søgaard Jørgensen.

The simplification of agricultural systems is an example of such a trap. Reliance on a few highly productive crops such as wheat, rice, maize and soya has meant that the amount of calories produced has increased dramatically over the past century. But it also meant that the food system became highly vulnerable to environmental changes such as extreme weather or new diseases.

Trap severity and interrelationship

Of the 14 evolutionary traps, 12 are in an advanced state, meaning that humanity is on the verge of being stuck to a point where it becomes very difficult to get out. Furthermore, 10 of these 14 societies continue to move in the wrong direction. Worryingly, these evolutionary traps are mutually reinforcing. If societies are stuck in one dead end, they are more likely to be stuck in others. Two dead ends that are currently less advanced are the autonomy of technology – AI and robotics – and the loss of social capital due to digitalisation.

Lan Vang Erlandsson

Lan Wang Erlandsson is a co-author and researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Center at Stockholm University and the Anthropocene Laboratory at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Credit: Stockholm Resilience Center

The new assessment also examines why societies are struggling so hard to break out of this trap.

Global challenges and the need for cooperation

“The evolutionary forces that created the Anthropocene are not working well at the global level. In today’s global systems, social and environmental problems are growing in places that seem remote to a society that could prevent them. And solving them often requires global cooperation on a scale that many evolutionary forces are often incompatible with,” says co-author Lan Wang-Erlandsson, an Anthropocene researcher at Stockholm University’s Stockholm Resilience Center and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. laboratory.

A call to action for humanity

This does not mean that humanity is doomed, scientists say. But we must begin to actively transform our societies. Until now, the Anthropocene has largely been an unconscious byproduct of other evolutionary processes.

“It’s time for humans to embrace a new reality and move together to where we want to go as a species.” We have the ability to do this and we are already seeing signs of such movements. Our creativity and power to innovate and collaborate give us great tools to actively shape our future. We can break out of the deadlock and business as usual, but to do so we need to build the capacity for collective human agency and the design environment where it can flourish,” explains Peter Søgaard Jørgensen.

He continues: “One very simple thing that anyone can do is to become more involved with nature and society, while learning about both the positive and negative global consequences of our own local actions. There is nothing better than exposing yourself to something that needs to be protected.

Reference: Peter Søgaard Jørgensen, Raf EV Jansen, Daniel I. Avila Ortega, Lan Wang-Erlandsson, Jonathan F. Donges, Henrik Österblom, Per Olsson, Magnus Nyström, Steven. J. Lade, Thomas Hahn, Carl Folke, Garry D. Peterson, and Anne-Sophie Crépin, 2024. January 1 Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2022.0261

Godfrey Kemp

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