Is Humanity Fatally Successful?

By Rees, William E. | Journal of Business Administration and Policy Analysis, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

Is Humanity Fatally Successful?


Rees, William E., Journal of Business Administration and Policy Analysis


A framing premise of this paper is that the sustainability dilemma is not merely an ecological or technical or economic crisis as is usually assumed, but rather it is a crisis rooted in fundamental human nature. More specifically, it is a crisis of human evolutionary success--indeed, we have reached the point where our success is killing us!

This interpretation is not part of the conventional sustainability debate for a very simple reason. We human beings--for all that we suppose ourselves to be evidence of intelligent life on earth--really fail to understand who we are. We have a very limited understanding of what motivates us, why it is we do certain things that we do. Little wonder that human nature is hardly on the sustainability radar.

At the heart of this problem is the fact that people today rarely think of themselves as biological beings. It comes to mind from time to time if one has heart palpitations or some other illness but, on the whole, we modems don't like to think of ourselves as biological entities. But indeed we are--we are products of evolution, and our behaviour both as individuals and as society represents a delicate dialectic between self-conscious reasoning and deeper and sometimes darker unconscious urges and predispositions.

The fact is that we humans have a long evolutionary history and many of the traits that we've acquired along the way, traits that were adaptive 50,000 years ago, are with us still. But now some of these once-desirable qualities may threaten humanity's future prospects. That is, some characteristic human qualities and behaviours may well now be maladaptive. I will try to make the case that these ancient traits are such that techno-industrial society in particular is inherently unsustainable. The world is ecologically full--but evolution has not provided us with inhibitions against extinguishing other species, against eliminating competing human groups or, indeed, against destroying our earthly habitat(s).

In these circumstances, prospects for building civil society, and maintaining the conditions necessary for civilized existence on Earth depend mainly on our capacity to devise mutually beneficial cultural constraints on social behaviour that has become maladaptive on a crowded planet. Of course, if we're going to "fix" ourselves in this way, we need to know more about ourselves.

The notion that we are not sufficiently conscious of our own nature has been a persistent theme in the literature of many countries. Listen to Anton Chekhov: "Man will become better only when you make him see what he is like." Or perhaps you prefer W.H. Auden: "We are lived by forces we can scarcely understand." I believe that coming to understand these forces will give us a chance to take a great evolutionary step forward to the point where sound intelligence incorporated into our cultural "programming" holds sway over more well-tested, biologically-determined, but increasingly dangerous behavioural patterns.

My second major premise should already be obvious, namely that if humans are the product of evolution, we are also the product of Darwinian natural selection. Uniquely, however, human evolution is as much determined by socio-cultural as by biological factors. This means, of course, that both cultural and biological "mutations" are subject to natural selection. Everyone recognizes that maladaptive physical mutations will be "selected out" in an environment for which they are unsuitable. It is less well appreciated that, like biological mutations, ill-suited socio-cultural patterns can also be selected out. To reiterate this central idea, culture now as much determines the human future as biology but, like disadvantageous physical characteristics, unfit cultural traits will be eliminated by evolutionary forces.

We can find support for this assertion in both ancient and more recent history. …

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