Over the past decades, it has become clear that climate change presents an existential risk to humanity. We must therefore prioritize climate mitigation and tackle it urgently at multiple levels. It cannot be solved simply with technological breakthroughs and reducing emissions generated by the use of fossil fuels, agriculture and land clearing remain the most important way forward.
The reason we haven’t yet come close to meeting the required emission targets can be attributed to ‘evolutionary mismatch,’1 a consequence of Darwinian evolution, which is central to many of the global, long-term problems we face today. Evolutionary mismatch compromises our ability to make rational decisions, whether as individuals, politicians in national or global arenas, or captains of industry.
We will need to leverage cultural evolution to find the solutions that we need. This might involve education, advertising, and media, and will undoubtedly require improving the political process to ensure that it works in the interests of all citizens, including those not yet born. This might be achieved by using a Committee of experts from a broad range of disciplines to set policy, which then faces scrutiny before Parliament or a Citizens’ Assembly.2
In the same spirit – that a broad range of experts might accomplish what one person cannot – David Sloan Wilson and Eric Johnson have kindly allowed us to put together this TVOL series on the Nexus Between Evolution and Climate Change, drawing upon the expertise of many talented contributors.
We are currently failing to abide by limitations on carbon emissions, despite the fact that the majority of the public now sees climate change as a major threat, as revealed in a 2021 UN Global poll of 1.2 million people in 50 countries. Two-thirds considered climate change to be a global emergency, with the USA at 65%, Australia at 72%, and the UK at 81%.3 So why have we allowed this ‘disconnect’ between belief and action to continue?
Most media have concentrated on the proximate causes. We frequently read about CO2 emissions from the use of fossil fuels; sometimes we read about the roles of population growth, land use, meat consumption, transport, and industry.
The media that dig deeper elaborate on the role of greedy corporations, capitalism (particularly neoliberalism), bipartisan politics, and conspicuous consumption.
If we look for the ultimate causes of climate change inaction, we discover that much of the relevant behavior can be explained by ‘evolutionary mismatch.’4 Evolution simply selects modifications that satisfy the imperative of leaving more descendants, at a particular point in time; for humans, the time when we evolved most of our cognitive biases and innate behavior was the Pleistocene, in what is often referred to as the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA).
Evolution works as an algorithm, with no input from the future. Darwinian evolution is simply the result of replication, variation, and selection. This algorithm will always result in evolution, whatever the context. Every change is simply built upon what came before and is based upon increased inclusive fitness, at a particular time and place.
Of course, evolution has resulted in human intelligence, but even this is subject to emotional reasoning and biases that were directed toward selective survival in the distant past, so we are not always rational.5 Self-interest, short-sightedness, status, social imitation, and sensing have been identified as five major evolutionary adaptations or biases that spell trouble for dealing with climate change.6
So where does this leave us? If evolution works against our best interests through mismatch, are we foolish to be optimistic? Perhaps we should consider another form of evolution. Our progression to modern Homo sapiens, with enhanced copying, language, teaching, and learning, created the possibility of cultural evolution, which can work in concert with genetic evolution.7
As intelligent beings, we can direct cultural evolution toward solutions at many levels – personal, societal, and political. Furthermore, changing social norms favoring increased altruism, egalitarianism, and other positive attributes might guide our choice of leaders. In time, they might also facilitate the selection of genetic change, particularly through reproductive selection, which is far more rapid than natural selection. Perhaps many of us, particularly women, more attuned to caring for the next generation, will progressively favor these attributes in their choice of partner, introducing a genetic dimension to the selection of altruistic traits, and our identity as global citizens.
Solutions must leverage our positive attributes, particularly intelligence, cultural learning, and altruism. We can promote behavioral change by tailoring our approaches to people. With respect to politics, structural change that improves voting methods,8 or that creates decision-making by nonpartisan think tanks2 might promote consensus. Protest movements and changes to education, advertising, wealth generation, and status recognition might also help make such transitions possible.
The solutions we are seeking are obviously multidisciplinary in nature. We, therefore, invited a diverse range of writers and experts to contribute short essays to this series. We sought contributions offering critical comments and alternative ideas, or that expand on any of the ideas in this short Introduction. We hope that this forum for a broad range of ideas and perspectives may be the first of many, and contribute to new solutions.
Read the full Climate Change and Evolution series:
1. Introduction: The Nexus Between Climate Change and Evolution by Helen Camakaris and James Dyke
2. The Anthropocene: A Shock in the Evolutionary History of the Earth System by Will Steffan
3. Evolutionary Mismatch, Partisan Politics, and Climate Change: A Tragedy in Three Acts by Helen Camakaris
4. A Climate of Change: To Combat Global Warming, We Need to Break the Law by A.C. Grayling
5. Changing Social Norms Could Create a Green Future by Mark van Vugt
7. The Solution To Climate Change Is To Talk About Climate Change by Rebecca Huntley
8. Dealing with Disproportionality in Climate Change Policymaking by Christopher M. Weible
 Li, N. P., van Vugt, M., and Colarelli, S. M. (2017) The Evolutionary Mismatch Hypothesis: Implications for Psychological Science. Current Directions in Psychological Science 2018; 27(1):38-44
 Camakaris, H. (2012) https://theconversation.com/dont-trust-your-stone-age-brain-its-unsustainable-9075
 Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow, Penguin UK
 Palomo-Velez, G. and M. van Vugt (2021) The Evolutionary Psychology of Climate Change Behaviors: Insights and Applications Current Opinion on Psychology 42:54-59
 Laland, K. N. (2017) Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind, Princeton University Press
 Deke Copenhaver, “Leading For the Bell Curve and Not the Extremes,” Forbes, Sept. 9, 2019