“Evolutionary Mismatch, Partisan Politics, and Climate Change: A Tragedy in Three Acts
By Helen Camakaris
Helen gained her Ph.D. in 1975 and worked as a Senior Research Scientist in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She studied the regulation of gene expression in bacteria and archaebacteria, which aligned with her interest in evolution. She retired in 2008 to pursue her interest in the nexus between evolutionary psychology, sustainability, and climate change, and has been studying and publishing articles in this area for the past ten years. Her articles have appeared in Meanjin Quarterly, The Conversation, Cosmos Magazine, New Internationalist, and Kosmos Magazine, and can be found online under Notes on her Facebook Page.
Facebook Page: ‘The Climate Conundrum, with Helen Camakaris’ at https://www.facebook.com/h.camakaris/
This View of Life
During the Pleistocene, our brains were upgraded by changes that enabled our ancestors to leave more descendants, largely as a result of expansion in the cerebral neo-cortex. Evolution is glacially slow and our rise is recent, so our psychology suffers from evolutionary ‘mismatch,’5 whereby the shadows of the past still influence our behavior.6
Like biological evolution, cultural evolution builds upon whatever has preceded it and is also subject to a form of ‘natural selection,’8 whereby some ‘memes’ or ideas persist and spread.9 Cultural evolution and natural selection acted together as a ratchet, culminating in vastly increased intelligence and creativity.5
Altruism too, was a product of natural selection involving language and social intelligence, its selection enhanced by multilevel selection, with competition at the level of groups or tribes.10 Altruism, however, is generally circumscribed by an obsession with ‘fairness’ and discrimination between ‘them’ and ‘us’, presenting problems when we must plan for the distant future, or cooperate beyond the local tribe.
So although we may now be extraordinarily intelligent, we are not always rational, simply as a result of our evolutionary journey.11 Our decision-making often involves emotional reasoning, using ‘gut instinct’, which we then justify by rational thought.12 Our cognition is also subject to a myriad of biases affecting our judgment.13 For example, we tend to discount the future, follow our in-group, and collect evidence to justify our pre-existing opinions. We are further limited by our poor comprehension of large numbers and exponential growth, as became obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, even intelligence has been a double-edged sword, promoting the transition from hunter-gatherer to improviser, and the ‘progress’ that followed. Technological advances like agriculture around 10,000 years ago made surpluses possible; people began to live in towns and cities, to specialize, trade with other groups, and have larger families. Whilst this satisfied the evolutionary imperative of increasing population, it heralded poorer diets, more disease, and greater social stratification.”