Evolving Our Way Toward Sustainability Intentional Living, Epigenetic Evolution & The Current Ecological Crisis

Our understanding that life on earth has evolved from simple self-replicating organisms through natural selection and sexual selection was a great breakthrough in the sciences in the 18th century. It has since enabled us to make sense of the wonderful, diverse, inter-related web of life that now exists; indeed, biology without the understanding of evolution looks like a lot of random facts with little coherence. And since then, Evolutionary theory has become a unifying principle making it possible for all the sciences together to increasingly offer a fairly comprehensive explanation for our current situation.

intentional living. Credit: spaceamoeba, flickrCCMore recently, cultural evolution studies explain the evolution of our present consciousness and the many stages we must have gone through to have evolved from a much more primitive ‘essentialist’ consciousness, to our modern day cognitively complex, highly reactive, highly stimulated mentality. In tending to separate history from pre-history, in the west, we have tended to view ‘culture’ as a phenomenon that has simply arisen along the way through language, interaction and civilization (indeed, in most books, history is seen as starting about 5,000 years ago). We have not tended to look at prehistory as a very long slow period of several million years where our consciousness changed from having simple, primate like imperatives and motivations, to a stage where we were predisposed to develop civilization.

However, in the last few years, through a number of recent developments, evolutionary science has greatly increased our understanding of the genetic and epigenetic modification mechanisms which underpin this complex psychological development of our species, from where we separated to become a different sort of primate living in the new environment of the Savannah lands to now. It has been established that most traits are the product of the influence of dozens or hundreds of genes, each contributing only 1 or 2% to particular behavior traits, and many of our genes are in fact for switching on and off other genes and affecting their development and actions throughout the lifespan, e.g. through hormone signaling at certain ages.

Studies on these many ‘epigenetic’ factors that influence our nature and development show that organisms give far more direction to evolution, and that evolution is not so much based on merely ‘random’ mutations that are then naturally selected and become universal within species. Changes are much more sensitive to environmental influences (e.g. heat and stress) than was previously thought, and so have a greater forward directionality affecting later generations. A good example is how some more complex organisms, including us, have evolved behavioral traits that influence their environment to a great extent, which in turn affects the selection pressures that influence further evolution and development; language, technology and cumulative cultural learning are good examples of such ‘Niche Construction’ mechanisms in humanity.

This new concept of ‘Niche Construction’, which describes how organisms change their environment in small ways that better ensure they survive, procreate and flourish, I believe, is key for understanding modern human life and our current crisis. At a simple level, Rhododendron trees change the soil around their roots to being so acidic that other plants can’t grow around and near to them. At a more complex level, beavers build dams that create a pond that they build a floating nest on that protects them from predators. At each level, a chance mutation in one individual organism helped it survive better and procreate more than its peers in its micro-environment, giving it advantage. Thus the behavior trait that developed and became transmitted generation after generation, became fixed in the population as behavioral norms, and helped to free the species from some small aspect of natural selection through ensuring its survival and procreation slightly better in the competition for resources in that micro-environment, e.g. building nests, burrows etc.

This mechanism of learning being passed down generations we call culture, and it may be instructive to compare our own story to the evolution of dolphins, and how they too have evolved intelligence, social structure and culture. They are a mammal species who have established a sustainable population in a particular niche in the environment, and over time, have evolved language and social/cultural learning — e.g. cooperative hunting. In a similar way, a number of other primates, cetaceans and elephants have built sustainable ‘Niches’ within which they have further evolved greater complexity of cognitive problem solving and learning, often very successfully until we came along and disrupted them.

In this sense, even though we are only recently beginning to understand how our development accelerated so quickly, we can now see that we have been the most successful and adaptable species so far, spreading into virtually every region of the planet, and through our ingenuity, making the whole world our ‘Niche’. We, more than any other species, have learned to change that environment to give us a more well adapted life, freeing ourselves from many of the main pressures of natural selection – climate and weather variability through shelter and fire; parasites and diseases through sanitation and medicine; natural occurrence, growth rates and palatability of plant foodstuffs through agriculture and cooking, availability of animal foodstuffs through domestication of livestock; transfer and use of natural resources through mining, trade and transport; cooperation through language etc. We have done this slowly and surely over the last few million years, incrementally building technologies, knowledge and social practices all the time so that Niche construction has become part of our instinctive drive system, at both the individual and corporate level. We have started to do it at an accelerating rate as we have co-evolved the fast ‘cultural’ consciousness that can problem solve at an incredibly fast rate, again, incrementally building on previously developed knowledge and technologies. As part of this, we have also evolved social mechanisms for living together at very close quarters, and collaborating on vast common enterprises that cross national borders.

But what we have also learned in these last few years makes this rather sobering: the more we have evolved beyond constraints, the more we have encouraged and liberated our niche constructing imagination and technical competence. The sky is the limit, and, in the western world, we seem to have the promise of being able to have what we want, whenever we want it – just watch the ads on TV and the internet. We can travel where we want, and buy every convenience possible at the click of a mouse.

Yet, what this has thrown up in high visibility in the last few years is that we have not yet evolved a strategy to make this niche sustainable. Why would we have? What need has there been to do so, as we have hitherto found technical solutions to any hitches in overall progress? For most of the people in the western world, most of the time, things are completely as they should be; progress is constantly being made, and we have never had it so good in terms of comfort, sociability and accessibility of resources. Objectively speaking, the process of evolution does not make mistakes, it simply incrementally adds on to what is already there to make organisms more fitness enhancing in the circumstances. Thus, historically, we, as a species, haven’t made huge mistakes either, we’ve simply followed our evolutionary imperatives. Making life to flourish for our families and descendants is natural; all organisms do this. Greed and inequality is only an extension of this imperative, though there is some evidence to suggest that this is a pretty recent trend in our long history of mainly egalitarian trading relationships.

Thus, in developing all of this so suddenly, in evolutionary terms, we are now finding we’ve built a ‘Niche’ that has grown so big, and so dependent on changing the environment for our resource supply, that it’s become unsustainable. And it’s still growing – AI, the internet of things, robotics etc, are new areas of research that promise even faster production and control of our environment, and all nations are increasingly wanting a more just sharing of potential economic development. We have already begun to see the limits of our energy production from fossil fuels, and it’s not far into the further future that we can see the depletion of many other major resources: iron, copper, bauxite, uranium etc. We can see how our progress has created great imbalances in the interdependence of the living world: depletion of fish stocks, pollinating insects, forest degradation etc. The effects from the overuse of antibiotics, pesticides and weed killers are already showing that more sustainable ways need to be found to maintain health and food production into the far future. We can see the effects of extreme weather, and contemplate the threat of Global Warming. The point is that we are realizing slowly, that we are reaching the final physical constraints on our previously uninterrupted evolutionary trajectory of progress.

What I suggest we are facing could helpfully be seen as a sort of ‘evolutionary crisis’ for mankind, not just an ecological disaster for the natural world. From what we know, it has never so far happened that one species became so successful that it developed the ability to so exploit the very environment that it was dependent on, to such an extent that it became impoverished beyond repair. In most niches that species have impoverished, migration and adaptation to new neighboring environments has been the solution, as it was probably for us three or four million years ago in the over-populated tropical forests.

But this is not an option available to us anymore; we have colonized virtually all hospitable areas of the earth. Some people look to humans colonizing other planets, e.g. Mars, to solve this problem, but we know that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. We in the west, are, in many ways, victims of our very own success. And because of the rapidity of our ‘Niche’ expansion, we haven’t had time to adapt to our new circumstances, evolving psychological mechanisms to control and over-ride our impulse to grow, procreate and assure the survival of our progeny. To begin to see that we can’t afford to keep having children and increase their future opportunities, because the earth can’t sustain the resource base, and maintain equable climate systems, is very hard, evolutionarily speaking. In many ways it goes against the very grain of life’s primary drive. And so, it’s too hard for most people to accept as a reality in their every day lives, and they don’t feel they know what to do about it.

To put it into the very long perspective, extinction events have happened before on earth, but no one has been in a position to see their coming and contemplate lines of action to take about it. Yet somehow, we, in this generation alive today, particularly in the western world, do have to begin to find other more conscious, cognitive ways of decision making to develop and share a sustainable ‘Niche’ within which to pursue our life aims. And this will probably have to be done with a more limited land mass as sea levels rise.

How many generations does it take for a significant reduction in fertility to make a sustainable world population size? We don’t know for sure, but what evidence there is from history is that it took several generations for people to start having fewer children when the infant mortality rate went down rapidly in the west in the 19th century due to improved sanitation and health care. In the west now, we are just seeing signs that in the indigenous population reproductive rates are falling to below replication. China has experimented with large scale birth control, with some success, but this was not easily achieved, and certainly has not been universally embraced as a way forward.

In many ways, facing the prospect of creating a long term sustainable future for the next several thousand years is a big, new step in human consciousness, and decision making over this is already proving to be complex, as we see from the Paris Agreement and its faltering implementation. In evolutionary terms, democracy is a pretty recent experiment, and though it has proved popular in the last few decades, we are still trying it out, and seeing if it does, in the end, deliver a stable, sustainable way of organising very large groups of people, whilst still allowing them to pursue their own individual and corporate life agendas. Other forms of government are still preferred in other parts of the world. It is even thinkable that some nation states may revert to more tribal demarcation areas as resources become more scarce, and people more suspicious of others who they perceive are competing for them.

We also do not know how many generations it will take to develop a more cautious approach to sharing out and recycling all natural resources to make life in our ‘Niche’ sustainable in the long term. Economic progress has already meant that that we have developed many channels for distributing resources throughout the world, and this has helped lift most of the world out of absolute poverty. This has not always been evenly distributed. In terms of changing people’s social norms around such issues, historically, it has taken at least two generations for most people in the western world to accept, live with and appreciate sharing our cities with other races, and even this is a shaky start, with xenophobia arising more strongly when the economy is in recession, and austerity bites. I would predict that it will take one or two generations of people who have lived with the consciousness of impending ecological crisis, to change the ‘norms’ among the majority of our society, to view sustainability as the most important value in terms of economic wellbeing.

Decision making is also, I believe, more complex because most people only very loosely understand where we have come from to get to this point, and what main drives have motivated us. Historically, this seems to have happened for at least two very good reasons. Firstly, throughout our evolutionary trajectory through physical, then social, then cultural adaptation, our evolving brain and sensory systems have been cognitively biased to pay most attention to the threats and affordances in our immediate environment. We have become increasingly dependent on, and adapted to, living in and improving the lot of our families within our communities and nations, by establishing and following social norms, or ‘ rules for living,’ that bind our groups together in common purpose. Thus we have, for hundreds of thousands of years, at all levels, communally focused on improving the conditions of our own lives and for our children and grandchildren, which is quite right, evolutionarily speaking; but it does mean that we have not had to consider what might happen further down the line.

Secondly, shamans, then religions, have, for several hundreds of thousand years, and for good reason, been the purveyors of explanatory stories of our origins, and teachers about the purpose and meaning of life. The origins, purpose and meaning of life is not easy to grasp, despite much philosophical debate, which is why it’s taken us so long to work it out in a secular way. Many, if not most, of the population of the world, continue to believe that super natural forces created the world, and many have an underlying superstitious faith that God will ‘make everything OK’ in their life, because we are in some sense supernaturally chosen to inhabit and dominate the world. This narrative of having a chosen or ordained trajectory of increasing progress has been well supported historically. Over evolutionary time, our culture and technology has generally allowed us to overcome technical and social blocks to progress in making life easier; this has only become problematic when this progress promises economic growth into the far future, and for everyone on the planet.

A great problem in raising awareness of, and taking action to mitigate, our impending ecological crisis, is gaining agreement on what areas of human activity are governed by social norms and values that can be more easily and quickly changed.  We know that different parts of the world have developed at different rates over history, and that in any parts people are still living at more sustainable levels of resource use and food supply. Thus it would seem that it is us in the west that will have to more quickly develop a longer term conscience, becoming more consciously aware of the impacts of our every consumer choice, over energy use for instance, opting to use more sustainable sources. We will also probably have to change our diet from a meat based agricultural economy to a more vegetarian/vegan model, as it is so much more efficient in terms of land use and environmental impact. At an organizational level, we may have to reconsider our attitudes on other questions that go against some of our other deep instincts; as migration, resource depletion and high population levels threaten food security, civic order may be hard to maintain, and people may no longer know how to, or even whether to, contribute to the common good through the agency of democratic governments.

Already there are signs that a great sense of anger and frustration has built up, and populist movements may be a backlash against this perceived trend of governments to not listen to the fears of large parts of the population — particularly in the United Kingdom and U.S. Some of these concerns may have also been previously fueled by the injustice brought about by the credit crunch several years ago, where the irresponsible behavior of elite corporations brought austerity to the rest of society, and yet no one has so far been punished for their misdemeanors. The right to justice, which is a particularly important norm in society because it helps people to control their individual, natural, aggressive/defensive instincts when being cheated or threatened, is being questioned in the face of very high inequality in western societies, seemingly supported by governments. Justice will probably become even more important as more competition for resources escalates.

In conclusion, explaining the current crisis from a longer term evolutionary perspective publicly and openly in public life and the media will help people come to terms with the changes that will have to be made. To reach rational conclusions we need to have the whole truth before us. People need to have enough information to see that our present ecological crisis is not a huge global plot by vested interests, and that it is not from some huge mistake that we have made in our corporate past but is a natural accretion of our evolution, in order for them to take responsibility for individual action, and not just blame it on others.

Indeed, a large part of the point of the argument in this essay, is to try to take some of the blame out of this crisis. We have behaved in the ways we have, in our unfolding, undirected trajectory in evolution. We haven’t made mistakes; we have done what made sense to survive and procreate, and we have produced reliable, incremental progress in pursuing these life aims.  It seems that a great deal of energy is wasted in arguing about whose fault it is that we have got into our current situation; for instance, greed is seen by many as a product of modern, unfettered capitalism, yet the impulse to trade at a slight profit to the seller is hundreds of thousands of years old, and has been very influential in the evolution of our whole culture. But acceptance of the levels of inequality that global corporate capitalism tends to produce is itself an uneasy social norm that has only been accepted in the last half century. Global capitalism is itself only another pretty recent experiment in how to run trading, and, like all evolved cultural institutions, is replaceable over time.

Again, in taking the long term view of our history, it is instructive to note that we’ve already come a long way in over-riding many of our former basic survival instincts to evolve the capacity to live in a mostly peaceful, civilized society where we don’t kill each other frequently, and where the main trajectory has been towards decreasing violence, with centralized mechanisms of law. Much of the changes that have happened have been changes in the size and complexity of the pre frontal cortex and other parts of the fore brain, developing greater  self control, self awareness and imagination.

These traits can be best be illustrated by comparisons to our nearest primate relatives, chimpanzees, who have evolved much more slowly, and maintained an aggressive suspicion of others, and are generally much more group oriented, competitive and violent. We as a species have actually evolved to live by social norms to cooperate in large collective action for the common good on a daily basis, using empathy and shared intentionality.

From this point of view, there are signs that in many parts of the world people are already starting to evolve more conscious, intentional living. Many young people in the developed world are already starting to question the values of mass consumerism, and instead valuing experiences rather than ‘things’; some are taking direct action against corporate and government initiatives on transport and fossil fuel extraction, and many are making more conscious choices over parenthood. It is useful to remember that this is the first generation in the west to experience having lessened opportunities, security and incomes than the previous one, due to long term changes and not just short term recessions.

There are also many NGOs working hard to change the direction of our evolutionary progress, and they are increasingly producing evidence of this change; however, this is seldom reported in mainstream media outlets. However, there are signs of optimistic future oriented planning and strategizing: Northern European nations committed to having 100% renewable energy in the near future, Permaculture projects that produce better than industrial agriculture, alternative currencies that sustain the value of labour within communities, re-greening of vast swathes of old industrial wastelands, more widespread vegetarian and vegan eating, and many more.

I, for one, take heart from such ideas, hoping that we are developing a longer term view of our place in the world, and beginning to shape the social norms and values that will shape behavior at a population level. I am, despite the seriousness of the picture I have painted in this article, optimistic about the possibilities that open up, in terms of focusing our modern, fast, problem solving consciousness and technological know-how, developed over hundreds of thousands of years, onto what is possibly the most pressing problem that any species on earth has ever had to face.


Steve Heigham is a lecturer in Psychology and Counseling in the UK, with a particular interest in evolutionary approaches to mental health on which he has published. He has an MSc in Evolutionary Psychology, and an increasing involvement in environmental psychology. FFI: www.psychologyoftheevolvedmind.co.uk