Changing climates and the evils of evolution

Earlier this year, the renowned paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey gave an interview to The Humanist. One of his observations was quite insightful: “It is very clear that although evolution happens because of climate change, the great effect of climate change is in fact the number of species that become extinct”.


Leakey comes from the angle of not hammering down climate change to what can be measured, such as carbon, ice melt or gases, but rather examining ancient environments to trace the evolutionary footprints that led us here. We only exist because the climate, a long, long time ago, changed. 

Extreme climate change has been linked to early animal evolution. Last September a paper appeared in the journal Nature offering first evidence of a direct link between trends in early animal diversity and shifts in Earth system processes. 

There is now an emerging argument that climate change might actually boost human evolution as it forces us to migrate to new areas to find ways of working together while adapting to our changing circumstances. 

Scientists and historians (who are also now collaborating) have pinpointed five key time frames spanning back two million years when shifts in global climate accelerated social and genetic evolution. These involved prolonged warm spells, ice ages and drops in sea levels – all of which triggered major migration patterns for Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans. 

Perhaps the most interesting shift, and certainly the most relatable, were the wild fluctuations in climate some 10,000 years ago. This marked the advent of agricultural techniques as humans were forced to find a way of stabilising food supplies. It’s not a far cry from what we are experiencing today. 

“Climate change has been a major player in our evolution,” notes Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum. History will doubtless repeat itself, but the one real cloud of uncertainty is what shape or form our future survivability will take. How might we evolve, not just through our migration patterns, but on a genetic level too? 

Some real inventive thinking is already happening in this arena. A group of philosophers have mooted the idea of the ‘environmentally conscious futurist’ – a person who voluntarily modifies themselves to live in better harmony with the planet. Such measures would include genetically engineering cat-eyes to reduce our need for lighting, and shrinking our physical size to lessen our ecological footprint. 

Meanwhile nanotechnology expert Robert Freitas has outlined a plan for the elimination of lungs, making breathable air unnecessary. This effectively opens up the possibility of humans living in space, especially if we come equipped with nanobots that can energise our cells so we no longer have to rely on food or fluids. 

There are many other concepts out there for consideration, from reinventing ourselves as transgenic and postgendered hybrids to uploading our consciousness so we can exist in virtual dimensions. Unfortunately I won’t live long enough to watch them take flight. 

But it does pose the question – on a more fundamental level – that perhaps climate change is not all that bad. Rather, it’s a necessary evil; an evolutionary step that we have to take.

maxine perella

Topics: Waste & resource management
Tags: | food | nanotechnology
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