Evolutionary Pressure

SUBHEAD: Can we, or many of us anyway, do the right thing and help prepare for a distant future that we will never see?

 By George Mobus on 20 September 2009 in Question Everything - http://questioneverything.typepad.com/question_everything/2009/09/transitions.html
Image above: Evolutionary illustration of our maladaptation by Daniel Lieberman. From http://www.physorg.com/news156100530.html

We are in what I suspect will be the most fundamental transition Homo sapiens has ever experienced. By transition I mean a change in the ways of living so radical it constitutes a revolution.  
Preceded by the language revolution, the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and the so-called information revolution, the current transition is hard to characterize by one single name — an evocative sound bite. If I were to try to describe it succinctly it might be called the "Evolution Revolution"! Our world is changing, mostly at our own hands, so much that the only possible transition we can make is a rapid evolution. And by that I do not mean cultural evolution alone. I mean primarily evolution of our species.

The reason is that evolution, that is speciation, takes place under emerging (and long-term) stressful conditions that select for fitness in dealing with them. Fitness means individuals having certain traits, either behavioral or physical (or both) are better able to cope with the new conditions and procreate more successfully than their less fit conspecifics.

Individuals having a genetic headstart, meaning possessing a specific allele** that endows them with slightly better coping capacity, have a good chance of passing that allele on to their offspring, and over generations even better versions of the allele may emerge. Then the continuing selection pressure will assure that the allele starts to dominate in the population.

Another scenario is that a drastic change in the environment can result in active selection against most members of the population NOT possessing a favorable allele, leaving only those whose "pre-adaptation" allows them to survive. Of course if no such allele exists than it can spell extinction for that species.

The fact is that our world is changing rapidly and those changes are leading to highly stressful conditions for us and many other species. Are we on the verge of an evolutionary revolution as a result? Can Homo sapiens produce a new, better adapted species — adapted to what the world is becoming? The answer depends on whether or not there are individuals in the population who have pre-adapted allelic forms1. The two main questions about this transition are: How rapidly will the changes occur? and How radical will they be?

There is a great deal of uncertainty about the changes in the physical environment due to climate changes resulting from global warming. Even though we have some startling and frightening empirical data on things like polar ice cap melting, we are still struggling with the validity of our models that produce various scenario projections regarding how bad and how soon.

However, there is another major threat looming that may very well have a sooner and much more drastic impact on our species in terms of a change so radical that it could lead to an evolutionary revolution. That threat comes from the decline in net energy available to support our complex, high energy civilization.

Many people in economics and politics are starting to, at least vaguely, grasp the significance of something like peak oil production. For many people, affected by Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth", the initial concern has been on raising CO2 atmospheric (and oceanic) concentrations due to burning fossil fuels and leading to a general average heating of the world's fluidic systems.

Now it turns out that we have been burning those fossil fuels at accelerated rates for the last 100 years (or more) and depleting a non-renewable reservoir at a phenomenal rate. Now we learn that it is taking increasing amounts of energy to do the work of getting the raw fuels out of the ground, leaving less net energy to do the work of the rest of the economy. On top of that, and because of it, we are finding it increasingly unprofitable to get that next unit of energy out. It now looks pretty much like we have reached the peak of production of oil, and will before long reach the same limits for natural gas and coal! After the peak things don't look promising.

As I've written elsewhere in these blogs, except for nuclear power, there is no other energy source that comes close to fossil fuels for the purposes of running the kind of economy we have gotten used to (or as I claim, spoiled by!)

The talk among these economists (e.g. Paul Krugman), commentators (e.g. Tom Friedman), and politicians (e.g. Barack Obama) now is of a transition from a high energy (carbon-based) civilization to a low energy one. In the minds of all too many people this is imagined as a civilization that in not much different from today but perhaps with more localization of production, smaller communities, using locally generated electricity from solar and wind.

These communities will be dotted all over the world to replace dense urban centers which require transportation of all essential commodities from distant production centers (though imagined to be not too distant). Some urban visionaries imagine such centers will persist but the transportation bringing stuff in will be electrified rail, powered by giant thermal solar generators out in the desert.
In most cases the scenarios accommodate the 9+ billion population that the UN projects for 2050. It isn't clear to me though what these visionaries picture for grappling with climate change. I think many of the same people believe that we will, as part of that transition (to smaller carbon footprints), fix global warming and avert climate disasters.

We are in a transition alright. But I seriously doubt that it will be the one these many hopeful people envision.

Human beings are extremely adaptive. As a species we have shown remarkable capacity to adapt to so many kinds of environments and events over history. We are extremely clever. We are inventive and often insightful when it comes to making do with what we have to work with. There is no doubt that humans have the capacity to accommodate a wide range of stressful conditions.

But there is one very significant difference between all prior historical experience and what we are about to experience. For all of history the net flow of energy has been increasing in volume and power. Much of our pre-history and history is a story of finding and learning to exploit new, more potent sources of energy to supplement our simple physiological conversion of food into new biomass and the ability to move and do work.

We discovered how to control fire, how to plant and harvest seeds, how to manipulate animals, how to harness water and wind for mechanical power, etc. With the discovery of fossil fuels, however, we really broke into the bank. And today we have a global population of 7.8 billion people, most of whom depend either directly or indirectly on the burning of fossil fuels for their incomes.

We can't even build a nuclear reactor without a significant input from coal and oil! And the bank vault is getting spare. Oh sure there is still plenty of oil, coal, and gas underground. The problem is it is getting harder and harder to get to it. Simple laws of physics. And the principle of picking the low-hanging fruit first. It takes much more work (and hence energy) to pick the apples high in the tree. Similarly, it takes much more work to get at those diminishing supplies of fossil fuels.

What is true about not being able to build a reactor without fossil fuel is also the case for alternative energy capture equipment. As of right now you can't build wind turbines or solar panels and deliver them to suitable collection sites without fossil fuels2. Then there is the problem of scale.

Currently fossil fuels account for more than 80% of the energy flow in the US (somewhat less in other OECD countries). Hydroelectric and nuclear for about 19% and the new alternatives about 1%. How do you go from that low base to virtually replace the 80% (a lot of which is transportation) in just a decade or two. That is what it will take because the projections for the decline in fossil fuel availability indicate that after about two more decades fossil fuels will be prohibitively expensive3.
Some commentators and politicians imagine a WWII-level effort to ramp up production of alternative power systems because of this. What it would more likely require is an order of magnitude greater than WWII effort AND redirecting most of the current energy flow from fossil fuels to the effort. The rationing of fuels for such an effort will make the rationing of rubber and fuels during WWII look like a cake walk.

More and more, the likely scenario is looking to me like an accelerating downward spiral (and this doesn't take into account truly foolish reactions of violence and attempts to grab resources through war — you know, like what we are doing now!) that will diminish civilization to a meager shadow of itself, if anything that you could call civilization remains at all.

And the really devastating news is that such a scenario has horrific consequences for the vast majority of people in the world. The current population cannot be sustained without massive inputs of high power energy. Modern farming depends entirely on huge inputs from fossil fuels. So does the health care system everywhere (no matter how funded). Indeed, all of our infrastructure and protection services (fire, police, etc.) could not operate without equipment (manufactured using fossil fuels) and transportation.

It is a matter of time and resources. It looks increasingly like we have not enough of either. And then there really is the human psychology factor. How will we humans react to a declining energy world? Will we roll over and die without some kind of reaction? Not likely. Will we thrash out trying to preserve our own skins and screw civil behavior? Certainly an imaginable reaction. But if the rate of energy decline is fast enough there won't be time for even hoarders to get a leg up. There won't be energy supplies to fuel an army, navy, or certainly not an air force! There aren't even enough horses to have a mounted cavalry.

Some people have envisioned a future in which we simply regress back through the 19th, then 18th, then 17th centuries, and so on, until we reach some kind of equilibrium, perhaps a pre-Roman style civilization. After all they didn't have fossil fuels like we do. Maybe we could live like they did before the collapse of the Roman Empire? Right. Really?

The transition we are entering is global and fundamentally different from anything our species has faced before. There is no where else to go now. We can't escape to some different continent. We can't even leave our gravitational well without significant energy. This is it. We are stuck in this world with the consequences of our own past excesses and that is all there is to the story.

I can imagine a future world where the population is down to a sustainable level using real-time solar energy capture to sustain a suitable civilization, even a technological one. It is feasible for humans to exist, have their comforts, their entertainments, arts, and leisure thanks to energy supplementation beyond food and shelter, at appropriate population size and in steady-state. But getting from where we are to that ideal future is going to involve a revolution — an evolution revolution.

The stresses are going to be substantial. I suspect that the selection forces are going to be primarily directed at selecting against most current failings of human nature. I have written extensively about how we humans today are, ourselves, what I think is a transition species.

We set on the path toward truly sapient beings, but we're at best a work in progress. The brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex, needs further physical development to boost our moral sentiments, our strategic thinking abilities, and our abilities to regulate our limbic emotions. We need to become a much wiser version of what we are now. And by 'we' I mean our genus Homo since I mean that the brain needs actual genetic improvements.

Our distant progeny would be a new species, one I have dubbed Homo eusapiens, man the truly wise. I have evidence-based reasons for believing that the pre-adapted alleles are available in the population of humanity. Perhaps they are sparse, perhaps only in a weak form, but the potential is there. We just have to find them.

If this scenario is even partially correct then it leaves a very important question for those of us who are thinking about what to do so save humanity. If we can see our real objective as saving our genus and realizing that our species has to evolve to meet the new environment of tomorrow, then what should we be doing now to help make survival more likely? Or do we just give up on that and either fight for our own hopeless survival or roll over and accept the extinction of Homo?

As our species is now, smart, creative, and with the glimmer of high moral sentiments, do we have the capability of facing reality when it means our demise? Do we have the courage to set aside our own selfish desires to imagine our kind going on until the Sun dies. Do we have the moral fortitude to accept the science we have embraced even when it tells us we are finished and it's time for a new start with a more adapted species? Can we, or many of us anyway, do the right thing and help prepare for a distant future that we will never see?

All of us know, as individuals, that we are mortal. As we approach the end years we come to accept that mortality and, if we are concerned at all for our surviving families, we take steps to help them carry on after we are gone. This is a natural part of life that all of us face. Some probably better than others, of course. But it makes sense to plan for the futures of those we leave by investing our resources in their future. Why should it be different for us as a species?

** Wikipedia article with some possible problems, read carefully! I thought it fairly stated the definition and description well enough to save me some typing!

1 We are talking not just about a single allele (a single gene), but most likely several important ones. Not only that we have to consider various versions of the short snippets of DNA that are not protein-coding, but part of the elaborate gene expression control program we now know to exist in much of what we used to call 'junk' DNA, the huge segments between protein-coding sections. Small changes in these control segments can have major impacts on when genes are expressed during development and hence produce significant changes in phenotypes with very little difference in genotypes. Our genome differs from that of chimpanzees by less than expected by the gross differences in behavior and body form. Part of the explanation may well involve subtle but important differences in the control networks for development.

2 I have heard there are attempts to construct manufacturing facilities for both solar cells and wind turbines using electricity generated by these technologies! I hope a lot more of this is tried. However, we shouldn't get too excited until those technologies are also being used to extract the raw materials, ship them, drive the final assembly, ship the final products, and account for their installation. The shipping is particularly interesting since it means using electrified vehicles that can be recharged based on electricity production by, say some windmill somewhere, putting the electricity into the grid. Running the main manufacturing plant using your own product is a step in the right direction, but so much more needs to be done.

3 A complicating factor is that many exporting nations (for oil in particular) are increasingly using their own products even while production rates are not rising or are even declining. That means countries dependent on imports of energy are going to be hurting far more quickly than those that can produce some portion of their energy needs.

See also:
Ea O KA Aina: Get Smarter 8/1/09
Ea O Ka Aina: The Third Replicator 7/31/09
Ea O Ka Aina: Consciousness and Complexity 7/18/09  
Ea O Ka Aina: Meat Computers with Cultural Programs 4/28/09

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

That is a very interesting post! I think that the artist was very smart to make such an illustration!!! :)

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