Something you hear a lot of in my line of work is that humans are not evolutionarily equipped to deal with a life-long dangers like climate change.  We are geared towards immediate emergencies, like attacking lions and tigers and bears.  If you read enough articles about the state of our planet, you’ll eventually come across this sentiment.  The Age of Stupid even uses it at one point. 

It makes sense, right?  People tend to act according to short-term needs; this I do not dispute.  But I want you to forget about the nonsense about humans being evolutionarily unequipped to do certain things.  I say so on several grounds.

First, we’re NOT unequipped to deal with long-term dangers and other such issues.  Our entire existence as human beings is built upon agriculture–why did people develop agriculture?  So that they and their families wouldn’t be in danger of starving next year.  Why do people buy houses?  It makes no sense to me.  You have to fork over tens of thousands of dollars and are bound to the bank for the next ten or twenty years–but people do it as a long-term investment, so that they will not have to live with the constant worry of paying rent, and can instead achieve equity and prosper.  Why did Dubai go way out on a limb, spend billions on skyscrapers, and trash the local culture?  Because they dreamed of a better future for themselves.  It doesn’t matter in any of these scenarios that there are short-term challenges, hard work, and disadvantages–the future is more important.  So don’t tell me humans aren’t equipped to avoid long-term dangers and achieve long-term dreams, because I don’t believe you.

I also don’t like the thought of experts telling other people what they are and are not likely to be capable of.  “You’re not biologically equipped to deal with this situation, ma’am,” an evolutionary psychologist tells me.  With tears in my eyes, I give up and go sit down in the corner to waste away.  Way to set folks up for failure–tell them what they’re not good at.

I believe, in fact, that such ideas are a misuse of science.  I have no problem with studying human beings in light of evolution, but too often, it seems to justify our cultural perceptions of ourselves.  “Men are biologically designed to cheat” and “women are evolutionarily equipped to be over-emotional and can’t do math or science”–it doesn’t sound very nice to hear humanity being reduced to this, does it?  Soon you start attributing everyone’s every move to evolution.  Besides, this is only the American cultural perspective that identifies gender in these ways–these are not key masculine and feminine traits in everyone’s culture.  Indeed, other cultures might be appalled that science had proven humanity to be this way.

To me, using evolutionary concepts in this way looks an awful lot like Victorian justifications for colonizing and enslaving whole continents and ethnic groups:  These people were inferior, because they had not evolved to the point that white Europeans and Americans had.  They couldn’t even be taught to be civilized, because they were simply biologically undeveloped.  And because these races were unfit to look after themselves, imperial takeover was justified.  SURVIVAL OF THE EVOLUTIONARILY FITTEST!

Now, saying that humans have trouble dealing with long-term dangers is not the same as saying Polynesians and Africans are genetically inferior to Europeans, and it is different again from saying men and women have biological differences.  But nonetheless, it is using evolution to justify what the species can and cannot feasibly do.  If anything, evolution should teach us that there are myriad ways to adapt to changes, and that we have the potential to reinvent ourselves as much as we need.  That might also be a misuse of science (science is intended to discover the objective truth about our universe) but at least it doesn’t make me want to give up before I even try to solve my problems. 

Perish the thought!  Put it far, far out of your mind!  We ARE equipped to deal with climate change, and that is exactly what we will do!