September 6, 2021

Human evolution has important lessons for society today

Population growth helped humanity improve its quality of life instead of starving it of resources

I have just finished reading David Sloan Wilson’s book ‘This View of Life’ in which he argues that the full implications of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution have still to realised. And therein lie important lessons for how we manage our society today.  

As Wilson, an American evolutionary biologist, points out “we are evolution’s most recent major transition. Almost everything that sets us apart from other primate species can be explained as forms of cooperation that evolved by between-group selection, thanks largely to our ability to supress disruptive within-group selection.” In other words, our distant ancestors evolved the ability to supress bullying and other disruptive behaviour so that they could enhance their ability to thrive through teamwork.

That is why divisive behaviour on social media and by political actors does us no favours. It reduces our ability to work together for our common good. Regulation is required to diminish its negative impact, in the same way as any biological system must ‘regulate’ the behaviour of its constituent parts in order to perform optimally.

I think this is why inequality matters so much to us too. If it appears that some group members are disproportionately benefiting from the effort of others or, worse, are getting a free ride altogether, then that constitutes ‘disruptive behaviour’ that we are attuned to react negatively to.  

Wilson also writes about how cultural evolution began to operate alongside genetic evolution in human development. Our coordination tendencies favour the passing of learned information across generations. He points out that smaller groups of indigenous peoples had poorer quality of life than those than closely related groups with bigger populations that had more heads to retain and pass on specialist learning.  

Now take that to the global level. A more complex society can be supported by a larger population, and vice versa. It follows that there is a virtuous circle at play in which global population growth has helped improve our quality of life through innovation and advancements in science and medicine that would not have been achieved so soon with a smaller population. Greater population has sped greater progress.  

Marian L. Tupy and Gale Pooley have shown that additional human beings add to our economic capacity rather than diminishing it, because people are the solvers of economic problems. The fear that we might run out of resources on our finite planet as our population expands has not only found to be unfounded, but the opposite has been demonstrated. People create more, on average, than they consume.

Tupy and Pooley have calculated that every one percent increase in the world’s population has corresponded to a one percent decrease in the time we have to work to acquire essential personal resources such as energy and food. In fact, they maintain that if China hadn’t implemented its one child policy in 1980, the world’s resources would be nearly twice as abundant as they are now!

Yet, the world’s population is forecast to peak as early as 2064. The next momentous challenge for the future of humanity after climate change may, therefore, be how do future generations continue to sustain progressive improvements in their quality of life in a world where population numbers are shrinking?  

A greater reliance on artificial intelligence and robots, rather than human intelligence and labour, seems requisite.

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