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The Most Important Climate Change Question of All: What Will the Humans Do?


The first in a series that explores a big unknown variable for modeling future global warming: human action.

“What will the humans do?”

Climate scientists have told me this is now “the biggest unknown,” as they try to create computer models to project how fast global temperature will rise.

They report a general consensus (with a few caveats) on the other factors leading to the roughly estimated overall trend in global warming: how seawater, sunlight, oxygen, natural methane deposits, and so on may interact as we put more excess heat-trapping greenhouse gas in the borderless swirling air.

But human behavior, a most critical factor, is much less predictable. Will humanity get its act together and agree on the planet-wide greenhouse emission cuts climate scientists say are needed to avoid catastrophe? Will we instead break up into frightened self-protective national groups and fiefdoms as temperature, sea level and ocean acidification keep rising now through the years 2020, 2030 and beyond?

Or will we somehow muddle through, as humanity has so often done? Climate scientists often warn that muddling through, while tempting, is not an option. They say the risks include inadvertently passing an unknown tipping point that would thaw enough of the tundra permafrost and ocean-floor methane “clathrates” to release ancient natural greenhouse gas reserves so massive they could trigger rapid runaway global heating—and bring certain disaster.

Muddling through as a strategy—in this particular crisis—seems a bit like buying a lottery ticket as a business plan.

“Feeling lucky?” they ask.

Possible New Hope From Evolutionary Biology

A beautifully simple new hypothesis from evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson offers new perspective on the question, “What will the humans do?”

It’s so simple, a middle schooler can understand it in ten minutes—if the teacher is having a good day. And it offers possible new hope that humanity just might get this one right. At the least, it offers a new way to tell if we’re heading in the right direction.

Wilson’s radical new assertion is that humans have evolved a natural tendency to protect not only close genetic kin (immediate family and cousins) but also to protect anyone at all—related or not—who they think or feel is part of their own group, whatever that group may be, as it competes with other groups.

Many scientists had accepted the theory that there’s a genetically based tendency to protect close kin, even to the point of self-sacrificing altruism: even if you die protecting your close cousins, at least their genes, very similar to yours, would survive to produce offspring and thus pass down this tendency to be altruistic.

But, it was thought, this tendency could not be passed down if you were sacrificing yourself (and thus the chance to pass down your genes) to protect people not closely related – whose genes (and their tendency to be so altruistic) were not similar to yours.

Wilson and his colleagues (including two mathematicians wielding highly complex algorithms to explain the genes’ behavior) say they have solved this puzzle by showing that we have evolved a conflicted nature.

They say human nature carefully balances a tendency for selfish behavior within our larger group (seeking to protect our offspring and close kin) with altruistic behavior within our group… which makes it more likely our group will defeat other, rival groups.

(Think of a football team with a star quarterback who’s motivated not only to get famous but also to build teamwork superior to the opposing team’s – and winning because he does both in the right mix.)

The suggestion for climate change is that, as humans face possible species-wide catastrophe, if—and this is a big “if”—they also come to feel that their own basic group is not just their own nation but all humanity, then they may be more inclined to pull together and help everyone, globally, in the struggle to avoid the worst.

At the very least, Wilson’s new hypothesis about general human behavior (if he is right) offers some new concepts with which to assess whether humanity is starting to act in a way that offers realistic hope.

The Devil in the Details: Origins of Sin and Virtue

Wilson has summarized his simple-but-radical new theory in a short and clear New York Times op-ed entitled “Evolution and Our Inner Conflict.”

In it, he explains how he thinks evolution has selected for humans not only to protect close kin (thus favoring an individual’s genes) but also to protect anyone whom we consider part of our group as it competes with other groups. In turn, this:

“…led to group-wide morality, and a sense of conscience and honor…[W]ithin groups, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. Or, risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue.”

That explanation of “our inner conflict” may take a moment to absorb.

It has major implications for the likelihood of productive climate action, but for much else as well, including war, incorrigible racism, corporate management, and bickering kids (and adults) at the family table.

The new hope offered by Wilson’s theory (still contested by some scientists) is not the promise that we will behave well and cooperate in the face of the climate crisis—we might not. Rather, it’s that at least we might now “get our head around it” and understand why and how we behave in a self-destructive way when we do.

It may help us to understand the evolved urges and tendencies that encourage or prevent our behaving well—our built-in and eternal “inner conflict,” as he puts it.

Understanding the origins of such an unavoidable inner conflict may help us accept it—and learn what to encourage and what to resist—as we work to create our best answer to the climate scientists’ inescapable question:

What will the humans do?

Read Part 2.

Top image: Participants in the People’s Climate March in New York City on September 21, 2014. Credit: Shadia Fayne Wood/Survival Media Agency.




  1. Laurie Baker says

    I’m not sure altruism will work…to me this is about survival. It’s going to be damn uncomfortable if global warming continues at the rate it has.

  2. Joaquin says

    @Laurie Baker I’m pretty sure altruism will work, selfishness is what brought us here.

  3. Haymarket Presente says

    The irrationality of corporate c(r)apitalism, it’s addiction to consumption, it’s public relations convincing many there is no alternative, and it’s ethos of profit regardless of cost; means we can’t just rely on altruism as a sensibility, but must bring into being the alternative to it

  4. Alyssa Hewitt says

    When power belongs to those with the most money (Koch) they don’t care how sick the planet is. Only if their interests are protected. The Earth will get rid of us eventually, and nothing will be worse for the wear. Earth will remain with or without people.

  5. Kevin Alan Norman says

    Marching and rehearsing banal platitudes accomplishes nothing. They’re already converts and all that they leave us is trash.

  6. Ross Gelbspan says

    Would that Wilson’s hypothesis stands the test of peer-review — it would absolutely provide a basis for hope in this fractured age.  If it is true (that groups of altruists can overcome groups of selfish people (selfies?), then it shouldn’t be hard to expand the definition of group to global proportions.  After all, we are all human — and no person or group is immune to climate impacts.  As Argentine climate negotiator said some time ago: “We are all the same boat — and there”s now way half the boat is going to sink.”  If the world’s leaders could see that — at least on this one issue — we’re all in the same boat, it would validate Wilson’s wishful hypothesis. (Of course, that would require all of us to see the Koch’s as part of our group.  And that’s a veeeery big stretch : – >

            Fingers crossed! 

                  Ross Gelbspan

  7. John Anthony says

    Lmaooo!!!! You’re all nuts. We will all be long gone before global warming effects us

  8. Agbayani Zaldy Revilla says

    Jhon..Its not us..you think I care about us..its for the future!

  9. Jean-Paul de Kervor says

    Global warming has been happening for 14,000 years and humans have accelerated it. No doubt. But what we need to focus on is developing new technology, not unilaterally hobbling our own economy. The Indians and chinese will be the biggest polluters in the next 50 years, and then Africa will join in the demand for cheap fuel. Nothing we do unilaterally will slow the pace of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, in reality, cap and trade will actually increase the CO2 and real pollutants in the atmosphere by moving manufacturing offshore.

  10. greenmatters says

    Although this theory is tempting, I see no sign of it and certainly no possibility of it saving our current civilization. We are clearly tending toward the defensive national isolation theory, race against race, religion against religion. If there is an altruistic gene in all of us, it is carefully suppressed by our capitalist economies. our training (at least in America) to be individualistic and value consumerism above nature, and our dogmatic and hateful religious rivalries. Perhaps there are too many people for us to think as one. Whatever it is, there’s probably not enough time for us to get together in the first place, never mind find solutions to stop catastrophic global warming.

  11. John Kwok says

    There’s a problem with E. O. Wilson and his colleagues’ hypothesis. It isn’t supported by much of the science with regards to kin selection. Carl Zimmer, among others have been blogging about this.

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