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Overcoming Human Nature

March 2, 2011

New Scientist Magazine recently published an interview with the 1974 winner of the Nobel Prize in biology, Christian de Duve.  The message?  We have evolved traits that will lead to humanity’s extinction, so we must learn to overcome them.

As a conservationist, this is certainly a message that resonates.  For all the work we’ve done, we continue to over-consume, and many estimates suggest that human population is well above the planet’s carrying capacity.  And even if we do not cause our own extinction, the rapid loss of species, habitat, and clean environments and increase in violent weather events means that the world will be far less healthy and happy going forward.

Here’s some of my favorite Q&A:

We are the most successful species on the planet, but you think we will ultimately pay the price for this success. Why?

The cost of our success is the exhaustion of natural resources, leading to energy crises, climate change, pollution and the destruction of our habitat. If you exhaust natural resources there will be nothing left for your children. If we continue in the same direction, humankind is headed for some frightful ordeals, if not extinction.

You think that natural selection has worked against us. How?

Because it has no foresight. Natural selection has resulted in traits such as group selfishness being coded in our genes. These were useful to our ancestors under the conditions in which they lived, but have become noxious to us today. What would help us preserve our natural resources are genetic traits that let us sacrifice the present for the sake of the future. You need wisdom to sacrifice something that is immediately useful or advantageous for the sake of something that will be important in the future. Natural selection doesn’t do that; it looks only at what is happening today. It doesn’t care about your grandchildren or grandchildren’s grandchildren.

I’m looking forward to checking out his new book.

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