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Climate change and evolution

Peter Godfrey Smith posited a theory about evolution in his book, 'Other Minds', which is something I found very interesting. It is one of the top few ideas that has affected my thinking in 2018.

Over the millions of years, evolution has occurred through random mutation and natural selection. Random mutations occur all the time during reproduction, and if the random mutation leads to higher chances of survival and propagation of genes, it is naturally selected over the existing genes and the change becomes prevalent leading to a step taken in evolution.

We have seen random mutations of so many kinds in so many species that have prevailed, but in practically no species have we seen random mutations that prevent aging and that prevent death due to natural causes. Invariably, all species grow old, their organs begin to wither away and they eventually die. We have been extending the human lifespan by overcoming more and more unnatural causes of death like disease and accidents and becoming another animal's food or being killed by another of our species in competition for food or mates. But we haven't yet been able to combat natural causes of death like aging effectively.

Peter argues that the concept of natural death is a result of natural selection and not because of lack of random mutation in that direction. And millions of years of natural selection's ambivalence to combating aging has resulted in our current state of bodies.

For instance, until five thousand years ago, average human lifespan was forty years or lesser. If there was random mutation that occurred to prevent aging, natural selection didn't select for these changes, as the probability of the individual being killed before there was a need for this was very high. As a consequence, all the natural selection that happened was for helping us survive those events that could kill us unnaturally than aging.

These changes that gave us the edge in survival in the short term could have introduced long term negative effects (like aging) and we would have naturally selected for these traits anyway because that was the hour of the need.

Climate change is one of those phenomena where a similar tendency is at play.

The economic policies we adopt and the environmental policies we adopt are all beneficial in a shorter timeframe for them to be accepted. And they tend to be accepted even if they have adverse effects in the long run.

Whereas, if they have long term positive effects but short term negative effects, they tend not to be accepted as the need of the current hour trumps that of what comes in the future. Because if we don't survive the current hour, we don't get to the future hour anyway.

Nature's laws haven't been able to account for long term benefits in the millions of years they have existed. Now that we have a species that can foresee the long term positives and negatives of following through on certain actions, it is easy to make a case for taking the actions that lead to long term benefits.

But just like with evolution for aging, the long term benefits are better for the species as a whole (perhaps), but not for the individuals at the moment. And faced with a fast running deer, the homo sapiens of ten thousand years ago would have picked a spear every time you asked them even if using the spear would result in atrophying some muscles that would kill them at forty instead of eighty. Because, without the spear, they would die today as they can't hunt the deer and put food on the table.

The challenge with combating climate change is to come up with solutions that affects nothing in the short term but still gives long term gains so as to be naturally selected by all.

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