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Why Global Problems Require Evolutionary Solutions
Robert Kurzban
Robert Kurzban
is associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his PhD from the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and did postdoctoral work in economics and anthropology.

A new paper in Science represents one of the best recent accounts of why thinking about evolutionary biology is a lot more than an academic enterprise, but actually matters for understanding – and solving – problems that confront us on a global scale.

For those of us working in evolutionary biology, the piece is not surprising, but it is refreshing. I have found that as I have given talks on research in evolutionary psychology, a frequent response that I receive is that I didn’t “need” to know anything about evolution in order to do the sort of research that I do. There is a sense that is correct: one could, in principle, arrive at a hypothesis through intuition, blind empiricism, or any number of any pathways. Evolutionary ideas provide, to my mind, a useful hypothesis-generation engine, and the success of the field seems to vindicate this point of view.

Scott Carroll and colleagues provide additional reasons for the importance of understanding evolutionary biology, and show that these ideas have applications ranging from areas of healthcare to fighting the spread of harmful pathogens to agricultural policy.

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Carroll et al., for instance, take up a point made by researchers in evolutionary psychology. Back in 2001, for instance, Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan in their book Mean Genes, discussed the implications of the fact that there is a “mismatch” between the environments that selected for the human genome and the environment that humans currently inhabit. Carroll et al. point out that this mismatch has tremendous costs both in lives and the loss of economic activity:

Some of the most serious non-communicable diseases in humans may be prevented by better aligning current environments with those in which our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved. Sedentary modern lifestyles and diets with high glycemic processed foods are increasingly implicated in the rapidly rising rates of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disorders. These mismatch disorders are estimated to contribute to about two-thirds of all deaths in Western societies and to a growing proportion of deaths in developing countries.

Carroll et al. point out that thinking about human ancestral environments, and the diets our bodies evolved to consume, might go some way to understanding how to combat this global health challenge.

Another global health challenge relates to the evolution of parasites. Many people know, for instance, that the use of antibiotics has led to selection for antibiotic-resistant pathogens: pathogens in patients that are susceptible to any given antibiotic are killed, failing to reproduce, leaving their resistant cousins free reign. Somewhat less well known is a similar problem in agriculture. Carroll et al. point out that the pervasive use of herbicide has selected for resistant species, representing a profound danger to important food crops. Armed with knowledge of evolutionary biology, however, scientists have developed a technique to slow this process. Farmers grow “refuges” in which a pesticide is not present, allowing the pest in question to reproduce. This gives rise to a large number of pathogens that have not been selected to be resistant. As they mate with other members of their species, they produce offspring who similarly lack resistance, making them susceptible to herbicides.

Carroll et al. close with an argument that implies that meeting global challenges relies on understanding not only evolutionary biology, but also psychology and economics. Consider these “refuges.” From the standpoint of the entire agricultural community, such refuges represent a benefit: the presence of refuges leads to more herbicide-sensitive pathogens over time. However, from the standpoint of each farmer, a refuge is a cost, since refuges contain crops that are damaged by pathogens, unprotected as they are by the pesticide in question. This gives each farmer the incentive to abolish her refuge, to maximize profits, leading to a well-studied commons dilemma. Solving this problem is, at its heart, a task for economists, political scientists, and policy makers.

As TVOL retools itself for the future, this piece constitutes excellent reading for anyone interested in the vast reach of evolutionary biology into human affairs.


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  1. David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks to Rob Kurzban, TVOL’s topic editor for the MIND section, for covering the important article by Carroll et al. , and also the work of Terry Burnham, TVOL’s ECONOMICS editor. I am also preparing an article on the Carroll et al. article that praises it but also calls it an unfinished synthesis. Stay tuned!

  2. Bryan Atkins says:

    Good Dr. Kurzban,
    Nice. Love your work!
    The mismatch is extended to our cultural genome: it sucks at complexity, lacks reach.
    Think we’re showing up for our natural selection exam with a complexity-inadequate cultural genome.
    Monetary code was a vital coding structure that accelerated cultural evolution in less complex eras. Complexity has crippled its efficacy. Humans using monetary code cannot process / calibrate complex network relationship Value information in and across geo, eco, bio, cultural, & tech the networks, & across time, with sufficient speed, accuracy, and power. This is a significant cause of network relationship disruption, with the oceans, atmosphere, other species (extinction), and with ourselves in the form of obesity, over medication, political corruption, etc.
    “The most fundamental phenomenon of the universe is relationship.” Jonas Salk
    “The story of human intelligence starts with a universe that is capable of encoding information.” Ray Kurzweil
    In bio, cultural, & tech networks: CODE is entropy-generated, efficacious infrastructure for complex network relationships: genetic, language, math, legal, monetary, software, etc.
    Because cultural selection increasingly drives natural selection in our era, we need to generate a selection apparatus for culture that understands THAT relationship, yielding far better integration of cultural selection with natural selection. Our current cultural genome, & especially monetary code, can’t do that, their reach being too limited.
    “A technology can only be pressed so far it runs into some limitation.” Brian Arthur — “The Nature of Technology”
    (Hence: Reality Storms Forth today . . . poetically pounding on Wall St.)
    In the transition from simple hunter-gatherer social structures to the exponentially more complex information architecture of city-states, we added writing, legal, etiquette, and monetary coding structures to our cultural genome. We need to add onto, again.
    Software code has more reach than monetary code. Combined with quantum computers, ubiquitous sensors, myriad algorithms, ecosystem bots, etc., software code needs to replace monetary code for complex network relationship value computation. (Please pass this on before I get shot, appreciate it.)
    Larry Chang has a theoretical model for a new econ app that better integrates the networks, and exponentially expands the reach of our cultural genome, improving the melding of cultural selection with natural selection.
    You can read an interview with Mr. Chang, an interview I did Dr. Kurzban, and my piece: Monetary Code in a Physics / Evolution Context. (trying to integrate my woefully incomplete understanding of David Deutsch’s new Constructor Theory of Information, ongoing, and may be failing horribly there, but think the parts about exponentially accelerating complexity and our cultural genome have merit) . . . read them all, and more, here:
    Thanks . . .