A new study led by an evolutionary biologist at the University of Maine has come to a grim conclusion: The very traits that have allowed humans to dominate the globe might prevent us from solving global environmental threats like climate change.

Since the origin of our species, humans have developed a keen ability to adapt to our environment, creating better and better technology – from primitive fishing weirs to the modern oil well – to exploit our natural environment, the study says.

UMaine Associate Professor Tim Waring says the nature of human evolution needs to change if our species hopes to solve a global challenge like climate change. Courtesy of University of Maine

When a resource starts to run low, or a method threatens our health or home, humans have a track record of moving to the next resource-rich area or fighting on the battlefield or boardroom over the scraps that remain rather than coming together to solve the problem.

“We’re entering a new era of the human relationship to the environment,” UMaine Associate Professor Tim Waring said. “Climate change is a global crisis. We can’t just move on or fight amongst ourselves. If we do that, it won’t go well for us. The nature of human evolution has to change.”

The study was published Monday in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the world’s longest-running science journal. Former UMaine graduate student Zachary Wood and Eörs Szathmáry, a research professor at Eötvös University in Budapest, Hungary, co-authored the study.

Waring, who teaches at UMaine’s Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, knows his conclusions are sobering. A peer reviewer suggested he add more hope to the study, but Waring said he believes in telling it like it is. Plus, he said, history suggests humans respond more to fear than hope.


“The point is to be realistic about how humans have interacted with the environment in the past and to include that knowledge in how we solve those problems,” Waring said. “Because we only have one shot. If we think it’s easier than it is, or act like we’re something we’re not, we’ll fail.”

Humans have overcome environmental threats before, Waring noted. Throughout his career, he has found examples of communities, regions, nations and even groups of nations coming together to successfully address overfishing, whaling and acid rain.

Such successes usually had three things in common: the scope of the problem was smaller than the group of collaborators coming together to fix it, some external pressure existed to implement the solutions and something had happened to highlight the danger of doing nothing.

Sustainable systems tend to grow and spread only after groups struggle or fail to maintain their resources, the study found. For example, the U.S. regulated sulfur and nitrogen dioxide emissions after determining they caused acid rain that acidified lakes and browned forests in the Northeast.

The global climate crisis is different, Waring said. The size of the problem exceeds the size of the group trying to fix it. The United Nations lacks the authority to enact or enforce solutions. And until recently, the bill to be paid for rising emissions seemed like it would never come due.

Humans must solve the climate problem before Earth reaches a tipping point, Waring warned.


Ivan Fernandez, a University of Maine soil science professor and member of the Maine Climate Council, said Tuesday that he hadn’t read the full paper yet, only the abstract summary. As a social science, the field of theoretical evolutionary biology falls outside his academic expertise, but as a climate scientist, Fernandez called Waring’s conclusions and approach interesting.

“There’s no question the framework that we’ve been using at the global scale has been inadequate,” Fernandez said. “If we are going to make a more substantive impact on the climate crisis, additional insights on human behavior on different spatial scales and how they aggregate to our solutions is incredibly valuable. I look forward to reading the paper.”

The authors posed three questions in the study: how human evolution has treated environmental resources, how human evolution has contributed to global environmental crises and how global environmental limits might change human evolution in the future.

The research team explored how human use of the environment has changed over our evolutionary history. It considered which natural resources we use, how intensively we use them, the systems and methods that emerged to use the resources, and the resulting environmental impacts.

The study found that over the last 100,000 years, human populations have progressively created better and better tools and systems to use more types of resources, with more intensity, at greater scales, and with greater environmental impacts.



Those larger, more efficient groups would expand to new environments with new resources. If resources ran low, they would move to a new forest or farming territory or fish for pollock instead of cod; if the population grew big enough, it would simply expand its territory.

But now humans are starting to run out of space and resources.

Researchers found evidence that strong environmental protection systems tend to address problems within existing societies, not between them. For example, Maine lobster fishermen established their own territorial rules to manage the fishery rather than have them imposed upon them.

Tackling the global climate crisis will require humans to establish a functional social system for the planet that will implement worldwide regulatory, economic and social systems that generate greater cooperation and authority than existing systems like the Paris Agreement, Waring said.

Harder still, humans will have to overcome the cultural evolution that has encouraged sub-groups of the population to pursue their own best interests while delaying action on shared priorities and avoiding the all-out race for resources that can sometimes lead to war, he said.

Global challenges like climate change are much harder to solve than previously considered, Waring said.

“It’s not just that they are the hardest thing our species has ever done,” he said. “They absolutely are. The bigger problem is that central features in human evolution are likely working against our ability to solve them. To solve global collective challenges we have to swim upstream.”

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