Evolutionary Biology is the Key to Solving Climate Change

The age-old, reproductively-driven quest for status explains why efforts to combat climate change have failed. It also illustrates a path forward.

Credit: Jonathan Kemper/Unsplash

“Modern environmentalists suggest that status-signaling competition between humans is destroying the planet. They propose that the earth has enough resources to comfortably support the present population if we are all prepared to live modestly, but that natural rivalry can lead to ever-rising expectations — and with it increasing consumption. In many ways, this competition is not healthy — and nor does it necessarily contribute much to human happiness. In some ways it places people under an obligation to spend more money than they would otherwise choose to, just to maintain their status relative to other people.”

Excerpt from Alchemy, by Rory Sutherland

At some point in its evolutionary history, an Irish elk was born with a mutation that gave it slightly larger antlers than the rest, and offered it an advantage in conflict with other elk over mates. The prevalence of large antlers within the greater population of Irish elk thus grew in lockstep with the ability of those bearing them to attract mates.

Credit: Ethan Hu/Unsplash

The Irish elk thus evolved to grow disproportionately large — and evolutionarily, quite useless — antlers. Each time a member of the species was born with a slightly larger variation on the original mutation, after all, that elk became the most likely to find a reproductively viable female and produce offspring.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these massive antlers eventually became a hindrance, often trapping elk in brush and making them easier targets for predators. Evolutionarily biologists have hypothesized that eventually, the sheer size and weight of the Irish elk’s antlers led to the species’ extinction.

This illustrates the potential lethality of a process known as the Fisherian runaway, or process by which once evolutionarily useful traits become existential threats. This same process playing out among humans is responsible for climate change, and it’s only by acknowledging said process’s inevitability that we can address it.

To understand the many ways in which the Fisherian runaway is currently manifesting itself throughout society, consider a concrete example: college. Imagine someone asked you why you chose to attend college. How would you respond?

“Everybody has two reasons for doing the things they do: a good reason, and the real reason.”

— J.P. Morgan¹

It seems like a relatively easy question to answer, but only because college is a widely accepted rite of passage, especially in the developed world.

There are many good reasons to attend college, after all: access to both connections that pay long-term dividends and a higher-paying salary both upon graduation and over time, not to mention the confidence that comes with all you learn in college — both inside and outside the lecture hall.

But the real reason, I’d propose, is that a college degree gives you a better chance of attracting a mate and producing offspring who will go on to do the same, ad infinitum.

Or, at least, it did.

Now, the accessibility of college has drowned the signal a degree once was in the noise. Similarly, the exorbitant cost of college — and consequent explosion of companies offering student loans — has made obtaining a degree a riskier gamble than it ever was before.

Consider that as of the beginning of the 2019–20 school year, four-year tuition at my alma mater, Kenyon College, will be $284,600.² Assuming a 30-year fixed-rate plan with a 6% interest rate, a graduate who funded their entire education with loans would pay $1,706.32 per month in principal/interest. Multiplied by 360 months, this comes to a total of $614,275.49 — the principal of $284,600 plus the interest of $329,675.49 — more than twice the cost of the tuition itself.³

It isn’t hard to liken owing this amount of money to bearing the massive, unwieldy antlers of the Irish elk.

It’s hard to imagine a world, after all, in which individuals owing that amount of money wouldn’t go on to struggle through the decades after graduation, suffocating under the weight of a monthly debt that, like the elk’s antlers, would ensnare them at every turn, severely limiting their opportunity for economic — and consequently, reproductive — success.

Credit: Good Free Photos/Unsplash

Now, to be clear, the high price of a college degree doesn’t guarantee it isn’t valuable — in fact, quite the opposite. The high price of any good signals it’s heavily demanded relative to its supply, and is thus, by definition, valuable.⁴

But crucially, that people value a college degree doesn’t guarantee owning one signals what it once did.

On the contrary, the skyrocketing price of tuition should tell prospective college students — not to mention their parents — that ownership of a college degree is undergoing its own Fisherian runaway, seizing its last gasps of air before it becomes clear it’s no longer the signal it once was.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many companies are no longer requiring that potential hires have college degrees. This, again, is the Fisherian runaway at play. 

Like the Irish elk’s antlers eventually became a hindrance, so too is it that the real-world value of a college degree is declining precipitously, even as its cost does the opposite. Ironically, the only people who subject themselves to hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to obtain a degree are those not competent enough to realize they’re signaling a form of incompetence — that is, irresponsibility — by doing so.⁵

Luckily, many are realizing this. College enrollment has now declined for the seventh straight year, and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen predicts that up 50% of universities will either close or go bankrupt within the next decade. And while these statistics aren’t worth celebrating, it’s worth noting that competent students who might’ve once considered college as an option are finding other ways to signal their value.

One such method is enrollment in the Lambda School, which offers an intensive crash course in coding, tuition-free. Founded by entrepreneur Austen Allred, the Lambda School makes money by taking a portion of future earnings attributable to what graduates learn while enrolled.

Odd though it may seem, it’s thinking like this — that is, reimagining the consumptive methods by which we signal status to one another — that’s required to solve climate change.

Humans, like every other species, are evolutionarily programmed to seek status in pursuit of reproductive success. Since the advent of the market economy, we’ve done so by creating products and letting the market decide which signal status and which don’t. 

The human-induced reason for climate change, then, is simple. The products we’ve decided signal status — cars, air travel, air-conditioned homes, meat (and specifically, beef), and commercial real estate — have all proven ecologically ruinous. This leaves us with a solution to climate change that is simple on paper, but immensely complex in reality: We need to innovate and find ways to signal status that won’t wreck the environment.

So what do those look like?

Tesla is certainly a start. Musk’s genius — aside from creating an electric vehicle that was, for a time, one of the fastest production cars in existence — was in realizing that getting people to buy electric cars would require more than simply building one.

Credit: Alex Iby/Unsplash

Tesla’s predecessor, the Prius, was a genuine prophylactic. Even so, it caught on. Realizing this, Musk developed four lines of vehicles with the not-so-subtle intent to make them sex symbols in the same way Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and other similar brands always have been.⁶

In doing so, he made Tesla a status symbol, and crucially, a status symbol that wasn’t ecologically ruinous. Tesla’s vehicles, after all, are carbon-neutral. (Though admittedly, the plants that power the outlets they plug into run on fossil fuel.)

Tesla is not a perfect solution, but the idea — admitting that our deeply-rooted reproductive drive forces us to seek status, and designing products that allow us to do so while not causing irreparable harm to the environment — is the right one.

It remains to be seen whether we’ll be humble enough to admit it.


¹ Rory Sutherland attributes this quote to J.P. Morgan in a talk given for Wired UK earlier this year, but as he notes, the quote likely originated elsewhere.

² Though it will likely rise, as enrollees are not locked into a yearly tuition rate, and it’s hard to see yearly tuition — $71,150, as it stands currently — doing anything other than rising.

³ To be clear, this is the absolute worst possible scenario (at Kenyon), and doesn’t account for the fact that most college students don’t pay full tuition. According to debt.org, “The average student loan debt for 2016 college graduates who borrowed to get through school was $37,172. If a 2016 graduate took the standard repayment plan for the $37,172 borrowed — 10 years, at a 4.29% interest rate — they would be paying $382/month for the next decade.”

⁴ This explains why the price of water — a good that is crucial to human survival, but is abundant — is so low, while the price of diamonds — completely useless from a practical standpoint, but heavily demanded relative to their scarce supply — is so high.

⁵ The caveat I’d make here is that hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans is only a bad bet if your post-grad projected earnings potential is low (data on this here). If you’re taking out that amount of money for a degree in molecular biology, on the other hand — with the eventual goal of attending medical school and becoming a doctor — the odds you’re making a good bet are much higher. There’s also good data on the (high) earnings potential of doctors, meaning that it’s easy to rationalize taking out a large loan before doing so, as opposed to having to rely on your own competence to find a job that would help you rationalize it after already having done so.

⁶ If you scramble the three letters and one number Musk used to denote each of the four lines of Teslas currently in production — the Model S, Model 3 (only called the Model 3 because Ford had already taken the “E” moniker), Model X, and Model Y — you get “S3XY.” Not so subtle.

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