Monday, September 20, 2010

Who cares about the environment?

Last week I posted something about a topic we discussed in one of my classes, Evolution of Religiosity. This week again I was inspired to write about something else from discussion in that class. Climate change - and why we may not be wired to care.

If we go back about 70,000 years ago, there was a supereruption of Mt. Toba (in Sumatra, Indonesia) that was so powerful it ejected 670 cubic miles of volcanic ash (the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens ejected 0.29 cubic miles of ash). Scientists conjecture that a 6 to 10 year volcanic winter followed, and that it caused a huge bottleneck in human evolution, reducing the number of breeding pairs down to somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000. So who survived?

What we know for sure is that Homo sapiens survived, and some scientists speculate that H. sapiens were able to adapt to the new climate and that Neanderthals, for example, couldn't adapt and therefore became extinct. The hominids that did survive must have been doing something right. It may be the case that the survivors of the Mt. Toba supereruption, the ones that got through the bottleneck and are the ancestors of you and me, were of the mindset that natural disasters, climate change, and huge ecological turnovers really aren't that big of a deal. This kind of thinking may or may not have directly influenced their ability to survive the volcanic winter and ensuing ecological changes, but the survivors obviously did not need to be as worried about these things as did their counterparts who perished. You and I both carry the genes of the volcanic eruption survivors, and those genes may very well not be too concerned with environmental change. The bottom line is, we may not be hardwired to care about the current climate change we experience in the world today.

Look for a future post about what evolutionary science says about how we CAN get people to care...

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