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Q Rev Biol. 2003 Sep;78(3):275-301.

The evolutionary roots of our environmental problems: toward a Darwinian ecology.

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Konrad Lorenz Institute of Comparative Ethology, Savoyenstrasse 1a, A-1160, Vienna, Austria. D.PENN@KLIVV.OEAW.AC.AT


It is widely acknowledged that we need to stabilize population growth and reduce our environmental impact; however, there is little consensus about how we might achieve these changes. Here I show how evolutionary analyses of human behavior provide important, though generally ignored, insights into our environmental problems. First, I review increasing evidence that Homo sapiens has a long history of causing ecological problems. This means that, contrary to popular belief, our species' capacity for ecological destruction is not simply due to "Western" culture. Second, I provide an overview of how evolutionary research can help to understand why humans are ecologically destructive, including the reasons why people often overpopulate, overconsume, exhaust common-pool resources, discount the future, and respond maladaptively to modern environmental hazards. Evolutionary approaches not only explain our darker sides, they also provide insights into why people cherish plants and animals and often support environmental and conservation efforts (e.g., Wilson's "biophilia hypothesis"). Third, I show how evolutionary analyses of human behavior offer practical implications for environmental policy, education, and activism. I suggest that education is necessary but insufficient because people also need incentives. Individual incentives are likely to be the most effective, but these include much more than narrow economic interests (e.g., they include one's reputation in society). Moralizing and other forms of social pressure used by environmentalists to bring about change appear to be effective, but this idea needs more research. Finally, I suggest that integrating evolutionary perspectives into the environmental sciences will help to break down the artificial barriers that continue to divide the biological and social sciences, which unfortunately obstruct our ability to understand ourselves and effectively address our environmental problems.

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