2.b.24 – What is meant with evolutionary emergency?

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February 11, 2010 — Riccardo Sabellotti - Giacinto Sabellotti

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What is meant with evolutionary emergency?

When the life conditions of a species change, the same tends to evolve because of natural selection; this is due to the changes of environmental conditions that select genes in a different way; those that were irrelevant Individual characteristics are now valuable resources for survival.
A sudden environmental change, for example the end of a glaciation, causes a kind of evolutionary emergency for the species involved; there is a need to change, evolve, being subject to a new selective pressure. This period of discomfort, in which natural selection appears particularly hard, tends to end with the spread of genes adapted to the new environment; proceeding with adaptation, the selective pressures will decrease and, with it, the speed of evolution too. New positive mutations may appear, but this possibility will more and more decrease, evolution will slow down and the environment will appear less hostile; in time a new balance will be achieved.
Through the study of the animal world and of our history until the end of the last glaciation, it appears that this process can also be found in cultural development. The human being, through culture, has adapted himself to most different environments developing various types of lifestyles, devising the most disparate techniques for hunting, to protect himself from inclement weather and predators and so on, finally reaching a stable equilibrium with the environment; Eskimos, the Indios of the Amazon, the Kalahari Bushmen and all other tribal cultures that have survived over millennia with small changes, corresponding to the minimum mutations of the environment, are an example of it. Maintaining any other condition unchanged then, in the presence of a sudden change, evolution has its maximum speed when the emergency appears but decreases  in a more or less regular way in accordance with the emergence of new mutations. Why then the human cultural evolution is currently increasing its speed instead of slowing down? What happened from the emergence of agriculture onwards? Why we behave as if we were subjected to a perennial and growing evolutionary emergency?
All studies on the climate of the past tell us that cultural evolution has paradoxically began to accelerate in a period of particular environmental stability, a time when no new predators, new preys nor new competitor species appeared and when the climate was mild and more stable than ever. So what drives our cultural evolution when the environment where we live is always the same? To find the answer we just have to look around us: we now live in cities made up of many thousands or millions inhabitants, made of cement, asphalt, glass and steel; motorized vehicles moving anywhere and without them we don’t go anywhere; the main dangers to health and for survival are traffic accidents, accidents at work, use of drugs or spirits and the various diseases related to the thousand forms of pollution.
Are we sure we can say that the environment where we live is always the same of about 9-thousand years ago? We must admit that a village of made huts with 70 – 100 inhabitants living on hunting, gathering and rudimentary forms of farming or agriculture is an environment quite different from the present cities. The climate has not changed over the past millennia, but the environment where we live did; it has very deeply changed and shows no signs of stopping. Are we therefore really subject to a perpetual evolutionary emergency? The answer is Yes, because of cultural evolution of human environment.

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