How we got here – On Climate Change and Innovation

Michelle Leong

In his election campaign last year, President Trump tweeted that climate change was a hoax by the Chinese government. His comment was brushed off as a joke afterwards, but BreitBart’s America still thinks that man-made climate change is an exaggeration led by Michael Mann to limit personal freedom and increase taxation. True or otherwise, such anti-climate change claims are already irrelevant. As of last week, President Trump began withdrawing the American commitment to UN climate negotiations, undoing previous efforts by the Obama administration to lead the world conversation on climate change. As we speak (and/or write), the Obama Action Plan is all but undergoing revocation.

For entertainment value then, if nothing else, this article seeks to foster the kind of climate change conversation that hasn’t seen nearly enough coverage compared to the high-profile efforts to mitigate it. For one, what’s the real deal behind natural, non-man-made climate change? Is it a factor as important in Darwinian human evolution as in the extinction of dinosaurs? And what does it have to do with the extreme oscillations of global temperatures in recent years? What about the technological innovations that have arisen as a result of the climate change crisis (think electric and hydrogen-powered race cars, home solar panels with pure silicon panels for maximal power conversion, and mobile apps like GiveO2 and PaperKarma)? Where do these technological innovations fit in, other than as methods of mitigation to the climate change issue?

To answer these questions, I consider the body of research that observes, investigates and theorizes macro- and microevolution, climate change, as well as technological innovation. The overall impression is that climate change and technological innovation are one factor away from each other, and that factor is none other than – drum roll – mankind’s brain size. Zoologists term the evolutionary increase in brain size and complexity ‘encephalization’; it is this encephalization that, I argue, connects climate change with our increasingly advanced technology.

The questions I seek to answer are thus: Could climate change be the reason that mankind has evolved so quickly in terms of technological innovation? Considering the vast leaps we’ve made in the last 500 years (i.e. from the Spherical Earth theory to the first man on the moon, from motorized farm tractors to the Boeing 007, from Marconi’s radio transmission to Google’s new search algorithms), are we – with our Apple and Microsoft technology, with our Uber and Lyfted transport – actually beneficiaries of the very climate change crisis that we so publicly demonize?

Climate Change, Brain Size and Technology

To answer these questions, let’s first consider the two environmental-evolution theories that are currently leading paleo-anthropology research. The first is straightforward enough: progressive environmental change in the last 6 million years (think glacial and interglacial periods lasting hundreds of thousands of years) supports the Darwinian theory of “survival of the fittest”, and the “fittest” are those able to track a new habitat when their preferred habitat has been threatened, or adapt by genetic change within the original habitat. In the case of our human ancestors, the genus Australopithecus evolved 4 million years ago into a skeletal form that boasted a humanlike hipbone, long apelike arms, longer-than-human fingers, and flexible feet for walking and/or climbing. By limiting its reliance on terrestrial walking and arboreal climbing, the Australopithecus was able to move to dessert lands with smaller vegetations and put up home in these new habitats, which were very different to the forestlands that their ancestors were accustomed to. The fact that our own human arms are shorter than our ape friends today reflects the environmental shift that our human ancestors took upon themselves millions of years ago; by moving to plainer and flatter lands, and making new lands plainer and flatter (i.e. tree logging, walking trails formed by routine use, and tarred roads), they have gradually mitigated the need for terrestrial walking and arboreal climbing, which means that long arms and long fingers are – you guessed it – way outdated.

There is a second theory though, which is not exclusive to the first (and can, in fact, work quite well alongside the latter). Dr Rick Potts, head of the Smithsonian Institute and pioneer of new research in paleo-anthropology, posits that it isn’t so much “survival of the fittest” as it is survival of the most flexible. Potts suggests that environmental instability, particularly in the last 1.9 million years, has called for evolutionary “variability selection”. This hypothesis derives its case from the flexible adaptability of the genus Homo in a variety of environments and changing habitats. In other words, rather than having developed genetic and behavioral traits to cope with changing habitats, the Homo genus has developed a physiognomy and technology that braces the species for a range of weather and environmental conditions. This theory draws strength from the general consensus that the Homo genus moved out of Africa some 1.9 million years ago to places as far across the globe as Dmanisi (in current-day Georgia) and Yuanmon (China), both of which were pretty far north (and therefore with colder seasons). These ancient Homo erectus dwellings suggest that our ancestors, by this time, were no longer limited to a single type of environment and were already able to suffer a wide range of temperatures and environments.

The variability selection hypothesis is particularly useful when we consider the increase in climate oscillations in the last few million years. The pressure of adapting to unpredictable and varying climates pushed the Homo genus to develop coping mechanisms that would increase their “variability” status. Apart from evolutionary genetic change, the Homo genus also found a new coping mechanism – the manipulation and use of environmental resources. In other words, the Homo genus hailed the advent of stone technology by fracturing one rock with another, some 2.6 million years ago. Consequently, animals became easier to hunt, and their carcasses more easily cut up with the sharp edges of stones.

More importantly, early stone technology facilitated what was arguably the greatest evolutionary change to the Homo physiognomy since upright walking: encephalization. The popular consensus in scientific community is that the metabolic costs that came with initial encephalization (brain tissue is metabolically expensive) were paid off by the new accessibility and availability of meat. Now that humans were able to hunt animals consistently and ingest more calorie-dense food, the stabilization of energy input allowed the Homo genus to gradually evolve greater brain sizes (for context, the encephalization quotient (EQ) for today’s average human is 7.5; a chimpanzee, 2.3; a cat, 1.0; and a rat, 0.4). These larger brains, in turn, facilitated further technological innovation, so that around 400,000 years ago, our ancestors were able to produce more sophisticated toolkits, and in another 120,000 years they would be able to make arrow shafts, barbed points and projectile weapons – all of which would contribute to even greater accessibility of meat (i.e. they could hunt larger animals from a farther distance), which would in turn stimulate further encephalization.

Should we consider stone technology in combination with the extreme climate oscillations of the last 1.6 million years, the overall picture tells of a strong, running link between climate shifts and physiognomic changes, facilitated by early stone technology. Empirical research also strongly suggests a positive correlation between brain size and technological innovation. What this means is that it may be no coincidence that in the last 350,000 years the Homo genus has been characterized by more complex social systems, symbolic communication, trade economy and, of course, technological innovation. NASA records show that Earth’s surface temperatures were the warmest in 2016 (and NASA has keeping tabs on the climate since the 1880s, so this statistic can at least be verified over a hundred years), yet 2016 was also the year of autonomous driving (no, we don’t need the steering wheel anymore), immune engineering (genetically engineering stem cells to save cancer patients), speech technology (think successor to Siri), and Slack (the fastest-growing workplace software since Google Docs and Skype). So then, what’s the deal here? Are climate change and technological innovation so intimately intertwined that the apotheosis in global temperature also hails the zenith (at least hitherto) of technological innovation?

Oh, I wouldn’t be so bold to claim direct cause-and-effect relations between climate change and technological innovation. After all, there are too many variables over the course of centuries, if not millennia, that factor into the tempestuous relationship between the two. But an indirect cause-and-effect relationship can certainly be inferred, especially if we consider the role of human encephalization. In such a scenario, climate change and technology are second cousins, in a relationship wherein both are firsts to human encephalization.

Are We Running the Hamster Wheel?

If climate change authorizes the primary motivation for technological innovation, and if our increased technological sophistication is causing ever sharper climate oscillations (i.e. 9 out of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2000, Greenland ice loss has doubled between 1996 and 2005, and CO2 levels are at the highest in 650,000 years), then are we just running a hamster wheel by encouraging further technological breakthroughs? And if so, wouldn’t the obvious solution be to decelerate the speed and intensity of technological innovation (i.e. fewer cars for less environmental pollution)?

Extreme as it may seem, the suggestion isn’t an entirely unreasonable one. Consider the obesity epidemic, for example. According to the latest data by the World Health Organization (WHO), worldwide prevalence of obesity has more than doubled since 1980, and developed countries such as the UK and the US report that over 30% of their adult population are obese (not just overweight, mind). Given that the last 30-odd years have also seen incredible sophistication in food production technology, it’s no surprise that minimalists and alternative communities are putting two and two together, and consequently reconsidering the century-old wisdom of encouraging technological innovation. But this approach is like going on a crash diet in response to weight gain; it becomes all too easy to forget what caused the weight gain in the first place. In other words, there were motivating forces behind our advancement of food technologies (i.e. business instincts, natural curiosity, etc.), and going on a technology “crash diet” won’t help one way or another.    

By extension, it would be silly to think that we could reverse the effects of man-made climate change by clamping down on the coal industry and closing down long-established factories. We may slow the effects of climate change, all else being equal, but it is virtually impossible to artificially generate oxygen percentages to the likes of pre-Industrialization, or completely undo ozone depletion in the Antarctic. This is where our prior discussion about evolution and variability selection comes in. It is our technological innovation that has hitherto afforded us our incredible ability to tolerate different environmental conditions (think air-conditioning, woolen clothing, central heating, oxygen tanks for scuba-diving, specialized suits for space exploration), as well as our ability to mitigate the undesirable effects of man-made environmental change. As such, it may very well be our technological innovation that saves us. To continue with the analogy of obesity: in response to growing obesity rates, the last 30 decades have also heralded weight-control technologies like gastrointestinal lipase inhibitors (orlistat, available only upon prescription), stomach stapling (and/or gastric balloon), bigger airline seats, treadmills (which means we can sweat without being subject to outdoor environmental pollution), wheelchairs, and even XL coffins. It’s a game of Whac-A-Mole, surely, but playing the game presupposes that we’re still alive and kicking.   

Whether or not technological innovation can propel us to Paradise remains to be seen, but so far it’s been proven to keep us alive, and perhaps it will continue to do so far into the future. But in order for us to succeed (and therefore march towards the ultimate goal of species survival), the real question – really – is whether our technology and genetics will be able to evolve quickly enough to stay ahead of the climate changes. 

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  1. YK Lai

    Accelerated encephalization and rapid technological innovations ensures the survival of the most flexible species. But the accompanying climate changes wrought by the predominant species will destroy the entire planet. So where does that leave us?
    I look forward to Ms Leong’s next essay

  2. LP Lim

    Enlightening article ! So it looks like technology advancement which is created by human has actually destroy our earth on the other aspect !

    So what should we do next to overcome such problem …

    Interesting article ! Ms Leong , looking fwd to read your next issue on how we can overcome the climate change .

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