The Glasgow summit will be a success!
… so long as you view it from a sufficiently distant vantage point.
When the Glasgow climate change summit is over, some people will say it was a failure, and some people will say it was a success. Their verdicts will depend on their perspectives. I want to offer a perspective from which the summit is guaranteed to look like a success.
Granted, this perspective is a generous one, conducive to lenient judgment. But I maintain that, if enough people adopt it, that can help make the next climate change summit a success even from a more demanding perspective.
The generous perspective I have in mind is a cosmic one. More specifically, it’s evolutionary—evolutionary both in the sense of biological evolution (like, how our species came to be) and in the sense of political evolution (like, how human structures of governance have changed).
Let’s start at the beginning: We are descended from primordial ooze. (Are you already starting to lower your expectations for Glasgow? If so, you’re getting into the spirit of this exercise.) Over the ages, via natural selection, our ancestors got smarter, developing bigger and bigger brains. But the rule that shaped and reshaped those brains, that added and refined new cognitive equipment, remained the same: the kinds of brains that did the best job of propelling genes into future generations were the kinds that became typical of the species.
So it’s not surprising that we’re good at things like eating, having sex, and killing or otherwise thwarting rivals. It’s not even all that shocking that we’re good at inventing complex and powerful technologies. After all, inventing a valued technology is a good way to elevate your status and power and hence the prospects for your genes. (I don’t know who invented the wheel, but I’m guessing they didn’t have to spend their Friday nights alone.) Plus: valued technologies are valuable; they help groups of humans do a better job of feeding themselves and fending off predators and, when necessary, squashing other groups of humans.
What would be surprising is if solving the problems caused by human technologies—climate change, for example—came as naturally to us as inventing the technologies. Think about it: Would you expect that organisms designed to outcompete their neighbors in the genetic marketplace would be naturally good at solving a global problem that calls for coordinated sacrifice involving billions of other such organisms? Shouldn’t just arranging the Glasgow summit and getting people to show up on time be enough to win our species some kind of medal?
Now, there is one principle of natural selection that might tempt you to expect more from us at Glasgow than just showing up: Competition at the level of the gene can translate into cooperation at the level of the organism. Under some circumstances, animals that cooperate with each other can each do better, survival-and-reproduction-wise, than any of them could do in uncooperative mode. So genes that incline animals toward cooperation can, in principle, outcompete genes that don’t.
That’s why people are naturally collaborative organisms. The affiliative tendencies that help us build friendships and teams are rooted in genes that flourished because friendships and teams can be vehicles for productive collaboration. You know: hunting expeditions, gathering expeditions, killing-the-other-team expeditions…
The genetically based mental equipment that helps us navigate the landscape of potentially cooperative arrangements goes beyond mushy affiliative impulses like affection and trust. It includes, for example, dislike and distrust—feelings that can help you avoid arrangements that seem likely to get you exploited. There’s also suspicion—an impulse that goads you to closely examine someone to see if they belong in the “disliked and distrusted” bin. (For elaboration on, and defense of, the various claims about human nature I’m casually tossing out, see chapters 7-14 of my book The Moral Animal.)
Importantly, this genetically based equipment also includes the cognitive and emotional underpinnings of bargaining—tools that guide us through discussions about what exactly each person should contribute to a collaboration, how much each person should sacrifice in the name of cooperation. In principle, having bargaining skills as standard equipment would seem to bode well for Glasgow, since bargaining about who contributes what in the way of greenhouse gas reductions is what Glasgow is largely about.
In principle. But our bargaining equipment can be a two-edged sword.