The Link Between Climate Change and Evolution, Still Pertinent Today

    In this Huffington Post article from this July, Mother Nature Network‘s Russell McLendon presents some startling information on the current effects of climate change on Evolution. To preface this commentary, it is important to first establish the link between climate change and evolution. It seems fairly obvious that the changing climate of the Earth would have some kind of effect on the path of evolution. However, the importance of that link should not go without secondary thought. After a recent trip to the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins exhibit in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, I have become very interested in this link. Out of all of the information thrown at patrons of the exhibit, the climate change information had a very particular recurring presence.

    After a good deal of research for the paper I was writing on the rhetorical context of the exhibit, I learned just how strong this link is in regard to human progress. The basic message of the information in the exhibit, and all of the supplementary material I researched, is that climate change is not just linked to evolution, it was and is, a driving force behind evolutionary progress. The theory holds that every major development in early humans from tool making, to walking upright, to increased brain size, has a direct link to the changing climate and environment surrounding them. The exhibit also underpins the idea that evolution continues today, as does climate change. The link between the two is certainly maintained as humanity, and every other species on the Earth moves forward.

    The Hall of course is focused on the evolution of humanity, however, the basic principles of evolution apply to all living things. Within the theory of evolution exists the theory that climate change is driving force of evolution, and has a direct link, as is established above. The article talks more generally about climate change outpacing evolution. It references scientific studies, and specific information, but being republished in the Huffington Post means it is intended for the average person. That does not mean that this article does not present some startling information. If artificial climate change produced by humans forces species to evolve faster, the world could become a very different place. A quote from the article explains just how drastic the situation is:

     “Every species has a climatic niche which is the set of temperature and precipitation conditions in the area where it lives and where it can survive,” co-author and University of Arizona ecologist John Wiens says in a press release. “We found that on average, species usually adapt to different climatic conditions at a rate of only about 1 degree Celsius per million years. But if global temperatures are going to rise by about 4 degrees over the next hundred years, as predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, that is where you get a huge difference in rates. What that suggests overall is that simply evolving to match these conditions may not be an option for many species.”

    This means that species will have either adapt to their current ecosystem, or find a new home that is favorable to the conditions they like, while racing against extinction, and facing the impeding factor that is humanity. According to the article, some species may be able to overcome the challenges, many others may not. This article however does not take into consideration the human factor in great detail. Not many species may search for habitats uninhabited by humans, but for many, the most favorable places may be areas humans already claim as their own. Humans, being apex predators will most likely not welcome exotic species moving into “their” habitat. The article also does not approach humanity as a species, and the effects climate change will have on us as a whole. Obviously, that is because it is a heady topic to consider, and the point of this article is not to uncover that, but certainly the silent question that this article poses is: What Will The Humans Do?

     Furthermore, this article serves to prove the theoretical link between climate change and evolution (though both are considered theories, they are more or less universally accepted), and remind its everyday readers that the evolutionary process did not stop with Homo Sapiens, and the drive of climate change upon evolution has not stopped either. Part of the inspiration for this post comes from our classmate findwhatfind ‘s post on whether or not humans are the ultimate in evolution or another branch on the tree. Even if humans are the ultimate species in evolution, what will the whole world look like if artificial climate change continues? The public’s debate should no longer be ‘Is Global Warming real or not?”, it should be “The Earth is getting warmer, and humans are largely contributing to this, what can we do to be more responsible citizens of Planet Earth?”

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15 Responses to The Link Between Climate Change and Evolution, Still Pertinent Today

  1. freddie1994 says:

    The debate about whether or not humans are contributing to global warming is irrelevant, temperatures are rising, be it naturally or artificially. I agree with frombostontodc that the debate should focus on what we plan to do about rising temperature, whether or not they are caused by us humans. The article linked in his post is clear in its position about climate change being perhaps the main driving factor in evolution, and it raises serious concerns about what will happen to many species in the next 100 years. At the very least the approach should be, “Hope for the best plan for the worst.” To be “responsible citizens of Planet Earth,” we humans should start now, or in the near future planning out a way to protect species that won’t be able to adapt fast enough to the rising temperatures, maybe by trying to relocate some, not all, members of as many species in danger (of becoming extinct due to slow adaptation) that we can, or even start to plan artificial environments that could be used for some species.

  2. sm1414 says:

    The article from bostontodc is an interesting article and I think really describes the real driver behind evolution: climate change. By climate change, I do not mean the political version of climate change, but the general term used to describe how Earth’s climate has changed since its formation. The environment in which an organism is found is perhaps the most important aspect of that organism’s life. It determines how the organism finds food, which predators are threats to the organism, and how the organism regulates its body temperature. We have already defined the fittest organism to be the organism that produces the most offspring who survive to reproduce, but how can an organism or its offspring survive if the organism is in an unsuitable climate? It must adapt or it will become extinct in that ecosystem.

    That is why it is important to realize that the climate of our planet is warming, as freddie1994 says. Freddi1994 is in my opinion incorrect when he states that it is irrelevant why the climate is warming. If humans are contributing to this warming, then I think it is important for us to realize to what extent we are contributing and curb our own actions to protect the planet and the climate. It is clear that the warming climate and other human activities are driving different species into traditionally human areas. For example, this summer, I watched Shark Week on The Discovery Channel. One of the most interesting aspects of this programming was the number of documentaries on shark attacks. The thing that ecologists and scientists cited most as causing an increase in the number of shark attacks was the fact that human overfishing was causing the shark population to search for food closer to shore, causing a direct conflict with human activities. Our actions do not just influence our lives, but the lives and evolutionary changes that affect all living things on this planet. We need to begin to be more aware of our actions and try to peacefully coexist with other species to ensure that our planet survives.

    The post of freddie1994 also reminded me of the fact that many people deny climate change just as they do evolution. I have attached a link from the Washington Post that discusses how there is discussion in the state of Texas about whether science textbooks should teach both evolution and climate change. The article discusses how textbook reviewers in the state of Texas have raised questions about the evidence related to these scientific topics. For example, one reviewer “asserted that no transition fossils have been found” and another “insisted that there is no evidence for a human influence on the carbon cycle.” I found this interesting and particularly dangerous for education in America because Texas is such a large state. I remember hearing that since Texas has such a large demand for textbooks that textbook companies are more inclined to follow the guidelines of the Texas State Board of Education when creating textbooks. They then sell these books to the rest of the nation. Do you believe that this is dangerous? These textbook reviewers seem like ordinary citizens. Are they really the best group of people to decide what a textbook should or should not include? Why does it seem like so many people in the United States are willing to dismiss scientific evidence in favor of personal beliefs?

  3. jps591 says:

    I found the correlation that the ecologist found between climate change and evolution extremely fascinating. It makes sense that climate change makes species adapt to the changing environment through evolution. However, I feel that as of recent, it is evolution that causes climate change rather than climate change that causes evolution. While it may have originally started as the latter, humans have evolved to become complex organisms. These complex organisms were instilled with desires and needs, for example the need for a higher protein diet and the desire for rapid transportation. These desires require the exploitation of Earth’s natural resources — a depletion of plants that absorb carbon dioxide and the burning of fossil fuels that destroys the ozone layer. This exploitation, caused by the evolution of humans into complex creatures, in turn leads to expedited climate change. Despite my disagreement with the ecologists analysis, it is mind blowing to think that, assuming his predictions are correct, many species we are familiar with today won’t be around decades down the road. It makes me wonder how long until humans can’t evolve quick enough.

  4. nicolina1215 says:

    I agree with frombostontodc in that the original article did not address the human impact on climate change extensively. I believe that the original article would have benefited from elaborating on the environmental damage caused by human overconsumption and industry. The only mention of human impact is at the begging when McLendon says, “Manmade climate change — fueled by excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, namely carbon dioxide — is expected to raise global temperatures by up to 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit (6 Celsius) within the next 100 years.” This is startling information, and as frombostontodc mentioned, the “silent question” posed by the article is whether or not humans will be able to adapt to the new climate.
    While I understand frombostontodc’s point that human survival is a “heady topic” to discuss, the author of the article could have done it in a less intimidating, but more helpful way. By expanding on his initial statement that much of Earth’s recent and drastic climate change is due to manmade greenhouse gases, he could have given examples on how to decrease the human carbon footprint. This was obviously not an important part of his article, but it could have been a good addition in the end just to state that there are measures we can take to decrease our total damage. The author of the original article could have posed the same question that frombostontodc’s did in his final sentence. I believe that the main portion of the article should remain focused on the startling facts, because it grabs the reader’s attention and gives climate change the sense of urgency it deserves, but like freddie1994 says, should have a slightly different approach of hope towards the end.
    There are currently many “go green” campaigns for how people can decrease their carbon footprint in their every day lives, but people often forget how their actions not only affect other humans but can be the biggest determining factor in whether or not other species stand a chance of surviving. It’s true that humans tend to act more cautiously when they feel that their own personal health and happiness are at stake, but addressing threats to other creatures could prove to humans two eventual effects of their unwillingness to change; the less we focus on green sustainability, the faster thousands of other species will become extinct, which in turn means that the ecosystems supporting our industries and lifestyles will be in turmoil. While both the article and the blog post focused on how climate change itself will destroy the livelihood of many species, the human tendency to act when we don’t directly see the connection to our own livelihood, is less likely.

  5. lnzgirl says:

    I agree with jps591’s concern that humans may not be able to evolve fast enough for the speed of climate change. However, I think that the concern for our survival is faster approaching then one might think. Now that the human population is over 7 billion people, I think the concern for humans at the present time is less about their ability to adapt quickly to environmental changes, but rather how these 7 billion people will be able to sustain their way of life as the Earth runs out of arable land, land that is suitable for agriculture, and access fresh water. I live in Northern California where recent droughts are making people concerned over our ability to transport large enough amounts of water to sustain Southern California and parts Arizona. Even in America where resources are plentiful and people are able to get an education that allows them to research alternative solutions, we are running into problems with water shortage. In poorer third world countries, this problem is even worse. In parts of Africa people have to travel miles to access clean, fresh water. The article I attached highlights how human-caused climate change is in turn making the water shortage problem even worse worldwide. The article I attached talks about Tuvalu, a country of 11,000 people whose water shortage has been reduced to just a few days worth, leaving surrounding countries responsible for helping them. As drastic climate change continues to change Earth, this problem is only going to get worse. Humans hold the responsibility not only to protect other species from extinction, but also to protect their own survival.,8599,2097159,00.html

    • secondcitytocapitalcity says:

      Reading the article that lnzgirl, I thought is was interesting the way the author said that humans have come to recognize the environmental impact of projects like dams that drastically effect the environment. In some way, this is similar to what many people have replied to about humans evolving to a higher level of thinking. However, the part that people have skipped over is that the evolution of humans is not finished yet. We might have evolved to a point where we no longer need to build another Hoover Dam, but we are still dependent on oil. As I have seen over the short course of my life, we have learned more and more about the world, and decreased our independence on things we used to need. This might not be the same evolution as humans went through as they gained the ability to walk upright, but it is a progression in the way that humans are adapting to their new environment, and that is what evolution is at its core.

      • phillykid888 says:

        I agree with secondcitytocapitalcity that humans are still evolving in a very advanced way. At this point, our technology has gotten us to the point where we can innovate our way out of some serious situations. Although man-made climate change is a major problem, I believe that humans will find a way to at least somewhat ameliorate the situation for ourselves. The statistics cited in the McLendon article paint a far more dire picture for other animals. Lacking the technology available to humans, many species of animals will go extinct due to the rapid rates of climate change. I believe that the survival of much of the biodiversity on Earth will be dependent on whether or not humanity decides to save it. If we use some of our technology to attempt to save species from extinction, they will still have hope. Ultimately, I believe that we will survive, but unless we decide to save them, I can’t say the same for many of Earth’s species.

  6. greenDC says:

    As the article and Frombostontodc suggested, climate change greatly influences the way a species is able to exist and how it must adapt to survive. I understand jps591’s point that evolution is “causing climate change”; however, I think it would be more accurate to say that humans have evolved to a state that is so technologically advanced that it is damaging to the environment. Therefore, climate change is still the driving force of evolution regardless of the cause. The rate of evolution necessary (“10,000 times the historic rate of evolution”) to facilitate our survival, as determined by McLendon, is incredibly alarming especially given the 100 year time frame provided. This accessible and tangible number makes the need to slow the rate of change all the more urgent and our responsibility to help.

  7. theotherhemingway says:

    Building on both greenDC’s and Frombostontodc’s point, I agree that humans have evolved to a state which allows it to more dramatically affect the environment than their earliest ancestors. I furthermore agree that this can serve to be disastrous for the natural cycle of climate change, however I believe that our accelerated innovative status can serve to our benefit rather than to our detriment. While greenDC argues that we must slow the rate of change in our climate due to the massive evolutionary shift required to accommodate it as McLendon determines, I feel that because we have innovated our way into this mess, we can in a sense innovate our way out.

    Just before August, Mee-Hyoe Koo of Forbes wrote an article (see below link) discussing the impact of climate change on the developing world. Koo writes:

    “While no nation will be immune to the impacts of climate change, the distribution of impacts will likely be unequally tilted against many of the world’s poorest regions that lack the economic, institutional and technical capacity to adapt to the repercussions of the climate change.”

    The world’s poorest regions lack the impressive innovative capacity of the developed world. Because Koo denotes the least-developed world as most vulnerable to climate change, it follows that they are in this position because they lack the ability to innovate. As sm1414 explained and I paraphrase; we cannot ignore humanity’s impact on climate change and the eventual consequences involved with evolution. However, we must also recognize that we can innovate through this. While there are many possible technologies to be investigated, prioritizing them based on anticipatory and reactive measures and then going further to put the proper scientists in adequately funded research capacities is a plan highlighted by the UN report on technologies involved in climate change (cited below) that we can and truly must embark upon to adequately adapt to climate change.



  8. shoutoutjfk says:

    There was something very unsettling to me about this article. Namely, the key piece of evidence used to say that climate change may affect negatively the ability for populations to evolve is that “We found that on average, species usually adapt to different climatic conditions at a rate of only about 1 degree Celsius per million years. But if global temperatures are going to rise by about 4 degrees over the next hundred years, as predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, that is where you get a huge difference in rates. What that suggests overall is that simply evolving to match these conditions may not be an option for many species.” Essentially, the person making this claim says that species in the past have only adapted to a certain degree of climate change “on average”. Therefore, species may be unable to adapt to adapt if this rate of climate change varies. This is a blaring logical fallacy of faulty cause and effect. This leads me to believe that the author of this article has and exigency other than providing factual information: specifically to provide evidence regarding the evils of climate change. This was further indicated by the visual representing the change in climate over time. The colors used in the map were all “warm” colors which made the change in climate appear much more severe than the singular degrees of Fahrenheit at which the rate is actually increasing.

  9. running95 says:

    This article by the Huffington Post raises some uneasy feelings within me. It is definitely not comforting to know that our world as we know it is basically on the precipice of total extinction. Furthermore, knowing that most species can only adapt to a minute change in climate (one degree celsius per million years), that raises the question of where that leaves humanity. one hundred years is not a long time from today and while many of those living today will not live to see the year 2100, many of our children and especially our grandchildren will live on for the next one hundred years. During this time what will they have to see and what will they have to experience?

    Moreover, the article addresses a very important topic: the correlation between climate change and evolutionary development. Those who have argued in the past that climate change is not an integral component of evolution are completely challenged by Russell McLendon. Obviously evolution is propelled in part by climate change and obviously at this point in time climate change is presenting a huge problem to our world as the globe warms at a rate that far exceeds the rate that any form of life is able to adapt. Therefore, if there was ever a time to “Go Green” it is definitely now. It is up to us to stop the world from warming so quickly, and if we cannot stop it completely we can definitely try to prolong it. If we as global citizens can increase the amount of time that the world takes to grow hotter, at least that would mean buying all species of life on land time to adapt. In essence it is up to us to give all earthly species–including ourselves–a fighting chance, and I think that is the whole purpose of McLendon with his piece.

    • thomgc says:

      First of all the world as we know it is not about to instantaneously combust rather it is simply changing, the world is always changing thats how evolution works, because over time things change. Have humans affected climate change, probably, does that matter, not really whats important is how humanity reacts to it. The odds of human survival is rather high over the next two centuries, the difficulties are of biospheres and wildlife and how we can preserve it or even if we should. If we aim for preserving the current global biosphere then aren’t we denying the rest of life on Earth the opportunity to evolve but at the same time preservation of bio life is always desirable. So when caught between preserving the planet and allowing it to evolve we are caught between a rock and a hard place. The best option would be to gather large populations of various species and their respective biospheres for preservation while the rest of the world evolves around them. In doing so we ensure that species stay alive and do not go extinct do to climate change (despite going extinct in the wild) but we also allow species to evolve naturally as the world changes. Going Green as you put it is relevant because it allows species more time to adapt but it ultimately is a delaying factor that only stalls for the inevitable.

  10. phishmonkees says:

    The article discussed in this week’s blog questions whether rising temperatures and rapid climate change will result in massive extinctions. The article claims that many species will be unable to adapt at the rate at which climate change is taking place and therefore will not survive. I read the original scientific journal entry on which the article based its findings to get a better feel for the type of research that was conducted. Quintero and Wiens were the lead researchers in the study; they concluded that in order to avoid extinction species would need to adapt at unprecedented levels to keep up with massive climate change. ( Although climatic variations have been a naturally and continually recurring phenomena throughout Earth’s existence, modern man is the only species that has effected climate change. I believe that jps591 made a valid point when stating that, “it is evolution that causes climate change rather than climate change that causes evolution”. Humans’ ability to effect climate change is unique to our species. It is undeniable that Homo sapiens’ exponential growth over the last couple of centuries has negatively impacted other species, whether by pollution or expansion into other species’ habitats. However, I believe that the author of the Huntington post article was strategic in insinuating man’s role in climate change, despite the fact that humans are never discussed in the original scientific findings.

  11. ojc31084 says:

    McLendon’s article provides many astounding facts regarding climate-change’s effects on animals’ evolution and their ability to survive the rapid changes expected in the next hundred years. Unfortunately, much of the article seemed repetitive and failed to give a background as to how evolution is related to climate change. Specifically, the second and third paragraph both discuss how temperature changes will cause certain species to go extinct because they will not be able to evolve at a fast enough rates. That writing space could have been better used explaining the types of adaptations required by animals to survive the rapid climate change. The blogger who posted this article even commented saying that only “after a good deal of research” he or she learned how strong the connection between climate change and evolution is.

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