Richard Dawkins and the Future

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins discovers the power of markets


Seattle aerospace entrepreneur Walter Kistler founded the Foundation for the Future over four years ago. The Foundation's mission is to increase and diffuse knowledge concerning the long-term future of humanity. To further that mission the Foundation has been holding a series of Humanity 3000 Seminars, ambitiously designed to look at the challenges and opportunities that confront humanity for the next thousand years.

The Foundation invites about two dozen scholars, futurists, and writers to each seminar. Each participant, including me this year, is asked to provide a short statement describing what he or she thinks are the critical factors for the long-term future of humanity. I was also asked to deliver a keynote speech on the State of the Planet.

Fellow participants included Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer, University of California at Berkeley psychologist Arthur Jensen, environmental writer and activist Connie Barlow, and Future Survey editor Michael Marien, along with the Kistler Prize winner, Richard Dawkins. The $100,000 Kistler Prize honors a researcher or organization doing outstanding research into the biological bases of social behavior. The first Kistler Prize was given to Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson last year. Wilson also participated in some Humanity 3000 Seminar sessions.

Dawkins spoke at the Kistler Prize award dinner held at the Bell Harbor Conference Center in Seattle. Dawkins began by noting that evolution had created in humanity the capacity to look into the future, and that this capacity was something utterly new under the sun. Biological evolution by means of natural selection, according to Dawkins, predicts the future based on the past. Much like a sculptor shapes marble, natural selection carves gene pools. The result is that the gene pools of living species are a massive historical database, a sort of genetic Book of the Dead. The body of an animal or a plant by its very shape and behavior makes the equivalent of predictions about the future based on its ancestral past.

The next innovation occurred when nature, by generating brains, equipped animals with an onboard computer that supplemented the genetic base with additional information. Brains can learn from the environment and help individual animals make better predictions on how best to survive. With humans, brains became equipped with language, which makes it possible for individuals to benefit from information that endures longer than an individual lifespan. With language we, unlike other species, have the possibility to really optimize distant futures, whereas evolution can only optimize the near-term future.

Sometimes we put nature on a pedestal, but Dawkins reminds us that nature is not on our side. He debunked the notion of the noble savage living in harmony with nature. Those earlier people are responsible for killing off the Pleistocene megafauna, such as mammoths, mastodons, and giant ground sloths. Dawkins also bade the audience to keep in mind that primitive slash-and-burn agriculture is the very opposite of sustainable. Humans are no worse than other animal predators, just more effective.

Dawkins dismissed the idea of the prudent predator as being evolutionarily incoherent. Some theorists propounded the notion in the 1960s that a prudent predator would be careful to preserve a breeding population of its prey species in order to insure the survival of its own species. Dawkins argued that it would be impossible for this arrangement to remain evolutionarily stable because a single mutant that became a selfish exploiter would quickly outbreed the prudent members of its species. In other words, genetic evolution cannot confer foresight on species in that way — short-term advantage will always outcompete long-term prudence.

Still, Dawkins sees humans as Earth's last best hope because we can take the long view. If we don't plan for the future of the planet, no other species will. The key, then, is to try to insure humanity takes a longer view. Dawkins suggested meta-strategies to engineer the game so individual players might profit from behaving altruistically. He also noted that overexploitation of resources due to the tragedy of the commons is creating a downward spiral. He illustrated the tragedy of the commons with the example of a cow pasture on which farmers have the right to put as many cows as they like. Of course, each farmer tries to maximize the number of his cows on the pasture, which leads to overgrazing, the destruction of the pasture, and the deaths of the cows. Dawkins acknowledged that one good way to handle the tragedy of the commons is to divide the common land among the farmers so that each individual not only gets the benefits but also bears the costs. That is why the majority of farmland today is fenced, he concluded.

Dawkins is clearly groping toward a greater understanding of how the institutions of free markets and property rights can help humanity plan for the future better. The game he wishes to engineer so that players profit from behaving in an altruistic way already exists. It's called the free market. Adam Smith described the Dawkins game well when he wrote in The Wealth of Nations that "it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."

Dawkins suffered from a failure of imagination when it came to considering how the tragedy of the commons might be ended using property rights to fence in the atmosphere and oceans. One day polluters could well be forced to pay for permits to emit pollutants into the air and fishers all over the world might come to own rights to fisheries as they do in New Zealand and Iceland today. It is clear that most biologists aren't that familiar with any economics since Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that Dawkins is thinking more along these lines.

Dawkins' conclusion cast a bright light on our future: Humanity is an elite species unparalleled in four billion years of evolution because human foresight is a unique gift to the world, a gift that will help us to insure that there will be a distant future for life.