The age of the Anthropocene–the scientific name given to our current geologic age–is dominated by human impacts on our environment. A warming climate. Increased resistance of pathogens and pests. A swelling population. Coping with these modern global challenges requires application of what one might call a more-ancient principle: evolution. That’s the recommendation of a diverse group of researchers, in a paper published today in the online version of the journal Science. A majority of the nine authors on the paper have received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
“Evolution isn’t just about the past anymore, it’s about the present and the future,” said Scott Carroll, an evolutionary ecologist at University of California-Davis and one of the paper’s authors. Addressing societal challenges–food security, emerging diseases, biodiversity loss–in a sustainable way is “going to require evolutionary thinking.” The paper reviews current uses of evolutionary biology and recommends specific ways the field can contribute to the international sustainable development goals (SDGs), now in development by the United Nations.
Their recommendations include gene therapies to treat disease, choosing drought-and-flood-resistant crop varieties and altering conservation strategies to protect land with high levels of genetic diversity. Evolutionary biologists don’t have all the answers, said Smith. And using applied evolution is not without risk. But we have reached a point “where we need to take risks in many cases,” he said. “We can’t just sit back and be overly conservative, or we’re going to lose the game.”