Evolution usually takes a very long time. Genetic and epigenetic factors tend to be the driving forces behind evolution, and changes to the genome or expressions of genes are usually quite slow. Over thousands to millions of years certain traits in species change, certain genes end up with errors that turn out to be beneficial for survival, and species slowly evolve. In most ecosystems across Earth’s history, predators, prey, and everything living have co-evolved in a slow but steady manner.
However, evolution does seem to have its shocks. This can be seen in theories of punctuated equilibrium, where things are stable with small changes occurring at relatively constant frequencies punctuated by periods of rapid and dramatic changes. Perhaps a volcano erupted and changed the landscape of an ecosystem. The genetic changes that were previously advantageous might not be advantageous now, and perhaps a whole new set of genetic mutations become advantageous. Or perhaps an invasive species has moved into the ecosystem and is upending a balance that evolution and natural selection had settled upon, reshaping the ecosystem and what traits are the most beneficial for the survival of all creatures.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari describes the quick ascension of humans as a force toward punctuation in the history of evolution on planet Earth. We are similar to a volcano or invasive species in terms of our destructive and disruptive power. For over a million years humans evolved slowly, positioned in the middle of the food chain, but relatively rapidly, we rose to the top of the food chain and became the most dominate animal on the planet.
Harari writes, “Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevented lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc.” Most apex predators evolved over a long period of time alongside the same prey and other living creatures, allowing animals to find their niches and natural defenses to live in a type of balance within an ecosystem.
Harari continues, “humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. … Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.” When humans went from mid-food chain to the top in only a few thousand years, we created a punctuation in the evolutionary course of the planet. Tool use, advanced social tribes, and coordination and cooperation among humans allowed us to disrupt the slow and steady process of evolution that allows living creatures to steadily evolve together. Other species couldn’t adapt quick enough, and a mass extinction is the end result.
Further, Harari argues that our quick jump in the food chain didn’t allow humans to evolve and adapt – in terms of our psychology – to our new position. We possess fears and insecurities that are tied to our tribal ancestry. We live as if we are still in the middle of the food chain, and not the top. Our quick ascent was so fast that we still haven’t caught up with exactly what the change means and where we are, and as a result we still live with the same fears that our ancestors had when they were in the middle of the food chain. This insecurity, Harari argues, has contributed to wars, deliberate decimation of other animal species, and various negative things that humans have done to each other and the planet since becoming the most dominant species.