Contraception, Human Nature, and Sustainability

The evolutionist Richard Dawkins has explained that humans are innately selfish, greedy and interested in short-term gains over long-term benefits. He points out that because of its short-term, opportunistic characteristic Darwinism is not friendly to the values of sustainability. As Dawkins points out humans, like all animals, innately take advantage of present opportunities without thought for future repercussions. Whilst humans can be altruistic at times, especially to kin and allies (friends) we aren’t innately very altruistic. On the face of it being sustainable goes against our human nature.

Human Nature

The fact that people would accumulate more wealth than they need and in some cases could ever possibly use is an example of genetic values getting the better of any other limiting factor. Wealth in evolutionary terms means you can have more, better mates and therefore more, better offspring. However, people continue to accumulate wealth once they have as many children as they want. The issue is very complex but this trait certainly points to a lack of self-awareness and self-control.

Whilst we have evolved certain selfish traits, we have also evolved a brain that can not only be aware of those traits but can countermand them. There are many examples of how and when people counter their genetic dispositions. One that Dawkins has discussed is contraception. In Dawkins words: “[i]t would be hard to imagine anything more anti-Darwinian than contraception. Yet we do it. The brain is big enough to over-ride the genes in this case.”


Whilst contraception might be a case of having your cake and eating it too, it is a good example of how people countermand their innate drives. By limiting the number of children people are limiting the ‘cost’ of their households in term of time and resources.

In evolutionary history, it was important for people to have as many children as possible because of high mortality rates and low life expectancy. The human population on earth remained quite low and only increased very gradually over the millennia from prehistoric times until quite recently. As mortality rates decreased and life expectancy increased, and without birth control, the population exploded from the year 1800 onwards.

Contraception and other types of birth control are crucial strategies for slowing, and ultimately stopping, population growth.


Dawkins makes the point that the only solution to the problem of sustainability is long-term foresight. The problem is that long-term foresight is something that Darwinian natural selection does not have. Hope lies in the uniquely human capacity for foresight. It might seem paradoxical that people manage to have foresight given that we are products of Darwinian natural selection, which favours only short-term gain. The answer lies in the fact that brains follow their own rules. These rules are different from the rules of natural selection. The brain has developed with the power to make its own decisions which may not be based directly upon the ultimate Darwinian value of gene survival, but upon other more proximal values, such as hedonistic pleasure, like protected sex, or something nobler, like sustainability. We do not have to be slaves to our genetic dispositions.

Whilst consensual and protected sex is a very sustainable pleasure, many of our pleasures are not. Neither is the desire to accumulate more wealth than we need. Only by being aware of our innate drives, and our responses to them, can we make deliberate choices that are both best for us and also for the planet – now and in the future.