Has humanity evolved by taking chances?

Professor Manuel Lucena examines the important role that risk has played in globalization and human development and explores how perceptions of risk have changed over time.

In this third edition of the “Reasons for Hope” series, organized by IE Law School and the Arts and Humanities Division of IE University, CSIC researcher and IE University Associate Professor Manuel Lucena explored the changing perception of risk. In his thought-provoking talk on the role of risk in evolution, Professor Lucena began by referring to a man who risked it all when he discarded his own life’s work as worthless.

Examining Western thought

Professor Lucena opened by reflecting on Clarence Glackson’s seminal work Traces on the Rhodian Shore. Glackson spent 40 years working on humanity’s relationship with nature and the development of Western thinking, but he later turned his back on his own work and destroyed the manuscript for his second book.

Now regarded as a pioneer, Glackson’s opus bore its name from a tale involving ancient Greek philosopher Aristippus. After being shipwrecked on the shoreline of Rhodes, he awoke to see traces of humanity and his response was that of hope. Aristippus took the risk of traveling and found justification for this treacherous journey on the shoreline of the island.

Risk as a driver of divergence

Humans colonized all corners of the planet through necessary risk-taking. Professor Lucena called this “the long era of cultural divergence.” Without overcoming the everyday risks inherent in survival, early humanity’s development would have stalled. “Risk”, he asserted, “was the condition to survive” as humanity extended across the globe. It became part of human nature, as Aristippus’s experience demonstrated.

Later on, he explained, risk became an essential element of the nobility. Europe became an important driver of globalization and nobility was tied to navigation, the search for spices and the spread of Christianity. Prestige, wealth and influence were all earned by exploration, as in Magellan’s 16th-century circumnavigation of the globe.

Risk became something manageable—a consideration to be stretched to its limit. Such an attitude cost Magellan and many of his expedition their lives, as just 19 of the 265 original crew members returned home. But risk also led to successes against the odds. While so few returned, they had completed the first journey around the planet.

Romanticising risk

While 16th-century exploration had been driven by practical considerations, it was later romanticized. Professor Lucena explained how “romantic quest, in defiance of practicality and undertaken at the expense of the soul rather than the pocket, was the theme from the enlightenment onwards.” The romanticism of risk persisted into the 20th century. Captain Robert Scott’s ill-fated expedition to Antarctica was, said the professor, “taking a bad imitation of conscious risk, in a journey of discovery that ended in disaster.”

Has humanity evolved by taking chances? | IE LawAhead

However, as in early humanity, modern globalization wouldn’t have happened without great risks being taken. Professor Lucena asked us to consider if modern society has forgotten even the expectation of risk. Has a crucial component of human imagination disappeared?

In modern culture, we’ve become accustomed to individual liberties like travel, and don’t really consider the risks involved. But travel requires passing through what French anthropologist Marc Augé described as “non-places,” such as airports or railway stations. These “non-places” are, said the professor, representations of our modern obligation to travel, and in fact represent a society of risk. The COVID-19 pandemic has made us long for the days of freedom to take such itinerant risks.

Risk, concluded Professor Lucena, is what is unexpected. Citing as evidence the current success of robotic expeditions on Mars and ongoing preparation for manned missions to the planet, he notes that “risk is a reason for hope for humanity’s future.”

You can watch the full lecture and subsequent Q&A session here. The next Reasons for Hope lecture on May 4 features eminent historian and author Jimena Canales, who will present Hope, Desire & Demons: the Emergence of New Technologies.