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July 09, 2015 | By:  Jonathan Trinastic
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Human evolution: the discipline that can save the biosphere

Part I: The Problem

This is a guest post by Simon Hoyte, a biology graduate fascinated by human evolution. Currently working as a research assistant at the Department of Archaeology, University of Cape Town, he integrates his evolutionary biology background with palaeolithic archaeology, anthropology, and genetics. He will be taking up a Master's degree in human evolution at the University of Cambridge in October. His blog ( follows his research in South Africa and he uses Twitter (@SimonHoyte) to share interesting ideas. Stay tuned for Part II in a couple weeks!

Researchers of human evolution rarely stick their nose in current conservation issues. But palaeoanthropologist Richard Leakey gives it to us straight: "Even if we take a figure in the lower range of [extinction] estimates, say thirty-thousand species per year, the implication is still startling...Extinction at the rate of thirty-thousand a year is elevated 120,000 times above background... Homo sapiens is poised to become the greatest catastrophic agent since a giant asteroid collided with the Earth sixty-five million years ago."1

There's no doubt that humans are destroying the biosphere: the crash in the amount of biodiversity over the past century would have taken up to 10,000 years to occur naturally.2 We are creating a unique mass extinction event in a geological epoch, the Anthropocene, named after our species' influence. True, hominins have been altering the environment to a degree unrivalled by other species for over half a million years, from mass tool manufacturing to Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions,3,4 but never before has a species single-handedly threatened 18,788 others with extinction.5 Massive species loss seems so inevitable that the era following our supposed decimation of the planet's biodiversity has already been coined the Eremozoic, or Age of Loneliness.6

In a 2014 interview, the anthropologist Jared Diamond bluntly describes our options:

"Either by the year 2050, we've succeeded in developing a sustainable economy...or by 2050 we've failed to develop a sustainable economy, which means there will no longer be first world living conditions, and there either wont be humans 100 years from now, or those humans 100 years from now will have lifestyles similar to those of Cro-Magnons 40,000 years ago."7

The human bias

So why isn't every single person alive today an environmentalist? When it comes to environmental and conservation issues, a huge proportion just don't care.

Being human provides an intrinsically biased view of the world. It is impossible for us to see the world through the eyes of another species. The cognitive capabilities to ponder philosophical questions, combined with the fact that we entered this world belonging to the species Homo sapiens, has predisposed us to think that our species is somehow special compared to all others.8 Indeed, each human being is unique, in terms of our bodies harbouring a distinct collection of genes and an estimated 60 de novo genetic mutations,9 but I'm afraid humans are not special. You are, as the evolutionary anthropologist Robert Foley puts it, a member of just another unique species. Despite what your mother tells you.

The idea that humans are somehow ‘above' nature, excluded from the pressures resulting from resource overexploitation and environmental manipulation, goes by the term exemptionalism.6 In the years since Darwin, scientific consensus has converged on the idea that humans are the same as any other species, the result of environmental selection pressures - changes in climate, food sources, predator demographics, and more. What is far too often overlooked is that we have not miraculously evaded the reach of Mother Nature's sculpting hand just because we can hide inside squeaky-clean hospitals and earthquake-proof tower blocks (an idea explored by anthropologist Simon Moore). Indeed, we are regularly reminded of our vulnerability to greater forces through natural disasters and disease epidemics. Humans depend on and are at the mercy of the specific set of conditions that the Earth provides just as much as every other organism. In his 2003 book The Creation, the father of socio-biology E. O. Wilson explains: "...let us keep our world-changing capacities in perspective. All that human beings can imagine, all the fantasies we can conjure, all our games, simulations, epics, myths, and the histories, and yes, all our science dwindle to little beside the full productions of the biosphere."6

As separated as we may feel, research hints that something still exists inside of us that yearns to reconnect with the biosphere. Susan Clayton, a psychologist at The College of Wooster, Ohio, and her team tested this idea by quizzing the public at ten different zoos across the United States. Participants were asked how connected they felt to the animals at the zoo, including true-or-false statements such as ‘I feel I have a lot in common with other species'. Those that responded were subsequently queried on their attitudes towards climate change (a stricter statistical significance level of 0.001 accounted for the number of statistical tests and sample size). Clayton et al. not only found that those who felt a greater connection to the animals expressed greater alarm over climate change, but also that those who visit zoos more often have an increasingly heightened sense of alarm. "If people feel a personal connection between themselves and the natural environment, the topic of climate change may also seem more self-relevant and thus elicit a stronger response" they suggest.10

It seems that people have the potential to feel a connection to the living systems around them. So where did it all go wrong?

The agriculture effect

The artificial environment humans have created ever since the development of agriculture about 12,000 years ago has promoted an increasingly exemptionalist mind-set.11 We have excluded ourselves psychologically, physically, and emotionally from nature to the point where society has deemed those protecting natural resources as ‘terrorists' and ‘anti-development'.

This agricultural enlightenment was a pivotal moment in our species' relationship with the natural world and the birth of artificial selection.12 This evolution of organisms as a direct result of anthropogenically preferred traits (the term itself of course reveals our habituated sense of exemptionalism) has allowed for unimaginable manipulation of flora and fauna to a point where almost all consumed food has been anthropogenically created12 (see the Eyes on Environment article The Green Marketing Façade'). Our problem is the increasingly large but entirely imaginary chasm that exists between most of us and the natural world as a result of somebody else producing our food in an incredibly efficient way.

Production of excessive food quantities by a minority of the population has led to rapid population growth, the viability of large sedentary dwellings, the stratification of occupations, and the appearance of complex social institutions, particularly organised religion. These all stem from agriculture and contribute to the rift between ‘us' and ‘nature'. In contrast, hunter-gatherer groups such as the central African Baka and Bakwele remain so closely connected to and directly dependent on the natural world that humans and other animals are almost interchangeable beings in their communities.13 The rest of us are equally resource-dependent but have become so disconnected from food sources that it just doesn't feel like it.

The problem is not necessarily that people don't want to care, but more so that we feel we don't need to care. The psychological link between resource exploitation and environmental consequence is broken, leaving resources open to mass exploitation. Clayton et al. put it thus; "Just as a sense of connection to the animals at the zoo is correlated with interest in protecting the animal...a sense of connectedness to nature is associated with proenvironmental behaviour".9

The pressing question then emerges: how do we remind people that, rather than having risen above Nature, we are merely another species subject to the very same rules? I think the answer lies with understanding our origins.


  1. Leakey, R. & Lewin, R. "The sixth extinction: biodiversity and its survival". London: Phoenix (1996).

  2. Ceballos, G. et al. "Accelerated modern human-induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction". Science Advances, 1(5) (2015).

  3. Foley, R. A. & Lahr, M. M. "Lithic landscapes: early human impact from stone tool production on the central Saharan environment". PLoS One, 10(3) (2015).

  4. Prideaux, G. J. et al. "Timing and dynamics of Late Pleistocene mammal extinctions in southwestern Australia". PNAS, 107(51), 22157-22162 (2010).

  5. IUCN. "Why is biodiversity in crisis?" Accessed June 18th, 2015.

  6. Wilson, E. O. "The creation: an appeal to save life on Earth". New York: Norton (2006).

  7. Viskontas, I. & Mooney, C. "Jared Diamond: we could be living in a new Stone Age by 2114" Mother Jones, Accessed June 27, 2015.

  8. Moore, S. "Insights of evolutionary psychology: humans are not special." SciLogs (2014). Accessed July 13, 2015.

  9. Conrad, D. F. et al. "Variation in genome-wide mutation rates within and between human families". Nature Genetics, 43(7), 712-714 (2011).

  10. Clayton, S. et al. "Connecting to nature at the zoo: implications for responding to climate change". Environmental Education Research, 20(4), 460-475 (2014).

  11. Diamond, J. "Guns, Germs and Steel: a short history of everybody for the past 13,000 years". New York: Norton (2005).

  12. Conner, J. K. "Artificial selection: a powerful tool for ecologists". Ecology, 84(7), 1650-1660 (2003).

  13. Oishi, T. "Human-gorilla and gorilla-human: dynamics of human-animal boundaries and interethnic relationships in the central African rainforest". Revue de primatologie, 5 (2013).

Photo credit

Orangutan photo courtesy of Paul Hilton

Hamburger photo courtesy of R4vi on Flickr

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