If the messages embedded in folklore mean anything, then until very recently humans were terrified of the natural environment. In many cases, the scariest part of folk tales involves foolish individuals–often kids, in order to emphasize the cautionary nature of the tales–who wander into situations where they fall prey to the many terrors that lurk in untamed nature. Almost everywhere that they are mentioned, wolves are characterized as merciless people-eaters who lie in wait for anyone foolish enough to wander from well-trodden paths.
The message is clear, nature is something to be feared–even dreaded–and civilization (i.e., the well-trodden path) is a lifeline to safety and security. There is mystery in nature and the unknown is fearful because untamed nature can inflict unpredictable harm on the unwary.
Although many parents still read Grimm’s fairy tales to their kids at bedtime, we no longer read the tales in quite the same spirit. Over the past few hundred years, humans have fundamentally redefined their relationship to nature. Where once the arbitrary whims of nature wielded extraordinary power over the fate of people who viewed themselves as relatively weak, cowering victims, over the past few hundred years–largely due to human agency, science, and industrialism–humans have succeeded in fundamentally redefining their relationship with nature. Where once, nature was vast, untamed, and dangerous, super-adaptable agents have succeeded in asserting newfound dominance over nature: rather than humbly, and gratefully accepting the beneficence that nature arbitrarily yields up, agents have turned the tables and assertively extract any and all resources that we desire. And where nature fails to meet the exacting demands of its new super-adaptable masters, humans often impose a harsh new discipline on an otherwise self-willed natural environment: damming rivers, clearing forests, irrigating parched deserts into oases, exterminating pests, manipulating plant and animal DNA to generate more abundant and palatable consumer products, etc.
In sum, where humans were once the relatively helpless pawns of almighty nature, super-adaptable agents have transformed their former master into their servant. Nature now answers to the beck and call of its human masters.
Of course, some are likely to be offended by the suggestion that humans have transformed the natural environment into humanity’s servant. However, I believe the characterization–in light of both its positive and negative connotations–is apt. Rather than being dictated to by nature’s carrying capacity, humans have employed their capacity as super-adaptable agents to make increasingly forceful demands upon nature. Humans–and this applies to Americans, in particular–tend to view nature as a conquered rival whom they presume exists only for the purpose of attending to their whims: providing on demand the resources that humans require to lead comfortable, secure lifestyles.
For their part, humans tend to be as attentive to the needs and interests of the natural environments as vengeful, conceited masters are to the welfare of their slaves. Is it any wonder that the environment is suffering in response to the ascendancy of super-adaptable apes?
It is difficult to blame Homo sapiens for reveling in its ascendancy. For so long, nature was an overbearing, stingy taskmaster. Now that super-adaptable agents are in a position to exact tribute from nature, it is difficult to overindulge at the expense of our former nemesis. If nature must suffer in order for humans to luxuriate in a blissful era of excess, then that is the price that nature must pay for being conquered by one of its own creations. Tough nuts, Mother Nature.
Of course, super-adaptable apes would be well-advised to avoid celebrating too long and too self-indulgently. Nature has a way of evening the score. The more slighted that nature becomes, the more wicked her eventual vengeance will be. About now, Thomas Malthus is having a hearty chuckle in his grave. So far, humans have succeeded in postponing the Malthusian nightmare, but will it be possible to avoid such a fate as the global population explodes toward eight billion people? Ten billion? Twelve?
Just because humans have developed an unprecedented capacity to achieve super-adaptive ascendancy over the formerly-deterministic limitations of nature, does not mean that humans have a license to be jerks. Sure, it’s good to be king. However, kings who turn a deaf ear to pleas of their subjects often experience the premature demise of their reign.
The next, and very urgent question that humans must answer is this: Is it possible for super-adaptable apes to employ their agency for purposes other than competition, domination, and self-indulgence? Having succeeded in asserting unprecedented mastery over the planet, can super-adaptable apes draw upon their intellectual agility in an entirely new way in order to evolve from ruthless, insensitive combatants into judicious stewards of their own and their planet’s better interests?
Karl Popper was correct in stating that all life is problem solving. Popper was also correct when he observed that the solution to any particular problem inevitably produced the result of generating a new set of even-more-difficult problems. Thus far, Homo sapiens has demonstrated that it is the most versatile, adaptable intellectual problem-solver ever to evolve on planet earth. However, our success has also generated crises of unparalleled scope and urgency. Will super-adaptable apes continue to be equal to the problems that their success has created? If Homo sapiens can call a halt to its prolonged victory lap and get down to the urgent business of solving the next set of species-threatening crises, then I like our chances. However, the outcome is yet to be determined and the clock is ticking.