If the messages that are embedded in folklore mean anything, then until very recently humans were terrified of the natural environment (Grimm, et. al., 1915). 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 fall prey to one of the many terrors that lurk in the wild. 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) represents a lifeline to safety and security.
Although 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 humanity, ever since the dawn of the industrial era, super-adaptable agents have succeeded in asserting newfound dominance over nature. In the age of machines, rather than meekly accepting whatever beneficence nature arbitrarily yields up, super-adaptable agents have turned the tables. In the modern world, humans aggressively demand resources from nature. And where nature fails to meet those exacting demands, humans impose a harsh new discipline on their former master: damming rivers, clearing forests, transforming parched deserts into oases, exterminating pests, manipulating plant and animal DNA, 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 overlords.
Human cultural evolution, especially through advances in the technological sphere, has made possible in a brief span of time an extraordinary expansion of human population and of the capacity of each person to affect adversely other people and the environment (Gell-Mann, 1994, p. 304).
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 that characterization–in light of both its positive and negative connotations–is apt. Rather than being dictated to by nature’s carrying capacity, humans have activated their agency in such a way as 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 bounty 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 environment 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 newly realized ascendancy. For so long, nature was an overbearing, stingy taskmaster: drought, pestilence, plague and other natural disasters routinely inflicted unimaginable suffering on humans. Now that humanity has, as it were, removed nature’s boot from its neck, there are bound to be repercussions. If nature must suffer in order for humans to luxuriate in a blissful era of shameful overindulgence, then so be it. That is the price that nature must pay for being conquered by one of its former subjects. Tough nuts, Mother Nature.
Of course, super-adaptable apes would be well-advised to avoid celebrating too long and too excessively. Nature has a way of getting even. The more slighted that Nature becomes, the more wicked her eventual vengeance will be. About now, Thomas Malthus (Malthus and Gilbert, 1993) 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 a premature demise.
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?
The implication is that cultural change itself is the only hope for dealing with the consequences of a gigantic human population armed with powerful technologies. Both cooperation (in addition to healthy competition) and foresight are required to an unprecedented degree if human capabilities are to be managed wisely (Gell-Mann, 1994, pp. 304-305).
Karl Popper (1999) 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 whole 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.
Gell-Mann, Murray. The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1994.
Grimm, Jacob, Wilhelm Grimm, and Anne Anderson. Grimms’ Fairy Tales. London: William Collins Sons, 1915.
Popper, Karl. All Life is Problem Solving. Translated by Patrick Camiller. New York: Routledge, 1999.