Are Humans an Endangered Species?

Tim Flannery’s new book, Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet, is not a “history” in any traditional sense; it is more of a plea for a more responsible stewardship of our earth and a warning that this is the watershed century in human history. Decisions made during the 21st century regarding human use and misuse of the environment will determine whether or not the planet will continue to be habitable for human life as we know it. My initial impression of the book was reinforced by my viewing an interview with Professor Flannery on YouTube, in which he discusses the book [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xOVkS11FVs].

If I understand Flannery correctly, he is arguing that what we believe will determine our future more than our ever-expanding technology. If we human beings are destroying our environment by our reckless exploitation of the earth’s natural resources, it is because we do not understand how we arrived at this moment in history.

Professor Flannery is an evolutionist. But, he argues that the process of evolution has been widely misunderstood. He illustrates this misunderstanding–what Darwin referred to as “descent with modification”–by contrasting Charles Darwin with Alfred Russel Wallace–the detailed scientist with the grand synthesizer.

Darwin and Wallace were “co-founders” of the modern theory of evolution. As evolution gained widespread acceptance during the last half of the nineteenth century, scientists and non-scientists alike emphasized the idea of struggle and survival of the fittest. Flannery contends that it was, and is, the perversion of Darwin and Wallace’s theories by Herbert Spencer and the so-called “Social Darwinists” that has resulted in the willful destruction of the environment.

The idea of progress through a bloody struggle for survival provided a convenient justification for imperialism, racism, eugenics, the evils of uncontrolled capitalism, etc. Many at the turn of the twentieth century, like the founder of mathematical statistics, the Englishman Karl Pearson, believed that an evolutionary struggle resulted in the rise of civilization. Without struggle, civilization would stagnate. “You may wish for a time when the sword will be turned into the ploughshare,” said Pearson in a 1900 lecture on Social Darwinism, “[b]ut, believe, me, when that day comes mankind will no longer progress.”

Flannery argues that evolutionary progress depends on cooperation, not struggle. Human beings, like all living things, are a part of an “interdependent community.” This very intricate network of interdependencies, which some might refer to as a “balance in nature,” is our world, the environment we live in and help to create.

Flannery refers to the Gaia theory, first developed by James Lovelock, the English climate scientist and futurologist. He uses Lovelock’s Gaia theory to aid the reader in understanding the critical nature of this moment in the earth’s history. According to Lovelock, the earth is best thought of as a living organism, “a self-regulating system made up from the totality of organisms, the surface rocks, the ocean and the atmosphere tightly coupled as an evolving system.” The result is an environment on the surface of the earth that is always favorable for life as it exists at any given moment.

To understand the earth as a self-regulating, single living system can affect the future of the earth as the abode of human beings. Will we see our role as a struggle for survival of the fittest, or will we view our role as but one part of a very intricate interdependency, the goal of which is cooperation and survival of the organism, itself? Simply put, the self-regulating system can become overwhelmed by sudden changes in the system, changes that could be so great and sudden as to not allow the organism to accommodate to them. Put another way, human beings are in danger of rendering—through excessive emissions of greenhouse gases, for example—the earth’s surface unsuitable for life as we know it.

It is this scenario introduced in the first of the six of the sections (totaling twenty-three chapters) that I found most interesting. Although I do not subscribe to an evolutionary theory of origins, I did find Here on Earth a very interesting and thought-provoking read. Professor Flannery is a good writer. He knows how to hold the reader’s interest as he tells his story. His talent in communicating his story is evident in the popularity of his more than a dozen books.

Flannery is correct in asserting that our worldview determines our actions. If we perceive earth to be an object for our conquest and exploitation, we will act one way. If we perceive the earth as a complex system of interdependencies of which human beings are only a part, then we will act differently. Our future depends upon our understanding of the planet we inhabit.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation, and always live under the mercy.

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