Ecology (2): The Human Experiment

In his book "A Short History of Progress" Ronald Wright 1) takes a look at how homo sapiens sapiens has become one of the most successful species on Earth.  He writes "Nature let a few apes into the lab of evolution, switched on the lights, and left us there to mess about with an ever-growing supply of ingredients and processes." 2)  In this lab we have experimented ever faster.  "From the first chipped stone to the first smelted iron took nearly 3 million years; from the first iron to the hydrogen bomb took only 3,000." 3)  And: "[...] unlike other apes, we tamper, and are tampering more than ever, with our destiny." 4)

His main argument is that as one of the most unspecialized, most generalist species our evolutionary advantage is our brain, and our most adaptable tools are culture and civilization, which he uses as technical anthropological terms 5).  He claims that we in fact have experimented with civilization from very early on, however, "have never controlled it."  6)  This means that we inadvertently performed classical trial and error experiments -and perhaps that was all we have had at our devices in each of these experiments.  Well, we weren't even aware that these were trial and error experiments, although this hypothesis appears to be a plausible extension of evolutionary theory.  Therefore, Wright claims in hindsight, we have run into "progress traps" 7) repeatedly, and obviously without learning from our errors. 

Some of the progress traps are very familiar to us from history lessons just by their outcomes, which could be called "failed civilizations".  Wright provides in his book analyses of selected examples of failed culture and civilization experiments with the expectation that it might still be time for us to learn from them before the latest iteration of our human civilization experiments errors out.

  • towards end of old stone age: perfection of hunting - outcome is extinction of many large species; humans survived by inventing farming (or civilization per se) 8)
    "Farming achieved quantity at the expense of quality: more food and more people, but seldom better nourishment or better lives.  People gave up a broad array of wild foods for a handful of starchy roots and grasses - wheat, barley, rice, potatoes, maize. As we domesticated plants, the plants domesticated us."  (Hold that thought for a later post.)  "Without us, they die; and without them, so do we." 9)
  • Easter Island 5th century AD to 19th century AD: settlement of Easter Island starting in 5th century with a few dozen settlers from Polynesia; with creation of a civilization erecting stone sculptures using wood for transport; estimated population high of 10,000; eventually depleting all forests (around 1400), then all remaining wood scraps; without adequate boats losing access to fisheries; apparently fighting repeatedly over various diminishing resources, with the last decline witnessed and accelerated by explorers and slavers from 1722 on, when all statues were still standing and about 1,000 to 2,000 Islanders alive; to around 1872, when only about 100 Islanders were left and statues toppled, most likely out of disenchantment with the gods.  Paul Bahn and John Flenley as quoted by Wright: "The islanders, they write: 'carried out for us the experiment of permitting unrestricted population growth, profligate use of resources, destruction of the environment and boundless confidence in their religion to take care of the future.' " 10)
  • Sumer, 5,000 B.C. to 2,000 B.C. and later: fell victim to increasing salination of arable irrigated land.  11)
  • Roman and Mayan civilizations as pyramid schemes, built on growth.  (It is definitely worthwhile to get your hands on this book for all the details and the additional references that Wright lists.)  Once intensive growth reached its limits the civilizations reduced or dispersed to extensive approaches.  "[Such pyramid scheme civilizations] gather wealth to the centre from an expanding periphery, which may be the frontier of a political and trading empire or a colonization of nature through intensified use of resources, often both." 12) 

Wright makes the point that the last burst of civilization has started with the industrial revolution, and that this civilization has spread out globally, largely enabled by the vast resources that became available to the Europeans when they discovered the Americas.  Decimated by plague, small pox, and other "old world" diseases, the then existing native American civilizations broke down rapidly; especially in North America the invaders encountered new successor cultures living in what seemed an abundance of space, allowing for social experiments like liberty of opinion, decisions built on consensus, and the right to secede, just by moving away.  He claims that these observations inspired the Founding Fathers, the French Revolution 13), and are still spreading throughout the world, with various degrees of success. 

Here are two more quotes: "[...] commercial farming became almost entirely dependent on chemical fertilizers made from oil and gas.  Fossil energy not only powers but feeds the modern world.  We are literally eating oil." 14)  "In the thirteen years since [William McNeill] wrote that [in 1991], a billion more people have appeared on earth — the same as the whole population at the beginning of mechanization in 1825.  One billion may be close to the number who could feed themselves indefinitely by muscle power if industrial civilization were to fail." 14) 

Read Wright's conclusions (I don't want to spoil the read for you all).

In my opinion there is at least one obvious conclusion: we have to get the current trial-run right enough this time around, or humankind will find itself in a much tighter spot than we believe even now we are. 

1) Wright, Ronald: A Short History of Progress; Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 2005.
2) ibid., page 13
3) ibid., page 14
4) ibid., page 27
5) ibid., page 32
6) ibid., page 30
7) ibid., page 30
8) ibid., pages 31 ff 
9) ibid., page 47
10) ibid., page 63
11) ibid., pages 78 f
12) ibid., pages 83 f
13) ibid., page 116
14) ibid., page 115