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Monday, January 8th 2007

Humans Aren't Part Of Nature!

Hard to disagree with the basic premise of this article – humans are unprecedentedly influencing evolution.

[E]volution is actually happening now and more quickly than we had previously assumed. Moreover, the new centers of evolution are neither tropical forests nor east African lakes but, instead, those habitats and resources most closely allied with us—our human habitats and ourselves.

Although I wouldn’t know how to argue against it, I even agree with his general points about where the pressures created by humans is leading speciation.

As it stands, up to 95 percent of all the terrestrial world is actively managed for human uses.

The world, as we have rendered it, is now chiefly comprised of our crops, the consumers of those crops (including we humans), our own pathogens at the top of the food chain, and, on the bottom, as it were, the decomposers of our waste. These groups now account for the vast majority of the living matter on earth.


Humans are now six and a half billion strong and those billions represent pounds of resources for needy parasites. We are bodies full of unexploited niches (along with a number of exploited ones). As we expand our numbers, we are expanding evolutionary possibilities for microbes that can live on us and in us. At the same time, we are introducing new selection pressures which are working to speed the evolution of those microbes. We are covered in antibiotics, antimicrobials—anti-everything—which exert strong selection for the evolution of resistant and more virulent forms. We have seen, in the last 60 years, bacteria, protists, helminthes and other parasites all independently, and frequently, evolve resistance to our anti-parasite treatments.

I do find fault with the tone of the piece. If you read on, apparently this is a problem.

I never understood that. Humans are the most aggressive, most ‘virulent’ (althought I do not mean that with a negative connotation) life form ever on the earth. The impact humans have had on the world is unprecedented, as far as we know. But that doesn’t mean it’s BAD and the footprint we’ve left certainly isn’t UNNATURAL.

We take diversity as a necessity. As if we can truly predict what the world would be like without it with any certainty.

We speak of the “destruction” of species as if we weren’t part of nature. As if we egotistically believe we could, say, destroy ALL life. As if we truly believe we can foresee the consequences on ourselves by these actions.

What we must begin to come to terms with is that we may be seeing the beginning of a new adaptive radiation, a new burgeoning of life—but it is not necessarily the one we might hope for. The big creatures we value so highly—indeed treasure—will not be able to regain a stronghold in the face of our encroachments. Indeed, they breed, and so evolve, more slowly than the species mentioned here. Instead, the small will inherit the earth, if it is not already theirs. The evolutionary future is pathogens, pests and guests, at least as we have currently written the story.

I never understood this just refusal to look at human history, however short on examples it is.

I am an optimist. Even if I concede that the large animals will become the things of zoos, I contest that those creatures we love cannot be preserved by our understanding of breeding science. I certainly contest that their departure from the wild will be some insurmountable obstacle to continued human ‘success’.

I also contest that human innovation cannot keep up with microbe evolution. The article makes it out as though the current antibiotics, the current pesticides are the end of human invention. What a ridiculous contention.

The only thing truly defined is that our evolutionary impact on human infectious microbes and parasites will be constant through scientific creations. Looking at human history, I like our long term odds in that “struggle”. Like I said, I’m an optimist.

From there the argument deteriorates:

* “Look at the pipeline! There’s no new antibiotics coming! Superbugs will devour us all!”

* “Penicillin wasn’t engineered…who knows when the next great idea/discovery/invention will show up.”

* “So we were lucky in the past, so we’ll be lucky in the future?”

* “If the shoe fits…”

The same for the future of our crops against increasingly aggressive pests.

It is a philosophy which, while sounding silly, I actually have faith in – if an extinction level or society crushing problem can be perceived human innovation will overcome it. I’ve written on such a philosophy before.

With that belief in hand, I find fault in the pessimistic tone of any article, such as this one. And, as stated, I find fault in the perception that human action is extranatural. Unprecedented? Yes. Unnatural? No. How can it be?