Major Lessons In Human Evolution

Major Transitions In Human Evolution
The Royal Society, London Major Transitions conference

I recently attended this fantastic conference on human evolution but the key question it left me thinking was: What’s the point?

Don’t get me wrong, I love the study of human evolution and have great respect for those doing it, but it just seems to me like they’re missing a trick. They seem to overlook the fact that our environment is in a state of crisis, and fail to link their work to the bigger picture in a way that could help promote environmentalist attitudes.

Improving our knowledge of the details of human evolution is necessary, but, more urgently, we need to increase engagement of the general public with the fundamental lessons this field has to offer. Currently, many people misunderstand our evolutionary past, or worse: remain unconvinced that we even evolved. So I think much work needs to be done to improve this state of affairs, so that we can effectively spread the message that humans are not special, and that we evolved just like any other creature on Earth.

Homocentric worldviews

We’ve evolved to be so homocentric that the question of our own origins is of great interest to everyone.

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We must take modesty from our shared evolutionary origins, and understand that all other species are no less important than our own!

A selection of top paleoanthropologists, archaeologists and paleoclimatologists presented their cutting edge research at the conference last week, yet they all failed to acknowledge the key lessons I think we must take from their studies. They totally ignored the immense issues facing our (and every other) species today, despite the great relevance of their research. I believe an appreciation of our humble origins and connection to the rest of life could help spark a much-needed global conservation movement.

Many messages were given to the younger generation that it’s an exciting time to be in science, urging us to continue their work in expanding the fossil record. While I’m sure it’s greatly interesting, I believe we’d be better served trying to link our understanding of evolutionary history with moral lessons for our rather pressing future. We need to promote a modest-evolutionary and pro-environmental ethic that might give our deteriorating planet and biodiversity some chance at survival.

 

This is my call to the many brilliant scientists working in the field of human evolution:

Explicitly link your work to current environmental issues by encouraging a little modesty in evaluating our position and role within life on Earth.

Sincerely,

Simon Moore
University of Cambridge

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Why Save Species From Extinction?

Extinction is a normal part of the process of evolution – its counterpart being speciation, in which new species emerge, or more accurately, diverge. It is not the place of humans to try to control nature, but we are putting an enormous extinction pressure on the environment (hence the nickname Homo destructus). It’s about time we put our money and effort into conserving the unique species we have left, before it’s too late.

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Just a few of the world’s most critically endangered species

Humans have caused a huge number of extinctions in recent history, and we continue to do so today. Our forager ancestors managed to wipe out the largest animals on every island they migrated to, including Australia, the Americas, Madagascar and the Galapagos. This doesn’t mean we’re off the hook, it means we are already in big trouble! Current extinction rates across the globe are severely high – comparable to the five mass extinctions that have occurred in the past 600 million years. Previously, the triggers were large asteroids colliding with the earth, volcanoes or severe climate change causing epic inhospitable winters, wiping out as much as 90% of the existing species at that time1. These extinction events may have taken tens of thousands of years, yet we’re causing noticeable, irreversible change within just a few hundred1. Never before has an extinction of millions been caused by one, single species2. Us.

We are causing a sixth mass extinction. And it is our responsibility to prevent this atrocity.

Won’t a mass extinction free up ecological niches and allow a novel evolutionary diversification?

Yes, this has been known to happen in the past. But previously it took anywhere from 5 – 30 million years for biodiversity to recover to pre-extinction levels1.

How do we cause extinctions?

  • Hunting and exploitation: Big game, known as megafauna, have been killed all across the world for meat and for trophies. Overfishing and trawling continue to cause unimaginable declines in the world’s aquatic ecosystems.
  • Destruction of habitat: Huge declines in forests provide cleared land for agriculture or urban areas (see figure).
  • Invasive species: Moving species (accidentally or deliberately) to foreign locations where they decimate local populations of endemic species.
  • Climate change: Many species can’t adapt or migrate fast enough to the rapidly changing climate.

ForestCover

Comparison of the forest cover from 8,000 years ago to 2005

Our Responsibility

There’s 7.37 billion (and counting) of us straining planet Earth’s precious resources to their limits. We are all responsible for the decline and loss of each species, each distant (or close) cousin that we share this home with. Therefore, we are 100% responsible for saving the many, many species that we’re driving extinct.

Biodiversity, the varieties of life, is the most valuable, extraordinary thing on this planet (and perhaps the universe) so it’s our duty to stop indiscriminately wiping it out. We must finally display the wisdom our species, Homo sapiens, is meant to possess, by saving and restoring the planet’s ecosystems and their exquisite inhabitants.

References

  1. How Long Does Mass Extinction Take? By Helen Thompson on Smithsonian.com
  1. How To Survive The Sixth Mass Extinction. By Grennan Milliken on PopularScience.com

Images

Critically Endangered Species Image from WebEcoist.

Deforestation Figure from Global Greenhouse Warming.

Consuming Wisely: Eat Local

My opinions of ‘organic’ food are skeptical because I don’t believe there is always much good behind the label (see The Green Marketing Façade). Unfortunately, organic food has become a brand in itself, and has been separated from the ideals which inspired its inception. The industrial food machine has adopted organic and driven it to extremes that often contradict its purpose – to reduce environmental damage (see more here). However, the idea behind organic is still alive and kicking in sustainable, polyculture (mixed) farms, which typically don’t require pesticides and fertilisers, as they are self-regulating. This is exactly the kind of agriculture we need right now, on our over-exploited planet. My previous article was a warning against reading too far into buzzwords such as ‘green’, ‘natural’ and ‘organic’, but if they are accurate then they are certainly the right choice for consumers. 

A more trustworthy and consistently environmentally friendly source of food is that which is locally produced. The likelihood of that produce coming from huge monocultures is much lower, the food miles clocked up will be drastically fewer and the reputation of the farm will hopefully ensure its sustainability and fair-treatment of its animals. Shouldn’t we all be eating food from farms with open doors, allowing their consumers to see exactly how they practise their trade?

  
Local, ‘alternative farms’ that grow seasonal produce in a sustainable manner are now filling the role that organic food tried to assume. This is where we must turn as consumers, forcing big, wasteful, industrial agriculture to clean up its act. Otherwise, we’ll continue exploiting and mass-producing until our planet burns up before our very eyes. 

There’s no doubt our massive urban populations will continue to require gigantic quantities of food. But our current agricultural systems are vulnerable to collapse, and far too wasteful in light of our ever-diminishing planet. It is time for change. 

For more on this topic I highly recommend ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ by Michael Pollen. 

Conservation At The PATT Foundation

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I recently interned at a charity based in Bangkok, Thailand, called the Plant A Tree Today (PATT) Foundation. They plant trees in order to combat climate change, as well as educate students on the environment through awesome trips in the forest. My experience was fantastic and I learnt a lot about conservation that you can’t be taught in a lecture theatre:

• Love for the environment is not something that can be forced on to people, you have to show them and let them be inspired by nature.

• Planting one tree might not save the world, but getting a child to plant that tree can inspire them to do great things and make a huge difference.

• It’s not easy to raise money for a very good cause, no matter how hard you try and how much you glitz it up.

• If you want to make a serious, positive environmental change you need big, reliable funding.

  I thoroughly enjoyed working for the PATT Foundation and appreciate the insights that first-hand experience provides. Not to mention all those beaming smiles and laughing kids, inspiring me as much as I them, with their love and care for the environment.

My PATT bio:

Check out my interview with PATT’s top individual supporter Matthias Gelber (pictured below), also known as The Green Man for his dedication to tackling the climate crisis:

http://www.pattfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Matthias-Gelber-Interview.pdf

Animals of an Indonesian Island

Animals of an Indonesian Island

Here is a selection of awesome animals I saw around Pulau Weh, an island just north of Sumatra, Indonesia:

• A flying lizard with a yellow skin flap on it’s neck and fan-like wings tucked away under its body. No known lizards have powered flight, so this flying lizard like all others was a glider, but some can travel hundreds of metres while losing only a couple of metres in height. The male had a blueish head and yellow neck which it was extending, possibly to display to the less impressive, but very well camouflaged, female that was slightly lower on the tree. A similar lizard from Bogor Zoological Museum

• Millions and millions of baby, translucent crabs migrating up the river, where we walked to find a waterfall on Pulau Weh. I’m not entirely sure why they were migrating, but we followed them as they crawled across the rocks (and each other) on either side of the river. Occasionally the stream of crabs hopped into the water and swam for a short while before clambering back onto a rock as the water became too fast and choppy.

 Crabs, crabs, crabs

• Monitor lizards swimming in the clear, aqua-marine ocean in front of our hut and basking in the sun. Then one chasing a rival off the rocks and into the sea as it asserted its authority over a territory.   Monitor lizard showdown

• Fruit bats flying between islands during and just following a storm. From our kayaks we saw around a dozen over a couple of hours. Soaring above us with a wingspan of around a metre, they flew between trees and then started munching on some fruit as they hung beneath the branches. With over 12,000 different species discovered so far, bats make up a fifth of the total number of mammal species on Earth! This they owe to their almost exclusive access to the large, nocturnal-flying niche. 

The last common ancestor of all living mammals* was a nocturnal insectivore that looked something like a shrew and lived alongside the dinosaurs around 140 million years ago.   Maybe it looked a little like this shrew I saw in West Java

This mammalian ancestor scraped by, living in the shadows, at a time when dinosaurs – reptiles – ruled the planet. But the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) mass extinction 65 million years ago wiped out all of the dinosaurs, except the ancestors of modern birds. This allowed the mammalian clade to undergo massive diversification and to dominate the planet as it does today. 

The bat lineage separated from the rest of the mammals around 80 million years ago and, with the aid of flight and echolocation, has enjoyed huge success in colonising the world. Most bats use echolocation to navigate in the dark – they emit high-frequency sound which bounces off the environment and is detected by their ears, giving them a sound scape, a mental ‘image’ of the scene. Despite the saying, most bats are not blind, and many have very large eyes which they use instead of echolocation. Our fruit bats on Pulau Weh were frequently spotted in the late afternoon navigating by sight, which they exclusively use.

Unfortunately, I’ve since learnt that some local Indonesians fly barbed wire kites to bring down these majestic fliers to put them in a soup. Across Asia, many bat species have been pushed close to extinction through human hunting activity, though smoking out caves is a more common method of capture. This illustrates one of the biggest difficulties in conservation biology – educating and convincing local people to care for the long-term survival of a species, rather than over-exploiting it to extinction (as we’ve done time and time again across the continents).

*excluding the five species of monotremes, the egg laying mammals (echidnas and platypus of Australia), which diverged earlier, maintaining their reptilian oviparity.

• Moray eels, lobsters, octopus, barracuda, sting rays and more on two scuba dives off Pulau Weh. Plus countless numbers of other fish swimming in every conceivable direction around us. And the occasional tiny sting of a jellyfish, barely visible to the naked eye. 

• Cats, damn cats! On Pulau Weh in our 5 day visit we had the misfortune of seeing cats toy with and kill a praying mantis and a frog. 
 
 A similar, dead praying mantis

Domestic animals reach remote islands by deliberate and accidental introduction. And domestic cats are one of the most harmful alien species you can take to a remote island, especially in places that have no large mammals of their own. This is because the native community of species are not used to living alongside such predators. Without the strong selective pressure of mammalian predators, endemic island species are able to thrive while being relatively defenceless. But throw in a handful of cats and they can quickly eat their way through a huge proportion of the naive local species. 

Other invasive species that typically do serious damage to island fauna are rats, snakes, rabbits and toads. Not to mention the foreign parasites and diseases they bring with them, to which the local species have no immunity. It requires huge operations to try to rid an island of an invasive species, and often the efforts are in vain. Hence why there are such strict customs regulations in countries like Australia, where Johnny Depp recently took two un-quarantined, illegal-immigrant Yorkshire Terriers. 


All pictures from this article were taken by me, except the crab photo, which was taken by my travelling companion Samuel Holdway. 

The Hopeless Hopeless

Last night I met someone who frustrated me a lot. He seemed to be an educated man but when I mentioned saving water his response was essentially “There’s no point as it won’t change anything, it won’t go to poor people who actually need it.” His stance likely represents a large chunk of society, a group of people who believe that trying to do anything about very large, global problems such as climate change and water and food shortages is useless, as what can one person possibly hope to achieve?

These hopeless people are not denying that the problems exist, they are fully aware of them. And this makes me very angry at their incredibly pessimistic outlooks. I’m all for being skeptical – there are no doubt many ways we can attempt to solve a problem that will not work. But taking a look at a big problem and then declaring it hopeless is simply pathetic.

Back to climate change. There is a consensus, an overwhelming tsunami of evidence that backs the fact that humans have caused and are causing dramatic climate change, most notably in the past few hundred years. It’s clear that this is mainly down to the burning of fossil fuels, destruction of forests and agriculture (especially meat production), to fuel and feed our 7.3 billion-strong population. Just as there were small steps and changes in lifestyle that got us to this point, we can now take small steps to reduce our impact through what we consume and what we waste.

It’s pretty simple: we produce and consume more water, meat, plastic and energy than ever before. And we waste huge amounts of these resources, which we simply cannot afford to do. Our planet will not allow it. Certainly not for 7 billion people.

But the situation is far from hopeless! Even the most basic adjustments that reduce the excess food, water and energy that are currently wasted can have a tremendous positive impact on our environment. The only problem is that there are too many hopeless individuals out there who are too pessimistic and selfish to take some responsibility and join the rest of us in doing something good.

Finally, back to the man who sparked my anger. He’s probably right that saving water in a rich country is not going to magically provide a poorer country with much-needed water. But the world doesn’t care for our country borders – we all share one planet! Reducing water consumption in one country takes a little strain off that precious resource and ensures there is enough to go round for everyone. And minimizing emissions of greenhouse gases is literally felt across the globe.

 

Our situation is not hopeless unless we think it is. Be positive and make little changes to reduce waste. It’s an easy first step.

Thanks,

The Environment

Why Are Environmentalists A Rare Breed?

There was a time when every man, woman and child was at heart an environmentalist. Their lives directly depended on rivers for water, land for food, animals and the sea for meat, forests for fuel and building material, and so on. Our ancestors were not perfect; many overexploited resources as we do today, sometimes resulting in the collapse of entire societies, e.g. Easter Island. This is a clear example of failing to estimate the long-term effects of consuming natural resources – typical of our species on a global scale in modern times. But hunters and gatherers had and still have a closeness to the environment that meant they understood just how greatly they depended on it, unlike the majority of the world today.

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We simply couldn’t exist without a healthy environment, so shouldn’t we all be environmentalists? These kids have the right idea – plant some trees!

 

The industrialisation of agriculture has led to a fundamental disconnect between the production of essential goods like food, water and fuel, and the consumption of them. The average person no longer appreciates or even acknowledges the role of the environment in their life, since a small fraction of society produces the sustenance for everyone else. Most of us are ignorant to the intricacies of generating consumable calories from the soil, as the supermarket is our first contact with food. And we’re similarly oblivious to the chain of events leading to electrical outputs that power most of our activities. So it is no wonder that environmentalists are rare; the average person has little respect, understanding and appreciation for the natural world, which, quite literally, provides every requirement for our lives.

To put it as plainly as possible, energy comes from the sun and is harnessed by plants and microorganisms in the sea. We rely on plants to convert the sun’s energy into a form that we can eat, or we eat animals that have converted and concentrated it into more usable calories. To power our technologies and industry we burn fossilised stores of organic matter; dead trees that were buried and put under immense pressure over millions of years, turning them into coal, gas and oil. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to see the link between turning our washing machines on, driving our cars, buying meat and vegetables from a shop or heating up/cooling down our homes, and the negative environmental effects of these actions. Hence why it is so difficult for people to change their behaviour in order to lessen their impact, as they don’t clearly see or understand the relationship between what they consume and the environment.

We’ve become scarily distanced from the environment by living in our concrete urban areas and gathering dinner from shelves; food that’s biotic origins are often hard to determine. This means that great effort must be made to encourage environmentalist attitudes in current and future generations, since our present lifestyles and eating habits fail to promote a green conscience.

If we want to move forward into a greener world we need to start by teaching our kids about where food really comes from, and about the importance of complex ecosystems and forests in maintaining a healthy, liveable climate. One of the best ways to do this is to simply get them outside and enjoying what nature has to offer. The great outdoors is where our species has been educating its children for millions of years, before we started mass-destruction of the planet’s wilderness, so perhaps we’d do well to try to recreate this method of learning. There’s also good evidence that quality of life and happiness improves with increased connection to our wild, ancestral homes.

Why should we be environmentalists?
We’re threatening our planet and our only home by driving climate change, deforestation and mass species extinctions. These are all tough, pressing problems that we are responsible for and which require immediate and effective action. We’re poorly equipped to combat these problems because most of us lack the attitudes of an environmentalist – we don’t value the very thing we depend on to survive. Only by actively encouraging these attitudes do we stand a chance of saving our planet.

 

Inspiration for this post came from ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma – A Natural History of Four Meals’ by Michael Pollen, which investigates the true costs of industrial-scale agriculture on society. I highly recommend it.