Thursday, February 9, 2012

Homo sapiens, a classic misnomer — Excerpts from "New World New Mind" - Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich, 1989

This book was written 23 years ago and the problems facing humanity have shifted slightly in the interim, mainly because even more critical crises have emerged. Also some of the 1989 crises such as the proliferation of nuclear weapons have slipped from view even though they continue to be worrisome.

In some cases, 1989 crises have been renamed and re-defined to be more inclusive ̬
the problem of Greenhouse Gases is now Global Climate Change as the effects are becoming obvious, A.I.D.S. has become Global Pandemics as other diseases such as haemorrhagic fevers and animal/human influenza strains emerge. In any case the response by humanity to these potentially catastrophic problems remains slow, inadequate and generally faces opposition from those we choose to lead us.

In the book, Ornstein and Ehrlich present a hypothesis to explain how these anthropogenic crises are allowed to form and expand as potential remedies languish without support, and as public understanding seemingly remains non-existant. This hypothesis maintains that the biological evolution of the human brain can no longer keep up with the pace of cultural and technological evolution and, as a result we have lost the ability to control the systems that make up the human-created world of the 21st century.


"Humanity, until very recently, lived almost entirely on its "income" — on solar energy captured by green plants in fields, on farms and in forests by the process of photosynthesis. Now, thanks to cultural evolution, humanity is living largely on its "capital" — non-renewable resources. Homo sapiens was the recipient of a one-time bonanza — whose use has shaped our societies and attitudes as nothing ever did before. The capital that we inherited included fossil fuels, high-grade mineral ores, rich agricultural soils, groundwater stored up during the ice ages, and above all, the millions of other species that inhabit the Earth along with us. Our total inheritance took billions of years to assemble; it is being squandered in decades . . ."

". . . In most cases that capital cannot be replaced any faster than it was originally produced, and yet we are spending it in one tenth to one millionth of its production time. In one year the United States burns in its automobiles more petroleum than the Alaskan oil field accumulated in 100,000 years, more soil goes down Haitian rivers in a day than soil building processes can replace in a year, and more species are exterminated in tropical forests than speciation could replace in a million years . . ."

". . . For some 4 billion years species originated faster than they disappeared. Our dependence on other species that thus accumulated cannot be overestimated. Without the descendants of three species of wild grasses — plants that we know as wheat, rice and corn — most people would starve to death, and civilization would disappear. Without many crucial medicines and industrial materials that have also been drawn from the library of other living beings that evolved along with us we would be much less healthy and prosperous. The potential of that library has barely been tapped, but Homo sapiens is rapidly destroying it . . ."

". . . Cultural evolution, by giving us the ability to live on capital, has made biological evolution completely inadequate as a way for humans to adapt to their environments. Time is too short: even a "rapid" change through biological evolution ordinarily takes hundreds of generations; a major change, such as the evolution of mammels from reptiles, ordinarily takes millions of generations. We are less than ten generations away from the time that human beings began, through the Industrial Revolution, to create the new world. We are only a few hundred generations away from the Agricultural Revolution, and but two thousand generations from the days of the Neanderthals. The human gene pool cannot change fast enough to make a creature originally suited to dodging spears suddenly suited to dodging thermonuclear warheads."

This inability to comprehend and control the world we have created is echoed by Thomas Homer-Dixon in his 2000 book, The Ingenuity Gap.

"The challenges facing our societies range from international financial crises and global climate change to pandemics of tuberculosis and AIDS; they cross the spectrum of politics, economics, technology, and ecological affairs. They converge, intertwine, and often seem to be largely beyond our ken — incomprehensible even to our leaders and specialists."

MY WEBSITE   —   ANewHumanity.CA



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