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Puny Humans: Can We Change The Course Of Nature?

Updated on February 16, 2018

Recently I came across an idea I call “puny humans.” It wasn’t for the first time; in fact, it’s been quite a common one, probably qualifying as a ‘meme’—an evolving notion spreading by imitation, often through the Internet.

A gentleman calling himself “wilderness” posted the following comment to a Hubpages forum discussion:

...what seems lost is the ability (or willingness) to understand that large numbers of people are not likely to equate with the forces of nature in effect. Lots of people just does NOT equal global warming, no matter how many there are or how loud we shout that people are to blame. Outside of falsified, and/or conveniently ignored, data there is just no reason to think that we've the ability to change the course of nature.

"Crown of Creation"

A mixed-media collage by Jaqueline Elaine Gomez.  Image courtesy artist and Wikimedia Commons.
A mixed-media collage by Jaqueline Elaine Gomez. Image courtesy artist and Wikimedia Commons. | Source

Well, apart from the canard about 'falsified data,' he has something of a point. For a long time, humanity was inclined to see itself as (in film director William Lang’s words) “the crown of creation.” The world, we thought, was made for us, and the rest of the Universe literally revolved around us. We were very special indeed—just “a little lower than the angels.”

That last phrase is quite ancient, found in the Bible and attributed by tradition to King David himself (Psalm 8, verses 4-8, as translated in the New International Version):

Over the process that historians call the Enlightenment, however, this view was eroded. The world, we learned from Copernicus, Galileo and others, was not the center of the Universe; our world revolves around the sun, along with other planets physically rather grander than our little Earth. And that Universe kept expanding as we learned more.

Already by 1669 Blaise Pascal had famously written, “the eternal silence of this infinite space frightens me...” He was not the last to find the vastness of space terrifying; but that has not prevented astronomers from trying to measure what they can. According to one online source, the observable Universe is now 93 billion light years across, and the entire Universe an estimated ten billion times larger still.

Image by 'mblegacy', courtesy mblegacy & Wikimedia Commons.
Image by 'mblegacy', courtesy mblegacy & Wikimedia Commons. | Source
Archbishop James Ussher, primate of all Ireland.
Archbishop James Ussher, primate of all Ireland. | Source

Nor is the expansion limited to space; our Universe has expanded greatly in time as well. In 1650, Archbishop Ussher famously calculated the age of the Earth from the genealogies given in the Old Testament to be around six thousand years.

Today, the prevailing scientific view is that the Universe came into being 13.7 billion years ago. By contrast, anatomically modern humans are believed to have existed for about 200,000 years—just a little more than one ten thousandth of that time.

The ‘crown of creation’ appears to occupy a vanishingly small portion of that Creation. Accordingly, ideas emphasizing our tiny place in the scheme of things tend to have a becoming air of humility and reason:

“....there is just no reason to think that we’ve the ability to change the course of nature.”

Of course, that is just context. It still leaves the (as far as we can determine) uniquely human traits of language and reason—usually considered as the real essence of our ‘creation in the image of God’ and thus the real reason for our status as ‘crown of creation.’ Some might argue that these are more important than our size, numbers, or place in the cosmos in determining our ability to ‘change the course of nature.’ ‘Wilderness’ might disagree, but after all, if global warming is our concern, humanity’s ability to ‘change the course of nature’ on, say, Mars is not much to the point.

But arguments over humanity’s ‘exaltedness’ seem, in the context of changing the environment, to be not so much right or wrong, as simply irrelevant. For biology teaches us that creatures presumably ‘humbler’ than we puny humans do ‘change the course of nature.’

Consider the beaver. Though of impressive size for a rodent—individuals as large as 100 pounds have been recorded—they are not considered to be particularly intelligent. There is good reason to believe that their lodges and dams are constructed largely by instinct. For instance, European beavers released from zoos into natural habitats began building dams and lodges, despite the fact that several intervening generations of zoo-bred beavers had not been able to exercise—or teach their kits!—this behavior.

A beaver at work.  Photo by 'makedocreative', courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
A beaver at work. Photo by 'makedocreative', courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Nevertheless, it’s fair to call beavers “eco-system engineers,” as author Terry Krautwurst did in an article for Mother Earth News (linked in the sidebar.) Instinctually-driven though it may be, their activity transforms considerable chunks of the territories which they inhabit, creating wetlands which:

...transform woodlands into diverse habitats that support a greater diversity of animals than before. Aquatic plants flourish. Insects abound, providing sustaining protein for birds. Frogs, salamanders, and small fish at the water’s edge draw herons, kingfishers, raccoons, and other carnivores. Larger mammals, such as fox and deer, also thrive.

A beaver pond and its marsh store and filter water, slowing runoff from storms, allowing heavier silt and pollutants to settle. Water downstream is clearer and cleaner, its flow more stable and less prone to drought and flooding.

Even after beavers abandon a dam, allowing the pond to drain and leaving only broad mud flats, their impact persists. Vegetation springs up rapidly in the rich accumulated sediment. The result is a beaver meadow, itself a wildlife magnet.

Definitely an alteration of the course of nature—albeit one more localized than those typically created by humanity’s activities (and considerably more benign, as well.) But beavers are just one example, and far from the most dramatic.

Consider the humble cyanobacteria. That’s a general term for a group of aquatic microbes that arose far back in the history of the Earth—in fact the oldest known fossils are cyanobacteria. Those fossils are 3.5 billion years old—for perspective, the oldest rocks so far discovered are 3.8 billion years old.

As you might expect, cyanobacteria seem quite primitive, from a typical human perspective. Not only do they lack intelligence, they lack nervous systems. They are unicellular, after all. And not only unicellular, but prokaryotic—that is, they have no nucleus in their single cell. That’s a big difference from most familiar creatures: fish, birds, and mammals all have well-defined cell nuclei. Quite a few unicellular creatures, such as protozoans, do too. Such creatures (including humans) are termed ‘eukaryotes.’

Modern cyanobacteria
Modern cyanobacteria

Cyanobacteria still exist today—in fact, they are in the news as of this writing because a large bloom of them in Lake Erie poisoned the water supply for the city of Toledo, Ohio, causing inconvenience and expense on quite a large scale. But that is nothing compared to the effects cyanobacteria created upon the ancient Earth.

Let’s start with what we know of the environment in which the cyanobacteria arose. That very ancient time is called the Archean eon. The University of California Museum of Paleontology has this to say about it:

If you were able to travel back to visit the Earth during the Archean, you would likely not recognize it as the same planet we inhabit today. The atmosphere was very different from what we breathe today; at that time, it was likely a reducing atmosphere of methane, ammonia, and other gases which would be toxic to most life on our planet today.

Free oxygen was quite rare, perhaps around 1% of the atmosphere. (Today that number is not quite 21%.) If the toxicity of the methane and ammonia somehow failed to kill you, the lack of oxygen would have.

But cyanobacteria didn’t need oxygen. They were evidently quite well-adapted to the carbon-rich atmosphere in which they arose. Except, perhaps, in one regard: they evolved the process we call ‘photosynthesis.’

Photosynthesis means using the energy in sunlight to split carbon dioxide molecules. The carbon molecules are incorporated into the cyanobacteria’s body, along with other useful molecules such as hydrogen and nitrogen. The ammonia so plentiful in the Archean atmosphere is composed of the latter two elements. It’s often used today as an agricultural fertilizer.

But the leftover oxygen is released as a waste product.

The algal bloom of 2011 was even worse than the 2014 episode which poisoned Toledo's water supply.  Picture by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon.
The algal bloom of 2011 was even worse than the 2014 episode which poisoned Toledo's water supply. Picture by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon. | Source

For hundreds of millions of years, cyanobacteria grew and thrived. Some formed colonies called ‘stromatolites.’ Though today stromatolites are limited to a few protected environments, such as Shark Bay, Australia, they seem to have been the dominant life form of their time. (See links above.) And for hundreds of millions of years, the waste oxygen from photosynthesis accumulated: there were no creatures existing which were able to metabolize it, after all.

Quoting once again from the UCal Museum of Paleontology:

The first "pollution crisis" hit the Earth about 2.2 billion years ago. Several pieces of evidence — the presence of iron oxides in paleosols (fossil soils), the appearance of "red beds" containing metal oxides, and others — point to a fairly rapid increase in levels of oxygen in the atmosphere at about this time. Atmospheric oxygen levels in the Archean had been less than 1% of present levels, but by about 1.8 billion years ago, oxygen levels were greater than 15% of present levels and rising. It may seem strange to call this a "pollution crisis," since most of the organisms that we are familiar with not only tolerate but require oxygen to live. However, oxygen is a powerful degrader of organic compounds. Even today, many bacteria and protists are killed by oxygen. Organisms had to evolve biochemical methods for rendering oxygen harmless; one of these methods, oxidative respiration, had the advantage of producing large amounts of energy for the cell, and is now found in most eukaryotes.

Where was the oxygen coming from? Cyanobacteria, photosynthetic organisms that produce oxygen as a by-product, had first appeared 3.5 billion years ago, but became common and widespread in the Proterozoic. Their photosynthetic activity was primarily responsible for the rise in atmospheric oxygen.

A fossil stromatolite from Australia.  Image by Archeodontosaurus, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
A fossil stromatolite from Australia. Image by Archeodontosaurus, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. | Source

That is why the humble cyanobacteria is called the “architect of earth’s atmosphere.” Perhaps one could call them the Archean “crown of creation.” But they didn’t need intelligence, soul, reason, or advanced technology to utterly transform the Earth and its natural history. If it hadn’t been for them, neither we, nor any other life form we know, would exist. Compared to the changes they wrought, even the consequences of the rapid climate change humans are currently in the process of inducing will most likely be much less lasting.

The pulse of carbon we are putting into the atmosphere will have direct chemical and energetic consequences for a hundred millennia or more; but that is nothing next to the last 2 billion years.

Harder to predict are the consequences for life. While many think that already humans have initiated another ‘great dying’, it is very difficult to know just how many species our actions will ultimately eliminate forever.

According to Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees, the worst extinction event known, the ‘end-Permian wipeout,’ erased roughly 95% of lifeforms then existing. It took 50 million years for biodiversity to recover.

One reconstruction of oxygen level (by % atmospheric concentration.)  The Archaen-Proterozoic rise is visible, as is the crash to 15% at the end of the Permian, 250 million years ago.  Image courtesy 'sauerstoff', 'rursus' and Wikimedia Commons.
One reconstruction of oxygen level (by % atmospheric concentration.) The Archaen-Proterozoic rise is visible, as is the crash to 15% at the end of the Permian, 250 million years ago. Image courtesy 'sauerstoff', 'rursus' and Wikimedia Commons.

Can we rival that catastrophe? Perhaps not, but no-one really knows, not yet. There is one ominous aspect to the current crisis. Although the warming we are inducing today is a change much less fundamental than the Archean-Proterozoic oxygenation, it could well be as great as the end-Permian warming—and it is occurring many times more rapidly. That could well amplify its lethality, since living things need time to adapt to changing conditions.

It is not arrogance to recognize that we, like beaver or cyanobacteria, change our environment through our biological activity—for human tool-making and tool-wielding are at bottom biological. We are not separate from the rest of creation, regardless whether or not we call ourselves its ‘crown.’ We participate. To think otherwise is at best a false humility.

The Three Gorges dam across the Yangtze.  Photo by Dan Kamminga, courtesy photographer & Wikimedia Commons.
The Three Gorges dam across the Yangtze. Photo by Dan Kamminga, courtesy photographer & Wikimedia Commons. | Source

Yet we do have reason, language, culture. What beaver do by instinct, we do by design. And what we choose to do, we may also choose not to do. We can reflect whether our present inclinations really further our continued well-being. We can recognize that the universe is not structured automatically to protect any one species, be it humans or cyanobacteria. We can take responsibility for our own survival.

Our tool- and culture-making has led humans to thrive. Even before the era of sophisticated technology, we had occupied nearly every terrestrial habitat, from tropical rainforests to Arctic tundra. As photosynthesis served cyanobacteria and as dam-building served beaver, so our culture-making served us. We did ‘what we do,’ adapting our lifeways to these disparate environments.

Can we adapt fast enough today to continue to thrive in a world we are transforming, faster even than we can collectively realize?

No-one knows. But one thing is sure: to prosper, we need to think.

Update: December 4, 2016

An interesting sidelight on the question of 'puny humans' and our ability to transform the world has just emerged, in the form of a scientific paper examining what they dub the 'technosphere'.

By that the authors mean "the summed material output of the contemporary human enterprise"--in other words, everything humans make or produce--all the buildings, devices, and artifacts, structures and more. The bottom-line conclusion is startling: this 'technosphere' masses about 30 trillion tonnes, an order of magnitude larger than the Earth's entire biosphere!


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