Anthropocene

The Anthropocene Explosion

Biologically, there is nothing remarkable in the fact that humans are agents of ecological change and environmental upset. All species transform their surroundings. The dizzying complexity of landscapes on Earth is not just a happy accident of geology and climate, but the result of billions of years of organisms grazing, excavating, defecating, and decomposing. Nor is it unusual that certain lucky species are able to outcompete and eventually entirely displace other species. The Great American Interchange, when North American fauna crossed the newly formed isthmus of Panama to conquer South America three million years ago1 is just one among countless examples of swift, large-scale extinctions resulting from competition and predation.

What is remarkable, however, is the stunning speed of human adaptation relative to other species, and that our adaptation is self-directed. From sonar and flight to disease immunity, humans can “evolve” exquisite new traits in a single generation. The Anthropocene represents a catastrophic mismatch between the pace of human technological evolution and the genetic evolution of nearly every other species on Earth. As with many other geological epochs, the Anthropocene has been heralded with a mass extinction, one which is generally accepted to be the sixth great one to occur on Earth.2

The Anthropocene represents a catastrophic mismatch

Mass extinctions, however, have always been succeeded by a recovery of biodiversity. The Permian mass extinction made room for dinosaurs to flourish; the Cretaceous extinction gave rise to the marvellous diversification of mammals and birds. These massive adaptive radiation events, where surviving populations swiftly speciate, take anywhere from tens of thousands to tens of millions of years, depending on the degree of the initial extinction and the stability of the Earth’s climate.3
No matter the severity of the extinction, however, vacant ecological niches are eventually filled and new ones are created as life adapts to a newly empty Earth.

Keeping this in mind, it’s possible to argue that not all human activity is antithetical to biodiversity. Our destructive tendencies might actually be a form of creative destruction,4 clearing the playing field so marginalized actors can dominate. More controversially, human activity may actually create new species and modes of being, just as the Cambrian explosion 530 million years ago was marked by biological breakthroughs such as active predation, hard exoskeletons, and the beginning of the vertebrate body plan.5

Our destructive tendencies might be a form of creative destruction

What if we already are in the midst of a previously unnoticed adaptive radiation phase, an “Anthropocene explosion”, that has so far gone unnoticed?  Where should we look for this evolutionary event? In our eyes, three groups of entities are at the cusp of notable speciation events: human-associated animals, genetically engineered organisms, and manmade technologies, both physical and digital.

Firstly, the most obvious beneficiaries of the Anthropocene explosion are those that have been the sole actors in past adaptive radiations, that is, living organisms. Synanthropes—organisms that associate with human settlements—have adopted the human environment as their native habitat, and therefore likely have a bright future ahead of them. Our cultural evolution is mirrored in their genetic evolution. Pests and pathogens, for instance, evolve in concert with pesticides and medicines. Many city animals already show specific adaptations to the loud, hectic and artificially bright urban wilderness.6 As the Anthropocene marches onwards, the speculative naturalist may be tempted to hope that rats, cats, coyotes, and cockroaches will diversify into new and splendid forms. In the realm of “true” wilderness, certain creatures are thriving as the human machine decimates others. In this area, the ocean is perhaps the starkest example. Scraped clean by long lines and bottom-trawlers, and acidified by a carbon-heavy atmosphere, the oceans face a “gelatinous future” dominated by jellyfish and microbes,7 which will flourish in the ecological niches vacated by fish. Only the most nihilistic observer, however, would argue that an ocean dominated by jellyfish and microbes has the same value as one teeming with corals, sharks, and whales, or that a rat-and-trash filled alley is as ecologically productive or philosophically inspiring as a forested valley.

Human activity may create new species and modes of being

Although breeding domesticated species for selected traits speeds up genetic change, it will not gift the Anthropocene with fantastic new species. We’ve pushed the genetic envelope in terms of how much milk a cow can produce, or how small a chihuahua can shrink while still remaining a functioning organism. Despite their extravagant appearances, these animals are not distinct species from their wild counterparts. It will be thousands or even millions of years before truly novel species emerge from the diversification of synanthropes and other tenacious clingers-on.

It therefore secondly falls to genetic engineering to add truly novel organisms to the “Anthropocene Explosion”. The transgenic GlowFish, for instance, is one of the most well-known and appealing “charismatic microfauna” of the GMO world, a creature which is in many ways as wonderful as the common zebrafish. The GlowFish is a first step towards creating a new, valid species. A creature even more marvellously engineered, perhaps even pieced together gene by gene to construct an organism from the ground up, would be equally valid and worthy of our appreciation and protection as a species that arose through natural selection.

Thirdly, we need to look at technology to see a potential for a new type of evolutionary event. There is something poetic in the fact that the widespread acceptance of the Anthropocene coincides with the moment that our technologies are poised to become as complex and autonomous as organic life. The sphere of human thought, culture, and technology—sometimes called the noosphere or the technium8—is not just dependent upon the biosphere but intimately bound up with it, and vice versa. Though we have maintained a stubbornly mechanical conception of technology, in truth the technosphere may be, or be becoming, a valid form of nature, populated by actors that are “species” in everything but name.

It falls to genetic engineering to add truly novel organisms to the “Anthropocene Explosion”

Up until now, what has prevented humans from viewing individual technologies in more organismal terms are their predictability and simplicity. A hammer is totally and undeniably inanimate. It does not manipulate or transform matter. A smartphone or simple robot are semi-animate. Their awareness of the world is on par with that of a tick. They exhibit utterly stereotyped behaviours that can only be altered through evolution, in the case of the tick, or by a human designer, in the case of the phone or robot. We have trouble conceiving of a smartphone as an independent actor because its actions appear so dependent on our own. Like a virus, smartphones rely on a vector, human consumers, for their reproduction. Before the dawn of digital devices and biotechnology, technology has largely taken on the role of a simple parasite or symbiont. It needs the caring, repairing, manufacturing environment of human society in order to prosper.

What we are beginning to see are the very early stages of man-made technologies that may one day become as richly complex as DNA-based organisms. If technologies should someday exhibit true autonomy, able to gather energy on their own, repair themselves, and reproduce, it would be difficult to argue in good faith that their existence is any less “natural” than that of a grasshopper or anemone. A technological species does not need to mimic an organic one in order to be viable. In fact, a digital or genetically engineered copy of the original is bound to pale in comparison. To bastardize that famous quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein, “If a robot could speak, we could not understand him”.Rather than creating artificial sentience that matches that of an animal or human, it may be far more interesting to foster new, unprecedented forms of mind and embodiment, ones that may be as different from ours as ours is from a tuna’s.

We need to look at technology to see a potential for a new type of evolutionary event

However, individuals of any species in isolation cannot exactly be said to constitute a nature. “Nature” is a highly complex, unpredictable assemblage composed of interacting individuals. No matter how majestic a reminder of the wilderness, a polar bear in a zoo is more a cultural artefact than an aspect of nature; no matter how much it reminds us of a living dog, the Big Dog robot10 is still more cultural than natural. For a contemporary example of a truly man-made nature we have to turn to something that, at first blush, looks totally artificial: the stock market. Economics and programmers have created such an arcane system of trading algorithms that we no longer understand precisely how they interact.11 Artificial natures, especially when they are endowed with the ability to reproduce and evolve, will rapidly become ever more inscrutable.

Though humans often wrongfully categorize the natural world through the lens of technology—the body is a machine, a forest is a factory—there is a strong resonance between the digital and the genetic. An organism’s “hardware” is encoded in the software of DNA and RNA. Life, in all its apparent glory, exists solely for the propagation of genetic information. Our bodies are elaborate (and disposable) vehicles for our genomes, which have been upgrading from body to body, species to species over the last four billion years.12 From this perspective, all of nature is merely the interaction of billions of genetic programs. If this is true, then interacting man-made digital technologies might be the equivalents of physical ecosystems. It’s therefore arguable that the sum total of earth’s information flow has not diminished during the Anthropocene, but rather that biodiversity has merely switched media from nucleotides to electronic circuits. It may be that one day we will invent a computer perfectly capable of simulating entire ecosystems, from an entire redwood down to the last neuron in a snail’s brain, and that we could run this simulation many times over. Human technology, then, could be responsible for many more manifestations of “nature” than the previous Earth was ever capable of sustaining.

A contemporary example of a truly man-made nature: the stock market

If this “Anthropocene explosion” is indeed happening, if we are acting as the catalysts of an explosive diversification of life, both biological and technological, then the next logical question is whether our society-wide mourning over the vanishing of everything from passenger pigeons to pandas is warranted. If, after all, evolution is accelerating at the same pace as extinction, there’s little need to worry about the actors that get left behind. Brave new systems will arise in their place.

But it would be risky to move ahead without considering the losses and dangers that come with the current changes. The forces that diminish and destroy organic ecosystems are the same ones that impoverish and endanger human life. Economic and ecological processes and crises are deeply linked. “Eco-eco catastrophes” are not only largely beyond our control, they are unpredictable and utterly devastating. We have allowed our technologies to dominate the Earth’s biota with a near-total lack of forethought or precision. Like docile domestic creatures, humans have, for example, accepted the unquestioning use of the automobile, constructing millions of kilometres of highways in its service, bulldozing and building urban centres to accommodate its passage. In return we’ve received our longed-for “faster horse”,13  along with suburban culture and global warming. We are in thrall to our technologies. The Anthropocene could therefore morph into something better termed the “Technocene”: the era when inhumane technologies dominate organic life.

Is there an alternative trajectory? A world under the direct or indirect influence of humanity does not necessarily have to become a lifeless wasteland. It requires no great stretch of the imagination to envision a practical utopia where humans function not as bumbling builders of risky machines, but as the benevolent catalysts of evolution. We can encourage the creation of new niches and new forms of life, both organic and technological, while conserving those that still exist.

The Anthropocene could therefore morph into something better termed the “Technocene”

Humans have created a technological wilderness, whether we care to recognize it or not. Our task for the next century is to reign in the catastrophic usage of our technologies, and to make explicit the interdependence between the biosphere and the technosphere—or to recognize that all three are different facets of the same thing. Only now are we entering the stage in our species’ development where we are capable of recognizing, and perhaps controlling, the planetary-scale impacts of our technologies. The world’s first national park was established a little over a century ago. The environmental movement is only a few decades old. Now, the concept of the Anthropocene has gone mainstream. If our emerging period of self-reflection morphs into action, we may have the chance to master technological phenomena as we once mastered wild horses and cattle.

By ALLISON GUY and KOERT VAN MENSVOORT

Essay published in the exhibition catalogue Welcome to the Anthropocene: The Earth in Our Hands in the Deutsches Museum December 5, 2014 until January 31, 2016.

REFERENCES

[1] David S. Webb, The Great American Biotic Interchange: Patterns and Processes, Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 93, 2006, p. 245-257.

[2] Barnosky, Anthony D, et al., Has the Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction Already Arrived?, Nature, Vol. 471, 2011, p. 515-517.

[3] Chen, Zhong-Qiang and Micheal J. Benton, The timing and pattern of biotic recovery following the end-Permian mass extinction, Nature Geoscience, Vol. 5, 2012, p. 375-83

[4] An economic term coined by Joseph Schumpeter in 1942

[5] Simon Conway Morris and Jean-Bernard Caron, Pikia gracilens Walcott, a stem-group chordate from the Middle Cambrian of British Colombia, Biological Review, Vol. 87, 2012,  p. 480-512

[6] Emilie C. Snell-Rood and Naomi Wick, Anthropogenic environments exert variable selection on cranial capacity in mammals,  Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences Vol. 280, No. 1769, 2013, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.1384; Erwin Nemeth et al., Bird song and anthropogenic noise: vocal constraints may explain why birds sing higher-frequency songs in cities., Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences, vol. 280, No. 1754, 2013, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.2798; Mary B. Brown, Natural selection and age-related variation in morphology of a colonial bird, ETD collection for University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Paper AAI3449889, 2011, http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/dissertations/AAI3449889

[7] Anthony Richardson et al, The jellyfish joyride: causes, consequences and management responses to a more gelatinous future, Trends in Ecology and Evolution Vol. 24, 2009, p. 312-322

[8] Kevin Kelly,  What Does Technology Want?, Viking, New York, 2010

[9] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell, 1963 [Page number?? Translator?]

[11] Neil Johnson et al. “Abrupt rise of new machine ecology beyond human response time, Scientific Reports 3, September 2013,  doi:10.1038/srep02627

[12] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1976

[13] “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”. Quote attributed to Henry Ford.

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